WASHINGTON – The ground-based system of interceptors that the U.S. would use to defend the mainland and Hawaii against a threatened North Korean attack is improving after past setbacks, the Pentagon’s testing office said in a new report.
The $36 billion system “demonstrated the capability to defend the U.S. homeland from a small number” of intermediate range or intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) launched “with simple countermeasures,” Robert Behler, the Defense Department’s new director of operational testing, said in his office’s annual report that was submitted Tuesday to top Pentagon officials.
While Behler carefully hedged his assessment, it’s more optimistic than past reports by his predecessor about the capabilities of the system, which now has 44 defensive missiles deployed in California and Hawaii, with 20 more planned.
Since 2012, the testing office had found that the network of interceptors, sensors and communications links had only a “limited capability” to defend against a small number of ICBMs from an adversary such as North Korea or Iran.
North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has vowed to perfect a nuclear warhead and a missile that could hit the U.S. mainland. The U.S. has led the push to tighten sanctions against North Korea, and President Donald Trump has vowed “fire and fury” if the U.S. is threatened.
Iran says it has no ambitions to obtain nuclear weapons, and its nuclear program is constrained by its 2015 agreement with the U.S. and other world powers. But the Trump administration is pressing European allies to join in new sanctions against Iran’s continued testing of ballistic missiles.
The testing office’s confidence was bolstered by a successful interception in late May of the most realistic target to date replicating a North Korean ICBM. The test used the newest version of Raytheon Corp.’s hit-to-kill warhead equipped with an upgraded in-flight guidance system by Aerojet Rocketdyne Holdings Inc. The weapon was launched from a new three-stage booster from Orbital ATK Inc.
The system “performed without fault,” as the booster “flew as designed and delivered” the warhead “to the proper geographic position with the designed velocity” before the interception of the dummy target, according to the testing office report. “Guidance systems throughout the engagement functioned nominally.”
Behler’s assessment may boost the confidence of lawmakers supporting the Trump administration’s November request for an additional $2.1 billion in missile defense funding in the fiscal 2018 budget for the 20 added interceptors.
The launch of the latest ground-based interceptor was the first since a successful 2014 test — after two that failed in 2010. But all of the tests have been criticized as scripted and artificial by arms-control experts, who point out the they’ve been conducted in daylight and without a barrage of decoys that would confound targeting.
Joe Cirincione, president of the San Francisco-based Ploughshares Fund, which seeks to reduce nuclear weapon stockpiles, said this month that current ground-based interceptors can be “easily defeated with simple countermeasures.”
Boeing Co. manages the missile defense system, while Northrop Grumman Corp. provides the system’s fire control and communications system. Lockheed Martin Corp. provides the communications system that integrates weapons and sensors.
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