REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama -- In early 2020, as COVID-19 spread rapidly across the globe, no cases had yet been reported in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. To protect the islands, the Marshallese government suspended all incoming international travel, Feb. 26, 2020, which affected U.S. personnel coming to work on the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
This decision presented significant challenges for the RTS team of U.S. Army Soldiers, civilians and contractors charged with supporting the Missile Defense Agency’s Flight Test Missile-44, a crucial, time-sensitive and congressionally mandated test designed to evaluate the feasibility of the U.S. Navy’s Standard Missile-3 Block IIA’s capability to defeat an intercontinental ballistic missile threat.
Life on Kwaj Gets Difficult -
Many of the 1,500 U.S. personnel living and working on Kwaj serve a one-year remote tour, which typically ends at the start of each calendar year. Although a significant number of personnel were permitted to return to the U.S. when their tours ended, their replacements were denied entry. This led to a shortage of about 450 personnel at the base, about 30% below normal requirements. It also threatened to delay FTM-44 beyond its 2020 mandate, placing pressure on garrison and USASMDC leadership to figure out how to get staff on the island to conduct the flight test and how to maintain the base’s day-to-day functions.
The Army’s Role -
USAG-KA, a subordinate of the U.S. Army Installation Management Command, and RTS worked closely to prioritize who would come on the island and in what order. However, this only occurred once an agreement was negotiated with the Marshallese government, which was not a guarantee at the time.
“This test had to be completed in 2020, and time was ticking,” said Thomas Webber, director of USASMDC’s Technical Center. “To provide an ICBM-class target in a scenario encompassing the defense of Hawaii in the timetable mandated, Kwajalein was the only appropriate location for the test.”
Webber said the May flight test was rescheduled until November to allow participants time to develop, exercise and implement a rigorous COVID-19 testing and quarantine regimen that would satisfy the Marshallese government’s need to protect the health of its citizens.
The Garrison’s Plan -
The garrison’s quarantine and testing regimen required all personnel to receive a COVID-19 test before departing the continental United States, followed by a quarantine period in Hawaii and a second test before leaving for Kwaj. Upon arrival at Kwaj, personnel were quarantined for an additional 21 days, during which they were not allowed to leave their quarters. To minimize contact, including with other quarantined personnel, all meals and any other essential items were delivered to their rooms.
Once the Marshallese government agreed to this plan, Kwajalein garrison commander Col. Jeremy Bartel initiated a series of open-forum town halls across the atoll to gain the trust and support of the local population.
“My number one priority is to prevent COVID-19 from entering the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” Bartel said during an Ebeye Island Council meeting, June 1. “My second priority is the safety of residents and workers, both U.S. and Marshallese, on USAG-KA and Ebeye.”
Bartel said that while many people acted as liaisons and provided critical advocacy to achieve travel concessions, none would have been possible without the support and involvement of U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Roxanne Cabral, Marshallese Senator Mike Kabua, and the Mayor of Kwajalein Atoll Hirata Kabua.
Bartel said the result of this collaboration was a one-time influx for five of the most critical replacement personnel in June, followed by an agreement for up to 15 personnel per week to come to Kwaj. That number included personnel working for the garrison as well as those associated with RTS and the flight test.
During this process, many Army civilians and U.S. contractors worked long hours due to manning shortages.
“A significant number of our civilians and contractors offered to extend their tours knowing their replacement would not be in place otherwise,” Bartel said. “The local national employees were also critical during this time since island-to-island travel within the Kwajalein Atoll was not affected. We could always count on the Marshallese to keep our basic services operating and the population fed.”
Bartel said that despite IMCOM being responsible for more than 75 garrisons across the globe, it continued to support and advocate for Kwaj.
“The IMCOM leaders and team never lost sight of supporting the needs of our remote Pacific garrison in the midst of the pandemic,” Bartel said.
SMDC Provides Innovative Solutions -
USASMDC created a unique teleworking environment at the command’s RTS Operations Center-Huntsville, located just outside Redstone Arsenal, to minimize the number of personnel they needed to travel to Kwaj, Webber said.
“A number of personnel, including many from the safety contingent that would normally go to the island, performed their mission from ROC-H,” Webber said. “Additionally, some of MDA’s missions normally performed in Colorado were also performed at ROC-H.”
ROC-H was established in 2006 as an RTS Distributed Operation site. An RDO enclave can be established temporarily at any number of CONUS-based locations but ROC-H is the only permanent RDO. The facility allows remote control of many RTS functions through high-speed networks, advanced algorithms and sensor control technology. With a few modifications and COVID-19 safety protocols in place, ROC-H was able to accommodate 34 of the 120 personnel who were originally scheduled to be on Kwaj for the test.
No Extended Warranty on Target Missiles -
Unlike operational missiles that are generally designed for long-term storage and operation, target missiles such as the one launched for FTM-44 were never designed to be on-hold for months at a time.
“These target missiles are constructed in Huntsville, shipped to their launch location, and normally used within a couple of months,” Webber said. “Moving the date of the test from March to November created technical challenges regarding the missile’s internal batteries.”
After several months on Meck Island the internal batteries for FTM-44’s target missile needed to be recharged and tested to remain ready for the new launch date. Since members of MDA’s Targets Team, who would normally perform the procedure, were working at ROC-H for this particular test, they had to develop procedures allowing on-site USASMDC personnel to conduct the maintenance.
“If the RTS team at Kwajalein had not successfully coordinate with the Targets Team in Huntsville in recharging the missile’s lithium-polymer batteries and they fell below a certain charge threshold, there was really nothing that could be done short of shipping the missile back to Huntsville for their complete replacement,” Webber said. “They successfully accomplished this twice, which was a significant event to help keep the target vehicle on the island and in a state where it could perform the mission.”
Challenges Overcome -
Missile Defense Agency Director, Vice Admiral Jon Hill said the test met its primary objective to demonstrate the ability for the SM-3 Block IIA missile to intercept an ICBM target.
“(This) is a step in the process of determining its feasibility as part of an architecture for layered defense of the homeland,” Hill said. “My congratulations to the entire test team, including our military and industry partners, who helped us to achieve this milestone."
Webber said that although COVID-19 complications at Kwaj are still a factor today, the people-powered solutions IMCOM and USASMDC teams developed can be applied to future test flight operations.
“Whether it meant extending tours away from loved ones, working long hours or developing creative solutions to COVID-19’s and FTM-44’s unique challenges, Kwaj garrison and USASMDC personnel ensured the launch would happen,” Webber said. “America’s anti-ICBM shield is now much stronger for their efforts.”