FORT SILL, Okla. (Oct. 26, 2017) — Big booms are part of the auditory landscape in and around Fort Sill, ranging from artillery fire, hand grenades, and Multiple Launch Rocket Systems (MLRS). But, Soldiers training on the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system here rarely get to practice firing the real thing.
Instead, each firing of the THAAD interceptor is a carefully planned and measured test of its ability to destroy missiles within or outside of the earth’s atmosphere. To date, just over a dozen such tests have been conducted far from Fort Sill, with a 100 percent success rate, according to a briefing given by Chief Warrant Officer 3 Jennifer Burns, chief of the THAAD instruction division at the Air Defense Artillery schoolhouse.
“A lot of those flight tests drive our software changes,” said Burns. “We get a new technical manual about every six months.”
The Patriot missile defense system also provided “lessons learned” when developing the THAAD, said Burns. “Patriot is a little more flexible when it comes to the types of threats they engage. THAAD is built and designed for tactical ballistic missiles. We are purely missile defense. We are not an offensive capability.”
The interceptor missile doesn’t even have a warhead. It relies on “kinetic energy” to destroy an incoming missile. In other words, the physics of slamming into a THAAD interceptor will shatter a missile moving faster than the speed of sound, and it will do so long before it reaches its target.
Fort Sill is the only training facility for THAAD operators, and since the schoolhouse opened in early 2015, approximately 500 Soldiers have been trained in one of the six programs of instruction. There is no separate military occupational specialty (MOS) for THAAD. Instead, it is a separate “skill identifier” for the Patriot MOS series.
Once the domain of civilian contractors, THAAD training is now done by Soldiers as well.
Innovative “clamshell” simulators that open up to show students how to operate equipment, and digital training devices are unique to the schoolhouse. “A lot of the things are special just to this building, things that have not been fielded anywhere else in the world,” said Burns.
The schoolhouse is where it starts, she said. “That’s the foundation of that knowledge.”
ELITE OF THE ELITE
“Air defense is a tiny percentage of the armed forces,” said Burns, “and THAAD is an even smaller percentage.” Because it is the newest missile defense system, and the most advanced, Patriot operators in the top 10 percent of their advanced individual training (AIT) class can train on THAAD. Thus, it is sometimes referred to as the “elite of the elite.”
“We think highly of ourselves,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jeffrey Parker, one of the elite trained instructors for the launcher system. “Some people say it’s cocky, but a lot of us worked our butts off to get here. We hold ourselves to a higher standard. We’re very confident in the system.”
In addition to large bonuses paid to THAAD Soldiers, their skills will translate into good-paying civilian jobs, particularly as contractors, said Parker.
He also said that air defenders may at some point need to cross-train on the various systems so they are able to deploy Avengers, Stingers, Patriots and other systems to protect America and its allies.
There are five THAAD batteries operational, with two new ones at Fort Hood, Texas. In addition to D Battery, 2nd Air Defense Artillery stationed in South Korea under the 35th ADA Brigade, and E Battery, 3rd ADA based in Guam, three batteries are out of Fort Bliss, Texas. It takes nearly 100 Soldiers to staff a THAAD battery.
Burns said that THAAD “shows the will and determination of the United States to not only protect ourselves, but to protect our allies, protect deployed forces all over the world. We’re prepped and ready to go wherever duty calls to defend our assets and our allies.”
HOW IT WORKS
THAAD is designed to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and is being tested for intermediate-range missile interceptions. It is part of a layered missile defense that also consists of the Aegis and Patriot defenses. Each system targets different portions of an enemy missile’s trajectory, or even different threats, and a networked intelligence and communication system can make sure one or more of these systems will be fired when needed.
“We’ve got communications networks integrated all over the world through many different types of hardware/software,” said Burns. “It’s joint data-sharing.” She also said there’s always an eye on the sky to detect threats.
“THAAD takes care of the battle space above what Patriot can take care of. Together we have a blanket of protection wherever we are deployed.”
Eight interceptors fit into one pallet on the launcher, and a THAAD battery can have six launchers. The array of supporting vehicles for a launcher makes the system far less mobile than, say, an MLRS unit, which can set up for a raid, quickly launch, then move out before the enemy can target it.
“It takes hours or days to set up a THAAD site,” said Burns. “It’s no secret where THAAD is. We don’t go anywhere fast, and we don’t go anywhere unnoticed.”
One THAAD system consists of launcher with eight interceptors (each one of which costs millions of dollars), the AN/TPY-2 dual mode radar which searches for and detects threats and guides the interceptor should it be fired, a THAAD fire control and communications (TFCC) platoon, Humvee support trucks with fiber optic cables, a Prime Power Unit generator vehicle producing 4,160 volts, an electronic equipment unit for data processing equipment, and a cooling vehicle to maintain operational temperature for the radar and also distribute power.
The radar has greater fidelity than most other systems in identifying an object, particularly a warhead, which can be difficult to pick out of a debris field of missile components or decoys. It also has a dual purpose as a surveillance instrument.
The precision and complexity of the tiered missile defense system also acts as a deterrent.
“With that defensive capability comes what we call a show of force,” said Burns. “Our THAAD batteries which are forward deployed are there to show unity with our allies, and shows that we are willing to defend our assets.”
Intel and planning helps locate and detect threats. “We will acquire, track and discriminate a target that comes through our layer of defense,” said Burns. “From there, in fire control we’ll decide if that incoming ballistic missile is a threat. If it is, we will commit on engagement. At that point, the directions will be sent to the radar, the launcher and the interceptor as to where that interceptor needs to go. The radar acquires the interceptor once it’s launched so it can give it guidance. It will fly, and along that ballistic trajectory at some point will be that intercept. If all goes well, the target will have been engaged.”
Burns said, “It’s how we allow everybody in the country and around the world to sleep at night, because we’re always watching. We always have eyes in the sky. The sensors are there. We’re always there. We’re ready to go.”