Eighteen Months of Preparation Lead to Alaskan Missile Test
March 18, 2010
By Clara Zachgo
- missile launch
FORT WAINWRIGHT, Alaska - When you live in or visit Alaska, you become aware of the vast amount of land in the state - 54 million acres - much of which is undeveloped pristine wilderness.
In the middle of those 54 million acres is the U.S. Army Cold Regions Test Center (CRTC), which operates on the 670,000-acre Donnelly Training Area (DTA).
CRTC's mission is to plan and conduct realistic, natural environment testing with an emphasis on extreme cold and sub-arctic conditions. This can lead to unique challenges when the equipment being tested at CRTC is a missile system with a surface danger zone (SDZ) of more than 300,000 acres and a 500,000-acre area that would be activated as "hot" during the firing. That is an area roughly the size of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
John Viggato, the test officer assigned to Non-Line-of-Sight Launch System, looked at the numbers and knew there was a way to get this test done, but the biggest challenge he would face would be "location, location, location."
"Fitting an SDZ of that size into our 670,000 acre test range was extremely difficult and pushed us into unfamiliar and logistically challenging areas of the range," Viggato said.
Once Viggato pinpointed an area in DTA West that fit the requirements, the work really began. The launch site was 30 kilometers from the nearest road, while the target location was 45 kilometers. The location was so far downrange that CRTC would have to start from scratch.
There were no roads, power, communications, or infrastructure at either location. In order to begin working on the basic needs, CRTC would have to cross the Delta River, which has no permanent bridge crossing it anywhere. Viggato used low- water crossings techniques to preposition equipment and the initial test setup in the fall, but had to wait for colder temperatures in the winter months to build an ice bridge.
With support from the United States Army, Alaska G-3 (operations directorate), Viggato was able to obtain support from the 6th Engineer Battalion based at Fort Richardson. The battalion provided Soldiers who not only greatly assisted CRTC by constructing and maintaining a combination ice bridge and road throughout test set-up, execution, and recovery operations, but also received invaluable training in the process.
Once the support personnel were able to get across the Delta River, they set up camp at Observation Point (OP) 26, an observation point the Air Force built on top of a downrange ridge. The trip to OP 26 was 32 kilometers over rough terrain and took around about two hours. The building at OP 26 would be the staging area for traveling to the launch and target sites, a place to stay overnight, and would eventually serve as the command and control center during launch.
Throughout the months leading up to testing, support personnel crews traveled across the Delta River to the different test sites and began setting up infrastructure. Crews improved and established winter trails, installed power, put in meteorological stations, trucked equipment to the test sites and flew warm-up shelters into place.
The final test set-up began in January with the arrival of specialized crews from Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Alabama, and Maryland. Crews began working 16-hour days performing a litany of highly technical tasks, which included setting up high-speed video that would capture critical data, setting up the launch system and targets, establishing a highly sophisticated radar tracking system, and installing television screens and computer networking at OP 26. All of this was accomplished without in-ground power; . mobile generators supplied all power. There was a steady stream of traffic on the winter trails between the various test sites throughout the set-up.
Crews completed test set- up in the middle of January and continued to maintain the infrastructure while waiting for the right weather conditions. Ideally, the program was looking to fire the missiles between 20 to 40 below zero, but would fire in warmer temperatures if necessary.
Test personnel had been cold-conditioning the missiles at 25 below zero, with a CRTC- constructed mobile cold chamber for a number of days when the decision was made to fire the first missile.
Twenty-five members of the NLOS-LS team crowded into the tiny command and control at OP 26 and launched the first missile.
A short 110 seconds and 17 kilometers later, the missile impacted and a round of applause could be heard outside the control room. A split-second later the video screens outside showed the impact. This same routine occurred two more times over the next 24 hours, culminating 18 months of planning and preparation.
One of the things that really stood out during the NLOS test for CRTC Commander Lt. Col. John Cavedo, was the flexibility of the workforce to shift gears and redirect work efforts at a moment's notice and the fact that no one on the CRTC team ever said, "it is not my job."
"I watched Soldiers, Department of the Army civilians, and TRAX contractors doing things that were way outside of their job description,." Cavedo said.
Cavedo said this is something that sets CRTC apart from other installations; employees do not have just one area of responsibility.
"They do it because of the inherent sense of mission accomplishment. It is simply amazing what CRTC is capable of doing," he added.
After the firing was complete and the weeks of clean-up were over, Viggato looked back and felt ". . . glad to have had the opportunity to run a test that pushed the limits and expanded the capability of CRTC. The people I have worked with have been incredible and the thanks should go to the entire team," he said. "I am hopeful that CRTC will posture itself for future missions in DTA West as weapons systems develop and ranges and surface danger zones expand."