Thursday, February 21, 2008

Space Cowboys

The USS Lake Erie shot down a falling satellite on the first try.

Man I love typing that.

Having been part of a number of missile shoots myself, I can say that unless you've done it you just can't imagine the shear number of things that can go wrong in a "normal" intercept. To take out an orbital target with a single interceptor, that's just plain friggin' incredible.

Well done, Lake Erie.

Hopefully COMTHIRDFLT will allow them to paint a satellite on their bridge wing.


  1. Yeah, IIRC, when the Soviets took down Gary Powers, they shot down 6 of their own planes as well.

  2. Jim, I never "did" a missle shoot, but I grew up ('55 to '59) on White Sands Missle Range. They were working on the Hawk, and the Nike Ajax, Zeus, and Hercules. Seeing a night drone shot was the same as fireworks for 4- to 8-year-old. And the static rocket engine tests! Wow. Shaking the ground, rocket exhaust pouring out of the mountain, and more noise than I could imagine. That stuff's in my DNA!

    And, just because I remembered it, we had a piece of driftwood on the bookshelf that had been collected from the Trinity Point site. Normal everyday knick-knack.

  3. My only fear is that certain folks won't say "Well done, USS Lake Erie!" I'm afraid they'll say, "See how easy that was? Now about that missile defense shield...."

    There's a mindset that looks at a triumph and draws the wrong conclusion. "I coulda written that." "My kid coulda painted that." Shooting down a speeding, tumbling piece of space debris in orbit? "Anyone can push a button!" For some reason, people with that mindset routinely end up in charge of the United States.

    Not to take anything away from the crew of the Lake Erie--quite the contrary. It was an achievement (honestly, I'm surprised they did it in one), I hope it's recognized as such and not taken for granted.

  4. I'd love to see that piece of driftwood!

    I used to love missile shoots. I was the SSWC (surface/subsurface warfare coodinator) on USS Valley Forge - basically the suface/subsurface tactical engagement commander, in charge of surface to surface missiles, gun alley, and anti-sub weapons during combat operations (officially my position was Information Warfare/Intelligence/Cryptology Officer - SIWO; but Warrants usually end up in combat positions during General Quarters). I fired a number of Harpoon missiles and coordinated a number of SM-2 shots in surface engagement mode. It's incredibly complex, but the Navy makes it look easy.

    Valley Forge was the anti-air defense ship for the fleet during the primary Tomahawk strikes on Iraq (we weren't a Tomahawk shooter ourselves, we were assigned to defend the shooters during their launches - because during a salvo, Tomahawk shooters have to hold a particular position, course, and speed and are thus vulnerable to attack). We were less than two thousand yards from the firing ships, and we spend hours topside watching salvo after salvo of Tomahawks roar out of the launch tubes on our sister ships, lighting up the night sky with a hellish glow. Shock and awe is precisely the right word for it.

    Several days later I was scouting forward positions from a small RHIB (rigid hull, inflatable boat) doing the intel officer part of my job. We were twenty miles from the fleet, well into hostile territory, in the pitch dark, drifting with the engine shut down in dead silence, with our asses hanging out in the breeze. A number of secondary Tomahawk salvos went directly over my position, sounded like banshees screaming in night. Very cool, in a deathly frightening way. Especially if you knew where they were going, and what was going to happen when they got there.

  5. Eric,

    Exactly. There was a major amount of luck in that shoot - not to take anything away from the crew of Erie. But every intercept has a certain degree of luck attached to it.

    Any missile intercept is incredibly complex, under the best of circumstance, geometry, sensors, high speed processing, weapon performance, environment, and etc all have to line up perfectly. Hitting a moving target with a missile is enormously difficult. Usually to take down a jet aircraft requires at least two missile in salvo, often more. And that is something we've done many, many times. But, compared to orbital intercept it's child's play.

    The Standard Missile Three (SM-3) is still in development, only a handful of ships are even capable of firing one. Lake Erie is the test bed for this kind of thing, she is specially fitted, and her crew is highly trained in missile development and test firing as part of the missile shield development program. However, hitting a cold dead bird, in orbit, is complex on an order of complexity that almost defies comprehension. It requires a network of realtime sensors, all elsewhere, precise timing, perfect coordination, and perfect weapon performance. Absolutely everything had to line up perfectly and work within a .001% of design tolerances. From the deck of a moving ship at sea.

    I have extensive experience with satellite ephemeris and the calculations it takes to track and intercept an orbital vehicle, and extensive experience on this class of vessel and with these types of weapons, and I can tell you that I would have been impressed if they had hit the target on the fourth or fifth shot.

    But, as you said, most people - especially those in charge of the country - simply cannot fathom the complexity involved - or the vast number of things that can go wrong. One of the things about the Navy, they make this kind of thing look easy - and it's not - but that's what they do every damn day. So people take it for granted.

  6. Go, Lake Erie.

    *Puffed up with Navy Pride, I stalk off into the sunset*

  7. I stalk off into the sunset*

    Sail. Sail off into the sunset. Sheesh.

    And I'm wearing a Navy sweatshirt today, just because.

  8. Um, Jim? I'm in a land-locked staight. Rocky Mountain Navy.

  9. Yeah, I think Janiece found the end of the pier for us, stalking off like that. :)


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