Cold War

MGM-1 Matador – America’s First Nuclear Cruise Missile

The MGM-1 Matador was one of the first operational cruise missiles to be built in the United States. It was developed in part due to growing American national security concerns during the early stages of the Cold War when tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were growing. The Matador drew on experiences from America’s attempts to develop the Republic-Ford JB-2 cruise missile, which itself had been based on the German V-1 missile.

The Matador was developed as a replacement and made improvements to its design based on research and lessons from the JB-2. It was the first ever cruise missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and was to be flown to its target under a guidance system.

It proved easy to deploy and potentially use, but its accuracy was somewhat limited. It was later replaced by more precision focused tactical weapons.



In the aftermath of the Second World War, missile technology began to become more widely developed and tested. Both the United States and the Soviet Union became locked into a nuclear arms race, and in-turn this spurred both powers to expand defensive and offensive weapon arsenals.

By 1945, America had developed the Republic-Ford JB-2 cruise missile which carried a conventional warhead. The JB-2 had been closely developed from designs and surviving examples of the German V-1 cruise missile, and intelligence supplied by the British and Allied powers on the V-1 helped the American military to further research and understand cruise missile principles.

V-1 flying bomb in IWM London.
An original German V-1 rocket in the Imperial War Museum, London. Image by Peter Trimming CC BY-SA 2.0.

Although the V-1 had been a relatively advanced weapon for its time and could be deadly when it did find a target, its guidance system was primitive and resulted in less than 20 percent of V-1 missiles hitting their intended target.

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The US military sought to improve the V-1’s design with the JB-2 project and installed a more advanced guidance system. However, by the end of the decade American military chiefs sought to replace the JB-2 with a more modern design.


To find a replacement for the JB-2, the United States military issued a new specification which was award to the Glenn L. Martin Company (commonly known as the Martin Company at the time) to develop the missile.

The specification called for a short-range, subsonic, surface-to-surface missile, and the project was designated by the United States Army Air Force (USAAF) as MX-771.

Development of the Matador began in the late 1940s, with aerospace engineers at Martin first designing and testing dummy missiles made from wood. The first test flight model of a real Matador missile was designated by the USAAF as the XSSM-A-1 and was launched at the White Sands Missile Range on the 20th of January 1949.

JB-2 flying bomb.
JB-2 flying bomb. Image by Clemens Vasters CC BY 2.0.

The test occurred without a guidance system fitted but gave a good indicator of the Matador’s overall speed and handling post-launch. A short while later, the first Matador fitted with a guidance system was tested at White Sands and was deemed a success.

However, the project was almost put in jeopardy in 1949 when the USAAF came close to cancelling it altogether, but the outbreak of the Korean War put the Matador project back as a development priority.

The USAAF was also renamed and reorganized as the United States Air Force (USAF) during this period.

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In 1951, the newly formed USAF assigned aircraft type designations to its guided missiles, arguing that missiles were pilotless aircraft rather than a special weapon type in their own category. The Matador was classified as a “Pilotless Bomber,” and its designation became the XB-61 and YB-61.

MGM-1 Matador missile.
An MGM-1 Matador missile in Germany. Image by Politnik CC BY-SA 3.0.

Development of the Matador subsequently resumed.

Martin fitted the Matador with an Allison J33 turbojet engine, which was considered an improvement over the pulse-jet unit which had powered the V-1 and the JB-2.

Unlike previous cruise missile designs, the Matador was built with nuclear capabilities and could carry a W5 nuclear warhead, although this could be substituted for a 2,000 lb conventional explosive inside.

For guidance, the Matador was initially designed to carry the SHANICLE (Short Range Navigation Vehicle) guidance system. The SHANICLE worked by using ground based microwave emitters to generate virtual grids for range and direction. These invisible grids were used by the missile to home onto its target. With the new system, the guided range of the Matador could be extended to the maximum possible flight range of the missile, about 620 miles.

Mark 5 nuclear weapon.
The W5 nuclear warhead used in the Matador was created by modifying the Mark 5 nuclear weapon, shown here.

Following further guidance tests, the Matador was fitted with a new guidance system in December 1950 known as the MARC. The MARC was an updated version of existing radio and guidance trackers already serving in the American military, but instead of using a vague invisible grid broadcast across a whole area, the MARC used a modified radar for observers to directly track the missile, which mounted an AN/APS-11 transponder to reflect the signals back to the missile launch station.

