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PENTAGON: A prototype Army missile streaked 150 miles through the New Mexico sky this afternoon and dove straight down to detonate at a precisely calibrated height over a predetermined piece of desert. Minutes later, the relieved and excited chief of artillery modernization called me here to say the flight test was not only a success for the Precision Strike Missile program – one of the Army’s top priorities – but a precedent for the Army’s new, accelerated approach to developing new weapons.
Instead of flight-testing each component of the missile separately, for example by installing the guidance system or the rocket motor in a surrogate airframe, “this was soup to nuts, pretty much the final design,” Brig. Gen. John Rafferty told me. That meant everything from lift-off to flight-path to detonation had to work right, together, the first time – and it looks like it all did.
“We haven’t done any analysis at all,” Rafferty cautioned, calling from White Sands Missile Range, where the dust from the blast had hardly had time to clear. But from the live video feed which I watched, from the radar, and the instant replays, he told me, “the performance that we were able to see was nearly exactly what was predicted” by the computer models.
“This was probably a new precedent for how we develop these systems and test them…. how aggressive this whole program has been,” he said. With massive advances in computer modeling and simulation, the program would never have dared make the first field test so ambitious.
Contractor Lockheed Martin did set off their warhead in an “arena test” explosion [click for video], and they fired up the engine, but those tests were all done on the ground, not in flight like today’s. Traditionally, VP for precision fires Gaylia Campbell explained, you’d do a “egress test” solely to show the missile could safely and reliably get out of the launcher into the air, then another test to show it could navigate to the desired point without a live warhead, then another test with an actual explosion at the end of it.
For PrSM, “on the very first flight, we went all the way through and you saw a great warhead detonation, and that’s something we are very proud of,” Campbell told me in a call from White Sands.
“I’m operating on little sleep but a lot of adrenaline,” she confessed.
Risk & Raytheon
Now, on one level, the Precision Strike Missile program is actually a little bit behind. The first flight test, of the Raytheon DeepStrike prototype, was supposed to happen back in November. Instead, this month’s test, of the rival Lockheed Martin design, was the first.
Rafferty declined to comment on anything that might be construed as comparing the two competitors, which at this stage of the program would violate federal regulations on fairness in contracting. We have heard elsewhere that pre-flight testing of the Raytheon missile revealed a potential glitch in the complex weapon – this is literally rocket science, after all – and the company asked for extra time to hunt down the cause. That launch is now scheduled for early next year.
Going fast is a calculated gamble, Rafferty acknowledged. “Everybody in this enterprise needs to have some courage and be brave and be willing to accept prudent risk,” he told me. And, he added, the Army needs to weigh those risks against the operational risk of not getting the weapon to soldiers when they need it. Army commanders around the world are keenly interested in PrSM’s progress, he told me.
The Precision Strike Missile is meant to replace the current Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), which entered service in the 1990 as an offshoot of DARPA’s Cold War Assault Breaker experiment. ATACMS can strike stationary targets up to 186 miles (300 kilometers) away. The first iteration of PrSM will have at least 67 percent greater range — more than 310 miles (500 km) – greater than that allowed in the now-defunct INF Treaty – although the Army hasn’t officially nailed down the range requirement yet. (Today’s test went “approximately 240 km,” about 150 miles). With its smaller but more precise warhead, PrSM will also take up half the space ATACMS does on Army launchers, doubling the number of targets it can strike.
That’s just the “base missile,” Rafferty emphasized, set to enter service in 2023 – four years earlier than the program’s original 2027 timeline. The first planned upgrade, or “spiral,” in 2025 will add the capability to track and kill moving targets by their radio and radar emissions.
In the European theater, Rafferty said, that technology is primarily aimed at Russian anti-aircraft radars. In the Pacific, the primary moving target is Chinese warships at sea. In both cases, it’s part of the Army’s No. 1 modernization priority, Long-Range Precision Fires, which in turn serves the rapidly evolving concept of Multi-Domain Operations, in which US ground forces reach out from land to assist the Air Force and Navy in new and lethal ways.
Land-based anti-ship missiles in particular have long been a priority for China hawks in Congress. The House-Senate conference report on the National Defense Authorization Act, released late last night, requires an in-depth report from both the Army and Marine Corps on their progress and plans. That report is due March 1 – by which point the Raytheon version of PrSM should have test-fired as well.
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