The United States on Sunday intercepted a target ballistic missile, ending a long losing streak of failed tests of its homeland antimissile system.
The test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system took place Sunday over the Pacific and involved a strategic Ground Based Interceptor fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., and an intermediate-range missile target launched from the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands.
Considerable political attention has been focused on the outcome of the test, given that the three most recent intercept attempts all ended in failure. Before Sunday’s test, the last time a Ground Based Interceptor successfully eliminated a target missile was late 2008. Additionally, Sunday’s event marked the first time that a second-generation kinetic kill vehicle mounted atop a GBI missile performed correctly. Both previous missile intercept attempts using the “CE-2” Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle were unsuccessful.
“I am very proud of the government and industry team conducting the test today,” Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, said in a press release. “This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system.”
Syring said the agency would continue with its plans to deploy additional Ground Based Interceptors. The Defense Department last year announced plans to spend $1 billion to field 14 more GBI missiles at Fort Greely in Alaska by 2017, but senior officials have been circumspectin their recent statements about what would happen to those plans if Sunday’s test had been unsuccessful.
The Missile Defense Agency said “initial indications” show that all components in the test — including the interceptor, kill vehicle, an AN/SPY-1 radar onboard the USS Hopper and a sea-based X-band radar system — performed as intended. Over the next few months, program specialists will use telemetric information and other data collected during the test to conduct a more thorough analysis.
Reactions to the test were varied, with longtime proponents of missile defenses saying it validated the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.
U.S. Representative Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chair of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, in an emailed statement called the test “a critical success to rebuild[ing] the reliability of the only system currently deployed to defend our country from the threat of ballistic missile attack.”
“Yesterday’s successful missile intercept test is great news for our nation’s security,” said U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) in a statement to Global Security Newswire. “Ground-based Midcourse Defense is critical to our efforts to protect the U.S. and our allies from rogue and unpredictable nations who seek to do us harm.”
Meanwhile, program skeptics argued that one successful test did not fully assuage concerns about the reliability and efficacy of the antimissile technology.
“I think it means less than it appears. This kill vehicle is only one hit for three attempts and that’s not enough to base a billion-dollar decision to move ahead with expansion,” said Tom Collina, research director at the Arms Control Association, in a Monday phone interview. “They need to do more testing to determine reliability” and move forward with plans to redesign the kill vehicle, he said.
The Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance in a press release asserted that the successful test “reduces the amount of interceptors required to be fired at an incoming long-range ballistic missile, thereby increasing the capability of the limited number of 30 interceptors and reducing the cost of engagement.”
However, Philip Coyle, a former chief Pentagon weapons tester and now a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Nonproliferation, pointed out that the Ground Based Interceptor has never been tested against an intercontinental ballistic missile target even though the system is principally focused on defeating a limited-range ICBM attack.
“In addition, given the difficulties MDA has had with configuration control, and the changes it has made and is planning to make to the [CE-2] kill vehicle, it is far from clear that the performance of the kill vehicle in [Sunday’s] test will be representative of other configurations already deployed and planned for deployment in silos at Fort Greely,” he said in an emailed statement.
Of the 30 interceptors currently fielded at bases in Alaska and California, 10 missiles are equipped with the second-generation kill vehicle. The 14 new interceptors slotted for deployment in Alaska are to be outfitted with the CE-2 version.