The scientific tourist #363 — Corporal missile

Here, you see a Corporal missile, on display at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center:

Corporal Missile

The Corporal missile (not to be confused with the WAC-Corporal sounding rocket) was the U.S.’ first operational guided (vs. ballistic) missile, and the first U.S. guided missile system to be approved to carry a nuclear warhead.  It was a rushed, stop-gap weapon, intended for tactical use to defend against a feared Soviet invasion of Western Europe.

As was the case with many systems being fielded early in the Cold War, the Corporal had its share of “teething” problems.  Its development started with the Corporal E research test vehicle in 1947, and even with this head start, the Corporal wasn’t ready for deployment until 1955.  At this point, less than 50% of Corporals fired could successfully complete their mission, and their accuracy was less than stellar.  Within a few years, an improved Corporal II model was available with 75% in-flight reliability, and a circular error probable of less than 300 meters at the missile’s maximum range of 139 km (75 miles).

What ultimately doomed the Corporal was the amazing complexity of its systems and support operations.  Its rocket motor ran on hydrazine and red fuming nitric acid — both being highly corrosive and hard to handle.  Its guidance technology relied on a reworked World War II-era radar system (easily jammed, and implemented with vacuum tubes), and an analog computer at its launch site.  A Corporal battalion consisted of 35 vehicles, and required 9 hours to set up after reaching a launch site.

Ultimately, six U.S. and two British Army Corporal battalions were fielded, with the missiles finally being retired in 1964 in favor of the solid propellant Sergeant missile.

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