Few air defenders have ever seen both sides of an intercontinental ballistic missile intercept.
Army Lt. Col. Tim Biart was for eight years an ICBM missileer manning the stations that are a turnkey away from a nuclear missile launch. Now, he’s part of the National Guard’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, at the ready to launch interceptors against a rogue nation that might attack the United States.
So when North Korea recently unveiled a new ICBM with the capability of reaching the U.S., he didn’t blink.
“That threat doesn’t really necessarily scare me because I’ve seen what our ICBMs can do,” Biart told the Washington Examiner at a recent interview on a secure, off-base location in Colorado Springs.
“Our capability, having done [Ground-Based Midcourse Defense], is very, very good,” he said. “I got to see it with my own eyes, an actual intercept, and I am extremely confident in our ability to defend against that capability that they are claiming that they have.”
Biart was the deputy crew director for the on-duty operational crew at Schriever March 25, 2019. That’s when the U.S. launched an unarmed ICBM from the Marshall Islands to test its missile defense capabilities in California and Alaska.
“It was tense just because, you know, we’re really putting missiles in the air. But it was very controlled,” he said.
The test launch was not scheduled. So, when Biart’s team detected a launch, he turned to an engineer on the testing site to make sure it wasn’t a real nuclear attack.
“It looked very similar to what we see in our training,” he said. “What we saw real world was almost representative directly of what we see in training every day that we do.”
Once he confirmed it was the first American salvo missile test, the fun got started.
The commander of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, Army National Guard Col. Michael Hatfield, explained to the Washington Examiner what happened next.
“As the threat comes in, we’ve launched two interceptors to take it out,” explained Hatfield, who was part of the year-and-a-half of preparation that went into the test.
“It’s the first time we’ve ever done that,” he said. “But it was to prove the capability.”
Exactly as designed, the first interceptor took out the reentry vehicle, the threat, and the second interceptor evaluated the other objects and destroyed the next most dangerous piece.
“Exactly how we’ve always programmed, the way we’ve always trained,” he said.
During the less than 30 minutes that transpired between the ICBM launch and missile interceptors making contact, Biart was studying screens with radar and video of the events.
“We got to sit down and actually got to see the engineering side of it, too, and see what the kill vehicle was seeing and watch the intercept [in] real time, which was pretty amazing to watch,” he said.
All the while, his on-duty team was monitoring the skies with radars globally placed on land, sea, and space to make sure no rogue nation launched an actual ICBM attack against the U.S.
‘A fuzzy picture’
When Kim Jong Un rolled out his enormous new ICBM on Oct. 10, the threat was not dismissed by the 500 National Guard and U.S. Army soldiers responsible for protecting 300 million people in America from a nuclear attack.
“I see a large missile that probably has the capability of ranging us,” Biart said of his first reaction to images from the Pyongyang military parade. “Probably, [it] has the capability to hold a significant munition.”
But with only 44 intercepts available and North Korea capable of mounting multiple warheads on each ICBM, some of which might be decoys, protecting the nation gets a lot more complicated.
“The way our interceptors work is we can shoot early, and then, we send communication updates as we get a refined sight picture,” explained Hatfield.
Biart continued: “We can kind of get a fuzzy picture, and it gets clearer, depending on the radar capability.”
After a launch is detected, a threat is then picked up by giant radars such as Thule in Greenland, Flyingdale in Japan, Cobra Dane in Alaska, or Beale in California. Sea-based X-band Radars patrol the Pacific, and Aegis systems can capture and track a threat from naval ships. Satellites also detect and track threats.
“We want to shoot at the incoming bomb, and so, that radar is going to give us a better capability to identify that bomb versus a tank, a booster vehicle, something out there we don’t want to waste an interceptor on,” Biart added. “That radar is going to give us the ability is to say, ‘OK, that’s what we want to hit.’”
Hatfield’s team is decidedly not a catchall for a ballistic missile attack against the U.S.
The capabilities are only good against rogue nations with small arsenals, such as North Korea or Iran. If an adversary like Russia launched hundreds of ICBMs, the 100th Missile Defense Brigade would quickly run out of intercepts and rely on offensive measures.
Still, the 100th did not exist before 2004.
“We’re really new, and we’ve done multiple flight tests,” Hatfield said.
His brigade has a makeup unlike any other, with some 80% full-time National Guard members. Hatfield said that helps retain institutional knowledge about the complex systems and evolution. It also prevents disruptions in funding streams caused by congressional continued resolutions since the National Guard relies on state Guard budgets.
“I have individuals who have supported for over 10 years the missile defense side of this mission set,” he said. “So, they’ve got all this experience of the spiral development of the various phases of improvements that have occurred over time, and then, as I have an active-duty person come in, we spin them up for today.”
The command structure is also streamlined, with warfighters able to engage senior-level commanders directly and immediately at U.S. Northern Command, which is charged with defending the homeland.
“Nowhere else in combat are you going to see in a theater where you got that warfighter that’s talking directly to the boss,” Hatfield said. “So, a very clean line of communication.”
Still, America is relying on legacy launch systems and some updated Cold War-era radar capabilities. Meanwhile, adversaries’ capabilities are constantly improving.
The Long-Range Discrimination Radar, a highly sensitive radar that was due to be installed at Clear Air Force Station in Alaska, was delayed until late 2023. The LRDR is capable of discerning real warheads from dummies and could save the Army limited intercepts. Meanwhile, missile-defense fields at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Fort Greeley in Alaska are still under construction.
But still, even after all the new interceptors are added, America will only have 64 interceptors to shoot ICBM warheads out of the sky.
Hatfield called the legacy, three-stage launch technology that relies on kinetic destruction of a threat “a very smart bullet” that is sufficient for now, but he awaits DOD’s Next-Generation Interceptor to keep pace with evolving threats in coming decades.
The commander nonetheless insists that the limitations of current missile defense and delays do not leave the U.S. exposed.
“We have missile field expansion going on, new missile fields going in, future capabilities being added. We’ll continue to mitigate the threat,” he said. “We’re ahead of the pace for the threat of today, and we’re posturing for the threat of tomorrow.”