By Geoff Fein

Last month’s missile shot at a wayward spy satellite not only demonstrated the capability of the technologies to conduct such an effort, but it also showed the ability of the government and industry to quickly plan, train for and carry out a mission that had never been tried before.

The Navy, along with industry partners Lockheed Martin [LMT], Raytheon [RTN], and Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Lab (APL), came together in January to examine how they could adapt systems used for ballistic missile defense (BMD) to knock out a de-orbiting National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) satellite that was carrying a fuel tank full of toxic hydrazine.

Around Jan. 4, a group of government engineers, scientists and managers came together to begin looking at the feasibility of shooting down a dead satellite, a senior Missile Defense Agency (MDA) official told Defense Daily in a recent interview.

“It wasn’t the first time we heard musing of this, but that was the first time we were told to start to seriously think about what it would take to shoot down a dying or dead satellite,” the official said.

The group broke into its respective areas of expertise and began to explore the technical challenges they might have to make as well as operational considerations such as where any missiles might be located to carry out the mission and any necessary modifications. Additionally, the group looked at the Aegis BMD equipped fleet to see if the ships would be available, the official added.

“We were in the planning and design phase from Jan. 4 until about the first two weeks of February,” the official said.

The USS Lake Erie (CG-70) was selected to lead the mission because it was involved in 10 of 12 BMD shootdowns, the official added.

“At the same time we realized we may not want to be a one-trick pony, if something, God help us, broke on Lake Erie. That’s when we looked at some of the other BMD capable ships,” the official noted.

That decision led to adding both the USS Decatur (DDG-73) and the USS Russell (DDG-59) to the mix.

One of the first things the group did was to get Lockheed Martin working on a project to determine the design changes and the feasibility to modify the Aegis BMD weapon system, the official said. “The same thing with Raytheon on the SM-3 (Standard Missile-3), and also the Applied Physics Lab at Johns Hopkins University.”

Johns Hopkins University’s APL is sort of a check and balance against industry’s designs, the official added. “It’s the way we end up making sure our solutions are very strong for any problem we have to deal with.”

Among the modifications that would have to be made for this single mission was to recalibrate the radars aboard the ships to not only track the satellite, but to declare the NRO satellite an “engagable” target, the MDA official said.

Adding to the effort was that the SM-3 missile would be hitting an object described as the size of a small school bus, traveling faster than a typical ballistic missile.

“The satellite was higher than we shot before and it was certainly a whole lot faster…like two to three times faster than we usually shoot at,” the official said.

Because the goal was to destroy the satellite’s hydrazine tank, preventing it from surviving reentry and landing intact in a populated area, the official said the objective was now to “hit a few seats on that small school bus” that is tumbling out of control.

Changes had to be made to the SM-3’s kinetic warhead, so that once the Aegis weapon system put the missile on its collision course, the missile would move into an area where officials could maximize the likelihood they could hit the tank at the closure rate of 22,000 miles per hour, the official said.

Skeptics of BMD often describe the effort as a bullet hitting a bullet, but it is more than that, the official explained.

“This bullet with a bullet analogy understates it. You are really hitting a bullet with a super computer. That’s really what is going on up there,” the official said. “This kinetic warhead is a super computer with eyes and legs on it. The eyes are the seeker and the legs are the engine that allow it to move around in outer space real quickly.”

Once the systems were modified and installed on the ships, it was time to begin training for the operation.

“There was a lot of at-sea training going on. We were getting run time on those modifications on the weapon system by actually tracking and doing simulated engagements of the satellite as she went overhead once or twice a day,” the official said. “We practiced the Hell out of this thing. We were doing it, again, as part of an Aegis BMD Navy infrastructure.”

For a good 10 to 14 days, the Lake Erie, Decatur and Russell, all with the modified weapon system and missile and deployed trainers, were doing practice runs as they deployed west of Hawaii, the official said. “Once we had these live tracks, then we could record them and keep on redoing it as often as the ship’s team decided they wanted to. We trained a lot to make sure we had this thing down.”

Rear Adm. Joseph Horn, deputy director Surface Warfare for Combat Systems/Weapons (N86F), said he could only imagine that the Lake Erie’s commanding officer, Capt. Randall Hendrickson, had to exercise his crew in a different way than they normally train for an event of this type. “Simply because things were different. We didn’t have organic radar track until over 100 seconds into the flight. There were some things he had to overcome.”

The numerous ships and shore-based sites equipped with Aegis enabled the Navy to track the satellite, learn about its “detectability,” hold the track, and begin a lot of the early engineering that had to be done, the official said.

“We were taking a look at this [satellite] to get some real empirical information to back up what our models and analysis were telling us,” the official said.

At the same time, MDA and other parts of Department of Defense (DoD) were turning on their radars and optical-type sensors to also collect information on the satellite to assist BMD personnel in understanding how the satellite’s orbit was behaving and how it was decaying, so that they knew what the engagement parameters in space would be in the month of February, the official said.

“If you get too late in the month of February you were staring to get to the point…no one was confident on these orbits…as [the satellite] gets lower and lower it starts scraping along on the top of the atmosphere, and once you start seeing that happen it starts going non-linear and it’s hard to predict from orbit to orbit where it is and when it is coming down,” the official said. “And once it starts getting into that type of characteristic, the shot window would close.”

Once the satellite was in track and the system fired the missile, the official said everyone was confident they would hit it. “Then the thing was, how well did we hit this thing?”

“We were fairly confident when we rammed our kinetic warhead into this thing that the resultant energies would rupture that hydrazine tank,” the official added. “We did what we could to make sure we hit the proper end of this thing to get close and almost bullseye it. But, frankly, there were some aspects where you could come in on this and be less confident you got the tank.”

If shooting down an out of control satellite wasn’t success enough, being able to hit it dead-on so that the tank of toxic hydrazine was also destroyed was a big deal, Horn said.

“With each time we raise the bar and exercise this system successfully, it gives us incredible confidence in the performance margin that’s being designed into the system,” he said. “The fact we were able to take a system designed for one thing and exercise it in a different [way] speaks to the performance margin and also provides us a tremendous degree of confidence that the engineering is sound, our training is satisfactory and our people are ready.”

The Navy has exercised the SM-3 missile now though a series of events, with this being more complicated than just about any the service has tried, Horn said. “So I am just as sure as I can be we have learned some things about that missile, perhaps we didn’t expect in the beginning.”

Horn said he continues to be amazed that the Navy is able to keep drawing out new areas of mission capability from the Aegis weapon system.

“We are able to draw from the radar more and more information, things that were not really designed in but engineers are able to pull out…more data on individual ballistic missiles. [We were] able to do things for the which the radar wasn’t specifically designed because we have designed that performance margin in. We are able to fly the missile without having organic track and be confident that the missile is smart enough to conduct its engagement with very little guidance from the ship. That is a big deal for us,” Horn said. “And then in terms of the structure inside the combat information center where we have sailors performing specific functions that enable us to detect, track and engage threats to the ship or the area we are defending. That structure that was put in place those many years ago is still very sound indeed and requires almost no modification.”