ASSOCIATED PRESS / DEPARTMENT OF DEFENSE
The U.S. military intercepted a ballistic missile yesterday in the first such sea-based test since a Navy cruiser shot down an errant satellite in February. The target was shot down by two interceptor missiles, shown here, launched from the Pearl Harbor-based USS Lake Erie about 100 miles northwest of Kauai about five minutes after it was fired.
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Aboard the USS LAKE ERIE » The same ship that downed a doomed satellite over the Pacific in February has added another target to its hit list.
"I am suffering from post-shot euphoria," said Capt. Ron Boxall, the Lake Erie's skipper. "We plan for the worse but hope for the best, and today we did our best."
In the latest demonstration of the nation's sea-based ballistic missile defense system, the Pearl Harbor-based cruiser intercepted yesterday an incoming dummy missile fired from another ship off Kauai.
"Fireball, fireball," warned the ship's tactical action officer, Lt. Brent Johnson, when the ship's radar picked up the "hostile" launch.
Within minutes two modified SM-2 interceptors rose from their deck housings and arced into the sky. Yesterday's kill marked the 13th by Aegis missile ships in 15 attempts.
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ABOARD THE USS LAKE ERIE » A bright orange fireball obscured the front of the bridge as the crew heard two loud swooshes. Then a thin, white contrail streaked across the azure Pacific sky.
Within minutes the missiles fired from this Pearl Harbor-based cruiser reached their intended target: a "hostile" Scud-type missile launched from another ship off Kauai.
Score another hit for the U.S. sea-based Ballistic Missile Defense System.
There have been 13 missile intercepts by Aegis warships in 15 attempts since 2002.
Counting yesterday's test, the Lake Erie has been able to hit a drone missile 10 out of 12 times.
"I am suffering from post-shot euphoria," the cruiser's skipper, Capt. Ron Boxall, told embarked reporters. "Obviously, we plan for so many contingencies. You can see how conservative we are in our planning because it went off without a hitch. We expect things to go wrong, and when they don't it doesn't seem normal.
GREGG K. KAKESAKO / GKAKESAKO@STARBULLETIN.COM
Lt. Cmdr. Drew Bates, officer of the deck on the USS Lake Erie, used one of the monitors on the warship bridge yesterday to check on missile launchers on the ship's forward portion.
"We plan for the worst but hope for the best, and today we did our best."
For the 567-foot Pearl Harbor-based cruiser, the day began on station about 100 miles northwest of Kauai, where small whitecaps dotted the sea.
The 600-foot decommissioned helicopter carrier Tripoli played the role of a warship from a nation that had refused to enter multinational talks and was threatening hostile action. The Tripoli was stationed 250 miles northwest of the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai.
Aboard the Lake Erie, Lt. Brent Johnson, the tactical action officer, and Boxall sat at the "front table" in the ship's combat information center.
Facing them were four color video plasma screens, each about 4 feet square, which could simultaneously display visual information from the Lake Erie's sophisticated SPY-1 radar system and its weapons systems. Above those monitors were 10 smaller ones that displayed everything from live photos of various parts of the cruiser to updates of its various systems.
Then came the order from 3rd Fleet Headquarters in San Diego:
"Set space warning red, weapons tight."
That indicated a high probability of an incoming ballistic missile.
"Weapons tight" meant that the cruiser was authorized to shoot anything identified as hostile by 3rd Fleet.
At 8:13 a.m., Lake Erie's radar detected a missile launch from the Tripoli.
"Fireball, fireball," Johnson warned.
That order, relayed to 3rd Fleet, was to prepare the crew to launch two 26-foot-long interceptor missiles.
Four minutes later, Johnson gave the order: "Kill birds 2755" -- the designation of the incoming missile.
Boxall flipped the fire inhibit switch, or FIS, on the left side of his console, which began the automatic launch countdown.
In quick succession minutes later, two missiles armed with 137 pounds of high explosives flew out of the cruiser's missile tubes, among 61 launchers in the forward section of the ship and another 61 aft.
It took the first Lake Erie missile 52 seconds to intercept Tripoli's missile in its "terminal phase," that is, the last few seconds of flight.
In February the Lake Erie successfully shot down a U.S. spy satellite in the Aegis system's first real-world mission. The satellite had lost power and become uncontrollable, creating worries it would break up and spread debris as it fell to earth.
Cmdr. Richard Martel, Lake Erie's executive officer, said February's mission was easier than yesterday's shoot.
"We knew exactly what the satellite was going. The crew was very calm and prepared."
Yesterday the only warning crew was given was that the Tripoli, which served as the floating launch platform, would be launching a missile in the morning. It was the second time the Tripoli, decommissioned in 1996, was used as a mobile launch site. It played the same role last year.
Boxall, who took command of the Lake Erie on April 1, said the cruiser will get newer software in October to be able to fire updated, longer-range missiles that can cover 800 miles.
The challenge of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense program is not only to defend against Scuds of the type launched by Iraq against Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. Also a threat are medium-range missiles like North Korea's No Dong missiles, which can travel 400 to 800 miles; intermediate-range missiles that can cover 2,300 miles; and intercontinental missiles, or ICBMs, which can travel 8,000 miles.