- Written by Kathleen Mabley
Dr. Felix Fenter began a lifelong love of aeronautics while building model airplanes as a young boy. He went on to earn three aerospace engineering degrees from UT, including the very first aerospace PhD ever awarded in 1960. While earning his PhD, he worked as a research specialist at the University’s Defense Research Laboratory (now Applied Research Laboratories) on various Navy missile and space programs.
In the complicated world of military strategy, there is a doctrine in which two opposing countries each have enough nuclear weaponry that if either initiated an attack, it would result in the complete destruction of both sides. The strategy, known as MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction, was the only credible strategy available during the Cold War. Sole strategic reliance on MAD was unacceptable for our long-term future, according to Felix Fenter and many others in the defense industry in the early 1980s.
“We were dedicated to finding ways to re-introduce true strategic warfare. If you had to be prepared for a war, with MAD, we were in effect denying ourselves the ability to conduct strategic warfare. The key is to have other means to not only neutralize a nuclear threat but to also achieve your strategic goals.”
As Vice President of LTV Aerospace Missiles Division, Fenter successfully guided his company’s efforts to win a contract with the United States Army to create a technology that would offer a credible defense against intercontinental ballistic and cruise missiles.
It was, in Fenter’s words, “mutually assured protection for ourselves. It was one small step in the process of making a better world.”
However, the technology that needed to be developed required not only unprecedented missile accuracy, but also the ability to apply enough lethality to negate the possibility of it still having an explosion. Therefore, they had to hit a precise location on the target where, as Fenter described it, “all the bad stuff is.”
Using a simulated warhead (without the “bad stuff”) of a Soviet ballistic missile, Fenter’s team tested their intercept technology at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. When the test was complete, all that remained of the test target missile was a chunk of metal the size of a sheet of ruled paper. It now hangs on the wall in Fenter’s office.
And, while the technology was extremely successful, Fenter says, “MAD precluded it from ever being used. So what good is that technology other than affecting the strategic balance? Well, there is the problem of tactical missiles – many nations have tactical missiles with conventional warheads on them, and a few probably have chemical and/or biological warheads. So the useful thing is to use this technology to protect ourselves and our allies from the real world threat of tactical missiles (such as SCUDS, for example).”
Fenter (by then, President of his company) continued to guide the team that developed the first hit-to-kill intercept of a tactical ballistic missile. And today, the Patriot Advanced Capability (PAC-3) missile developed by Fenter’s company (now Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control) is one of the largest missile programs in the United States Defense Department.