BMD Focus: A good year -- Part 2

By MARTIN SIEFF, UPI Senior News Analyst  |  Dec. 28, 2007 at 10:16 AM
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WASHINGTON, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- The U.S. ballistic missile program was overjoyed by a series of exceptionally successful tests across a wide spectrum of systems in 2007.

The number and frequency of the successes, especially in the Aegis/Standard Missile-3 and Theater High Altitude Area Defense programs, suggested that these technologies are now firmly in the category of mature technologies, racking up an impressive track record of repeatedly successful tests.

And even the long-troubled Ground-based Mid-course Interceptor program, the most difficult and crucial of the U.S. BMD programs because of its capability to intercept in-flight intercontinental ballistic missiles, enjoyed solid, steady progress culminating in its second successful intercept within a year.

The test was the second successful one with an operationally configured interceptor since September 2006. It "further demonstrates GMD's evolution to a robust and reliable capability for the war fighter," said Pat Shanahan, vice president and general manager of Boeing Missile Defense Systems. "Team members are energized."

The transformed fortunes of the GBI program vindicated the policy of Lt. Gen. Henry "Trey" Obering III, the hard-charging head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, a couple of years ago to focus on the old engineering basics of component testing, quality control and meticulous accountability to get the program back on track.

And it was no coincidence that in September, Obering picked Brig. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, the man who had put the GBI program back on track, as his overall deputy in running the MDA.

"This technology does work, and we have proven it now time and time again over the past several years," Defense News quoted Obering as saying in his Sept. 18 speech to the European Institute.

Obering correctly said the MDA had achieved 28 successful missile interceptions in 36 tests over the past eight years. Since 2005, he said, the percentage had been even more impressive -- a stunning 21 interceptions in 22 tests.

The closing months of the year even saw a dramatic breakthrough in air-launched BMD. For the first time ever a missile fired from a U.S. Air Force fighter plane, an F-16, intercepted and destroyed a target missile just after launch. The system for the first time gave hard evidence that a form of boost-phase interception from aircraft firing missiles safely hundreds of miles away from the ICBM or IRBM launch site was already a technically achievable reality.

The MDA also carried out an important Stage 1 rocket motor test for the Kinetic Energy Interceptor program in September. "Conducted at the Alliant Techsystems -- ATK -- test facility in Promontory, Utah, on Sept. 6, this was the third successful Stage 1 test in the past 18 months," the MDA said in a statement.

"The Stage 1 rocket motor ignited properly and successfully completed a full-duration "burn" during the test, meeting test objectives that included an elevated firing temperature and a successful performance of the new hybrid booster nozzle throat," the agency said.

The MDA described the KEI as "a three-stage, solid-fueled ballistic missile interceptor that is approximately 40 inches in diameter and 466 inches long."

"The KEI will be capable of carrying the future multiple kill vehicle system now in development, which involves a 'shotgun' approach to missile defense using several small interceptor kill vehicles aboard a single missile to defeat not only a hostile missile warhead but also any decoys or countermeasures that could be present," the agency said.

"KEI will use high-acceleration rocket motors to intercept intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles during their boost, ascent and mid-course phases of flight. The KEI remains on schedule to conduct a booster rocket flight test in 2008," it said.

And in mid-July, Boeing announced that with its partner companies and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency it had "successfully completed a key Airborne Laser flight test."

The successful ABL test had shown "the weapon system's ability to actively track an airborne target, compensate for atmospheric turbulence and fire a surrogate for its missile-killing high-energy laser," the company said in a statement.

"During the test, the modified Boeing 747-400F took off from Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., and used its infrared sensors and its track illuminator laser -- TILL -- to find and track an instrumented target board located on the U.S. Air Force's NC-135E Big Crow test aircraft," the Boeing statement said.

"The Big Crow then fired its beacon laser at the ABL aircraft to allow ABL to measure and compensate for laser beam distortion caused by the atmosphere. Finally, ABL fired the surrogate high-energy laser -- SHEL -- at the Big Crow target board to simulate a missile shoot down," the statement said.

"With the exception of ABL's beacon illuminator laser -- BILL -- this flight test demonstrated the entire engagement sequence from target acquisition to pointing and firing the SHEL," it said.

"This successful test shows that ABL can find and track a target, use its beam control/fire control system to compensate for atmospheric turbulence, and fire a surrogate high-energy laser to simulate a missile intercept," said Boeing's Shanahan. "We have now demonstrated most of the steps needed for the Airborne Laser to engage a threat missile and deliver precise and lethal effects against it."

BMD still has a long way to go, especially in getting the GBI system fully operational. But it is getting there, and fast. Looking back on 2007, the scientists, engineers and technical staff of the Missile Defense Agency and its major contractors might echo the words of Country and Western star Toby Keith in one his most popular hits: "How do you like me now? Now that I'm on my way?"

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