For the first time ever, the United States military successfully intercepted and destroyed an airborne intercontinental ballistic missile armed with a mock nuclear warhead before it could reach its intended target.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system has received its fair share of critics (full disclosure, this writer is among them) for its repeated failures in lower stakes tests conducted in previous years.  An issue with debris interacting with internal circuit boards has caused maneuvering thrusters to fail to fire in a number of test exercises.

As a result of this issue, the five-foot-long kill vehicles launched from the GMD’s missiles have failed to come to within the intended distance to target mandated by test parameters, leading to a policy that suggests firing four to five GMD missile interceptors at any single ICBM launched at the United States.  Previous failures and this policy have prompted many to question how capable the United States’ domestic missile defense systems really are.  The issues have reportedly been resolved in later models of the GMD interceptor missiles, but a full two-thirds of missiles currently deployed in defense of the U.S. mainland are said to still be the outdated version.

Thanks to the results provided by an MDA press release, it would seem those concerns could have been unfounded.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, working alongside the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, and U.S. Northern Command, announced their success late Tuesday evening.  The test saw an ICBM armed with a mock-nuclear warhead launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Soon after launch, “Multiple sensors provided target acquisition and tracking data to the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communication (C2BMC) system. The Sea-Based X-band radar, positioned in the Pacific Ocean, also acquired and tracked the target. The GMD system received the target tracking data and developed a fire control solution to intercept the target,” per the press release.

Once the tracking data had been analyzed, a ground based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, CaliforniaThe interceptor traveled into low earth orbit, where it released an exo-atmospheric kill vehicle.  The kill vehicle measures approximately five feet long and uses small thrusters to adjust course in order to ensure it successfully intercepts its target.

The kill vehicle successfully impacted the ICBM outside the earth’s atmosphere somewhere above the Pacific Ocean.

“The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this program,” said MDA Director Vice Adm. Jim Syring. “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. I am incredibly proud of the warfighters who executed this test and who operate this system every day.”

Despite the GMD successfully intercepting an ICBM for the first time ever, however, some experts remain unconvinced that the GMD system is ready to protect the United States from a real attack.

“It marks two successes in a row, which is significant, but only two hits out of the last five attempts; that is, only a 40% success rate since early 2010,” said Philip E. Coyle, a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation.

“In school, 40% isn’t a passing grade,” added Coyle, who was once in charge of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation. “Based on its testing record, we cannot rely upon this missile defense program to protect the United States from a North Korean long-range missile.”

North Korea’s recent bout of missile tests have demonstrated a longer range capability than was previously assumed, as well as the technical capability to maneuver a warhead’s atmospheric reentry; both important steps toward fielding a truly global-strike capable ballistic missile.  Experts have suggested that at least one of North Korea’s recently tested platforms could be used as a single stage in a larger missile that may even be able to reach the mainland United States.

Despite concerns about the GMD, Tuesday’s successful test has to be considered a victory, both in terms of demonstrating America’s capability to defend itself, and in sending a message to Kim’s regime about any potential leverage the development of an ICBM may allot them on the world’s stage.  Kim Jong Un hopes becoming a nuclear power will force unfriendly nations to the negotiating table, but American systems with the capability to blow the best Kim can muster out of the air may take some of the wind out of his nuclear sails.


Image courtesy of ABC News