The United States has announced plans to conduct its first ever attempt to shoot down an intercontinental range ballistic missile, as part of an effort to increase readiness for a potential attack from North Korea.

As SOFREP has covered before, the missile defense platforms utilized by the mainland United States don’t have a particularly good track record.  The Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, tasked with protecting the continental United States from an incoming nuclear missile strike utilizes ground-launched missiles designed to intercept an incoming ICBM in low earth orbit with its five-foot-long “kill vehicle.”  However, the missiles have failed to successfully intercept within allotted tolerances on multiple test runs, forcing the U.S. to adopt a policy of firing as many as four or five intercept missiles at any one ICBM, dramatically reducing the overall number of missiles the U.S. can actively defend from at any given time.

Many of these failures have been attributed to an issue with internal circuit boards failing after debris within the missile comes into contact with them.  These problems have reportedly been resolved in the newer platforms deployed around the U.S., but a whopping two-thirds of the current U.S. inventory of GMD missiles still contain this flaw many see as the cause of the platform’s inability to accurately intercept an incoming missile.

The test, scheduled to take place on Tuesday, is the first ever attempt to actually intercept an ICBM, rather than to simply place the interceptor within the vicinity of one.

The test interceptor will be launched from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where it will fly to intercept a custom-made ICBM fired from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.  The custom ICBM will travel faster than previous intercept tests and will be equipped with a custom warhead designed to approximate the size and maneuverability of a real nuclear warhead.  A successful intercept will see the “kill vehicle” crash into the mock warhead high above the Pacific Ocean.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going to say if it fails,” said Philip Coyle, senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. He headed the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation from 1994 to 2001 and has closely studied the missile defense system.

US mainland missile defense system successfully intercepts intercontinental ballistic missile in test

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“These tests are scripted for success, and what’s been astonishing to me is that so many of them have failed,” Coyle added.

This test was not planned as a direct response to North Korean threats of preemptive nuclear strikes, but officials within the Defense Department say they’ll be eyeing the results of this test with increased scrutiny as a result of the aggressive statements levied by the Kim regime.  If the test is a failure, it could certainly bolster Kim Jong Un’s ambition to attain a truly global strike missile platform.  His pursuit of nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles with which to carry them has always been about increasing the small nation’s potential leverage when negotiating with foreign powers, and if the United States publicly displays its inability to counter a missile strike if ever one were to be launched, it could provide Kim with the motivation he needs to weather further economic sanctions in order to complete the project.

Adversely, if the United States manages to successfully blow an ICBM out of the sky, it could go far to dissuade Kim, who may recognize that nuclear weapons may not be as powerful a bargaining chip as he may have hoped.

 

Image courtesy of the Department of Defense