Pagers used as early warning system for ballistic missile attacks

by Spc. Michael Scott

CAMP DOHA, Kuwait, (Army News Service, April 6, 1998) -- In the next few weeks, more than 30,000 service members will have received their initial inoculations of the anthrax vaccine, providing them with some means of protection to the fatal disease.

But in the deadly world of chemistry sets and makeshift laboratories, vaccines may not be enough, since new and increasingly more sinister weapons of mass destruction are continuously being engineered by rogue nations and terrorist groups.

Units in the field need to know when they are about to be hit by a nuclear, biological or chemical weapon in order to react and don the necessary protective gear.

It takes an Iraqi tactical ballistic missile less than 10 minutes to travel from its launch site to its impact zone, which makes time the critical issue. Soldiers in the field have to know if and when they are going to get hit in order to protect themselves.

Thanks to the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command, which commands all air defense assets at the theater level here, a new early warning system that can give these soldiers the time they need is now operational. Through the use of digital pagers, commanders will be "beeped" in the event of a TBM attack.

When the 32nd AAMDC arrived in theater in late February, the only operational warning systems were by voice net, but by the time the message made its way through to the soldiers in the field, a missile would have already impacted. Maneuver units needed the information quicker, which was why the system was implemented, said Capt. T.C. Helberg, a 32nd AAMDC passive defense officer.

The command first looked at acquiring a space-based warning system, but all of these systems are still in development and not yet available, which prompted the unit to look at commercial pager systems available in Kuwait, Helberg said.

"The pager system provides a needed warning mechanism for the force structure until a space-based warning system is available for implementation," said Brig. Gen. Dennis D. Cavin, 32nd AAMDC commander.

Pagers are compact, easily carried devices that quickly address a critical force protection requirement at a relatively inexpensive cost. While some early warning systems cost as much as $50,000 per unit, the 32nd AAMDC purchased 100 pagers and associated hardware to include lines, relays and towers for approximately the same price, Helberg said.

This new Theater Ballistic Missile Pager Alert Warning System augments pre-existing warning systems and can alert units down to the lowest level in a matter of seconds once a TBM launch has been detected.

Within 90 to 120 seconds of its initial launch, the 32nd AAMDC force protection tactical operations center receives data indicating where a missile is being launched from, where it's headed and its time of impact. Once the predicted impact site is computed, the TOC simply pages the unit commanders in the affected area, said Sgt. 1st Class Louie Flores, 32nd AAMDC NBC noncommissioned officer.

If necessary, the 32nd AAMDC can alert just the units in the impact area or all the units in the field. For instance, if it's a windy day and chemical munitions are released, the TOC can alert all the units downwind of the impact site as well as any ground maneuver units at that location, Flores said.

"The system works very effectively," Helberg said. "It's faster than voice warning and normally gives soldiers four to five minutes of reaction time, depending upon how long the missile flight is. That's a significant improvement over any voice system that's out there."

"This system means quite a bit," said Flores, who has more than 20 years experience in the NBC field. "It's going to take 15 seconds to put your mask on and up to an additional eight minutes to put the NBC protective suit on, which is an advantage over having to put your suit on after a missile has impacted and chemical or biological agents have been released."

These pagers are specifically programmed to provide TBM alert and early NBC warning. They can't be used as a normal pager, and they don't affect normal pagers when they are operating. Plus, no one outside the 32nd AAMDC passive defense section can activate the pagers, Helberg said.

The concept of an early warning paging system for incoming ballistic missiles has been tested over the past few years by the 32nd AAMDC and the U.S. Army Space Command in exercises like Roving Sands at Fort Bliss, Texas, and Ulchi Focus Lens, Korea. This is the first time, however, that a system has been implemented in an operational theater and hostile-fire zone, said Maj. John Michaels, the 32nd AAMDC passive defense chief.

(Editor's note: Scott is a public affairs specialist for the U.S. Army Air and Missile Defense Command.)