The recent situation in Northeast Asia has been extensively covered by Defense Media Network. Over the past several weeks, international attention has been focused on North Korea’s increasingly belligerent rhetoric and especially on her ballistic missile capability. What was prominent in this mainstream media reporting was that United States response to this threatening behavior on the part of North Korea was to ensure that U.S. Navy Aegis BMD ships were at sea and ready to respond.
But, as reported here and elsewhere, it has been more than just belligerent rhetoric on the part of the North Koreans. The “Hermit Kingdom,” has also taken purposeful actions to threaten its neighbors as well as the United States. While North Korea has a wide array of military capabilities, it is her ballistic missiles that have dominated the news reporting. There are good reasons for this concern, as North Korean ballistic missiles armed with WMD could represent an existential threat to its neighbors and eventually to the United States should North Korea’s ballistic missile technology continue to advance.
The United States Response to the Threat
For most Americans, the presence of U.S. Navy Aegis destroyers in the region was just a symbolic manifestation of U.S. support for its treaty ally, South Korea, as well as other allies and friends in the region. But there is vastly more than meets the eye in this case.
These Aegis destroyers are armed with ballistic missile defense capability. Aegis BMD has been the subject of several posts over the past several months, so I won’t spend a lot of time talking about this capability in detail in this post. What I will deep-dive into is the reason for this strategic deployment of these Aegis BMD ships as the leading-edge of the United States’ response to the threat of North Korean ballistic missiles armed with WMD. The reason can be summarized in three words: Operation Burnt Frost.
Operation Burnt Frost
The presence of Aegis BMD ships in the waters near North Korea is one thing. It is fair to ask, and many have, has all this development and testing of the Aegis BMD system led anywhere, in other words, has the Standard Missile yet been put to the test and used in a challenging operational scenario. The answer is yes. Operation Burnt Frost.
One event, five years ago, generated the confidence that Aegis BMD was mature and technically capable enough to take on critical missions and could, if necessary, intercept and shoot down ballistic missiles armed with WMD such as the ones North Korea is threatening to use against its neighbors. It was called Operation Burnt Frost, and most people know little about it or how it has given the Navy and the nation high confidence in the capabilities of the Aegis BMD systems.
In late 2007, an inactive 5,000-pound U.S. reconnaissance satellite with hazardous fuel compounds on board was predicted to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere soon, posing risk of injury, death or property destruction. The President directed the U.S. Strategic Command to develop a course of action – code name Operation Burnt Frost – to destroy the satellite at an altitude where it would pose no hazards to population centers and other satellites in earth orbit but without generating hazardous space debris.
To carry out Operation Burnt Frost, the United States had to go where no Aegis – or any other navy’s – warship had gone before. The technical and operational challenges posed by the decision to destroy this satellite were significant. The school bus-size satellite was to be engaged higher and at a faster speed than any target engaged during years of testing the national BMDS and Aegis BMD systems, and the satellite’s hydrazine tank – the target’s aim point – was only a fraction of the overall mass of the satellite.
Given the higher closing velocities due to the satellite’s speed of greater than 17,000 miles per hour, a successful intercept would require longer radar and missile-seeker ranges, extended missile flight time and greater guidance accuracy. The Navy’s BMD warships were the assets of choice – the only assets capable of destroying the satellite reliably and efficiently.
Three Aegis warships – the Lake Erie (CG 70), Russell (DDG 59) and Decatur (DDG 73) – were tasked to participate in the satellite shoot down, with Lake Erie designated as the principal firing ship. Following extensive materiel, electronic and training preparations (including critical, one-time modifications to the SM-3 missiles), on Feb. 20, 2008, Lake Erie launched a single SM-3 missile, which intercepted the satellite at an altitude higher than 150 miles and a closing speed greater than 22,000 miles per hour.
The results were spectacular – with the errant satellite’s fuel tank detonating in a brilliant flash. The Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., confirmed the breakup of the satellite and that the hydrazine was completely neutralized, leading the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. James Cartwright, to note; “This was uncharted territory. The technical challenge was significant. You want to reach out to all of the sailors on the ship, the technicians and the software programmers, grab them by the hand and thank them for what they did.”
Future Possibilities for Aegis BMD
In the wake of Operation Burnt Frost, some have suggested that that the current missile, combined with forward sensors and an engage-on-remote capability, could in some scenarios serve as a reliable back-up to GMD in defending the U.S. homeland. Analyzing the performance of a modified SM-3 used to shoot down an errant satellite re-entering earth’s atmosphere during Operation Burnt Frost in 2008, in a Heritage Foundation report entitled “Improving Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Command and Control,” Vice Adm. J. D. Williams, USN (Ret.), former Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Naval Warfare observed:
“Although the SM-3 Blk IA was not designed to shoot down ICBMs, the margins are sufficient to perform that mission as demonstrated in the satellite shoot-down in 2008. The satellite was traveling at 7.8 km per second, which is a little faster than a North Korean ICBM. The SM-3 is slower than the Ground Based Interceptor [part of GMD], but it is still fast enough to intercept ICBMs when shooting on a track with data delivered from forward-based radars.”
The importance of Operation Burnt Frost is difficult to overstate. The shoot down of the U.S. reconnaissance satellite was a “wicked-hard” problem and Aegis BMD achieved what can only be described as spectacular success. In our next posts we will look more in-depth at the Aegis BMD sea-based elements – the heart of the system.