The U.S. Navy destroyed a mock intercontinental ballistic missile over the Pacific Ocean early Tuesday morning in a successful test of America’s experimental missile defence system, according to press releases from the U.S. Missile Defence Agency and defence contractor Raytheon. The new test was notable for destroying a target missile while it was outside Earth’s atmosphere, an incredibly difficult task that several countries have been working on for decades.
The inert target ICBM was launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defence Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll, part of the Marshall Islands, around 7:50 p.m. Hawaii time on Monday, or shortly after midnight on the East Coast of the U.S. The ICBM was launched toward the ocean northeast of Hawaii, simulating a nuclear missile attack from Asia.
While the new U.S. anti-missile test will likely be perceived as a deterrent against nuclear-armed nations like North Korea and China, the test was conducted shortly after a new report from the New York Times revealed U.S. President Donald Trump has been exploring different military options against Iran following his electoral defeat last week. Trump has still not conceded the presidential election, though president-elect Joe Biden is scheduled to take office on January 20.
Tuesday’s test, dubbed Flight Test Aegis Weapon System-44 (FTM-44), involved a launch of Raytheon’s latest anti-missile weapon, known as the SM-3 Block IIA, from a Navy destroyer in the Pacific, which successfully hit the target ICBM. The SM-3 anti-missile devices do not contain an explosive and instead contain a “hit-to-kill” warhead designed to destroy the target by simply colliding with it.
The FTM-44 exercise was originally scheduled for May but had to be delayed over staffing concerns around the covid-19 pandemic, according to the U.S. Missile Defence Agency. The Navy was mandated by U.S. Congress to test the SM-3 Block IIA before the end of the year.
Previous versions of the SM-3, including the Block IA and 1B, were smaller and had less fuel, which hindered its ability to reach targets outside Earth’s atmosphere. The new Block IIA was developed jointly with the Japanese government.
U.S. Missile Defence Agency released animated video today, dated October 30, of how the anti-missile system works. Actual photos and videos of the test had not been released as of early Tuesday morning.
The U.S. military has conducted several exo-atmospheric (outside the atmosphere) tests with the SM-3, according to Raytheon, but this is the first acknowledged to be successful at destroying a target in space.
How much does all of this cost? The latest request from the Missile Defence Agency for this particular missile defence system was $US1.8 ($2) billion for next year alone, according to a November 11 report from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service.
“This was an incredible accomplishment and critical milestone for the Aegis BMD SM-3 Block IIA program,” Missile Defence Agency director, Vice Admiral Jon Hill, said in a press release.
“The Department is investigating the possibility of augmenting the Ground-based Midcourse Defence system by fielding additional sensors and weapon systems to hedge against unexpected developments in the missile threat,” Hill continued.
“We have demonstrated that an Aegis BMD-equipped vessel equipped with the SM-3 Block IIA missile can defeat an ICBM-class target, which is a step in the process of determining its feasibility as part of an architecture for layered defence of the homeland. My congratulations to the entire test team, including our military and industry partners, who helped us to achieve this milestone.”