US tests ICBM interceptor for the first time

A missile is fired from Vandenburg AFB to intercept a mock ICBM. Image courtesy of the Missile Defense Agency.
A missile is fired from Vandenburg AFB to intercept a mock ICBM. Image courtesy of the Missile Defense Agency.

The United States has successfully tested for the first time a system designed to defend the country against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

A mock ICBM was launched from the Marshall Islands and flew over thousands of kilometers towards the US mainland before being intercepted mid-flight by another missile fired from the US Air Force base in Vandenberg, California.

Over the course of the flight, the test ICBM was tracked and targeted by the massive floating ‘Sea-Based X-band radar’, positioned in the Pacific Ocean.

By all accounts, the test was a complete success, with the interceptor directly colliding with and destroying the mock rocket.

If the missile had contained a nuclear warhead, this would have been destroyed in the collision without a nuclear detonation occurring.

The system itself, called the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), has been under development for more than two decades, and after billions of dollars of investment is nearing operational capacity.

Once fully functional, the GMD will be able to intercept the kind of ICBMs which could be used to deliver nuclear weapons to the US.

“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 Missile Defense Agency director Vice Admiral 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.”

This week’s test has been widely seen as a response to the accelerated missile and nuclear test program carried out by North Korea this year.

Missile defense still questionable

Despite this test, many questions remain regarding the viability and cost-effectiveness of ballistic missile defense.

Most notably, the system requires a vast number of advanced components to work perfectly together in unison in order for it to be functional. In a real world wartime scenario, such systems could face massive disruption.

As well, adversaries of the US are already developing a wide range of ways to avoid or counter the GMD and similar systems, through measures such as stealth projectiles, long range low-flying cruise missiles, and hypersonic glide vehicles.