by Rebecca Amber
412th Test Wing Public Affairs
12/7/2015 - EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Over
the summer, the Air Force Test Center sent a C-17 with air and
maintenance crews from Edwards to Hawaii, but it was no vacation. The
crews worked 24-hour shifts for several months to support a Missile
Defense Agency test of the Ballistic Missile Defense System over the
western Pacific Ocean.
Edward's role in the test was to launch a ballistic missile target at a
precise time and location for the defense shields to track and
terminate. The 412th Maintenance Group personnel spent the months
leading up to the test keeping the missile under "strict environmental
conditions on the back of the aircraft."
"High altitude, heavy weight airdrop is something we're doing a lot of
here at Edwards, supporting not only MDA, but NASA with the Orion
capsule drops that we've been doing out at Yuma," said Capt. Stephen
Koether, 418th Flight Test Squadron, C-17 experimental test pilot.
"Dropping something that heavy at that high of an altitude is not
trivial, and the test center, specifically, is getting very good at
those unique missions."
The airdrop supported MDA's Ballistic Missile Defense System designed to
negate ballistic missile threats. This was an operational test of the
THAAD weapon system located on Wake Island and the Aegis Ballistic
Missile Defense from the Navy's USS John Paul Jones guided missile
After three months of preparation and multiple delays, the test,
designated "Flight Test Operational-02 Event 2a," was successfully
executed Oct. 31.
Southeast of Wake Island, a C-17 supplied by Air Mobility Command
launched a Short Range Air Launch Target over the Pacific Ocean that was
detected and intercepted by the THAAD weapon system from Wake Island.
As the AMC C-17 turned towards home, the AFTC C-17 manned by an Edwards
crew launched a second target, an extended Medium Range Ballistic
Missile into the debris field created by the THAAD weapon system,which
intercepted and destroyed the SRALT. One important aspect of the test
event was to demonstrate that Aegis BMD was able to detect a target
inside of a debris field.
Aegis BMD detected and tracked the eMRBM with its radar from the USS
John Paul Jones while simultaneously engaging a BQM-74E air-breathing
target with a Standard Missile-2 Block IIIA guided missile.
The USS John Paul Jones successfully launched a Standard Missile-3 Block
IB Threat Upgrade guided missile, but an anomaly early in its flight
prevented a mid-course intercept. The THAAD weapon system, which had
also been tracking the eMRBM in a terminal defense role, acquired and
successfully intercepted the target.
According to Capt. Patrick Ris, a 4C-17 experimental test pilot with the
418 FLTS, the eMRBM was launched according to plan exactly 4 minutes
and 19 seconds after the SRALT. While Koether and Ris were flying the
aircraft, there was a team of highly specialized engineers ensuring the
rocket was ready to launch in the back of the aircraft conducting a
countdown "similar to what you would hear on the news for a space
"A test this complex, with multiple dynamic players, made the final
moments of the countdown very intense for all parties involved," said
Koether added, "We're really max-performing the airplane to make sure we
drop the missile at a specific location, at a specific time, at a
specific altitude. That was what we were tasked to do and we did that
In addition to the precise timing, the high-altitude drop was done from
just below 25,000 feet, requiring the crew to breathe 100% oxygen for
the duration of the inflight build-up to the drop itself. The eMRBM was
extracted from the AFTC C-17 using an experimental carriage extraction
system to pull it out of the aircraft. The non-standard rigging is used
to mitigate the issues associated with high altitude airdrop and launch
the missile in the safest, most efficient way possible. The missile went
up into space and came back down.
Koether added that due to the highly complex nature of the test,
coordination was at times challenging. There were personnel from the
MDA, Air Force, Navy, Army and contractors all working at different
locations across the Pacific Ocean.
Each C-17 was paired with a P-3 Orion chase plane for photo support and a
KC-135 for aerial refueling. Below them, a ship known as Pacific
Collector acted as a telemetry and range safety representative. The
Pacific Collector monitored the health of the missile throughout the
launch until its termination.
According to Ris there were also two control rooms in other parts of the world monitoring the test.
"It was a long test and I think the Edwards crews and the maintenance
crews with their planes were very professional the entire time," said
Koether. "[Large & heavy, high-altitude airdrops are] never an easy
thing, and every drop presents challenges. I think we have the expertise
here at Edwards and at the Test Center to overcome those challenges and
bring success to the mission both for us and the Missile Defense
The MDA will use test results to improve and enhance Aegis Ballistic
Missile Defense, which is the naval component of the Missile Defense
Agency's Ballistic Missile Defense System.