GMD missile test over Pacific Ocean

Pentagon reports successful ICBM defence test

Image credit: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

The US military has announced that its ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system successfully halted a simulated intercontinental ballistic missile in a test over the Pacific Ocean, saying it is “confident” it is on course to defeat similar threats.

Concerns have been raised over the increased frequency of North Korean missile tests over the past year, as the country attempts to develop an ICBM that can reach the US across the Pacific Ocean.

To simulate a potential attack, a mock ICBM and several decoys were fired from the Kwayalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands towards waters just south of Alaska. A defensive missile, or “kill vehicle”, was fired in response from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

The mock ICBM and the kill vehicle met in a head-on strike, resulting in both being destroyed. The successful test cost $244 million.

Vice Admiral Jim Syring, director of the US Missile Defense Agency, said that the test portrayed a “very realistic scenario”, based on intelligence about what Iranian and North Korean missile programmes may achieve by 2020.

ICBM defences are complicated by the enormous intercontinental distances involved; ICBMs have a minimum range of approximately 5,500km, although some can travel further than 10,000km. The Pentagon compares the defensive strategy to firing a bullet to collide with another and halt it in its path.

“I was confident before the test that we had the capability to defeat any threat that they would throw at us,” said Syring. “And I’m even more confident today after seeing the intercept test yesterday that we continue to be on that course.”

It was the first live-fire test against a simulated ICBM for the GMD system, which is managed by Boeing. The system – which has been in various stages of testing since 1999 – has hit just nine out of 17 test targets, although the technology has been refined since previous exercises.

“The interceptor that we flew yesterday certainly keeps pace with and I would actually say helps us outpace the threat through 2020,” said Syring.

Since North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un came to power in 2011, he has increased the pace of the country’s conventional and nuclear weapons programmes. North Korea has incorporated solid-fuel technology into its rockets, reducing the launch warning time, and is believed to be attempting to attach a miniaturised nuclear warhead to an ICBM.

Iran’s missile programme is considered another threat by the US and its allies in the Middle East; the country’s Islamic Revolution Guard Corps test-fired missiles earlier this month, and announced that a third underground missile factory had been built to increase production.

In response, the Pentagon is increasing the number of deployed missile interceptors in California and Alaska from 36 to 44. Further tests of the GMD are planned to improve its capabilities and accuracy, including interceptor tests under more realistic conditions.

Other US missile defence technologies, such as the Patriot missile and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence, have been shown to be effective against short- and medium-range missiles.

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