U.S. Department of Defense - Missile Defense Agency

U.S. Department of Defense - Missile Defense Agency

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Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense

One-Time Mission: Operation Burnt Frost

In 2008, President Bush ordered the destruction of a non-functioning satellite, tasking the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM) with executing the mission of safeguarding human life against the uncontrolled reentry of a 5,000 pound satellite containing over 1,000 pounds of hazardous hydrazine propellant. Following intensive, round-the-clock studies of all possible alternatives, the U.S. Navy and the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program Office were tapped as the best possible option with the greatest chance of success. This choice was made largely because Aegis BMD had successfully shot down ballistic missiles in 13 out of 15 attempts.

Working within a compressed timeline, changes to the Aegis system had to be validated and installed, the ships crews trained, three standard missiles modified and then delivered to the ships early enough to allow for the ships to manuever to the best intercept positions. Americas technical capacity leapt into action as Aegis BMD, other MDA components, the Navy, the Space and Missile Defense Command, other services and agencies, and the experts at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab (JHU/APL) worked together on the way ahead. Meanwhile, the Aegis Training and Readiness Center (ATRC) at Naval Service Warfare Center (NSWC) Dahlgren devised a new training curriculum to help prepare the ships for their historic efforts and dispatched Tiger Teams to train the crews on-site and at-sea.

The USS Lake Erie and USS Decatur sailed several days before the intended engagement, with USS Russell remaining in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii as a coordinating unit and as the emergency substitute should either of the first two ships sustain an equipment failure. USS Lake Erie, the U.S. Navys most experienced ballistic missile killer, was chosen as the primary launch ship, with USS Decatur as backup. Both ships sailed towards their rendezvous point, several hundred miles northwest of Hawaii, constantly training for and rehearsing the mission.

On February 20, 2008, all Aegis systems were Go. After consulting with the White House, Secretary of Defense Gates approved the mission at about 1:00pm EST. At 10:26pm EST, USS Lake Erie launched a single Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) against the satellite that she had directly or indirectly tracked over the preceding days.

Images of the intercept.

A few minutes later, a collision between the satellite and the SM-3s kinetic warhead was detected by numerous sensors and radars. The expanding hydrazine vapor cloud was easily seen in the videos released the next morning. Many commands confirmed the intercept, with the Joint Space Operations Command at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California providing conclusive data. Their analysis showed that the hydrazine was successfully and completely neutralized. As a result, nearly 100 percent of the debris safely burned-up during reentry within 48 hours the remainder would safely re-enter within the next few days, capping a brilliantly successful mission with a satisfyingly quiet finale.

This one-time Aegis BMD mission to destroy a non-working and dangerous satellite had been successfully accomplished under a punishing timeline and in extraordinarily novel fashion. It had also been completed flawlessly, with a calm sense of being a routine operation. This highlighted the simple fact that Aegis BMD was at sea, on station and ready for call for fire.