US aims for new missile-interception test
The US plans to carry out a new test of its missile defence system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile in the next few days, two US officials have said, as tensions with North Korea increase.
Despite being planned months ago, the US missile defence test will gain significance in the wake of North Korea’s launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile on Tuesday, which has heightened concerns about a threat from Pyongyang.
The test will be the first of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (Thaad) to defend against a simulated attack by an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), one of the officials said. The Thaad interceptors will be fired from Alaska.
The US has Thaad interceptors in Guam that are meant to help guard against a missile attack from a country such as North Korea.
The officials, who disclosed to Reuters the precise nature and timing of the upcoming test, spoke on condition of anonymity.
The US Missile Defence Agency confirmed that it aimed to carry out a Thaad flight test “in early July”.
Agency spokesperson Chris Johnson said the Thaad weapon system at Pacific Spaceport Complex – Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska, would “detect, track and engage a target with a Thaad interceptor”.
“The test is designated as flight test Thaad – FTT-18,” Johnson said. He did not elaborate.
Still, in recent testimony to Congress, Vice-Admiral James Syring, then the director of the Missile Defence Agency, said FTT-18 would aim to demonstrate Thaad’s ability to intercept an IRBM target.
The Missile Defence Agency said Thaad had a 100% successful track record in its 13 flight tests since 2006.
Thaad is a ground-based missile defence system designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor for the Thaad system, said it had the ability to intercept incoming missiles, both inside and outside Earth’s atmosphere.
This year’s US deployment of Thaad in South Korea to guard against North Korea’s shorter-range missiles has also drawn fierce criticism from China, which says the system’s powerful radar can probe deep into its territory.
Earlier this month, Moscow and Beijing, in a joint statement, called on Washington to immediately halt deployment of Thaad in South Korea.
The statement said Washington was using North Korea as a pretext to expand its military infrastructure in Asia and risked upsetting the strategic balance of power in the region.
Thaad’s success rate in testing is far higher than the one for the US’s Ground-based Midcourse Defence system (GMD), the system specifically designed to shoot down an ICBM headed for the US mainland.
That GMD system has only a 55% success rate over the life of the programme. But advocates note that the technology has improved dramatically in recent years. In a key development, the GMD system successfully shot down an incoming simulated North Korean ICBM in a test in May.
That led the Pentagon to upgrade its assessment of the US’s ability to defend against a small number of ICBMs, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.
The Missile Defence Agency last month told Congress that it planned to deliver 52 more Thaad interceptors to the US army between October and September next year.
In a sign of US congressional concern about missile defence, several legislators filed amendments to a defence policy bill on Friday that addressed North Korea. Republican representative Don Young, whose home state Alaska is seen as especially vulnerable to a North Korea threat, asked for more ground-based interceptors for his state.
Democratic representatives John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee, along with Republican Walter Jones, filed an amendment to the annual National Defence authorization Act, saying that nothing in the bill should be construed as authorising the use of force against North Korea.
The full House of Representatives is due to consider the bill, and its amendments, next week.