On October 24, 2012, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) led a team of engineers and US military warfighters in accomplishing the largest integrated live-fire missile test in history. US Navy sailors aboard the USS Fitzgerald, soldiers from the 94th and 32nd Army Air & Missile Defense Commands (AAMDC) and Airmen from the 613th Air and Space Operations Center (AOC), along with the MDA flight test team, successfully executed Flight Test Integrated-01 (FTI-01) at the army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (RTS) on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. FTI-01 took a major step in advancing the MDA mission, which is to develop, test and field an integrated, layered Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) to defend the USA, its deployed forces, allies and friends against all ranges of enemy ballistic missiles in all phases of flight.FTI-01 supported the mission by demonstrating an effective integration of BMDS to engage a group of simultaneous missile threats – also called a raid – of varying attack profiles. The three fielded systems that participated in the test – Aegis BMD, Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) – had been thoroughly tested individually, but never together in a raid scenario. With developmental and operational test aspects, FTI-01 provided an opportunity to not only prove the communications technology enabling these weapon elements to operate in concert, but also to test and evolve the approved tactics, techniques and procedures (TTPs) used by the warfighter combating the BMDS.
The weapons and sensor systems used in FTI-01 represent an operationally accurate picture of MDA’s progress in creating a robust, layered BMDS. Aegis BMD extends the Aegis Combat System to short-through-intermediate-range ballistic missile defense with the addition of the Army Navy/Shipboard Radar Surveillance AN/SPY-1 passive electronically scanned S-band system and the Standard Missile (SM) series of interceptors.
Operators from the 32nd AAMDC brought one of their THAAD batteries to RTS, including the electronically steered, high-resolution Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance X-band in Terminal Mode (AN/TPY-2 (TM)) and truck-mounted launcher with THAAD interceptors. The Patriot weapons system, operated by soldiers from the US Army’s 94th AAMDC, featured the MPQ-65 phased-array radar and launchers with Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) hit-to-kill interceptors.
An additional AN/TPY-2 radar, configured in forward-based mode (FBM) provided essential capability to detect and track threats in the early stages of flight.
As the mission name suggests, the driving goal of FTI-01 was testing newly developed integration technologies to bring the constituent defense systems of the BMDS into a shared information space. The resulting, expanded situational awareness drastically improves the efficacy of the BMDS in a number of ways: weapons are better tasked to their particular strengths; threats are detected and engaged earlier, and with greater accuracy; interceptor rounds are used more efficiently.
The information broker that makes this possible is MDA’s Command and Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) program. Connected to the tactical data network linking all of the weapon elements, C2BMC broadcasted data from and among AN/TPY-2(FBM) and the other BMDS sensors to provide each with a complete, current threat picture.
MDA conducts developmental flight tests primarily to capture data that validates and augments work done in modeling and simulation. To that end, the situational realism of a test is paramount and, as with FTI-01, threat targets reflect characteristics and attack profiles faced by the warfighter today, or expected tomorrow.
The broad swathes of the North Pacific and sparsely populated Marshall Islands surrounding RTS allow for geographic launch configurations that represent those real-world threat placements while minimizing the risk to inhabited areas. MDA further extends that range flexibility with test support assets that allow for sea and air-based target launches. The test configuration for FTI-01 called for launch points and threat types emulating a possible ballistic and air defense scenario in the dynamic theater of the US Central Command (CENTCOM). MDA met those requirements with a combination of ground, sea and air launches of both theater ballistic missiles (TBMs) and air-breathing target (ABT) drones.
Once the first threat target of FTI-01 was launched into a clear October sky on the afternoon of the 24th, a test that took more than two years of meticulous development was executed in less than 20 minutes. In the broad ocean area north of Wake Island,
a C-17 aircraft from the 613th AOC out of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii air-dropped a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) target.
Once clear of the airplane, the extended long-range air launch target (E-LRALT) launched from its delivery system on a southern trajectory toward RTS. Next, an MQM-107 ABT drone was launched south from Roi-Namur, flying an indirect path toward Meck Island and the Patriot system stationed there. Moments later, a modified Gulfstream support aircraft launched
a second ABT, a BQM-74E, in
a loitering loop toward the USS Fitzgerald that would eventually mimic a low-altitude, cruise missile attack.
Two more TBMs joined the raid as those initial threats headed toward their targets. An Aegis Readiness Assessment Vehicle-B (ARAV-B) SRBM rail-launched from Wake Island on a southern course toward RTS. Next, a unitary-bodied SRBM was launched toward RTS from the MDA’s sea-based mobile launch platform (MLP) in the ocean area north of Kwajalein Atoll. In all, five missiles of vastly different attack profiles – ballistic and powered, exoatmospheric and near-surface – flew in a choreographed pattern to challenge the BMDS with simultaneous ballistic and air-defense engagements.
