Military Launches Most Complex Missile Defense Test to Date
By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Dec. 5, 2008 The military today shot down a mock enemy missile, employing a synchronized network of sensors in what officials called the largest and most complex test of the missile defense system to date.
Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, briefs reporters at the Pentagon, Dec. 5, 2008, on the successful test of the Ground-based Mid-course Interceptor. DoD photo by R.D. Ward
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
A mock target missile was fired from Kodiak, Alaska, at 3:04 p.m. Eastern Time. An interceptor missile was fired about 30 minutes later from a silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., with its launch directed by soldiers based at Fort Greely, Alaska. The two successfully collided off the coast of California minutes later.
This is the first time the Defense Missile Agency has synchronized its network of varied sensor types and frequencies to successfully track, report and intercept a single target, the agency’s top officer said.
If the multiple radars did not work together, each would have reported a different target to the system.
“Overall, I’m extremely pleased, because … the core of our missile defense system is the fact that we can operate in layers and have multiple systems working together,” Army Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O'Reilly said. “The key to our protection and the effectiveness of the systems is to have all of these different sensors simultaneously tracking, and the system [knowing] exactly that it’s not multiple objects, it’s one object up there.”
The test combined an early warning radar system south of Sacramento, Calif., a mobile radar system temporarily posted in Juneau, Alaska, two AEGIS ballistic missile defense ships off the Pacific coast and a sea-based radar system.
The test also marked the first time soldiers from the 49th Missile Defense Battalion based at Fort Greely were in control of the launch. On previous tests, a Colorado Springs-based unit was used.
Each of the systems was networked together, despite their varied sizes and frequencies, to form an accurate, single-target track, O’Reilly said.
Soldiers, airmen and sailors operated all parts of the system, and the USS Benfold, a Navy guided-missile destroyer equipped with the AEGIS air-defense system, went through all of the motions of a simulated intercept successfully, O’Reilly said.
“What we showed today is all those sensors working together,” he said. “At any one time, the system knew which sensor was reporting … and tracking it and it gave the warfighter a presentation of the target. It is the first time we have ever done that in an actual test and with our soldiers [and sailors and airmen] operating it.”
Officials had hoped to deploy countermeasures during the flight that would test the system’s reaction to multiple objects. Countermeasures could include the missile deploying chaff, decoys or replicas. The countermeasures did not deploy, however.
“Countermeasures are very difficult to deploy,” O’Reilly said. “We have had trouble deploying them in the past.”
Even though countermeasures didn’t deploy, the upper stage of the mock enemy missile was still in the area. The interceptor saw two objects and had to understand the data sent from the sensors to discern which object to hit, O’Reilly said.
Pentagon officials said this test was “very realistic” and followed a trajectory and mimicked a launch similar to one the U.S. military believes could be a threat.
This test cost $120 million to $150 million. Thirteen similar tests have been conducted since 1999, seven successfully hitting their targets. The last previous test, in September 2007, was successful.
The ground-based midcourse defense program is designed to defend the United States against intermediate- and long-range ballistic missile attacks in the midcourse phase of flight, or while they are arching in the “exoatmosphere” -- the region of space just outside the Earth's atmosphere.
The 54-foot-6-inch interceptors look like missiles, but no explosive warheads are attached. The main body acts as a booster vehicle to propel into space the embedded kill vehicle, a 152-pound “smart bullet” that basically steers itself into the path of the oncoming warhead, causing an explosion on impact.
The U.S. military has 24 ground-interceptors in silos in Alaska and California, and 21 sea-based interceptors.
The Defense Department has spent about $100 billion on missile defense since 1999, officials said. Iran’s pursuit of ballistic missiles and the recent nuclear and long-range missile tests by North Korea create an evolving threat to the United States, according to military reports.
In the last 20 years, the number of countries interested in having or actually having intercontinental ballistic missile capability has increased from six to more than 20, military officials said. The number of test launches has increased every year.