A test launch of a modified Minuteman ballistic missile in support of the Near Field Infrared Experiment (NFIRE) commenced successfully at Vandenberg Air Force Base in the early morning hours of September 23. Differing from the standard ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) test launches usually seen at Vandenberg, the mission was part of a Missile Defense Agency experiment – supported by Vandenberg’s 30th Space Wing – to improve boost phase interception of hostile ballistic missiles. The NFIRE satellite, already in orbit, tracked the missile launched from Vandenberg-which, in this experiment, represented a long-range enemy missile-by examining the exhaust plume so that scientists and technicians are better able to understand its characteristics. Infrared sensors on the satellite captured images of the plume as the missile flew by.
The purpose of NFIRE – which has a six-year budget of $20.7 million – is to provide more detailed information about boost phase rocket signatures so that the Missile Defense Agency and the Department of Defense can update parameters used for missile defense technology. “This exercise is an experiment that could result in lower costs within the boost phase intercept program due to the fact that a large amount of data can be collected by the orbiting NFIRE satellite, and could preclude the need for additional satellite launches for data collection,” said Richard Lehner, a Missile Defense Agency (MDA) public affairs officer.
Currently, three long-range ground-based interceptors are deployed at Vandenberg, and combined with 21 at Ft. Greely, Alaska, they form a defense against intercontinental ballistic missile threats. Lehner noted that both Iran and North Korea are developing weapons of this type, which he said could eventually have the capability to strike the United States. MDA is also developing interception technology for short- and medium-range missiles, and the Defense Department and MDA were recently involved in negotiations to place interceptors in Poland and the Czech Republic.