On Roi-Namur, AN/TPY-2 (FBM) radar acquired the ballistic targets, E-LRALT, ARAV-B and SRBM, in the early boost stage of flight. It reported the returns to C2BMC, which cued the ‘shooters’, THAAD, Aegis and Patriot, to track and eventually engage the missiles. AN/TPY-2 (TM) radar began tracking the E-LRALT once it came within range, and the THAAD fire control and communications unit (TFCC) directed the launcher to fly an interceptor, engaging and destroying the target. Aegis BMD tracked the ARAV-B, supplementing its AN/SPY-1 radar tracks with data received from C2BMC.
Aegis BMD developed a fire control solution and launched a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA hit-to-kill interceptor at the exoatmospheric target. Despite a nominal flight, however, the SM-3 failed to intercept, and a failure review is continuing. Patriot used C2BMC tracking reports of the SRBM to steer its MPQ-65 radar onto the inbound target. Patriot engaged with PAC-3 hit-to-kill interceptors launched from nearby Omelek Island, destroying it in the terminal phase of flight.
With the ABTs approaching their targets, Patriot acquired the MQM-107 heading toward Meck Island and successfully intercepted the target at a low altitude with a PAC-3. The BQM-74E on its way to the USS Fitzgerald was picked up by the Aegis BMD AN/SPY-1 radar and engaged successfully with a SM-2 Block IIIA missile.
As MDA’s largest flight test to date, FTI-01 brought with it a proportional number of challenges and setbacks that faced the mission team every day. Environment, communications and infrastructure were some of the many factors that seemed to conspire against the flight test execution and support teams. The proximity of the Pacific Ocean and exposure to intense, near-equatorial sun makes RTS one of the most punishing environments for the infrastructure and equipment used in missile testing. The buildings, vehicles and outdoor structures at RTS face a severely corrosive environment due to the high relative humidity and atmospheric salt content.
Maintenance and repair was a constant activity during the mission, as technicians and engineers labored to keep sophisticated test equipment in prime condition and away from the mission schedule’s critical path. The region’s rainy season of May-November presented inclement weather and visibility problems to air and sea shipping, as well as the test support equipment on RTS, often delaying activities as what appeared to be the bulk of the 100+ inches of annual precipitation fell in the weeks surrounding the test.
Despite staging the test in one of the most remote locations in the world, the footprint of FTI-01 still pressed against the commercial activity of the Pacific Rim, with the pressure felt on both sides. The hazards inherent to a live-fire test event required that the major air and sea transport corridors cutting across the test range be cleared of traffic for the hours surrounding the test window to keep travelers out of harm’s way. Standard procedures for test range safety at RTS include filing with the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the US Coast Guard to issue required notices to airman (NOTAMs) and mariners (NOTMARs) to avoid the area on potential test days. FTI-01 stressed the usual protocols in that launch readiness assessment had to consider many more variables introduced by the mission’s sheer size. Unable to ask the FAA and other regulatory agencies to shut down the Pacific corridors for days at a time, MDA was able to work out a schedule where alternating days would be available for testing across a number of weeks.
FTI-01 was an overall success that broke new ground in many areas of MDA’s BMDS flight testing and yielded invaluable test data for both BMDS technology and operational doctrine. As stated earlier, it was MDA’s first test to evaluate the interoperability of Aegis, Patriot and THAAD systems.
It was also the first live-fire test to use AN/TPY-2 (FBM) for common tracking of targets. Patriot came to FTI-01 for first attempts as both a multi-tiered (ballistic and air defense) flight test and an ABT intercept over water, and was greatly successful at both. Equally valuable to the test were the challenges and setbacks faced; MDA is applying the lessons learned from FTI-01 for future flight tests, aware that the obstacles will only increase with the sophistication of the tests and the underlying BMD system. The missed Aegis MRBM intercept is still under investigation at this time as part of the MDA’s rigorous engineering review process. Much of the continental USA was asleep in the late weeknight hours during this test, unaware of the missile battle in progress half a world away. FTI-01 brought the MDA significantly closer to realizing the integrated and robust missile defense system needed
to protect America, her allies, friends and deployed forces so that, in a world with proliferating missile threats and geopolitical uncertainty, we can all rest a little easier.
Staying in touch
Communications needs for the test required the expansion and maintenance of the data networks on Reagan Test Site. Range, telemetry and information technology teams battled supply shortages and delays, tight schedules and, as mentioned, corrosion to provide land, radio and satellite links from RTS to test participants. They ultimately connected Hawaii, Wake Island, ships and airplanes on the North Pacific, and locations in the continental USA, with a real-time voice and data network.
Employing hundreds of assets, each with myriad dependencies affecting its ability to participate in the test, FTI-01 saw some inevitable schedule setbacks due to unforeseen equipment failures. In one case, a range safety aircraft crew member spotted
a cracked propeller blade during a post-flight inspection on the day before the test. The ensuing repair delayed the mission by two days, to allow for part delivery from Hawaii and required testing of the installed part. Fortunately, such ‘show-stopper’ problems were minimized by vigilant test resource and logistics teams who took immediate action on potential equipment issues and repairs.
Jon Haack is a senior engineer with the Missile Defense Agency based in the USA