By Sharon Watkins Lang (SMDC/ARSTRAT Command Historian)March 15, 2018
Given the similarity in the acronyms, there is often confusion between ABMA, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency, and ABMDA, the Army Advanced Ballistic Missile Defense Agency.
ABMA was established on Redstone Arsenal, Alabama, in 1956 under the Chief of Ordnance. Headed by Maj. Gen. John B. Medaris and Dr. Wernher von Braun, its mission was the development of intermediate range ballistic missiles, such as the Redstone and Jupiter, systems that would propel the American space program forward. In 1960, most of the ABMA personnel and facilities transferred to the newly created NASA Marshall Space Flight Center.
ABMDA was established eight years later by the adjutant general as a class II activity in a March 4, 1968, memorandum to the Chief of Research and Development, with an effective date of March 15. Based in Washington, the ABMDA would report to the Chief of Research and Development. Its mission was to provide the technical direction and management of the Army advanced ballistic missile defense program. The ABMDA was formed initially with the transfer of Project Defender from the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, and the Nike-X Advanced Development Program from the Nike-X Project Office.
In the same memorandum that established the organization, the Chief of Research and Development was directed to consult with the recently established Sentinel System Manager to resolve any questions about overlap in missions or conflict of responsibilities. These negotiations would lead in August 1968 to the creation of a new Nike-X Development Office, a field agency of the ABMDA.
Co-located with the Sentinel Systems Command in Huntsville, this component of the ABMDA was designed to address Sentinel issues. As directed by the Secretary of Defense, the Sentinel System Manager was limited to the development of programs that would support the approved deployment against a threat posed by the People's Republic of China.
The Nike-X Development Office then was to ensure that the Sentinel Ballistic Missile Defense System could adapt to evolving Chinese threats. Their program was not confined to one specific area but was designed to address eight distinct disciplines: reentry discrimination, advanced radar technology, advanced interceptor missile technology, nuclear kill mechanisms, advanced data processing technology, optical technology for discrimination, advanced defensive systems concepts, and space defense technology.
In addition ABMDA provided technical direction and control for those portions of ARPA's Project Defender that were transitioned to the Army. Specifically the correspondence of the time identified four missions for ABMDA: (a) The conduct of necessary research and development to ensure that Sentinel retained its effectiveness against an evolving People's Republic of China threat; (b) To research qualitative improvements in ballistic missile defense to counter more massive sophisticated threats; (c) to conduct research and development on hardsite defense systems; (d) To assist in the development and evaluation of strategic offensive systems.
Within a year, the ABMDA, under the direction of Dr. J.B. Gilstein, was fully operational with a list of specific goals. As included in their first annual report the organizational goals were: Demonstrate real-time discrimination; Handle high traffic rate threats; Beat radar blackout; Reduce costs of radars and computers; Shorten lead times of new hardware from concept to initial operating capability; Extend the operational lifetimes of deployed systems; Devise and evaluate new defense concepts; Demonstrate interceptors that use smaller yield or non-nuclear warheads; and provide general ballistic missile defense technology upgrading. In many respects these goals set the foundation for the future of missile defense and represent key elements for the research and development programs of the 1970s.
The ABMDA remained in operation for six years. In 1974, the Office of the Chief of Research and Development and Acquisition discontinued ABMDA as all missile defense programs were consolidated under the Ballistic Missile Defense Program Manager. Much of what is ABMDA would become the Ballistic Missile Defense Advanced Technology Center or the Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command, both of which are precursors to the current U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command.