Back on the Range: Former KMR Range Ops Officer Reflects on Atoll’s Missile History

U.S. Army Maj. Carl McGrew (Ret.), a former Kwajalein Missile Range Range Operations Officer, poses in front of Meck Island, where he supported test launches of several generations of anti-ballistic missile systems through the years.

A searing sun slides into the horizon, revealing a cavalry of puffy horsehead-shaped clouds marching slowly westward. Carl McGrew, a visitor all too familiar with the iconic cotton-candy-pink sunsets of Kwajalein Atoll, props himself on the mainsail boom of his son’s sailboat, Cherokee, and lets the moment soak in. “How sweet it is,” he says, clasping a cup of icy gin and tonic water.

Between brief, quiet moments of reflection, he tells story after story about his adventures on and off Kwajalein Missile Range, hitting everything from his involvement in the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense program, to catching massive marlin with nothing but the head of a mop and fishing line. His presence aboard the boat is one of the reasons I’ve accepted a last-minute invitation to set sail on a short trip to Roi-Namur with him, his son, Paul, and friends and family. If Carl was going, I wanted to go, too. Not only to share his company but also to record a little of the history of the anti-ballistic missile programs in which he was involved.

A retired Army major in the explosive ordnance disposal field, and later a Kwajalein Missile Range operations officer with more than 13 years of service on Kwaj, McGrew helped direct missions on the range through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These were pivotal times for America’s anti-ballistic missile programs.

McGrew’s assignment as an EOD officer at White Sands Missile Range was one of his earliest forays into the ABM industry.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Bell Telephone Laboratories, Western Electric and other contractors hired by the Army Rocket and guided Missile Agency were tasked with developing a viable ABM system, busying themselves with early test launches of the superfast short-range ABM missile called Sprint. McGrew was assigned to EOD support for these missions.

“There were some 45 Sprint missiles launched at White Sands,” he says. “I was able to support some 15 of those there in the early development of the Sprint, since it was a very hot booster system.” Equipped with a small, 1-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, it was designed to intercept ICBMs inside the atmosphere just 15 seconds after launch. In testing, the two-stage missile popped out of its silo via a small explosive piston, after which its first stage ignited and accelerated the vehicle at more than 100Gs to a max speed of Mach 10 in just 10 seconds—so fast the nose cone became incandescent. The missile’s engineering was nearly beyond the state of the art. “They had about a 50 percent success rate just to get [Sprints] out of the silos,” McGrew tells me. But the early testing at White Sands created a stable foundation for engagement and intercept testing at Kwajalein, where McGrew would continue to work with the Sprints and another longer-range missile system called Spartan.

A Sprint missile is prepared on the launch rail at White Sands Missile Range June 24, 1965. McGrew supported 15 Sprint launches there.
A Sprint, incandescent from intense speed and air compression, is fired from Meck, supported Safeguard launches.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the Nixon administration, the Joint Chiefs and a slim congressional majority supported deployment of these ABM missiles and two families of advanced phased array radars in an ABM arrangement called Safeguard. Centered among the wheat fields outside of Nekoma, North Dakota, construction of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex was nearly complete, with systems soon coming online, when McGrew, still an Army EOD officer, moved his family to Kwajalein in June 1974. Flight tests of the Safeguard program’s Sprint and Spartan interceptor missiles were launching from Meck and Illeginni at a breakneck rate: roughly one M2-series intercept attempt a month, and the population of Kwaj was more than 6,000, McGrew remembers. He was assigned to Kwajalein Missile Range’s range operations group, working in the building now known as 1010, and he and four officers directed the range’s operations and mission scheduling for the Sprint and Spartan launches. “When Sprint finally arrived at Kwajalein, it was very successful,” he says. “The development program allowed for it to launch from Meck Island and Illeginni. So, Sprint was a very successful, high-performance missile.” Meck was a beehive of activity until the final test shots, Safeguard M2-545 and M2-548, blasted off the pad at Meck the following April, ending this crucial testing period for the Safeguard program.

U.S. Army Safeguard Command activated the Mickelsen Safeguard Complex in North Dakota on Sept. 28, 1975, and only 19 weeks later the Joint Chiefs ordered the site to shut down: The slim congressional majority that had authorized the program years earlier had given way to voices opposed to Safeguard. It was the end of the line for nuclear-armed ABM missiles on American soil. A new phase in the evolution of ABM defenses would soon begin.

