WASHINGTON (AFP) - The US military will try to intercept an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) in a landmark test of a defence system that comes amid broad tensions over North Korea's weapons program, the Pentagon said on Friday (May 27).
Scheduled for Tuesday, the test is the first time the military will attempt to intercept an ICBM. Previous trials have been against intermediate-range missiles, which are slower.
Experts will launch a ground-based interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California at a mock-up of an ICBM fired from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, the Missile Defence Agency said in a statement.
The exercise will check the performance of the Ground-based Midcourse Defence (GMD) system, which has had a checkered record in previous tests.
Though it succeeded in the last test in 2014, it failed during the three prior attempts.
The technology behind the GMD is extremely complex, and the system uses globally deployed sensors to detect and track ballistic missile threats.
In a move that the Pentagon says is akin to hitting a bullet with another bullet - though at far higher speeds - the missile launches into space, then deploys an "Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle" that uses kinetic energy to destroy the incoming target.
If the test is successful, it will prove that America has an effective ground-based defense against ICBMs, albeit on a limited scale.
The system will comprise 44 interceptors by the end of the year, so it could thwart an attack from a rogue state or a volley of rockets.
But the interceptors, based in California and Alaska, would be overwhelmed by a full-scale attack from countries like Russia or China, which could fire dozens of missiles at a time.
North Korea this year has conducted a series of missile tests as it strives to build an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting the United States.
Pyongyang carried out two atomic tests last year, and has accelerated its missile launch program, despite tough United Nations sanctions aimed at denying Kim the hard currency needed to fund his weapons ambitions.
President Donald Trump has called Kim a "madman with nuclear weapons."