Mapping the US GMD System by Sam Lair
The United States Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system is one of the most well-known missile defense systems in the world, serving as the last line of defense for the US against intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) attacks. Midcourse interception of ICBMs is conducted in space, after the boost phase and before the terminal phase, making it an exo-atmospheric system. The GMD system is comprised of various types of Ground Based Interceptors (GBIs), command and control infrastructure, and various radars, with components strung across the world.
Initial testing and work on the system was begun under the Clinton administration, but full development did not begin until the Bush administration withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2001. The capability of 6 GBIs at Ft. Greely, Alaska, and 4 GBIs at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, gradually expanded to a planned 44 interceptors in the US and 10 more in Poland. While this goal was temporarily put on hold by the Obama administration, and the Poland plan entirely scrapped, the 44 GBI threshold was met in November 2017. The Trump administration has announced plans to expand it even further to 64 GBIs by 2023, but that is uncertain since the cancellation of the Redesigned Kill Vehicle program in 2019.
While there is often extensive documentation of each component part of the GMD system, there is no cohesive map of installations and other infrastructure. This project aims to locate and identify the various components and facilities incorporated into the GMD system. I used publicly available information online. While some elements have been excluded due to their mobile nature, fixed or relatively permanent features have all been identified. Excluded features include the Sea Based X-band Radar (SBX) which operates out of Pearl Harbor and the AN/SPY-1 radars deployed on Aegis BMD ships. I hope to provide a more holistic picture of the GMD system and how it operates based on this compilation of data.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is an agency within the DOD which designs and develops the components of the GMD system, with the goal of building an integrated ballistic missile defense system. The operation of the system itself falls to the US Army Space and Missile Defense Command. The GMD system is largely operated by the 100th Missile Defense Brigade, based at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado. Detachment 1 of the 100th Missile Defense Brigade runs the Vandenberg AFB element of the system, including some operational tests and the 4 GBIs based there. The 100th Missile Defense Brigade also operates the In-Flight Interceptor Communications System Data Terminal (IDT) at Ft. Drum, New York.
The 49th Missile Defense Battalion is a unit within the 100th MDB, charged with operating the MDA complex at Ft. Greely. It is responsible for guarding the GBIs deployed at Greely as well as tactical level use of the GBIs against incoming ICBMs.
Beyond these dedicated national missile defense units, radars and other infrastructure are operated by units across service branches identified in their respective descriptions. However, operation of the GMD system is performed by the 100th Missile Defense Brigade and the 49th Missile Defense Battalion.
There are currently 44 GBIs deployed, with 40 at Ft. Greely and 4 and Vandenberg AFB. A GBI consists of a booster, to get it out of the atmosphere, and a kill vehicle, which is supposed to identify and neutralize an incoming ICBM. The kill vehicle does not use an explosion to terminate its target, instead relying only on the kinetic force of the impact.
20 of the 44 GBIs currently deployed have the C1 boost vehicle and CE-I kill vehicle, 16 have the C1 boost vehicle and the CE-II kill vehicle, and 8 have the C2 boost vehicle and CE-II Block I kill vehicle (Korda and Kristensen 2019, 299). The distribution of these various configurations between Greely and Vandenberg is unknown. The CE-I (Capability Enhancement-I) kill vehicle is a prototype design. Apparently “each of the 20 fielded interceptors equipped with CE-I kill vehicles are unique because they do not have a common configuration.” (GAO 2019, 57). The C1 (Configuration 1) booster is a 3-stage booster vehicle using legacy avionics and Orion rocket motors. The CE-II (Capability Enhancement-II) kill vehicle has “limited upgrades.” The CE-II Block I (Capability Enhancement-II Block I) kill vehicle is an “upgraded kill vehicle.” The C2 (Configuration 2) booster is a boost vehicle upgraded “for obsolescence, reliability, and survivability improvements.” (GAO 2019, 57)
Beyond the GBIs, there are many different supporting elements to the GMD system. The sensor element is comprised of fixed, mobile, and satellite-based radars. The fixed radars include the Cobra Dane, Long Range Discrimination Radar (LRDR), and Upgraded Early Warning Radars (UEWR). Mobile radars include the Sea Based X-band Radar (SBX), the AN/SPY-1 on Aegis ships, and the AN/TPY-2. Satellite radars are not included in this project as I cannot track them in Google Earth, but the GMD system includes the Space-based Infrared System (SBIRS), Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS), and Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites.
Other infrastructure includes In-flight Interceptor Communication System Data Terminals (ITDs) which are not located at Vandenberg or Greely and the Missile Defense Integration and Operations Center (MDIOC) at Schriever AFB. The Ft. Greely supporting infrastructure is well detailed by George Lewis and government documents, making that site the most comprehensively covered by this project.
I believe examining the GMD system and increasing its visibility through projects like this is important for a few reasons. I’ll get on my soapbox a bit here. It is uncontroversial to say GMD has been plagued with inefficiency and notable failures. Beyond it arguably being a waste of taxpayer dollars, I consider the system to be destabilizing, particularly with China, considering the smaller number of ICBMS they have that can reach the continental US. This program can be considered part of a larger emerging arms race dynamic between the US, Russia, and China, and is an impediment to future arms control negotiations. It would also be irresponsible not to point out the anti-satellite capability of the GBIs, making them even more troubling and destabilizing as they can hold essential space infrastructure at risk. For these reasons, I think paying attention to this system and tracking it is important, and I hope this project can help keep it in mind and mitigate some of its uncertainty.
Finally, if anyone has any questions or comments, please let me know either in comments or by email, I would certainly appreciate any feedback anyone has to offer.
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