In a March 2019 test, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency and Boeing launched two Ground-based Midcourse Defense system interceptors to destroy a threat-representative target.
By Sheila Sharp, Chief Engineer for Ground-Based Midcourse Defense
Boeing Defense, Space & Security
The test is known as a “two-shot salvo” engagement. The target launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean while the interceptors launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, more than 4,000 miles away.
The test was FTG-11, the most complex test of this system in its history, successfully executed with a set of objectives and technical advances that have been implemented through a decade of planning.
During this test of the U.S. Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the lead interceptor destroyed the target reentry vehicle in space, just as it was designed to do. The trail interceptor evaluated the resulting intercept debris and remaining target objects. Not finding any other reentry vehicles, it selected the next most lethal object it identified and precisely struck that object.
This successful test of the GMD system demonstrated first-of-its-kind salvo intercepts of a complex, threat-like intercontinental ballistic missile target in space during midcourse flight.
A crucial piece in the defense architecture
The United States is overlaid with defense systems architected to protect the lives of its population from missile attacks. Within that system, the GMD system is the United States' only operational missile defense program capable of defending the entire homeland (including Alaska and Hawaii) against long-range ballistic missile attacks.
The results of this test are a critical milestone that provide evidence for accomplishing the salvo doctrine within missile defense—a capable, credible deterrent against a realistic threat.
GMD system elements reach across 15 time zones and are linked by a terrestrial communication system consisting of over 20,000 miles of fiber optic cable, as well as a redundant satellite communications network. Ground-based interceptors are located at Fort Greely, Alaska, and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Command, control, battlement management and threat analysis support is provided by dual-node, human-in-control interface located at Fort Greely and in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
A total of 44 ground-based interceptors are currently in place. The ground-based interceptor is a multistage, solid fuel booster with an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle that launches toward the predicted location in space of the target. Once the kill vehicle is released from the booster, guidance data from ground support, fire control system components and on-board sensors direct closure with and destruction of the target warhead. The intercept occurs outside the Earth's atmosphere using only the kinetic force of the collision to destroy the target.
The technical complexity of this challenge has been compared to hitting a bullet with a bullet. The team working this system has employed tireless effort and inventive ideas to deliver integrated, synchronized missile defense systems and operations, providing a layered defense against multiple ranges of threats and in all phases of flight.
The summation of their vast technical knowledge, creativity and risk-mitigation approaches was demonstrated through ground and flight test campaigns, like the most recent successful FTG-11 flight test. Without their knowledge, ingenious problem-solving and delivery, our evolved capabilities could be less effective in the face of increasingly sophisticated adversaries.
This is also personal. We have a shared dedication to protecting lives against advancing, complex threats, through the technological advancement of a system that must be relevant and capable to protect our nation and its people.