The Pentagon’s newest ballistic missile interceptor successfully destroyed a test missile off the coast of Hawaii late Wednesday. It’s a first for the latest upgrade to the America’s — and NATO’s — main defense against a missile attack from North Korea or Iran, assuming one ever comes.
According to the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, the test involved a short-range target missile launched shortly after 8:00 p.m. Hawaiian time from the military’s Kauai-based Pacific Missile Range. The target missile then blasted out over the Pacific Ocean, where it was tracked by the Aegis cruiser U.S.S Lake Erie, and then destroyed in mid-flight with a “kinetic” interceptor launched from the ship, “using only the force of a direct impact,” the Pentagon’s statement read. That means the test missile was brought down by blunt-force trauma — termed “hit to kill” — by the interceptor.
“The [interceptor] does not have a warhead. It’s a kill vehicle, and it maneuvers into the path of the threat, and the threat is destroyed by the kinetic energy of the impact,” Wes Kremer, vice president of Air and Missile Defense Systems for Raytheon, told Danger Room. “So there’s no warhead, it can’t be a near miss, and then it blows up; so it’s literally a skin-to-skin contact between the kill vehicle and the target.”
But an open question is whether interceptor, called the Standard Missile-3 Block 1B, could have made contact with the missile’s warhead. Skeptics of the Block 1B’s predecessor, the Block 1A, raised concerns several years ago that by striking the body of incoming missiles and not the warheads, the missiles might remain intact and continue on their way to impact. In other words, the interceptor could (potentially) blast a hole through the missile’s body so fast, the missile wouldn’t even notice. Either way, wherever the interceptor hit Wednesday’s test missile didn’t seem to matter. “We know precisely where it hit,” Kremer said “I can’t go into details other than to say it was a lethal intercept.”
The test might also make up for production delays from the interceptor’s manufacturer, Raytheon, after an earlier test unceremoniously failed in September. At the least, it’s something to show off at NATO’s upcoming summit this month in Chicago, where a formal announcement for Europe’s first operational missile defense shield is expected.
“We did have a failure back in September, so this was a repeat of that test,” Kremer said. “We worked very closely with the Missile Defense Agency and with Congress, and this is the first in a series of tests that will get us to the full-rate production go-ahead for the SM-3 1B. We are still on track to be able to deploy this in time for 2015 to meet our commitments to phase two of the Phase Adaptive Approach.”
What makes the Block IB different from its predecessor is a device called a two-color infrared seeker, which expands the interceptor’s range and helps it find its target more quickly. Block IB is also more maneuverable, owing to “a more flexible throttleable divert and attitude control system” according to the Pentagon statement.
On the other hand, it’s not sophisticated enough to bring down intercontinental ballistic missiles (last night’s test missile was closer to a medium-range Scud), which might render it moot in a hypothetical future nuclear exchange with Iran. It’s also only good for hitting missiles in mid-course. It can’t hit missiles just after takeoff or just before impact. An older, smaller system — the SM-2 — is being used for the latter. This means the Obama administration’s plans for a “phased adaptive” missile defense program — which gradually scales Europe’s missile defense shield upwards — might have a cut-off point that’s more limited in scope than the administration would like.
As of right now, the SM-3 system and its planned follow-up, the SM-6, have further upgrades planned. They’re also expected to be installed on more ships like the Lake Erie and the U.S.S. Monterrey, currently deployed to the Mediterranean with the SM-3 interceptor missiles on board. And by 2020, the upgrades should have progressed to the point to be able to stop intercontinental missiles — but that’s a big maybe.
In the meantime, two more tests for the Block 1B are scheduled for later this year. And with the near-inevitability of some kind of missile defense shield over Europe implemented in the coming years, the systems better work.