Jason Gibbs – Las Cruces Sun-News
WHITE SANDS MISSILE RANGE — It was a picture-perfect pre-dawn Wednesday and a picture-perfect launch at White Sands Missile Range.
Hundreds of miles above southern New Mexico, it was a picture-perfect impact between two missiles.
The morning sky above the Tularosa Basin was painted in every color of the rainbow — hues ranging from iridescent purples to emerald greens and pastel blues, pinks and electric whites against the darkness of space.
The pre-dawn art show was the result of the third of five tests planned at White Sands Missile Range to determine the effectiveness of THAAD — Terminal High Altitude Area Defense missile. And military officials said the test went better than they could have hoped.
“This was phenomenal,” said U.S. Army Col. Charles Driessnack, the project manager for the Missile Defense Agency’s THAAD program. “It performed as expected.”
The test demonstrated the THAAD’s ability to “completely destroy that warhead so that no chemical or nuclear residue would contaminate areas” below the explosion, Driessnack said.
The THAAD missile system was designed by Lockheed Martin, and several company employees and system designers were on hand to witness the test.
During the test firing, the airspace above the 3,200-square-mile missile range was cleared, including orbiting satellites, said Jim Eckles, a spokesman for the missile range.
Also, roughly 80 to 90 families were evacuated from surrounding ranch land during the test and traffic was halted on area highways.
The target — a Hera missile that closely mimics the characteristics of the more infamous SCUD missiles — was launched shortly after 5:17 a.m. Wednesday. It took to the skies from a location on the far northern reaches of the bombing range’s territory, about 100 miles north of the Organ Mountains, 25 miles north of Highway 380.
It carried a canister of inert material to simulate chemical or biological elements that could be mounted on an enemy missile, Driessnack said. The target missile rose roughly 200 miles above the Earth before beginning the final stage descent toward land.
The THAAD was launched close to the southern end, on the east side of the Organ Mountains. The object of the THAAD missile is to provide a weapon to intercept incoming missiles during the “terminal” phase, when only seconds remain before it would strike an intended target.
A crowd of roughly 75 spectators, military personnel and defense department contractors, gathered near the WSMR Museum in the predawn hours to view the test.
As the target missile launched, it streaked into the still-dark sky, looking like a comet with a long, white tail. As it got to the second firing stage, red fire bloomed out of the leading edge of the missile.
Minutes later, the THAAD was launched, giving a little pirouette before speeding upward.
“Get up there baby,” one observer shouted.
For a couple of minutes, the crowd held their collective breath, waiting to see if the impact would occur as planned.
When the target missile was destroyed, sending a brilliant white, mushroom-like cloud into the dark sky, the crowd began to applaud and cheer wildly.
” We smashed it,” several people cheered as the rainbow colored contrail gave way to the cotton ball cloud of destruction above.
Eckles said contrails and explosions from previous tests have been seen as far away as Phoenix and Tucson. On Wednesday, Phoenix residents again were treated to a colorful contrail pattern over the Arizona skies, while closer-to-home reports were received from Lordsburg, Silver City and DoÃ±a Ana County from early risers who observed the same display.
“All evidence is that it was totally destroyed,” Driessnack said of the target missile during an interview after the test was complete. “We knew from the last test, 60 days ago, that it was working as it should.”
He said the test indicates THAAD could be ready for emergency deployment “as soon as a year from now.”
While the previous two THAAD flight tests, also conducted at WSMR, were focused on interceptor fly-out and performance, the remaining flight test program is providing verification of the integrated THAAD element at increasingly difficult levels.
Further testing, both at White Sands and in the Pacific, is planned. In all, the nine-year program to develop the defense system has cost about $4 billion dollars, and is expected to come up roughly $48 million over budget when complete, Driessnack said.
It’s the latest step in filling a president directive issued in December 2002 to build a defensive system capable of countering missile threats to our homeland as well as our deployed forces and allies.
Driessnack said the system could be used “to protect our East and West coasts” from missile attack.
The United States and North Korea are in a diplomatic stalemate following the communist country’s recent test firing of the long-range Taepodong-2 missile. The missile, which U.S. officials believe to be capable of reaching American soil, exploded some 40 seconds after launch.
When fully operational, the THAAD system will provide quickly-deployable protection from missile attacks in any region needed, including homeland territory, Driessnack said.
Jason Gibbs can be reached at email@example.com
THAAD fast facts
The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system includes four main components:
Launcher: Highly mobile, able to store, transport and fire interceptors.
Interceptors: Designed to intercept its target both in and out of the atmosphere using hit-to-kill lethality.
Radar: Largest mobile X-band in with world. It provides search, track, discrimination and fire control updates to the interceptor.
Fire Control: Communication and data-management backbone, links THAAD components together and to external units as well as the entire Ballistic Missile Defense System.
Source: Missile Defense Agency