The Pentagon released video footage Wednesday showing the exact moment a U.S. “kill vehicle” intercepted and destroyed a mock intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) as it flew outside the atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean.
The target, designed to simulate what might be launched by North Korea or Iran, looks to have been completely destroyed, according to Vice Adm. Jim Syring, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency Wednesday.
Syring told reporters that his agency will spend the next month analyzing the data from the $244 million test, including locating the exact spot where the kill vehicle impacted the mock ballistic missile.
“All our systems performed exactly as designed,” he said, adding that the test was “very realistic.”
The kill vehicle, or external kill vehicle (EKV), is a five-foot-long device that is jettisoned from a ground-launched missile before colliding with the incoming ICBM. The kill vehicle uses onboard sensors and thrusters, along with data from the ground, to rapidly calculate the direction and speed needed to find and destroy the incoming warhead. The EKV uses kinetic energy, not explosives, to destroy its target.
In this case, the EKV and its adjoining missile were fired at around 3:30 p.m. Tuesday from Vandenburg Airbase, Calif., and collided with the test ICBM roughly an hour later. The test ICBM was fired from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands. The string of islands and tiny atolls was the site of more than 65 nuclear tests during the Cold War.
The entire program is called the ground-based midcourse defense (GMD) system, and it uses a wide array of radar and sensors as well as ground-launched missiles to help intercept ICBMs. Tuesday’s test involved a gigantic floating radar dish in the Pacific, called the X-Band radar, to help target the missile.
The roughly $40 billion program was declared operational in 2004 and has had mixed success. The GMD began test intercepts in the late 1990s and gained new relevance as North Korea began to develop an ICBM capable of hitting the United States.
Syring said that current projections based off of intelligence reports indicate that the GMD could handle any threat launched by a U.S. adversary through 2020.
“I was confident before the test that we had the capability to defeat any threat that they would throw at us. And I’m even more confident today after seeing the intercept test yesterday that we continue to be on that course,” Syring said.
Philip E. Coyle, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation who formerly headed the Pentagon’s office of operational test and evaluation, said that the test was barely realistic and voiced doubts about the overall success of the GMD program.
“Having this success was very important,” Coyle said in a statement. “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 percent success rate since early 2010.”
“In several ways, this test was a $244-million-dollar baby step,” he added.