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November 11, 2017

San Francisco: Nike Missile Site SF-88


A docent at SF-88 explains the Nike missile launch procedures.

In 2017, on the first Saturday of March, we loaded onto Muni bus 76X at the intersection of Sansome and Sutter in San Francisco’s financial district. After a fifty-minute ride the city bus arrived at the former base, Site SF-88, in the Marin Headlands. SF-88 is one of over 200 former Cold War era anti-ballistic missile sites in the United States. Managed under the auspices of the National Park System, SF-88 is open to visitors on weekends.

The first Saturday of the month is best for visits to SF-88. On these days docents who staffed the base during the Cold War explain how the base’s equipment works and demonstrate the missile handling procedures.

To enter the base visitors must “clear” security.

Clearly uncleared personnel

An entrance to the underground area of the base where the missiles are stored.

The US Army recruited high school students from around the country to staff the Nike missile bases. At the time of their service, the SF-88 docents were recent high school graduates in their late teens. (During the Vietnam War being assigned to a stateside mission came as a relief.) With the secrecy lifted and SF-88 opened to the public, some of the servicemen return once a month to share stories of their time at the base with park visitors.

Young men aren’t the best at fully appreciating the consequences of their actions. And thus young men were perfect choices to staff a base that would launch boosted atomic bombs tens of thousands of feet into the sky to take out incoming Soviet planes and missiles. A yearly order from the President provided standing authorization to use the Nike bases’ nuclear weapons. The Nike missiles were the last line of air defense. If someone low down in the army’s chain of command decided that the United States was under attack, the eighteen year olds at the Nike bases would not hesitate to loose their nuclear arsenals into the sky. The President would be informed later. What could go possibly go wrong?

Missiles are stored in an underground shelter.

Once the doors are open, the missile can be lifted into firing position.

A docent explains what comes next.

A Nike missile in firing position.

Fortunately the nuclear-tipped Nike missiles were never fired in anger and the close calls were mostly inconsequential. Ultimately the $1,500,000,000,000 Nike program ended when the Anti Ballistic Missile Treaty was signed in the early 70’s. Until today’s F-35 fighter program, the 1.5 trillion dollar expense of the ABM program was the most costly in military history.

The enormous expense of maintaining an effective missile defense against the Soviet Unions’ expanding nuclear arsenal was a significant motivation for the signing of the ABM Treaty. Implementation of the ABM treaty banned the deployment of anti-ballistic missiles on both sides. Without a missile defense there was no longer the façade that the United States or the Soviet Union could protect against a nuclear attack. It was now mutually assured destruction.

Part of the missile guidance system

By today’s standards the electronics were low-tech…

Behind the dials and gauges are numerous vacuum tubes. The missile system pre-dates the digital age.

An interesting provision was written into the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I): Under the terms of SALT I both the United States and the Soviet Union were allowed to retain a single anti-ballistic missile site for historical value. SF-88, well-situated in a coastal valley a few miles to the north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, was chosen to be America’s designated historic ABM site.

Today the National Park Service manages SF-88. Tourists who visit see the base configured as it was during the Cold War. During the once monthly open house a missile is lifted from the bunker and raised into launch position, demonstrating how the missile handling machinery works. Years after it was constructed, the base’s equipment still functions.

“Quod Habemus Defendmus,” the moto of the Coast Artillery, translates to, “What We Hold We Will Defend.” In this case, it more accurately should say “We will hold what remains of what we defended.”

Visiting SF-88 is a chilling yet fascinating reminder what was at stake during the Cold War. Though I didn’t know it at the time, when I was in grade school during the height of the Cold War I lived down wind of several of the Nike bases that ringed the San Francisco Bay Area. Numerous strategically important military bases were located in this area of Northern California; the ABM sites clustered in the area were there to protect the air and naval forces stationed nearby. The missiles might also shield the residents in the area from nuclear attack, but that was not their primary purpose.

Missile electronics

Inside the nuclear warhead area: The docent told us the Nike missiles used “dial-a-yield” nukes. The size of the blast could be adjusted by base personnel. The docent said he always set the warhead for maximum yield. Why not?

The warhead end of a missile.

In grade school we practiced the duck and cover drill to prepare in the event of a nuclear war. When the air raid siren went off, the students all took positions under the school desks. In the event of a nuclear war it seems doubtful that hiding under the desk would help much. Nevertheless, that is what we did.

The students were told that we were sheltering to prepare for an attack by the Soviet Union. They didn’t tell us that if war broke out some of the nuclear bombs that we were bracing against would be our own.

2 Comments »

  1. When we did the tour, the docent reminded us of the route Soviet planes would take to reach SF (over Alaska and then down the coast) and said that by the time they has all the info and launched and Nike missiles hit target, they would probably be over Northern California. Probably better overall to shoot down Soviet bombers before they dropped nukes a few thousand feet over Alcatraz (supposedly their target), but that may not make people in Eureka happy, as they deal with fallout from our nukes shooting down planes overhead.

    Comment by Peter Donohue — November 12, 2017 @ 3:03 am

    • There’s also a ring of bases around Los Angeles. SF is LA’s Eureka. And of course, it depends on how the wind blows and the actual route the bombers take.

      Comment by anotherheader — November 12, 2017 @ 8:38 am


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