Less than a month after the US Air Force successfully test fired two Minuteman ICBM missiles from California's Vanderberg Air Force base, which hit a target approximately 4,200 miles away at Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean, today Pentagon officials said that the US will try to shoot down an intercontinental-range missile for the first time in a test next week, in "preparation for North Korea's growing threat." According to AP, the stated goal is "to more closely simulate a North Korean ICBM aimed at the U.S. homeland."
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency on Tuesday will shoot an interceptor from the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, a network meant to protect the country against a limited nuclear attack, at a custom-made missile meant to simulate an ICBM.
As ABC adds, an interceptor is to be launched from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California 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, Johnson added.
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.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency, which is responsible for developing and testing the system, has scheduled the intercept test for Tuesday.
“We conduct increasingly complex test scenarios as the program matures and advances,” Johnson told AP on Friday. “Testing against an ICBM-type threat is the next step in that process.”
While the Pentagon has a variety of missile defense systems, 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. According to AP, the American interceptor has a spotty track record, succeeding in nine of 17 attempts 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.... which is probably why officials were quick to hedge that 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.
The test will follow a successful North Korean launch Sunday, during which the country fired a medium-range ballistic missile that landed in the Sea of Japan. Last Monday, AP reported Monday that North Korea is ready to begin the mass production of its new missile, which could reach Japan and major military bases. Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this week that “left unchecked,” a North Korean missile will eventually be able to reach the United States.
Some more details on the Pentagon's strategy from AP:
According to the Pentagon, North Korea does not yet have the technology to reach the West Coast with a missile, but the military is preparing should it happen. The test will following a successful North Korean launch Sunday, during which the country fired a medium-range ballistic missile that landed in the Sea of Japan.
While it wasn't scheduled with the expectation of an imminent North Korean missile threat, the military will closely watch whether it shows progress toward the stated goal of being able to reliably shoot down a small number of ICBMs targeting the United States. The Pentagon is thirsting for a success story amid growing fears about North Korea's escalating capability.
"I can't imagine what they're going to say if it fails," said Philip Coyle, senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He headed the Pentagon's office of operational test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001 and has closely studied the missile defense system. "These tests are scripted for success, and what's been astonishing to me is that so many of them have failed," Coyle said.
The test comes at a sensitive time for the Petnagon: this week it presented Congress with its 2018 budget which proposed spending $7.9 billion on missile defense, including $821 million for more interceptors. Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) wants 28 additional interceptors in Alaska and California, increasing by more than 30 percent the number of interceptors currently in the United States.
The U.S. already has 36 interceptors, with four at Vandenberg Air Force Base along the California coast in Santa Barbara County and the rest at Alaska's Fort Greely. The Obama administration also signed off on plans to add eight more to Alaska by the end of 2017. The plan also asks for $465 million for upgrades and testing for the Redesigned Kill Vehicle, part of the interceptor missile, and to replace old ground control systems. In addition, the budget requests $451 million, up from $95 million last year, for the Long-Range Stand-Off missile, a nuclear cruise missile that the Air Force can fire from the B-52, B-2 and the B-21 bomber.
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.