Pentagon to test defence system against missiles this month

WASHINGTON • The Pentagon will attempt a new test by the end of the month, of whether it can intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile like the ones North Korea is seeking to develop, according to the deputy director of the US Missile Defence Agency.

"It's coming up later this month," Rear-Admiral Jon Hill said on Tuesday at a Missile Defence Day gathering on Capitol Hill that had marketing displays by top contractors including Boeing, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman.

He said the test had "been planned for a while" and was not intended as a provocation. When asked, he gave June 1 as an approximate window for the test.

The attempt to intercept a dummy target will take on symbolic importance whether it succeeds or fails, as North Korea ramps up its ballistic missile development and President Donald Trump vows to block the Kim Jong Un regime from developing a nuclear weapon that could reach the US.

The next interception attempt will be the first since a successful test in June 2014. But before that, two tests failed in 2010.

The Missile Defence Agency has said its efforts to fix the interceptor's warhead have paid off. But the Pentagon's weapons testing office has said the US$36 billion (S$50 billion) system of ground-based interceptors cannot yet be counted on to shoot down a nuclear-armed missile aimed at the US West Coast by North Korea or Iran.

The network of radar and communications - combined with missiles based in California and Alaska - has demonstrated only a "limited capability to defend the US homeland from small numbers of simple" intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), the testing office said in its latest annual report.

Representative Trent Franks said the next test "takes on special significance because of the increased tensions in the world".

"Rather than being provocative, I see this as a move towards stability," he said. "If an enemy recognises we can knock down the first one or the second one, or maybe the fourth or fifth one, they know that's going to give us the time for an offensive response, and that is a deterrent in itself."

The US test will attempt to shoot down a target that replicates for the first time the speed, trajectory and closing velocity of an ICBM.

It also will test avionics updates to the booster rocket, which carries an improved version of a hit-to-kill conventional warhead made by Raytheon, Missile Defence Agency officials have said.

Boeing manages the missile defence system.

Asked about the implication if the test shot fails, Mr Franks said "it definitely has significance".

But "if you ask Kim Jong Un, you learn more from your failures than you do from your successes".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 04, 2017, with the headline 'Pentagon to test defence system against missiles this month'. Print Edition | Subscribe