The Pentagon successfully simulated the shootdown of a hostile long-range ballistic missile launch in the first-ever live-fire test of the anti-missile system widely seen as a warning to hostile regimes such as North Korea and Iran.
The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) test, in which an interceptor missile fired from an underground silo at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California took out a ballistic missile target fired from the Marshall Islands some 4,700 miles away, took place less than 24 hours after Pyongyang carried out the latest in a string of recent missile tests that have brought strong condemnation from the Trump administration and U.S. allies in the region.
The successful test could also provide a much-needed boost to the Pentagon’s missile defense efforts, which have faced harsh scrutiny for rising costs and disappointing returns. Critics also say such carefully controlled tests can’t duplicate the confusion and time pressures of a real-world attack unfolding in real time.
Tuesday’s missile defense test shot — often described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet” — was “an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this program,” Navy Vice Adm. Jim Syring, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said in a statement.
“This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat,” he added.
Congressional lawmakers also lauded the successful test shot, which was the first time the critical missile defense system was able to take out a live target.
“This test clearly demonstrates to our adversaries that our homeland missile defense system remains on track to defend our country,” Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.
Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis insisted before Tuesday’s test that the long-planned missile drill was not a direct reaction to Pyongyang’s provocations. The test was not “timed specifically to the current tensions in North Korea,” he told reporters at the Pentagon.
“This is one element of a broader missile defense strategy that we can use to employ against potential threats,” he added. But ensuring the system tasked with defending U.S. soil against a long-range missile strike could do the job, in the face of increasing parity in the nuclear arsenals of the U.S. and its adversaries, “is one of the reasons why we have this capability,” he added.
Pyongyang has proceeded at a blistering pace to develop mid- and long-range ballistic missiles since President Trump took office in January. Even during the campaign, Mr. Trump took an aggressive line toward North Korea, vowing to respond in kind to any aggressive actions by the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.
In the North’s latest test, a Soviet-era Scud-class missile traveled nearly 300 miles before crashing into the Sea of Japan on Sunday. It was the third test in as many weeks by North Korean officials, who say they are on course to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of hitting Japan and possibly the West Coast of the U.S.
Mr. Trump has not backed off since taking office, trading barbs with the regime on Twitter, while deploying a carrier strike group into international waters off the Korean Peninsula last month. To date, however, despite expressions of concern in China and South Korea, the North has shown no signs of moderating its military programs.
A test shot of the Hwasong-12, North Korea’s latest midrange intermediate ballistic missile, on May 14 reportedly traveled over 300 miles toward the Japanese coast and reached an altitude of nearly 350 miles before crashing into the ocean. The test shot of the submarine-based, nuclear-capable missile traveled higher and farther than any previous tests of similar ballistic missiles tested by North Korea, U.S. officials said.
Aside from its persistent missile tests, North Korean authorities also began detaining U.S. citizens in the country. U.S. citizen Kim Sang-duk was detained by local authorities in the country while attempting to board a flight with his wife to China in April. He is the third U.S. national currently in North Korean custody.
Capt. Davis said Tuesday that North Korea is not the only area of concern that has fueled the GMD program. Iranian ballistic missile technology continues apace, despite the 2015 nuclear deal backed by the Obama administration, which U.S. officials at the time hoped would temper Tehran’s military efforts.
New sanctions levied by the Treasury Department earlier this month targeted an Iranian-Chinese “network that supplied missile-applicable items to a key Iranian defense entity,” said Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Ambassador Stuart Jones in a May 17 statement.
“The action reflects concern with Iran’s continued development of ballistic missiles” in a continuing effort to “pursue missile-related technologies capable of delivering a nuclear weapon,” he added at the time.
While Tuesday’s missile drill was a clear shot across the bow of military leaders in Pyongyang and Tehran, it also validated the beleaguered intercept system, which has faced fierce criticism on Capitol Hill and from the Pentagon’s own internal evaluators.
According to The Associated Press, the test unfolded as a 5-foot-long “kill vehicle” released from atop the interceptor zeroed in on the ICBM-like target’s mock warhead outside Earth’s atmosphere and obliterated it by sheer force of impact. The “kill vehicle” carries no explosives, either in testing or in actual combat, Pentagon officials said.
The target was a custom-made missile meant to simulate an ICBM, meaning it flew faster than missiles used in previous intercept tests, Christopher Johnson, the Missile Defense Agency’s spokesman, told the AP. It was not a mock-up of an actual North Korean ICBM.
With a price tag of nearly $40 billion, the missile interceptor’s spotty test record had some on Capitol Hill calling for deep funding cuts for the program in the Pentagon’s budget. A scathing 2016 report on the weapon’s progress concluded the weapon “demonstrated a limited capability to defend the U.S. homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.”
“The reliability and availability of the operational [interceptors] are low, and the [Missile Defense Agency] continues to discover new failure modes during testing,” the Pentagon’s Operational Testing and Evaluation office concluded last year.
Rep. Adam Smith, Washington state Democrat, delivered backhanded praise for the missile defense system after Tuesday’s successful missile intercept. “After an investment of more than $40 billion since 2002, it’s good that the Missile Defense Agency is finally doing a missile defense test against an ICBM target, some 13 years after the first Ground-Based Interceptor system’s deployment,” Mr. Smith said.
• This article was based in part on wire service reports.