COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Two ground-based interceptors launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, March 25, in an anti-ballistic missile test that made history.
The two multistage, solid fuel boosters were each tipped with a state-of-the-art exo-atmospheric kill vehicle. They propelled from silos and punctured the earth's atmosphere at thousands of feet per second, bound for a violent collision in space with a sophisticated ICBM-like target launched from more than 5,000 miles away.
The test, known as Flight Test Ground-based Interceptor 11, or simply FTG-11, concluded within minutes as the two GBIs successfully hit their marks, obliterating them high above earth. FTG-11 was the first-ever salvo test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system and at its core were National Guard Soldiers representing Alaska, California and Colorado.
"This was the most significant flight test in the history of missile defense," said U.S. Army Lt. Col. Michael Strawbridge, 100th Missile Defense Brigade director of operations. "To compare it to something else in human history, I would liken it to space travel or putting a man on the moon. It was that complex."
The test took less than an hour, but it was the culmination of years of work, planning, training and development.
"We were high-fiving each other after we knew the intercept was a success," said U.S. Army Maj. Terri Homestead-Lopez, a Fire Direction Center crew director. "It was exciting to see the system work and see our training pay off."
Homestead-Lopez's crew at the 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely, Alaska, performed the tactical level of the engagement, while the 100th Missile Defense Brigade crew at the Missile Defense Element at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs provided operational overwatch.
"We go through so much training it becomes second nature," said Homestead-Lopez. "When you actually see it in real life, it gives you another level of security and confidence."
While Ground-based Midcourse Defense is the joint effort of many agencies, it is the Soldiers of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade and its subordinate command, the 49th Missile Defense Battalion, who operate the fire control system, dictate the tactics, techniques and procedures, fight the battle and ultimately defend the homeland from ICBM attack.
Strawbridge said the test was as complex as it was realistic. The target was designed to simulate future threat models, complete with a reentry vehicle resembling an enemy warhead and decoys intended to confuse the sensors and system.
"The stage was set by the last test in 2017," said Strawbridge of FTG-15. "Information from that test was used to design this one, but this one was two- to three-fold higher in the amount of complexity and difficulty."
Also new to FTG-11 was the crew preparation.
"In past tests, there have been designated test crews," said Strawbridge. "For this test, we ensured that all certified crews were ready, just like in normal day-to-day operations. We tested the way we would fight."
Crews are notified that there will be a test launch, but they do not know details such as timing of launch and its aim point. They rely on an enterprise of sea-, land- and space-based sensors to determine how and when to engage a threat.
By many accounts, FTG-11 was a triumph of human achievement and engineering. However, not all tests of the GMD system have been successful. Sgt. Hayden Murray, a readiness noncommissioned officer on a 100th Missile Defense Brigade MDE crew, said the test record is misconstrued because critics do not consider the spiral development the system has undergone since its inception.
"It's not a fair comparison to look at tests from 10-15 years ago," said Murray. "The system performed flawlessly on this test and that's what we expected. We do so many intricate and complicated training runs, the test looked like anything else we've seen and we were ready to engage it."
Homestead-Lopez said her excitement during FTG-11 was short lived, and her crew quickly resumed normal operations. She said she loves her job and talking about the mission of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense.
"I don't know that the National Guard gets too many opportunities to perform a 24/7 real-world mission," said Homestead-Lopez. "That is exciting and humbling to know we are here, defending the homeland."