The English language changed drastically during the swinging Sixties. ‘Cool’ suddenly meant fashionable or aloof, to ‘dig’ something was to enjoy it, and a Snark – once the sinister subject of Lewis Caroll’s poem The Hunting of the Snark – was now an intercontinental cruise missile capable of carrying a W39 thermonuclear warhead.
Proposed as a Soviet deterrent in 1961, work on the Snark had actually begun in 1946. It was designed to be roughly the same size as a modern fighter jet, and was outfitted with a turbojet engine, two rocket boosters, and a complex guidance system. The planned due date originally given for a finished product sailed by in 1953 with the design still in development, the Strategic Air Command’s patience wearing thin. Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) became the focus of President Eisenhower and his weapons developers.
Engineers worked as best as they could with the design. Because the Snark lacked a horizontal tail surface, it used elevons as its aircraft control surfaces, and flew with a strange-looking nose-high angle during level flight. As it approached its target, the nuclear warhead would have separated from its fuselage and then followed a ballistic trajectory towards the target. This separation would have caused a sudden shift in centres of gravity, and the fuselage would have abruptly pitched up in order to avoid a collision with the warhead. Theoretically.
In 1957, the first test finally got underway. Results confirmed Eisenhower’s scepticism, showing the Snark’s accuracy to be out by 17 nautical miles. Next year, with an improved celestial navigation system, accuracy was improved, the Snark falling a mere four nautical miles short of target. This, as you can imagine, was still not enough to convince the head honchos. All they saw was a notoriously unreliable and inaccurate missile which, on the majority of its test flights, suffered serious technical failures thousands of miles before it reached its target. In fact, the missile crashed so often that the Atlantic Ocean near Cape Canaveral where the missile was being tested became known as ‘Snark-invested waters’.
Despite the mishaps and set-backs, engineering work on the Snark doggedly continued. On 27 May 1959, Presque Isle Air Force Base received its first missile. Ten months later, on 18 March 1960, a Snark missile was put on alert status. The 702nd Strategic Missile Wing – the only Snark Missile wing in the USAF – was declared operational on February 1961. Perhaps at last people were starting to take the Snark seriously?
Perhaps. But one rather important man could not see any potential in the Snark, describing it only a month later, in March 1961, as ‘obsolete and of marginal military value’. That man was President John F Kennedy, and in June that year, Kennedy’s opinions led to 702nd Wing being closed and all further work on the Snark being terminated.