Members of the White Sands Missile Range Naval detachment conducted a live fire system test June 10, successfully engaging a supersonic target in support of enhancing Navy air defense capabilities.
Supporting the Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air program, the test saw a Navy Standard Missile use data from an airborne sensor to shoot down a target representative of an aircraft exceeding the speed of sound. This is the first time the system has been used against a target of this type.
“So far all the testing we have done has been with subsonic targets, so we are increasing our speed to make sure we can engage faster targets,” said Anant Patel, deputy program manager for NIFC-CA under the Navy’s Program Executive Office – Integrated Warfare Systems.
Integrated air defense is a system where different sensors, weapons, and related systems can be networked together allowing for improved performance, better defensive coverage, more economical use of systems, or enhanced capabilities. In the case of the test conducted at WSMR, one of the goals was to use the airborne sensor data to extend the engagement range of a Standard Missile 6, a high-performance surface to air missile fired from the vertical launch system installed on many Navy destroyers and cruisers.
It’s this combination of connectivity and sensor abilities that enables the expansion of the battlespace that is important to the NIFC-CA program in relation to air defense. The SM-6 has extreme range capabilities, far exceeding the range of the ship mounted radar systems typically used to guide them. While the ship mounted radars the US uses are some of the best in the world, they have difficulty spotting targets at extreme ranges where terrain or even the curvature of the earth can block the radio waves the radar uses to detect aircraft. Using forward positioned sensors, and feeding the information generated back to a ship, the range and accuracy of the SM-6 can be vastly improved, allowing the ship to spot and engage airborne targets before they can threaten the ship or other allied units.
“Radars have what’s called a radar horizon limit.” Patel said. “Meaning for a shipboard system they have a distance beyond which they cannot see. So we need an elevated sensor to see over that horizon. Now instead of waiting to see a target when it gets within that horizon limit, we can see it a lot farther out. So we can see the threats earlier, and engage them earlier before they have a chance to threaten the Sailor. So you could say this allow us to worry about the archer, instead of the arrows.”
Previous testing at WSMR integrated systems like the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor, or JLENS for short, into the Navy network. As the NIFC-CA program continues, more sensors and platforms are expected to be added to improve the Navy’s ability to engage threats and leverage resources.
“Any sensor that has the quality of service NIFC-CA needs we can accept the data and send the missile on its way,” Patel said.
While an important test for the Navy, it also represented a significant undertaking by WMSR officials, requiring a test and support team of around 300 people and making use of almost every major asset the range has.
“This is the most challenging NIFC-CA test we’ve executed to date,” said Abie Parra, Desert Ship systems engineer for the WSMR Naval Detachment. “It required so many resources it ended up being a triservice test, utilizing range assets from the Navy, Army, and Air Force.”
Up front the test included the Navy’s Desert Ship, a specially configured launch complex equipped with all the same fire control equipment found on a ship at sea. The Navy maintains only a few of these land locked ships, and the WSMR Desert Ship is the only one currently authorized as a live fire missile launch facility.
“The best thing about White Sands for us is the Desert ship,” said Patel. “We already have the Aegis baseline [fire control system] there, and it’s a representative system. So in order to do the fire control loop, that’s the best place we have. And we also have the range we need to do extended range engagements so we can really demonstrate the SM-6 capability.”
While it may initially seem strange to test Navy systems in the desert, the location provides benefits when conducting testing with a risk reduction requirement, and can make things like post test recovery easier. Additionally, testing at the range means a real warship doesn’t need to be pulled from more important fleet duties just to conduct a test.
“Fleet assets are so critical, we don’t want to turn the ship around or overtax the crew, so that’s why we have facilities like what we have at White Sands,” Patel said.
Army assets were primarily those involving the range itself. One of the most important parts of all tests is the collection of the data needed to evaluate the performance of the system being tested. As a premiere test range specializing in missile and space activities, WSMR is well equipped to support missile flights like the one required for the test, recording flight data, tracking the airborne components with high speed optics and radar, and ensuring the test is conducted safely.
Included in the resources used was an activation of the northern extension area. The extension areas are sections of land outside the missile range where agreements have been reached with various landholders. When the airspace is needed for tests that require extreme ranges, like the NIFC-CA test, the people living and operating businesses in these call up areas, usually ranchers, have an agreement with the range to evacuate the area to ensure it’s safe for testing, returning after the test is complete.
“We’re very pleased with the willingness of the ranchers to work with our ever fluctuating schedules,” Parra said. “Projects like this involve a lot of different people and components coming together, and it’s hard to do something this important without the cooperation and understanding of the extension area residents.”
The Air Force also came into play by providing the supersonic target that could represent a threat of the type the NIFC-CA program needed for the test. Target operations play a big role on both WSMR and nearby Holloman Air force Base in support of various testing missions, and it was that experience and ability to deploy those kind of targets that played a large role in the selection of WSMR as the location for the test.
“White Sands is the only overland range that is currently certified and equipped with the infrastructure to field the supersonic target the NIFC-CA program needed.” Parra said.
NIFC-CA testing is expected to continue on WSMR into 2020, as additional hardware and capabilities are integrated into the system.