The United States will test an existing missile defense system to try to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile next week. (Reuters)
At a time when North Korea is trying to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the United States announced that it will test an existing missile defense system to try to intercept an ICBM.
The test, scheduled for Tuesday, is the first time the United States will try to intercept an ICBM, announced US officials.
The goal is to more closely simulate a North Korean ICBM aimed at the US homeland. The test had been planned well in advance and was not in reaction to any specific event. they explained.
The United States has used the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, managed by Boeing Co. and in place to counter attacks from rogue states such as North Korea, to intercept other types of missiles but never an ICBM.
While US officials believe Pyongyang is some years away from mastering re-entry expertise for perfecting an ICBM, it is making advances.
This week the head of the US Defense Intelligence Agency said that if left unchecked, North Korea is on an “inevitable” path to obtaining a nuclear-armed missile capable of striking the United States.
The remarks are the latest indication of mounting US concern about Pyongyang’s advancing missile and nuclear weapons programs, which the North says are needed for self-defense.
The Missile Defense Agency said an interceptor based out of Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, one of 36 in California and Alaska, will be used in the test to shoot down a target similar to an ICBM over the Pacific Ocean.
The system has carried out successful intercepts in nine out of 17 attempts dating back to 1999. The most recent test was in 2014. Last year a science advocacy group said the system has no proven capability to protect the United States.
The American interceptor has a spotty track record, succeeding in nine of 17 attempts against missiles of less-than-intercontinental range since 1999. The most recent test, in June 2014, was a success, but that followed three straight failures. The system has evolved from the multibillion-dollar effort triggered by President Ronald Reagan’s 1983 push for a “Star Wars” solution to ballistic missile threats during the Cold War — when the Soviet Union was the only major worry.
North Korea is now the focus of US efforts because its leader, Kim Jong Un, has vowed to field a nuclear-armed missile capable of reaching American territory. He has yet to test an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, but Pentagon officials believe he is speeding in that direction.
The Pentagon has a variety of missile defense systems, but the one designed with a potential North Korean ICBM in mind is perhaps the most technologically challenging. Critics say it also is the least reliable.
The basic defensive idea is to fire a rocket into space upon warning of a hostile missile launch. The rocket releases a 5-foot-long device called a “kill vehicle” that uses internal guidance systems to steer into the path of the oncoming missile’s warhead, destroying it by force of impact. Officially known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the Pentagon likens it to hitting a bullet with a bullet.
An interceptor is to be launched from an underground silo at Vandenberg and soar toward the target, which will be fired from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific. If all goes as planned, the “kill vehicle” will slam into the ICBM-like target’s mock warhead high over the Pacific Ocean.
The target will be a custom-made missile meant to simulate an ICBM, meaning it will fly faster than missiles used in previous intercept tests, according to Christopher Johnson, spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency. The target is not a mock-up of an actual North Korean ICBM.
“We conduct increasingly complex test scenarios as the program matures and advances,” Johnson said Friday. “Testing against an ICBM-type threat is the next step in that process.”
Officials say this is not a make-or-break test.
The interceptor system has been in place since 2004, but it has never been used in combat or fully tested. There currently are 32 interceptors in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg, north of Los Angeles. The Pentagon says it will have eight more, for a total of 44, by the end of this year.
In its 2018 budget presented to Congress this week, the Pentagon proposed spending $7.9 billion on missile defense, including $1.5 billion for the ground-based midcourse defense program. Other elements of that effort include the Patriot designed to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which the US has installed in South Korea as defense against medium-range North Korean missiles.
The Trump administration has yet to announce its intentions on missile defense.
President Donald Trump recently ordered the Pentagon to undertake a ballistic missile defense review. Some experts argue the current strategy for shooting down ICBM-range missiles, focused on the silo-based interceptors, is overly expensive and inadequate. They say a more fruitful approach would be to destroy or disable such missiles before they can be launched, possibly by cyberattack.