These signals directly measured the range to the aircraft, unlike SHANICLE’s measurements which were relative estimations of distance towards the target. A computer system then calculated the difference between the missile’s current position and desired flight path, and would adjust the missile accordingly towards the target’s flight path.

MGM-1 Matador during launch.
MGM-1 Matador missile during launch. It is given an extra boost into the air by rockets, see at the rear of the fuselage.

The Matador was sent for another round of guidance tests at Cape Canaveral in Florida. USAF observers found the MARC operating system to be superior to the SHANICLE.

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Based on these findings, the first two production units were given the green light by the USAF September 1951 and would be fitted with the MARC system.


The first two completed Matador units were stationed at Eglin Field Air Force Base and these were officially put into service with the USAF’s 6555th Guided Missile Squadron in September 1953. These were initially used for cold weather testing rather than military service.

In 1954, the first USAF Matador squadron was put together as the 1st Pilotless Bomber Squadron. The squadron was stationed at NATO’s Bitburg Air Base in West Germany and all of their Matador units were fitted with nuclear warheads.

In military service, the Matador was designed to be mobile and could be transported from the base to a different launch site on a truck.

Matador missile on truck.
A Matador from the 1st Tactical Missile Squadron in Germany, 1960.

A Matador launch crew consisted of eleven USAF personnel. These often contained one launch officer, usually a senior USAF lieutenant who would in-turn command the rest of the crew from orders given by higher command.

They were assisted by one crew chief, usually a technical sergeant. The rest of the crew consisted of two warhead technicians who would ensure the warhead was properly armed, two flight control systems technicians, two guidance technicians, two airframe and engine mechanics, one of whom would act as the crane operator when moving a missile, and the other as the launcher technician who handled the initial launch process, and one booster rocket technician who would ensure the booster unit was fueled and working before launch.

Some members of the crew also doubled as drivers in the event of needing to move the missile.

During the Matador’s operation, a typical USAF launch site had an active launch pad upon which one missile was kept in a ready to launch state. The live pad was manned by the on duty launch crew. The rest of the missiles could be readied for launch when the order was given.

MGM-1 Matador launch.
MGM-1 Matador launched from Patrick Air Force Base.

When both missile and fighter pilots were on standby duty, USAF training officers would make use of them both. Fighter squadrons carrying special guidance systems in their fighters would fly over or near the missile launch site, simulating the velocity and height of a flying missile, and allowing the Matador guidance crews to take control and practice guiding the plane as they would a live missile.

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The Matador’s design did expose some drawbacks during its USAF service. The simple premise was to fire the missile into the air as fast as possible, and this was achieved with its powerful booster unit that could propel the Matador into the sky at 250 mph.  Once in the air, the Matador simply continued flying on a pre-set heading and rate of climb until control and monitoring was handed to the guidance crews. However, the missile had no altitude or speed control, simply relying on speed and power to reach its desired altitude.

Three Matador missiles on Tainan Air Base.
Matador missiles of the 868th Tactical Missile Squadron at Tainan Air Base in Taiwan, 1959.

If the Matador made it within a six mile radius of the intended target, the guidance crews would give the order to manipulate the missile into a vertical dive. A radio altimeter built inside the missile would determine the denotation stage (pre-set by the launch crew beforehand) and the warhead would be triggered. Two backup detonators were installed in the missile, one was primed to trigger if the pre-set altimeter explosion was not detected and a second was designed to make the missile explode on impact with the ground.

Although the premise was straightforward and contained more sophisticated systems compared to the JB-2 and the V-1, the Matador’s simplicity also led to a lack of accuracy. Although its intended targets were kept classified to everyone apart from the guidance officer, military analysts and historians have argued the Matador could not have worked as a precision focused tactical missile, and instead shared the flaw with the V-1 of being a potential weapon of mass destruction if launched towards a big target.

MGM-1 cruise missile.
For all its merits, the Matador cruise missile would not have been an accurate weapon – these is even more concerning as it could have transported nuclear weapons.

The Matador’s simply design also rendered it obsolete when more sophisticated guidance systems and guided missile technology was developed in the early 1960s, with focus later shifting towards Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs).

The Matador was ultimately withdrawn from USAF service in 1962.

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In 1963, the United States issued an integrated codename designation for all missiles that had previously had separate names depending on whether they were under Army, Navy or Air Force control. As such, the Matador was officially redesignated as the MGM-1C, even though the last Matadors had been deactivated and removed from active service the previous year.