WASHINGTON (CN) – The Pentagon reached an important milestone in its missile defense system late Tuesday when it successfully intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile for the first time over the Pacific Ocean.
Although the $40 billion U.S. ground-based midcourse defense system, or GDM, has a spotty track record the director of the Missile Defense Agency called the test “an incredible accomplishment.”
“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,” Vice Adm. Jim Syring’s statement announcing the test result said.
The Pentagon fired the mock ICBM-class missile from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, while the Pentagon Missile Defense Agency launched the interceptor from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The $244 million test came amid growing worry over rapid advancements in North Korea’s missile program and on the heels of a decade of U.S. missile tests plagued by setbacks.
President Reagan had pushed for a multibillion-dollar missile defense system during the Cold War to defend against Soviet missile threats, but U.S. efforts have recently turned toward North Korea amid threats from the country’s leader Kim Jong un, who has vowed to develop and deploy a nuclear-armed missile that can reach U.S. territory.
The North Korean leader has said its missile programs are needed to defend against perceived U.S. military threats.
During a press briefing Tuesday ahead of the test, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman spoke about why the U.S. is conducting the test.
“Ballistic missile proliferation continues to be a concern for us as countries acquire a greater number of ballistic missiles that are increasing their range,” Davis said. “They’re incorporating ballistic missile defense countermeasures and making them more complex, survivable, reliable and accurate,” he added.
According to Davis, the test was not timed to coincide with increasing tensions with North Korea but he said the country’s growing missile capability is one of the reasons why the U.S. continues to develop its ballistic missile defense system.
However, since 2004 the GDM has succeeded only 40 percent of time, sinking incoming missiles on only 9 of 17 tries.
According to the Missile Defense Agency, which developed and tests the system, the interceptor works by firing a rocket into space after a hostile missile launch is detected. It then releases a 5-foot-long “exo-atmospheric kill vehicle” into the path of the incoming missile, utilizing internal guidance systems.
The incoming missile is destroyed by the force of a direct impact.
Despite Tuesday’s success, Phillip Coyle of the Center for Arms Control sounded a note of caution about the test result, noting that it marks only the second success since 2010 out of five attempts.
“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,” Coyle, the former head of the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, said in a statement.
“If anything, overreliance on missile defenses could impede diplomatic efforts that could avoid a dangerous confrontation,” Coyle added.
Coyle called the test a “baby step that took three years.”
One wildcard in the equation revolves around recent developments in North Korea’s missile capability. The country has incorporated solid-fuel technology into its rockets, which enables a quicker launch and would give U.S. satellites less time to detect an incoming missile, which would mean less launch warning time.
Despite the ongoing setbacks, Syring said initial indications show the test had met its objectives.
“Program officials will continue to evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test,” Syring said.
On Monday, North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile from its eastern coast, which landed in Japan’s maritime economic zone.