U.S. defenses against enemy missiles are progressing toward full deployment and a new sea-based version hit a simulated Scud missile flight during a test last month, Pentagon officials said yesterday.
Air Force Lt. Gen. Trey Obering, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told reporters that the basic system of interceptor missiles, sensors and tracking devices is working and is a critical national security weapon.
“Overall I’m very optimistic,” Gen. Obering said during a telephone conference. “This is a critical capability and I think that people will realize over time that we absolutely need this for our security, and I think we’ll look back and say thank goodness that we were able to develop this system when we did and get it into the field.”
Eight long-range missile interceptors currently are deployed in Alaska and California as both a test system and emergency missile shield against a very limited long-range missile attack.
Gen. Obering declined to comment on North Korea’s recent announcement that it is ending its self-imposed moratorium on long-range missile tests.
Rear Adm. Kathleen Paige, a second Missile Defense Agency official, said the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense weapon hit a simulated Scud missile in flight over the Pacific last month. The Feb. 24 launch of Standard Missile-3 near Hawaii scored a direct hit in a wartime-conditions exercise.
“This was a very important test because it was the first time we had ever used an operational version of the Aegis ballistic missile defense weapon system,” Adm. Paige said.
The test involved a realistic “war at sea” scenario and concluded with the Navy cruiser USS Lake Erie firing the first SM-3 at a 310-mile-range target missile.
The Navy currently has four additional SM-3s that could be deployed in a conflict. The full system of 18 SM-3-armed ships will be deployed beginning in 2007. An additional six Aegis-equipped warships are currently deployed in Asia to monitor North Korean missile launches as part of the missile defense system.
The SM-3 missile slammed into the nose of the Scud target missile 80 miles in altitude and about three minutes after launch, and about 80 seconds after the Erie’s radar system detected it, Adm. Paige said.
Gen. Obering said two recent ground-based interceptor test failures were disappointing, the result of minor “glitches” that are being fixed.
Last month, a ground-based test interceptor failed to launch after a connecting arm on the silo failed to retract. An earlier test of the long-range interceptor failed due to a software problem.
“We have confidence in the basic functionality of the system,” he said. “We’ve got some things to correct in our test program, but they are not major deficiencies in the system.”
The current ground-based missile defense can be converted from a test system to an emergency operational missile defense in “minutes,” he said.