WASHINGTON (AFP) – The US military said on Tuesday (May 30) it had intercepted a mock-up of an intercontinental ballistic missile in a first-of-its-kind test that comes amid concerns over North Korea’s weapons programme.
A ground-based interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California “successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile target” fired from the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands, the military said in a statement.
“This system is vitally important to the defence of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat,” Vice-Admiral Jim Syring, director of the US Missile Defence Agency, was quoted as saying.
The exercise aimed to 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 against slower-moving, non-ICBM missiles.
“The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this programme,” said Syring.
The success of Tuesday’s test marks a key step for the US military’s effort to establish an effective – though limited – ground-based defence against ICBMs.
It comes a day after North Korea test-fired yet another ballistic missile, the latest in a series of launches that have ratcheted up tensions over Pyongyang’s quest to develop weapons capable of hitting the United States.
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis had said the test was not timed specifically in response to tensions with Pyongyang but that “in a broad sense, North Korea is one of the reasons why we have this capability.”
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.
“Initial indications are that the test met its primary objective, but programme officials will continue to evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test,” said the US military statement.
The missile defence 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.