Kwajalein Missile Range was then the western terminus of the Pacific Missile Test Range. Today it is formally known as the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Test Site. What hasn’t changed between 1969 and today is Kwajalein’s function as a facility that tests the accuracy of U.S. ICBM missiles and their Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicle (MIRV) nuclear warheads. For more than half a century it has also been testing the efficacy of anti-ballistic missile missiles designed to track, intercept, and vaporize incoming hostile ICBM nuclear warheads. That so-called exercise of “hitting a bullet with a bullet,” was hard to do 50 years ago, and it hasn’t gotten any easier since with the recent Chinese and Russian development of hypersonic missiles.

Our plane landed on Kwajalein Island, the largest and southernmost island in the Kwajalein Atoll. Kwajalein is due north of New Zealand in the south-central Pacific and due east of the southern part of The Philippines. In short, it’s in the middle of nowhere. The atoll is made up of about 100 islands in a coral chain 50-miles in length, stretching from Kwajalein Island in the south to Roi-Namur in the north. Kwajalein Island is only three quarters of a mile wide and three and a half miles long. The whole of the atoll’s coral land is only 5.6 miles square. The atoll is about 80 miles wide, which gives it one of the largest lagoons in the world.

The people I most needed to talk to on Kwajalein were the senior MIT scientists and Raytheon engineers most familiar with both the stage of the Safeguard missile development (both the short-range Sprint Missile and the exo-atmospheric Spartan Missile). I also need to learn more about the functioning of the Phased Array Radar (PAR) central to Safeguard’s ability to track, and intercept incoming warheads, before vaporizing them with X-rays from a nuclear detonation.

My interviews on Kwajalein Island and Roi-Namur were delayed due to my being bumped by a Congressional Staff visit that happened to conflict with mine. Recent glitches in the Safeguard testing had apparently triggered a closer Congressional look at the state of the program and its related budgeting problems.

To have something to do in the meantime, my Army host, who also served as the base recreation officer, took me out to golf. What a course. It lay on either side of Kwajalein Island’s single runway. The narrow greensward where you could play was studded with radars used in the Island’s missile testing work. The so-called fairways had a picket fence on their ocean side that served as a no-go reminder. Should your golf ball go over the fence and plop down in front of one of the munitions storage bunkers there, you might have to kiss it goodbye. However, by the fences were long poles with a circular ring on the end. If it would reach your miss-hit ball, you could retrieve it. If the pole couldn’t reach your ball, you were out of luck.

There was not the same problem at Kwajalein’s golf driving range. There was no way you could lose your golf ball there. That’s because the range had repurposed an enormous and abandoned circular radar structure. The radar’s construction had created a giant circular steel mesh so tall, and with such a large diameter, that no matter how hard you might hit a golf ball from the radar’s perimeter, you couldn’t knock it out of the enclosed space. This was no doubt the most expensive golf driving range ever built by mankind.

When the Congressional folks hit the road, I caught the first available twin engine commuter flight up to nearby Meck Island on the atoll. Here was Safeguard’s recently constructed Phased Array Radar that I needed to understand better. The large radar had a circular slanted face that permitted it to scan incoming missiles launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Air Force crews, plucked at random from Montana or other ICBM installations, would be trucked with their Minuteman missiles to Vandenberg. At Vandenberg, their proficiency would be tested as the missiles were topped off with instrument packages instead of warheads, and launched at a predetermined point in Kwajalein’s lagoon.

As the Meck manager took me into the outsized computer room that formed the base of the large radar, he smiled, and, in a voice similar to that of a proud father talking about a child bringing home a good report card, said that there was more computing power in that room than existed on the entire planet in 1955. As I digested the meaning of that, the thought occurred to me that he might in fact be telling the truth.

From Meck, I flew up the Roi-Namur Island on the north end of the atoll. There were more radars and instrumentation I needed to learn about there as well. With my field work complete I was ready to go home to Washington, D.C. and write my report. I quickly caught the last commuter flight of the day at Roi-Namur and flew the 50 miles south back to my Batchelor Officers Quarters (BOQ) accommodations on Kwajalein Island. Without delay, I was on the next red-tail Northwest jet that came through Kwajalein to shortly began a week’s leave from the Army in Honolulu visiting a college classmate and his family.

A Half Century of Ballistic Missile & Satellite Defense

March 18th, 2022|

Bill Bowe, a former President of The Cliff Dwellers and Executive Vice President of Encyclopaedia Britannica, begins with a lighthearted look at a subject he’s been following since the 1950’s. Though hard to believe today, Nike missiles with nuclear warheads were once ready to be launched from 22 sites around Chicago, including Belmont Harbor and Jackson Park on the lakefront.