THAAD Throwback: Program Veterans Reflect on First Flight 15 Years Ago

THAAD Throwback: Program Veterans Reflect on First Flight 15 Years Ago
November 19, 2020

In the early morning of Nov. 22, 2005, Lockheed Martin successfully flight tested a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile, paving the way for what would become a critical capability of the United States and allies’ ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems, and today holds a 100 percent mission success test record.

While not an intercept, this particular Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) controlled flight test 15 years ago verified the interceptor’s flight ability and laid the groundwork for what the THAAD Weapon System is today. THAAD provides a unique exo-atmospheric and endo-atmospheric BMD capability, defending against short, medium and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

THAAD Throwback
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Seven Hours of Early-Morning Prep

Douglas Walker, who joined the program in 1993, served then as Fire Control and Communications (TFCC) chief system engineer and is now the TFCC chief engineer. He said he still remembers that day 15 years ago, getting to the range at 12:30 a.m. in the pitch black to prepare for the 7 a.m. flight test.

“It’s been a long haul, but it’s great to see how far we’ve come. As an engineer, it’s been an amazing ride,” Walker said. “When I joined THAAD, it was just paper and concept. We nursed it from paper to the best missile defense system on the planet.”

The system uses proven Hit-to-Kill technology to destroy a threat with direct impact – providing protection from weapons of mass destruction with enhanced reliability and safety.

A U.S Army air defense veteran himself, Walker said his favorite part of working on the THAAD program is continuing to work closely with the warfighter.

“I’m a former warfighter and still support the warfighter. I get joy out of getting great products into the hands of the warfighters who came after me,” Walker said. “With THAAD, we got warfighters involved very early in the game. Even before we fielded the first system, we had a couple years of warfighter involvement. And some of the ones I worked with are now senior leaders in the Army.”

Designing Solutions Across the System

Developing any leading technology for the warfighter brings challenges.

John Snyder, vice president and general manager of Strategic and Missile Defense Systems at Lockheed Martin Space, served as the chief engineer for the entire THAAD system 15 years ago and was responsible for finding solutions to those challenges.

“Targets come in all shapes and sizes. We had to design the system to hit targets in a wide range of systems, sizes, weather and scenes,” Snyder said. “We designed the THAAD system to not be uniquely target specific but to hit a lot of things coming at it in a robust, operational environment. We had some of the greatest minds of the industry working on their part of the problem.”

The Missile Defense Agency manages the THAAD program, the U.S. Army operates the THAAD system, and Lockheed Martin serves as the prime contractor and systems integrator. THAAD is comprised of five major components all working cohesively together: interceptors, launchers, a radar, a fire control unit and support equipment.

“It’s such a choreographed design that everybody had to be able to read each other’s minds and make it work,” Snyder said. “When you get to the actual flight test at White Sands, we’d go through a series of dry runs and dress rehearsals, which would always be a test of the team’s ability to make good judgments under pressure. We had to have the team calibrated to make good, balanced decisions.”

THAAD Throwback
Today, the THAAD Weapon System consists of launchers, interceptors, a radar, a fire control unit and support equipment.

Expanding the Team, Developing Jobs Across The Country

The 2005 successful test proved the interceptor’s flight ability and was followed up in May 2006 with a successful test of the entire THAAD system configuration. And a few months after that in June the THAAD system intercepted a live target.

Months and months of work come down to three minutes, wondering whether the calculations were correct and the equipment would function as planned.

“Still, it all comes together and culminates the work of so many people, creating a major mission success event,” Snyder said. “It’s all very hard and fatiguing, but in retrospect it was one of the best times in my career.”

Walker and Snyder are just a few of the many thousands of people who have worked to develop the program.

More than 1,000 employees across Lockheed Martin currently support the THAAD program at locations in Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Massachusetts and Texas. The program also has a nationwide supply chain and industrial base delivering key components and support, providing an additional 17,000 jobs across the country.

“This team’s commitment to provide THAAD’s critical capability to our warfighters and allies has remained resolute for over two decades,” said Richard McDaniel, Vice President of Upper Tier Integrated Air and Missile Defense at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “The results from this commitment speak for themselves: 100% mission flight test success, seven USG Batteries activated and deployed worldwide, over 500 interceptor deliveries to date and the recent addition of the seven Battery KSA procurement, and the list goes on.”

Evolving THAAD With the Needs of the Warfighter

The system also continues to evolve.

On Oct. 1, 2020, THAAD passed another step of many in integrating capabilities with the PAC-3 Missile Segment Enhancement (MSE) interceptor during a flight test at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. A PAC-3 MSE used data obtained from the THAAD system to successfully intercept a tactical ballistic missile target at a range not possible with an organic Patriot radar.

Future flight tests are planned to demonstrate the integration of the PAC-3 MSE missile/launcher into a THAAD battery where the fire control loop will be closed organically within the THAAD system.

“THAAD is a true game changer wherever the warfighter puts it, giving the warfighter a tactical edge,” Walker said. “Everybody wants it because they know they’ll have TBM (Tactical Ballistic Missile) protection that is unparalleled in the universe. And we’re all proud that we contribute to it.”