A U.S. interceptor scored a direct hit and appeared to result in the "complete obliteration" of a mock warhead over the Pacific Ocean in what the Pentagon said Wednesday was a realistic test that mirrored the missile threat from North Korea and Iran.
Vice Adm. Jim Syring, director of the Defense Department's Missile Defense Agency, told Pentagon reporters that the test included decoys and replicated a very specific scenario in the Pacific.
"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.
Tuesday's test was a critical milestone for a program that has been hampered by setbacks over the years, he said.
Despite the success, the $244 million test didn't confirm that under wartime conditions the U.S. could intercept an intercontinental-range missile fired by North Korea. The North is understood to be moving closer to the capability of putting a nuclear warhead on such an ICBM and could develop decoys sophisticated enough to trick an interceptor into missing the real warhead.
Syring, however, said that the test was based on intelligence projections of where the missile threat to the United States would be in 2020. He said the results show that the U.S. program is progressing "ahead of where we believe the threat will go in terms of complexity, countermeasures and consideration for capacity down the road."
Philip E. Coyle, a former head of the Pentagon's test and evaluation office and a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the outcome was a significant success for a test that was three years in preparation. Still, he noted it was only the second success in the last five intercept attempts since 2010.
"In several ways, this test was a $244 million-dollar baby step, a baby step that took three years," Coyle said.
The most recent intercept test, in June 2014, was successful, but the longer track record is spotty. Since the system was declared ready for potential combat use in 2004, only four of nine intercept attempts have been successful.
North Korea says its nuclear and missile programs are a defense against perceived U.S. military threats. Its accelerating missile development has complicated Pentagon calculations, most recently by incorporating solid-fuel technology into its rockets. The step would mean even less launch warning time for the United States. Liquid fuel is less stable and rockets using it have to be fueled in the field, a process that takes longer and can be detected by satellites.
Underscoring its uninterrupted efforts, North Korea on Monday fired a short-range ballistic missile that landed in Japan's maritime economic zone.
In the U.S. test, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency launched an interceptor rocket from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The target was an intercontinental-range missile fired from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, and the U.S. used radars in the Pacific and overhead to track it. Syring said there was no homing beacon of any type on the missile.
According to the plan, a 5-foot-long "kill vehicle" released from atop the interceptor zeroed in on the ICBM-like target's mock warhead outside Earth's atmosphere and obliterated it by sheer force of impact, the Pentagon said. The "kill vehicle" carries no explosives, either in testing or in actual combat.
Because much of program is classified, Syring said he couldn't provide a lot of details about the custom-made target. He said it "flew at a higher altitude and longer range and higher velocity than any other target we've flown to date."
Syring compared the defensive tactic to "hitting a bullet with a bullet." With congressional support, the Pentagon is increasing by the end of this year the number of deployed interceptors, based in California and Alaska, to 44 from the current total of 36.
Syring said the next test will be in the fall of 2018 and involve a mock ICBM as the target. But it will use two interceptors to take out the missile, he said, because in a real life situation, the U.S. would launch more than one rocket to destroy any such threat.