The US Defense Department announced today that its Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system intercepted an ICBM "threat representative" dummy warhead for the first time. The interceptor missile launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California destroyed the target using an Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) somewhere over the Pacific Ocean in a demonstration of the system's capability to detect, engage, and destroy targets while still in space.

According to the Missile Defence Agency (MDA), this is the first intercept test of the GMD in three years and the first live-fire test event against an ICBM-class target for the system. The test, designated Flight Test Ground-Based Interceptor-15, was a joint operation by the US Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, and US Northern Command.

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During the test, an ICBM was launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. The target was tracked by a Sea-Based X-band radar in the Pacific Ocean and multiple sensors related target acquisition and tracking data to the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communication (BMC3) system, which calculated the fire control solution to intercept the target.

The final intercept was carried out by the Raytheon EKV using an advanced, multi-color sensor to detect the target while its propulsion, communications link, discrimination algorithms, guidance and control system, and computers made the final course corrections for impact. Traveling at hypersonic speed, the EKV used its own kinetic energy rather than explosives to carry out the destruction.

Today's test used a Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (Credit: Raytheon)

The MDA says that all indications are that the exercise was successful, but a final determination will require analysis of telemetry data. The results will be used to determine the overall success of the GMD system and the US missile defenses in general.

The US$40 billion GMD is a key part of the US strategic defense system and includes 32 silo-based missiles at Fort Greely, Alaska and four at Vandenberg, though the Defense Department hopes to expand this to a total of 44 missiles. Its prime contractor is Boeing, with boosters built by Orbital sciences, radar and kill vehicles by Raytheon, and BMC3 by Northrop Grumman.

Today's test is the first to use a dummy warhead launched by an ICBM in a realistic threat scenario. Previous launches were from Kodiak, Alaska. These used smaller boosters and were under more controlled conditions, including feeding trajectory data directly to the interceptor. So far, there have been 10 out of 18 successful intercept tests since 2002.

"The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this program," says MDA Director Navy Vice Adm. Jim Syring. "This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat. I am incredibly proud of the warfighters who executed this test and who operate this system every day."

Today's test is of particular importance because it comes in the shadow of increased tensions between the US and North Korea, which has been firing ballistic missiles into the Sea of Japan. GMD's current deployment is expressly to defend the US West Coast against North Korean missile attacks as well as rogue missile launches by other powers.

Source: DoD

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