Just two days after the most recent North Korean missile test and amid heightened concerns the unhinged country is inching closer to a long-range missile capable of carrying a nuclear weapon, the Pentagon for the first time will attempt to destroy a target simulating the speed and range of a potential North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile.
“It will test the system against an ICBM-type target and will represent the longest intercept test of a target to date in the program,” said Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency.
In Tuesday’s test an unarmed rocket will lift off from the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean, representing a would-be North Korean threat. An intercepting missile is then set to blast off from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base north of Los Angeles, on a mission to take out the dummy target over the Pacific Ocean.
In the final stage, hundreds of miles above earth, a “kill vehicle” will close in on the target, navigating through space with thrusters powered by real-time ground updates. Ultimately, it will attempt to destroy the target by sheer velocity; both vehicles will be moving at thousands of miles per hour.
“I have complete confidence in the system and the warfighters operating the system,” Syring told Fox News in a rare interview at his headquarters at Fort Belvoir, Va.
“This is the hardest thing that the Pentagon has ever tried to do,” said Phillip Coyle, an expert with the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation and a former official in the Pentagon weapons testing office. Coyle, one of the most vocal critics of the interceptor program, says it needs more development and testing.
“I think they’re trying to put their best foot forward for the program,” he said. “But they have a long way to go.”
Faced with the threat of an enemy state gaining control of long-range weapons, the Pentagon quickly deployed the interceptor system in 2004, long before development and testing were complete.
“Fielding a capability was more important than waiting years to field a capability later,” Syring said. “It was…better for the agency at the time to field the capability as a deterrent and a contingency against a possible North Korean ICBM, with the direction to improve it over time and to fill out the architecture, which we’ve done.”
Thirty-six interceptors stand guard at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, AK. By the end of 2017, the Pentagon plans to have forty-four.