“Those programs were very successful,” McGrew says. “But with the [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] agreements, those systems were taken off the shelf, and new systems that were less hazardous to nuclear detonations—hence the rise of kinetic kill programs—came online.”

McGrew loved his assignment on Kwajalein and extended his two-year tour to three years. “I loved the environment to raise my kids in, and it was a wise move.” Apart from his work on the missile range, he became an avid scuba diver, organizing Kwajalein Scuba Club trips to Pohnpei and Chuuk. In 1975, he and 29 other Kwajalein divers checked 60 KSC air tanks onto a Continental Airlines flight, paying $5 per tank, and spent two weeks of diving the reefs and wrecks in those Micronesian states.

“We did the same trip again the next year in 1976,” he says. “The scuba club was very active—a lot of divers, and there were never enough tanks.”

In 1977, the Army assigned McGrew to Huntsville, Alabama, where he retired from the Army as a major, completing 20 years of service. It was the beginning of the Pentagon’s studies into methods of destroying incoming ICBMs through blunt impact instead of nuclear explosions: like hitting a bullet with a bullet, the Army says. One of those early studies, begun in 1977, was the Homing Overlay Experiment, and McGrew was brought aboard by Lockheed Corporation to assist. While the Army and its contractor teams performed deep dive studies on improving radar and computer abilities to discriminate enemy warheads—that is, identify warheads from decoys, penetration aids and debris while en route to their targets—the Army also began developing kinetic kill vehicles. By using rocket stages to launch an independently steerable, thruster-powered object guided by infrared optical guidance systems, the idea was that a KKV could collide head-on with a target, destroying it: no nuclear detonation needed.

The HOE project was the start of McGrew’s 18-year stint in KKV development with Lockheed, and the project brought him and his family back to Kwajalein Missile Range for a second tour. In three tests in 1983, the Air Force launched Minuteman ICBMs toward Kwajalein Atoll, and the Army’s HOE interceptors failed in each test to destroy the dummy warhead. “It was a challenging program” that used off-the-shelf technology, essentially, McGrew says. But on June 10, 1984, the date of the fourth and final test, the HOE’s 13-feet-wide umbrella skeleton wrapped the Minuteman re-entry vehicle in a concussive death hug with a closing speed of more than 6 km per second. McGrew and the HOE planners were elated.

“It was the first kinetic kill, and that was the start of Star Wars, according to President Reagan at the time,” McGrew tells me as we sit at anchor off Roi-Namur.

An ERIS interceptor pokes its nose cone out of the silo at Meck. This missile scored America’s second kinetic ABM kill, a project McGrew looks back on fondly.

Formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars programs blossomed in the coming years, each fixated on different ways to destroy incoming warheads without the use of nuclear explosions. Some were fanciful for their time—think lasers and platforms bursting with KKVs in orbit around Earth—and some were more straightforward. McGrew moved on to a program grounded on past successes, the Exoatmospheric Re-Entry Interceptor Subsystem, which was a direct descendent of the HOE program and designed to kill ICBMs at long range, outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. On Jan. 29, 1991, the ERIS crew launched the 200-kilogram ERIS booster and KKV from Meck and scored a direct hit against a target Minuteman launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. McGrew looks fondly on that achievement: They had proven KKVs might work in the real world. “Fortunately, we were very lucky and got the first round off and also had a first-round kinetic kill hit,” he says, acknowledging the long road kinetic defense programs still had ahead of them.

A second intercept attempt in March 1992 tested the KKV’s ability to discriminate the correct warhead using its onboard infrared sensors but failed to destroy the target missile. Budget constraints forced an end to ERIS testing soon after, but the knowledge the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization gained on infrared seeking, onboard discrimination, KKV vector thrusting and more were transferred directly to the following—and current—generation of exo-atmospheric kinetic ABM systems: the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense. With 44 Ground-Based Interceptors deployed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg, the system is charged with protecting the United States from limited ICBM attacks from adversaries.

McGrew looks back fondly on his involvement in HOE and ERIS and his role in ushering the long-range kinetic system from infancy to deployment.

“We did a lot of work out here,” he told me, staring off at Meck Island as we sailed by. “A lot of important work.”

