UPDATE — This story has been updated to reflect newly identified positive COVID-19 cases since original publication.
WASHINGTON — The Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Kwajalein Atoll hasn’t missed a beat this year when it comes to testing, including a major hypersonic test at the start of the global coronavirus pandemic, according to the leader of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command.
Through strict protocols limiting people onto the island and into the site, Kwajalein — part of the Marshall Islands — remained one of the few places on the globe that did not have any COVID-19 cases until Oct. 29 when two returning garrison employees tested negative upon departing Hawaii but tested positive upon arrival at the test site and are being quarantined.
Just to get onto the island, visitors are required to quarantine in Hawaii for two weeks and then to pass a COVID-19 test. Only about five to 10 people are approved to travel to Kwajalein a week, Lt. Gen. Daniel Karbler told Defense News in an interview earlier this month.
Once on the atoll, visitors must quarantine another 21 days before being admitted to work at the site or move about the island, Karbler said.
The U.S. Army has found remote workarounds and is upgrading critical components at the site to keep up with a demanding calendar in 2021 that include more critical hypersonic missile tests, Karbler said.
“Since the middle of June, we’ve been able to bring folks back into RTS in the Kwajalein Atoll to do our mission,” he said.
The site helped conduct six joint Pentagon missions in FY20 including four Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Glory Trip missions as part of the Air Force Global Strike Command’s Development Evaluation Program. The launches originated from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with impact at RTS.
Two missions used the Army’s Kwajalein Mobile Range Safety System (KMRSS) Worthy, which is a missile range instrumentation ship. Worthy was used to collect telemetry data.
The Army is prepared to support the upcoming November flight test of the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile, Karbler said.
If successful, the test could pave the way for a Missile Defense Agency decision on whether to include it in a layered homeland defense approach against intercontinental ballistic missiles, according to MDA director Vice. Adm. Jon Hill.
The test will involve several time zones on several different ranges including RTS.
And the test site will participate in major hypersonic tests in 2021 and 2022 as the Defense Department races to develop an offensive hypersonic missile as China and Russia make headway with their own capabilities.
“These kinds of tests are very complicated and complex,” Karbler said. “A lot of tech savvy folks have got to be involved.”
The Army has been able to conduct a variety of activities in support of RTS remotely from Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, which is home of Army Space and Missile Defense Command, Karbler said.
The service has also been able to remain on schedule when it comes to the upgrades needed for the site to support upcoming tests, Karbler said.
“Some of the things that we would normally do in preparation for tests that would have to be hands on, we’re actually able to accomplish remotely thanks to some really, really, good, innovative work by the team,” Karbler said.
The most significant of these upgrades is the x-band phased array Ground-Based Radar. The upgrade will add capacity, expand data collection capability and enable incorporation of state-of-the-art hardware and software.
The GBR upgrade is also a vital component of the range modernization plan to support increased Space Surveillance Network and Space Object Identification capability for U.S. Space Command.
RTS capability helps to track deep space objects and foreign launches and contributes space domain awareness over the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command area of operation.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.