IN THE MILITARY
U.S. NAVY PHOTO
An SM-3 interceptor, above, was launched from the USS Lake Erie during a flight test earlier this month.
A Pearl Harbor cruiser makes history in a test of a sea-based ballistic missile defense system
AT 8:16 A.M. on Nov. 10, Petty Officer Joseph Turner, sitting at his console in the darkened combat information center of the Pearl Harbor-based USS Lake Erie, detected the launch of a possible hostile ballistic missile on the ship's SPY-1B radar.
Within two minutes, the highly trained crew led that day by Lt. j.g. Hillary Mitchell identified and tracked the target as a two-stage ballistic missile, computed a firing solution and launched a surface-to-air missile called an SM-3.
Two minutes later, the warhead of the multi-stage missile had been shot down, the first time a missile from a Navy ship had knocked out a multi-stage rocket in space.
Capt. Joseph Horn, skipper of the 567-foot Aegis Ticonderoga-class cruiser, said the intercept is considered a major accomplishment because medium- and long-range ballistic missiles have at least two stages and it is difficult to distinguish between the warhead and the body of the missile after they separate.
U.S. NAVY PHOTO
Minutes later, the SM-3 collided with and destroyed a missile target which was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai.
Horn, who has commanded the 370-member cruiser since June 2004, described the mission as "hitting a bullet with a bullet in outer space."
Until Nov. 10, all previous Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense flight tests were against short-range, unitary or non-separating targets in both descent and ascent phases of flight.
Horn said the training scenario called for the Lake Erie and the USS Hopper to patrol "an assigned ballistic missile defense station" off "country red" (the island of Kauai) threatening a fictitious U.S. ally -- country green.
The job of the Lake Erie was "to search, detect and track any ballistic missile originating from country red. If that ballistic missile was going to impact country green, we were told to engage that missile."
Since 2002, the Lake Erie has been involved in all of the sea-based missile defense tests. The cruiser is equipped with 120 launch tubes and carries missiles ranging from Standard surface-to-air missiles to Tomahawk cruise missiles and anti-submarine rockets.
On Feb. 24, the Lake Erie, which can be armed with up to nine SM-3 missiles, tracked and smashed a one-stage Scud-type missile in less than five minutes. It was the Navy's fifth successful intercept in six attempts.
HORN SAID one of the major differences between the February intercept and this month's is that "the separating target flies higher and faster.
"The radar must discern multiple objects in space," Horn said, "and map those objects ... and of those objects it must determine which one is the lethal one -- which is the one we are trying to kill, because we are not trying to kill them all...
"The missile then ... it must take that radar information, turn it into optical information and look for the lethal object."
He added that the warhead hit this month is "at least 25 percent smaller" than the one-stage missile that was intercepted in February.
The sea-based ballistic missile defense system is built around the Navy's Aegis computer-based weapons system. The heart of the system is an automatic detect and track, multi-functional radar (the AN-SPY-1B). The four megawatt radar is able to simultaneously perform search, track and missile guidance functions involving more than 100 objects.
The SM-3 missile is designed to impact with a relative velocity of roughly 10,000 feet per second (6,818 mph) at an altitude greater than 94 miles, the Navy has said. The energy released when the missile hits its target is calculated to be in excess of 124 megajoules -- the equivalent to the force released when a 10-ton truck traveling at 600 mph hits a wall.
There are at least three more sea-based tests next year. In Alaska, the military's ground-based missile defense has successfully intercepted separating targets in five out of eight attempts.
Horn said the Lake Erie will test more modifications to the missile made by the Japanese and U.S. weapons evaluators this spring. Since 1999, Japan and the United States have worked together on a research program to launch interceptors from destroyers.
In June the Lake Erie will assist another Navy warship that will be testing changes to the weapon's system computer program.
Horn said although the Lake Erie is heavily involved in the Navy's ballistic missile test program, the cruiser also must maintain its other primary anti-submarine warfare and anti-air warfare missions as does any other ship in the Navy. The Lake Erie has spent time in the Sea of Japan, which separates North Korea from Japan, conducting ballistic missile defense exercises, Horn said.
By 2009, 18 ships, including the Lake Erie and Pearl Harbor-based cruiser Port Royal, and 15 Aegis destroyers, will be equipped with SM-3 missiles.
GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
The Pearl Harbor-based cruiser USS Lake Erie made history early this month when its crew successfully tracked, engaged and destroyed a multi-stage ballistic missile.
Bath Iron Works
About $1 billion each.
4 General Electric gas turbine engines; 2 shafts, 80,000 shaft horsepower total.
9,600 tons full load.
37 officers, 333 enlisted.
120 missile launchers capable of firing Standard surface-to-air missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles; six MK-46 torpedoes; two MK-45 5-inch/54 caliber lightweight guns; and two Phalanx close-in weapons systems.
Two SH-60 Sea Hawk helicopters.
Source: U.S. Navy