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Feature Story

Boeing’s Skip Theobald stands in front of an inert ground-based interceptor used for training in Huntsville, Ala.

Eric Shindelbower/Boeing

Boeing’s Skip Theobald stands in front of an inert ground-based interceptor used for training in Huntsville, Ala. Interceptors like this one are deployed in Alaska and California to defend the United States against long-range ballistic missiles.

America's missile shield: 24/7 protection of the homeland

Technicians in 2004 lower a Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptor

Boeing image

Technicians in 2004 lower a Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptor for emplacement in an underground silo at Fort Greely, Alaska.

When the United States announced in 2002 that it would deploy a missile defense shield in just two-and-a-half years to protect the nation against long-range ballistic missile attacks, Skip Theobald was elated that he would have the opportunity to participate in the first deployment of such a capability since the early 1970s.

His employer, Boeing, in partnership with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), led the industry team that would field the system known as Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD).  

“It was an exciting time because we were going to be a part of something historic and important,” said Theobald. “This was the culmination of decades of hard work by those who had been developing the required technologies, as well as those who had created the political support necessary to make it happen.”

The first GMD interceptor being placed in its underground silo at Fort Greely, Alaska

Boeing image

The Ground Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) program team and the U.S. Missile Defense Agency emplace the first GMD interceptor in its underground silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in July 2004.

Theobald, a retired U.S. Army officer who started working on the Boeing GMD team when the program was still in its developmental stages, knew it would not be easy for the GMD team to meet the U.S. government’s ambitious deadline. After all, establishing an initial operational capability included integrating various hardware and software components, spread across thousands of miles, into an effective defensive system.

In particular, the primary missile interceptor field would be located at Fort Greely, Alaska, a remote location with a limited construction season due to severe winter weather conditions. The team had to transform an undeveloped piece of land into an operational interceptor site in subzero temperatures and high winds that can create wind-chill factors as low as minus 50 degrees or more. It was “so cold that tires on stationary vehicles can freeze overnight into irregular shapes and refuse to become round again,” according to a 2004 account in the New York Times.

“I’ll never forget the sight of construction workers using steam heaters to thaw out the ground enough to enable excavation to continue in the middle of winter,” Theobald recalled.

“Fortunately,” he continued, “we worked with our major industry partners and MDA to create a nationwide team with the unmatched experience and required engineering skills to meet this challenge. So we rolled up our sleeves and pressed ahead. The dedication exhibited by everyone involved in the effort goes well beyond anything else that I’ve ever been associated with.” 

Interceptor, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.

Vandenberg Air Force Base Image

In a December 2008 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, this interceptor, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., destroyed a long-range target missile launched from Kodiak, Alaska.

The team worked around the clock. It built the main interceptor site at Fort Greely, which ultimately involved clearing 550 acres of forest adjacent to the site, pouring 5,400 cubic yards of concrete, constructing more than 80,000 square feet of building space and installing six interceptor silos to support the initial deployment. In addition to the major construction activity at Fort Greely, the team had to upgrade the equipment and facilities at several remote radar sites and install the required communications network to tie it all together.

“While all this was going on, MDA was working with the Army to reactivate Fort Greely, which had previously been closed as part of a military base consolidation effort – just one more dimension of the total effort required to deploy this system,” said Theobald. “We didn’t get much sleep in those days, but everyone who was involved in the program was highly motivated and determined to overcome the many challenges that we were faced with. The fact that we were able to get the job done is a testimony to what can be achieved when the government and industry work together as a fully integrated team.”

Thermal image showing the impact of the interceptor destroying the target

Missile Defense Agency Image

In a December 2008 test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, an interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., destroyed a long-range target missile launched from Kodiak Island, Alaska. This thermal image shows the impact of the interceptor destroying the target.

Throughout the past decade, the Boeing-led team has continued to upgrade and expand the operational capability of the GMD system, which now provides 24/7 protection for the United States against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The initial deployment of a limited defense capability has been followed by the deployment of a sea-based radar and additional interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and Fort Greely. The system now includes assets located across 12 time zones that are linked by more than 20,000 miles of fiber-optic cable.

Army Lieutenant General Patrick J. O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, testified in Congress in April that GMD “forms the foundation of our homeland missile defense against limited ICBM attack today.”

The Defense Department’s “Ballistic Missile Defense Review Report,” released in February, says GMD is ready to defend the United States against ballistic missiles fired from the two countries that raise the most concern.

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks to U.S. Army Col. George Bond

Master Sgt. Jerry Morrison/U.S. Air Force

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates talks to U.S. Army Col. George Bond at a Ground-based Midcourse Defense interceptor silo at Fort Greely, Alaska, in 2009.

“Given the continuing improvement in the GMD system and the number of ground-based interceptors currently deployed compared to potential North Korean and Iranian capabilities, the United States now possesses a capacity to counter the projected threats from North Korea and Iran for the foreseeable future,” the report says.

Since the initial deployment, the GMD team has responded to several “real-world” events, including being placed on a heightened-alert status in response to North Korean missile test launch activities in 2006 and 2009. The Boeing GMD team, in concert with MDA, the Army and the major military commands responsible for missile defense, continues to provide operations support and sustainment of the deployed system, while making continuous improvements to meet both current and future needs. 

“We took a number of technology development programs, pulled them together to create an operational system to defend the United States against long-range ballistic missile attack, and demonstrated the capability to operate and sustain the system at extremely high levels of readiness,” Theobald concluded. “No small accomplishment.”