An unusual test of a cruise missile system on White Sands Missile Range is expected to see the missile’s continued use for years to come.
The Survivability, Vulnerability Test Directorate at WSMR conducts regular testing of many different systems and programs at its electromagnetic pulse facility. Designed to simulate the electromagnetic pulse emitted by a nuclear detonation, the facility was built to test various ground systems, like tanks, air defense systems, and large networked command posts and sensors. For a test in early December, the facility had an unusual test item – an Air Force AGM-86 Cruise Missile.
Hanging from a special frame, the test required the missile, which was not equipped with a warhead, to undergo bombardment from the EMP system, to ensure that it could withstand the effects of an EMP while in flight.
“This is EMP testing, probably about as exciting as it gets!” said Kurt Knox, a test engineer with SVAD.
EMP is a burst of electromagnetic energy that is released by a nuclear weapon upon detonation. Extending out for a great distance, the pulse can cause metallic items, especially things like wires and antenna to generate an electric charge. While most electrical devices are equipped with some basic surge protection, this protection is usually designed to protect against a surge coming from the devices power supply or plug. An EMP can cause a surge to enter a device through any number of other routes, and can cause a device to burn out if it’s not properly protected.
“If for some odd reason we have to launch these, and the enemy decides to set off a nuke, even if the missile was outside of the blast range, but not the EMP range the EMP could destroy the onboard systems if they weren’t built to withstand it, and then we’d just have this flying lawn dart out there that won’t be able to inflict any damage,” said Capt. Kristofer Dahl, a cruise missile test engineer with the Air Force Nuclear Weapons Center Missile Sustainment Division.
In the case of the AGM-86, an air launched cruise missile that has been in service since the 80s, protection against EMP is a key function, as the missile was designed to carry nuclear warheads.
“When we’re talking about the Triad, this is the bomber piece of that puzzle. These get loaded on the B-52,” Dahl said.
While the missile has been in service for decades, its ability to be fired from a distance and fly unaided to a target has made it an important weapon in the US arsenal as it can be carried by the venerable B-52 strategic bomber, should the need ever arise. To date the AGM-86 has never been deployed with a nuclear warhead in any conflict, instead seeing service primarily as a deterrent, discouraging the use of such weapons by other nations.
To keep these missiles in service the Air Force requires regular testing to be done to ensure the systems can still perform the intended mission even in today’s ever changing battlefield environment. One such test requirement is that of EMP.
“The reason we’re doing this is there’s an Air Force Instruction, 10-2607, which is the Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear requirement, and it states that every five years we need to assess the vulnerability of legacy Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear systems, and this time we decided to test it against nuclear threats,” Dahl said.
Normal tests at the EMP facility are for ground based systems, so to adapt to the Air Force’s requirements, the missile was hung from a frame facing up in the air. This allowed the EMP to strike the missile in the same way as if it were flying and a nearby nuclear explosion took place, impacting the front of the missile, and minimizing ground bounce reflection.
“That’s just to ensure that the missile will think its flying. When you have a high altitude EMP there’s some ground bounce, and that changes the delivery of the EMP, so if you get it off the ground that makes it operationally relevant, and makes it like what it might see in theater,” Knox said.
While the results won’t be finalized until the collected test data has been fully analyzed, the test went well, with all the necessary data collected ahead of schedule, and the systems performing as expected.
“There’s nothing significant to report, and that’s great, we haven’t seen any disruption in our telemetry,” Dahl said.
The test was a fairly large cooperative effort, requiring not only Air Force representatives, but also Boeing, who builds the missile and Sandia National Laboratories to support the test.
“Things have been going very well, we’ve been in the planning stages for about 2-3 years and now it’s all come together. We’ve got several agencies out here, we’ve got WSMR out here, Boeing, Sandia National Laboratories and they’ve just all come together and we’re about a week ahead of schedule,” Dahl said. “I couldn’t ask for a better group out here.”
There are only a handful of facilities like the EMP facility at WSMR with few configured with the appropriate instrumentation and supported by an experienced staff. A great feature of conducting testing of this type at WSMR is that the testing process can be as comprehensive as needed.
“The biggest attraction here is what we call the directed energy campus. You can come and you can get EMP testing done, high powered microwave, and lightening testing. Those three tests use the same instrumentation for data acquisition, so you can get set up for one test, and then you don’t have to reset, and it’s not far to move, so you can just follow on with the other testing,” Knox said.
WSMR already has plans to install a second EMP generator, allowing the test of systems like the AGM-68 without the need to hang it up on end. This vertical configured EMP facility already has space cleared, and construction is expected to be in the coming year.