The United States on Tuesday announced a successful test of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) over the Pacific Ocean in a demonstration likely aimed at reassuring Asian allies nervous about surging tensions with North Korea.
The test, which media reports had characterized as the first use of THAAD to defend against a simulated IRBM attack, came just a week after North Korea said it had launched a long-range missile that experts said is capable of striking parts of Alaska.
Until Tuesday’s test, THAAD had been unproven against IRBMs, missiles that have a range of 3,000 to 5,500 km (1,800 to 3,100 miles).
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said in a statement that the IRBM target was air-launched by a U.S. Air Force C-17 plane near Hawaii and that the THAAD system in Kodiak, Alaska, had “detected, tracked and intercepted the target.”
“The successful demonstration of THAAD against an IRBM-range missile threat bolsters the country’s defensive capability against developing missile threats in North Korea and other countries around the globe and contributes to the broader strategic deterrence architecture,” the MDA statement said.
IRBMs are faster and more difficult to hit than shorter-range missiles, according to experts.
One element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system, THAAD is designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles with ranges shorter than the intercontinental ballistic missile that North Korea launched on July 4.
The North, however, also successfully tested an IRBM, the Hwasong-12, in May. That test saw the missile fly 787 km on a “lofted” trajectory,” hitting an apogee of just over 2,111 km.
Experts have said that the missile could have flown around 4,500 km if fired on a range-maximizing standard trajectory. This range would put the U.S. territory of Guam — home to a major U.S. military base — within striking distance. Guam is approximately 3,400 km (2,100 miles) from North Korea.
In response to the growing North Korean threat, the U.S. military deployed a THAAD battery to Guam in 2013. This became a permanent deployment last year.
Tuesday’s test of THAAD was the 14th successful intercept in 14 attempts for the system, according to the MDA.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the government and contractor team who executed this flight test today,” said MDA Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves. “This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats. THAAD continues to protect our citizens, deployed forces and allies from a real and growing threat.”
The system has been deployed to South Korea — a move that angered China and Russia — but its full deployment was halted in June until an environmental impact assessment ordered by President Moon Jae-in is finished. It was unclear when the assessment would wrap up.
China and Russia both fear the system’s advanced radar could be used to peer into their own territory.
Japan last year was said to be interested in having the U.S. deploy a THAAD system to the country but has appeared to instead shift its focus to the land-based Aegis Ashore system to add another layer to its missile defenses.
THAAD carries no warhead, but relies on the kinetic energy of impact to destroy incoming missiles, with some experts likening it to hitting a bullet with a bullet.
Some critics of THAAD say North Korea could test the system by launching a so-called saturation strike of multiple missiles simultaneously — potentially overwhelming it.
In March, the North test-fired what experts said were likely four extended-range (ER) Scud missiles, with the official Korean Central News Agency issuing an overt claim that the drill was a rehearsal for striking U.S. military bases in Japan.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe characterized that test as “a new level of threat” from the North.