By Ann Roosevelt and Dave Ahearn

The first Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) unit was activated, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) announced.

That Army unit is Alpha Battery, 4th Air Defense Artillery Regiment, 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade, 32nd Army Air & Missile Defense Command. Activation was marked in a ceremony at Fort Bliss, Texas.

Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] is the prime contractor for THAAD.

Celebrating the activation, Riki Ellison, president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, noted that the United States now is examining where to station THAAD batteries.

There are three possible sites for the first two THAAD batteries: Fort Bliss for global flexibility and mobility, Guam for North Korean ballistic missile threats and Israel for Iranian ballistic missile threats, Ellison noted.

Since 2005, THAAD has had eight successful flight tests and has had four for four ballistic missile intercepts, Ellison observed. In other words, since the current round of testing began, THAAD has intercepted every target it has flown against. The government has procured two THAAD batteries with 48 defensive interceptor missiles which will be in the field by next year. Additionally, the United States government has procured two more THAAD units with 40 interceptors that will arrive in 2010, with the likelihood of the fifth and sixth batteries to follow.

When fielded, the mobile THAAD system will be the only defensive weapon that can destroy incoming ballistic missiles both inside and just outside the earth’s atmosphere.

Battery commander of the unit is Capt. Curtis Zervic. Soldiers in the newly established battery have been training on the THAAD equipment since last month and will continue their training through the middle of next year.

The activated unit eventually will receive 24 THAAD interceptors, three launchers, a fire control and communications unit and a radar.

THAAD is managed by MDA and executed by the THAAD project office in Huntsville, Ala.

This is the first of four THAAD batteries planned, Col. William Lamb, MDA THAAD project manager, said in a teleconference.

Each THAAD unit will have 100 soldiers led by a captain. The Alpha battery unit now has 83 soldiers and is receiving and training on the equipment. Each battery will consist of three launchers, each able to carry eight interceptors for a total of 24 for the battery, a phased array X-band radar, and a THAAD fire command and control.

Alpha battery will be fielded over the next year, the second battery will be fielded in 2010, the third in 2012, and the fourth in 2013, Lamb said.

“To date there’s been about $11 billion invested in THAAD,” Lamb said, as well as some 17 years of development.

“As project manager I think the program is in very good shape,” he said. “We’ve demonstrated very good performance in testing. It enjoys strong congressional support.”

The THAAD system is highly requested by combatant commanders for the earliest possible deployment into their theaters, he said. As well, there is foreign interest in procuring the system, now that the U.S. Army is closer to fielding it.

So far the program has conducted eight flight tests. Four were intercept flight tests against realistic, flight-representative targets, and the THAAD interceptor was successful in all four, including a test in October where the system conducted a successful intercept of a ballistic missile target outside the atmosphere for the first time.

More tests are scheduled, to include one in June at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii against a separating, not unitary, target.

MDA is developing the THAAD system as part of the evolving Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) that will provide a layered, integrated defense for the U.S. homeland, deployed forces and allies against ballistic missiles of all ranges, in all phases of flight.

“This is a historic day for the U.S. Army’s Air Defense community,” Tom McGrath, program manager and vice president for THAAD at Lockheed Martin said in a statement. “The first battery receiving the THAAD Weapon System signifies that we are one step closer to the day THAAD will be protecting our soldiers, friends and allies around the globe.”

THAAD is the first weapon system with both endoatmospheric and exoatmospheric capability. It was developed specifically to defend against short, medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles.

The THAAD system will provide high-altitude missile defense over a larger area than the complementary Patriot system.

Patriot and THAAD, as well as the long-range Ground-based Midcourse Defense and the sea-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, all use hit-to-kill technology.

Lockheed Martin received a production contract for the first two fire units in late 2006.

Raytheon Co. [RTN] builds the THAAD radar. Raytheon and Lockheed Martin jointly developed the fire control software. Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, a unit of United Technologies Corp. [UTX], produces the engine control system called a divert and attitude control system, or DACS. BAE Systems produces the infrared seeker that provides infrared imagery of the target warhead to guide the interceptor to the target.