A missile maintenance facility that opened on White Sands Missile Range Oct. 23 will extend the lifespan of Patriot missiles potentially saving the Army millions of dollars.
The ribbon cutting ceremony to officially open the facility was a deceptively small affair, attended by WSMR leaders as well as members of the range’s Patriot program and representatives from the Raytheon Corporation. The small, simple looking facility housed in one of the bunkers on the range’s Launch Complex 38 features everything a missile technician needs to replace the o-ring, a small but crucial part of a Patriot missile. “It allows us to change out one component: a $20 o-ring; but that o-ring is critical for the flight,” said Cameron Gibson, Raytheon’s site executive for White Sands Missile Range. The missiles fitted with these o-rings are older Patriot Advanced Capability 2 models that have been sitting in storage for quite some time. “These are quite old, these were probably produced in some of the first missile buys back in the 80s,” said Bill Elowitz, the Patriot program lead test officer with the WSMR Materiel Test Directorate. Just like in any other machine, over time the o-rings can dry out, crack, or otherwise decay or become damaged and no longer provide a proper seal.
While the replacement of an o-ring seems like a small thing, in the world of rocket science, o-rings can mean the difference between a functional missile system and a piece of waste that is expensive to dispose of. In the case of a Patriot missile, the o-ring in question is the propulsion arming and firing unit o-ring, which helps keep heat and pressure from the motor away from other components inside the missile. Replacing this o-ring means that the missile can continue to sit on the shelf long enough to be used as a target for testing other air and missile defense systems, like the Patriot Advanced Capability 3 version of the Patriot missile.
By reconfiguring these missiles to fly and act like other types of missiles,they can be used as targets representing weapons like tactical ballistic missiles and used in a test. “We save money two ways by using these missiles as surrogates. The first way is we don’t have to buy new missiles to use as targets, which is a considerable cost. And the other is the government doesn’t have to pay for the disposal of these missiles,” Gibson said. Missiles that exceed their lifespan before being fired have to be removed from the inventory and sent out for proper disposal. This creates significant costs as the price for transporting the missile, disassembly, disposal of hazardous fuel waste, and other functions needed to dispose of the missile adds up fast. Using them as targets however allows them to be destroyed and the remains disposed of using the normal procedures for after test cleanup, an expense that’s already covered by the test program.
The patriot program has been operating on WSMR since the mid-70s supporting the development of the missile system and its progressing models and builds. “We’ve been developing and flying all the various missile types; we’ve been working on huge numbers of tests that involve searching and tracking missions and software improvements, and that continues today,” Elowitz said.