Jordan Vinson, for U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command
U.S. ARMY GARRISON KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Republic of the Marshall Islands — In a brief address and question-and-answer session last month, U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command’s Technical Center director highlighted a host of recent Reagan Test Site mission achievements and forecasted busier missions to come.
Director Thomas Webber hosted the special town hall May 16 at the Kwajalein High School Multi Purpose Room for the Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians and contractors who operate RTS and guests.
The latest major range operation, the Air Force Global Strike Command Glory Trip 224 Minuteman III launch and re-entry, was representative of Kwajalein Atoll’s position at the tip of the spear in ensuring the strategic deterrence of the United States, he said.
“For these (Glory Trip) missions, we’re testing our strategic offensive capabilities to deliver intercontinental ballistic missiles,” said Webber. “That is the strategic deterrent that brought down the wall.”
The planned upgrades of the nation’s fleet of more than 400 nuclear-tipped ICBMs likely means a frenetic mission future for RTS personnel and instrumentation, he added.
The Air Force is “going to be improving and modernizing them and going to the next generation,” he said. “What’s going to happen is there’s going to be increased up-tempo at some point to be able to test those systems.”
There is more to the Technical Center than Glory Trip missions. An Army laboratory designated by the government to execute leading edge science and technology, scientists, engineers and technicians at the Technical Center work on an array of advanced projects, sometimes in conjunction with other government labs like Sandia National Laboratories.
Asked by USAG-KA Commander Col. James DeOre to explain what else the center works on, Webber summed up the organization’s focus in three particular areas: directed energy, hypersonic weapons and low earth orbit satellite development for tactical communications on the battlefield.
Laser and microwaves weapons are now a reality, Webber said. Recognizing the low cost-per-kill quality of high-powered lasers in the battle space, the Pentagon has poured considerable research and development into using directed energy as an alternative to expensive kinetic kill vehicles.
Small, low earth orbit satellite development is another of the laboratory’s focal points. The Army has leaned on the Technical Center to develop and produce low cost, pint-sized imaging and communications satellite platforms that may be employed as alternatives to traditional large military communications satellites that live in geostationary orbit.
The research and development initiative that might be of most interest to Kwajalein Atoll is hypersonic weaponry. Coming in two forms—cruise missiles or missile-launched, maneuverable re-entry vehicles—“hypersonics” can fly at speeds of Mach 5 and above, along a non-ballistic trajectory, making them extremely difficult to intercept with current anti-ballistic missile defenses like America’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system. China and Russia are each testing their own versions of hypersonic weapons. In the meantime, American progress in the field continues at the Technical Center and in other national laboratories as interest at the Pentagon revs up, Webber said.
“We [the Technical Center] did the first U.S. successful execution of a hypersonic weapon,” Webber told the crowd. “So we’re very involved in helping the Navy execute for a program of record to actually field hypersonics. The Army is now getting much more involved. We have an undersecretary of the Army now, a vice chief of staff of the Army, very interested in hypersonics.”
Because of Kwajalein Atoll’s traditional geographic advantages, future tests of American hypersonic prototypes may likely occur, in some manner, at the RTS range, Webber said.
“There’s not a lot of places that the nation has to test hypersonics,” he said. “Kwajalein’s the place because of the long fly outs, the fast, long flying trajectories.” It is this quality, of course, that made Kwajalein Atoll, beginning in the early 1960s as part of the “Western Range,” the premiere test bed for full scale testing of the United States’ developing ICBM programs like Atlas, Polaris and later the Minuteman and the Peacekeeper.
While future flight testing of upgraded Minuteman IIIs and first generation hypersonic weapons may occupy RTS in the years to come, there is still plenty of work to do in the near term, Webber said. He pointed to a PowerPoint slide densely populated with many different mission types throughout 2018. From the Jan. 31 test of the Navy’s Aegis Ashore interceptor at Kauai, Hawaii, to NASA’s springtime launches of experiment sounding rockets, to two back-to-back Global Strike GT re-entries, range customers have put RTS through its paces, Webber said.
Being able to maintain a frenetic range operation schedule in the lead up to, during and after a major garrison logistics and support contract changeover is impressive, he said, acknowledging the challenges in adjusting to the new contract arrangement on the atoll.
“It makes executing this very difficult,” Webber said. “And that’s why it’s critical that all of you, and everybody across the community here, continues to play the vital role that they play and be a participant. And making sure that we’re finding ways to execute the mission. I know it’s challenging.
“I wanted to make sure that you all understood how critically important you are to executing this mission,” he added. “There’s a vital role in the garrison place, and there’s a vital role on the range side. But those don’t work by themselves. Those only work if you’re in unison and helping each other accomplish that and be successful. … All of you are critical in being able to make that mission happen, whether you’re on the range side or you’re on the garrison side of the house. It’s going to take all of you, and it’s going to take teamwork and collaboration and support across all echelons to make sure that we’re maintaining that capability.”
In no other type of mission setting could this be more accurate than in range operations conducted by the Missile Defense Agency, which will always be a part of RTS, Webber said. These are missions involving many land, sea and space-based sensors; many target missiles of all classes; personnel dispersed through a wide geographic area; and several interceptors.
Tests of systems like the Army’s high profile, truck-mounted Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and MDA’s growing Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, are good examples. Just last year, the FTG-15 test of the GMD system proved both the capability of the system and the expertise and work ethic of the RTS and garrison workforce, he said. Missions like this in the future will again rely on the full support of the garrison and range communities.
“That was the first-ever ICBM launch from Kwajalein Atoll,” Webber said. “It was launched off of Meck Island. So that was a major undertaking, to demonstrate that our Ground-based Midcourse Defense System could work against an incoming ICBM. … It was a highly successful test. That test—while the interceptor came out of Vandenberg—would not have happened if it weren’t for the Reagan Test Site and the Kwajalein Atoll. You can’t do those kinds of engagements anywhere else in the world. This is a national strategic asset out here. So, those test missions are extremely important.”
While high profile intercept tests, flight tests and ICBM re-entries garner a lot of attention, Webber reminded the crowd of the vitally important national security missions that occur every day from the control rooms of the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site radars on Roi-Namur. The size, quality and power of the radars on RTS, paired with Kwajalein Atoll’s geographic location, allow for easy recognition, identification and tracking of missile and rocket flights that launch from rocket pads over the horizon in the Asia Pacific region.
When an Asia-Pacific adversary launches a rocket into space and deploys, for instance, a new military imaging satellite into orbit, the Pentagon, U.S. Strategic Command and the intelligence agencies often want radar images of the satellite and data on its orbital period. KREMS can do that, as well as search for and help identify random junk in orbit as part of the radars’ support role in the Air Force Space Surveillance Network.
“We’re keeping tabs on a lot of stuff that’s flying around in space right now,” Webber concluded. “And we do that to keep catalogs updated so that we know where stuff is [in orbit] to help support conjunction analysis to make sure that things don’t run into our critical assets that are in space. That it doesn’t run into manned space missions that flying up; that it doesn’t run into when you’re doing an interceptor missions. You’ve got to make sure that you don’t have issues with hitting debris and other things. Keeping track of that is very important. Our radars help contribute to and support that mission.”
A former Kwajalein resident, Webber spent five years working on the range, managing range flight safety from control rooms on land and on the U.S.A.V. Worthy ship. Every trip back to sunny Kwajalein Atoll is a joy, he said.