Topsail Missile History & Resident Expert

It can be hard to tear your eyes from the expanse of sea and beach that is Topsail Island, but the seeds of what would become known as the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMD) are dotted across our seaside community.

Camp Davis in Onslow County first opened in 1940 and is today a training ground for the Marines at Camp Lejeune. In March 1947, Topsail was the official home to top secret Operation Bumblebee. Testing for the surface-to-air missiles took place right on the glorified sandbar that we know today as Topsail Island. Unbeknownst to them, the architects of those surface-to-air missiles were also launching technologies and perpetuating research that has since branched far beyond their wildest dreams.

Where Operation Bumblebee came from…
It might seem like a thousand years ago, and in terms of technological advancement it kind of is, but during World War II, kamikaze pilots were an intense threat to our national safety. Their onslaught jeopardized the lives of sailors in the Pacific Theatre and caused incredible damage and chaos that bordered on panic. The Navy set out to create an anti-aircraft missile, an offensive undertaking unlike anything they had ever tried before. Joined by the Applied Physics Laboratory of John Hopkins University, the challenge of taking out the incoming missile of a manned jet began. That technology grew into a defense system that continues to be used the world over in the form of Aegis.

When the Navy took over Topsail Island in 1947 it was uninhabited. By 1951 the capabilities of the Navy’s anti-missile defense had outgrown the 26-mile stretch of their Topsail home. The Operation was moved to the expansive and desolate China Lake in California. The infrastructure established by the Navy for Operation Bumblebee laid the groundwork for today’s Topsail Island community. Part of the original site of Operation Bumblebee has been converted into the Missiles & More Museum, also the home of the Historical Society of Topsail. Several of the original telemetry towers still stand across the island. 

Where Operation Bumblebee Went…
Even as Operation Bumblebee officially wound down its objective to research and develop guided missiles and create surface-to-air missile systems for the Navy continued and continues still to this day. Operation Burnt Frost [in 2008], was a landmark use of such a technology. 
The image processing developed to make BMD more accurate was adapted for photography and photo editing. The jet propulsion designed for the Talos missile is the technology behind shuttle launches for our space program. 

Topsail’s Resident Expert
When Jimmy Carter left USMC active duty, he became a weapon systems engineer specializing in BMD. Although semi-retired now, he still works as a consultant in the missile defense industry. In 2011, Jimmy was approached about teaching a course on Aegis Combat Systems Engineering, his specialty since 1995. While writing that course he made the connection between Operation Bumblebee and his Topsail address. 

“I always thought the Bumblebee Program started at China Lake in California,” Jimmy says, “but it was completely done here.” Jimmy’s explanation of Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) is simple:
“It’s all about trying to hit a bullet with another bullet. What kills the target is kinetic energy, the mass and velocity of the bullets coming together.”

Operation Burnt Frost
With his extensive Aegis experience, Jimmy was brought onto Operation Burnt Frost in January 2008, an operation that still today remains mostly classified. What we do know is that Satellite USA-193, out-of-order from the start and having never discarded its toxic fuel, was adrift in orbit. Projections determined it would crash-land somewhere in the United States, potentially causing grave damage. President George W. Bush ordered the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System to be modified to do what it had never done before from a ship: shoot a satellite out of orbit in space. 

There is much about Burnt Frost Jimmy can’t tell us but it was a notable moment in his career.
“I can’t talk about the details but we did it. And we did it in 6 weeks. It was a long 6 weeks for certain industry and government people involved,” Jimmy says. “Aegis was not designed to do that. What it had to do was so far out of our design. In everything we do we factor in the probability of success. Nothing is certain in our world.”

Despite that lack of certainty, they were able to destroy the threat with one shot. 
To the minds behind Operation Bumblebee, the global capabilities and private sector implications of BMD were unfathomable. To live amongst the evidence of where it started is humbling.

It reminds us of our potential when great thinkers are united in a common goal.