Air Force Bases

Missile Testing at Kwajalein Atoll, Marshall Islands

Located 2,100 miles southwest of Hawaii, the Kwajalein Atoll of some 100 tiny islands makes up part of the Marshall Islands. After the American capture of the atoll during World War II, the Navy made Kwajalein a base. During the 1950s, there was much activity here as atomic testing was conducted at nearby Bikini and Enewetak Atolls. By 1959, activity had slackened, allowing the Navy to place the base on the surplus list.

However, that year two major programs were initiated that would affect activity on the atoll. The U.S. Army Rocket and Missile Agency advanced plans to use the atoll as a test base for the Nike Zeus system. Concurrently, the Advanced Research Projects Agency selected the Roi-Namur Islands as a center to study missile reentry characteristics. The Honolulu Engineering District had responsibility for constructing facilities to support both of these projects.

On June 30, 1959, the Honolulu Engineering District awarded a $3.26 million contract to a team composed of the Pacific Construction Company, Reed and Martin, and the H.B. Zachry Company for the construction of radar facilities for the Zeus installation. The team was commonly called PMZ. As installation requirements expanded, additions were made to the initial contract. By 1962, the Army had paid some $56 million to the consortium. In November 1960, PMZ also won the bid to build the facility at Roi-Namur for what was dubbed Project PRESS (Pacific Range Electromagnetic Signature Studies).

At both projects, engineers were challenged by the tropical climate, which caused severe corrosion and logistical problems inherent in construction at such remote locations. For example, in 1960, two barges carrying components for Project PRESS were lost at sea.

To provide targets for the Zeus missiles, launch facilities were to be constructed on Johnston Island. However, work on this project ceased in July 1960 when the Secretary of Defense announced a decision to use only Vandenberg AFB, California as a target launch site.

On Kwajalein, nearly all of the test facilities were completed by the end of 1962. Because of the groundwater problem, a mound to host launch silos was constructed on the northwest end of the island.

Facilities to support the Nike Zeus program were also constructed on Roi-Namur. Part of these facilities included launch pads for a rocket named Speedball that would be used to calibrate Kwajalein's radars prior to Zeus launchings.

In December 1961, the first Nike Zeus was launched from Kwajalein. In 1962, a historic launch was made in which the outgoing Zeus came within lethal range of an incoming Atlas rocket. In May 1963, the Zeus demonstrated its ability to intercept an object in orbit.

At this time, radar limitations forced the program to evolve into the Nike X program. Nike X employed a modified Zeus missile for long-range intercepts and used the Sprint for point defense. The new accompanying test radars required additional construction and, again PMZ received the contract. Meek Island, located 19 miles north of Kwajalein, was chosen to host many of the new facilities. For safety, natives from nearby islands had to be relocated. Overcrowding at the relocation site of Ebeye remained a source of tension for many years.

In July 1964, the Navy transferred Kwajalein to Army control and the facility became known as the Kwajalein Test Site. At Meek Island, construction centered around a control building that housed a phased-array radar. Completed in the fall of 1967, this facility served as a prototype of the type of structure envisioned for the Sentinel anti-ballistic missile (ABM) system. The modified Nike Zeus, renamed Spartan, was first successfully launched from Kwajalein's Mt. Olympus in the spring of 1968. Unfortunately, the construction of sister launch cells on Meek Island ran into extreme seepage problems, delaying activation until 1970.

Renamed in April 1968, as the Kwajalein Missile Range, the atoll base came under the jurisdiction of the Sentinel Systems Command. In March 1968, Sentinel Systems Command became Safeguard Systems Command.

Meanwhile, in 1968, Project PRESS had become a joint-service activity and was reorganized as the Kwajalein Field Measurements Program. In 1969, the Roi-Namur facility was dedicated as the Kiernan Reentry Measurements Site.

With the Meek Island facility operational, several test launchings of Spartan and Sprint missiles occurred in the early 1970s. Additional launchers were built on nearby Illeginni Island to conduct remote missile launches controlled by Meek Island.

In 1974, Kwajalein Missile Range came under the control of the newly formed Ballistic Missile Defense Systems Command. Construction work during this period included upgrading support structures and installing additional highly sophisticated tracking devices.

In 1981, Meek Island became host to a new facility as a huge launch tower arrived from Cape Kennedy. This tower became an important component in the Homing Overlay Experiment, an ambitious project designed to launch platforms into stationary orbit where they would be capable of discerning incoming nuclear warheads from decoys. Once the warheads were identified, these platforms would fire interceptors to destroy some of the threatening projectiles. The experiment was designed as a first step for a ballistic missile defense.