His favorite program, he later tells me, is THAAD, another kinetic ABM system with roots planted during the Reagan Star Wars years. The theater defense system was borne out of the High Endo-atmospheric Defense Interceptor program and designed to destroy medium- and long-range theater ballistic missiles primarily just inside the atmosphere. THAAD was McGrew’s last assignment with Lockheed. He worked as the mission director for a total of nine launches of the THAAD interceptor at White Sands before later system testing took place on Kwajalein Atoll, Wake Island and elsewhere.

“That was a very successful program,” he says. “And it’s operational now, along with the GBI in Alaska and Vandenberg. So, I’m fortunate to see two programs to their fulfillment, and that was 20 years with Lockheed.

“And it’s good that’s deployed,” he continues. “Because things in Korea and in other places have requirements for that system. And it’s nice to see that the Army is able to activate it and keep the Soldiers trained on it.”

A recent THAAD test occurs. McGrew supported several THAAD launches before retiring.

The 13.5 years McGrew spent on Kwajalein Atoll left an indelible impression on him. He’s proud of the roles he had in testing critical ABM systems deployed today, earning many titles though the years. But he’s most proud of calling himself a father, husband and Scoutmaster, he says. Scouting was a way for him to spend time with his family, give back to the community and integrate into the local Marshallese community in ways most people can only imagine now. McGrew and scout leaders from Ebeye would join forces to organize massive, annual Boy Scout jamborees on Bigej, inviting the 500 Marshallese Boy Scouts living on Ebeye and the 30 Kwajalein Boy Scouts for a week-long adventure of cooking pigs in earth ovens and practicing scouting skills.

“Everybody loved to sail, fish and scuba dive,” he says. “But since I was a scout master and had two boys—one became a Life Scout, and one became an Eagle Scout—I enjoyed scouting.”

The fundraisers McGrew helped organize would pull in enough money from the Kwajalein community to send $25,000 checks to the Boy Scout leadership in Honolulu and buy Cadillacs for raffle winners. Yes, Cadillacs for raffle winners on Kwajalein—It was a different time. Other adventures included Boy Scout reef hikes from Ninji to Kwajalein during low-tides, before the causeway from Gugeegue to Ebeye was constructed.

He tells of catching so many marlins that he and his friends employed a clever safer way of continuing to fish them and release them back to the ocean: using the head of a mop, literally. It helps if he explains the quirky technique himself:

“I think I got about 28 marlin up next to the boat. I learned after about 10 of them that it was hard to get the hook out of them and hard to release them. So we went with what is called a mop head technique. You could actually buy a mop at the store and make three lures. And it didn’t have a hook. You just tied the 300-pound line around it and towed it, and it would splash up, and the marlin would hit it. It would hit the mop head like it’s a fish and try to kill it. And its beak would tangle into the mop head getting so tangled up that we were able to reel the marlin in—without a hook. Using that technique, we caught a lot of them safely. The mop head would stay attached to the beak and the big marlins would just walk on top of the water with the mop head behind the boat. The mop head would eventually break down in the water and come off the marlin’s beak. So that was a lesson learned on catching marlin and releasing them.”

McGrew discusses his 13.5 years of experience testing ABM missile systems on Kwajalein Atoll.

A lot has changed on Kwajalein since McGrew first arrived 45 years ago. The Kwajalein Missile Range is now the Reagan Test Site, but it remains a critical test bed for the nation’s missile defense programs, the Air Force’s follow-on test shots of Minuteman III ICBMs and space surveillance and new foreign missile launch tracking. But in the world of missile defense, much of the range activity that kept scientists, engineers and Soldiers busy in earlier decades has moved to other national missile ranges, McGrew says. A population of more than 6,000 in the early 1970s has dropped to just more than 1,000 today. But while budgets are a function of the number of boots on the sand here, enjoying life on Kwaj and Roi is not.

“The lifestyle is the same,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful place to live and raise a family, to enjoy the natural environment to its fullest. It’s great to be able to get these experiences time and time again.”

McGrew, seated next to friend Courtney Swanson, flashes a thumbs up before setting sail on their next leg to Nell.

As Paul motors me away from Cherokee so I can catch a flight back to Kwaj, Carl sits on the stern of the boat, flashes a thumbs up and says goodbye. I remember him saying this might be his last sailing adventure on Kwajalein Atoll. That partly saddens me, but I’m reminded he’s got plenty of other adventures ahead—plus five nights at Nell, the next destination for the Cherokee crew on their trip around the largest atoll in the world.

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