In a move that could have ramifications for defending the United States from North Korean nuclear weapons, the U.S. said Monday that it had successfully conducted a “salvo” intercept of an intercontinental ballistic missile-class target — the first test of its kind.
The U.S. Missile Defense Agency said that two ground-based interceptors (GBI) in California were used in the test, which struck the mock target over the Pacific. It said one destroyed the target’s re-entry vehicle, while the other “then looked at the resulting debris and remaining objects, and, not finding any other re-entry vehicles, selected the next ‘most lethal object’ it could identify, and struck that.”
The target was launched from a test site in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific, some 6,400 km (4,000 miles) from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where the interceptors were launched, the MDA said.
MDA Director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves hailed the test, calling it a “critical milestone.”
“This was the first GBI salvo intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target,” Greaves said in a statement. “The system worked exactly as it was designed to do, and the results of this test provide evidence of the practicable use of the salvo doctrine within missile defense.”
The idea of employing a salvo intercept is meant to boost the chances of striking an incoming missile. In an actual combat scenario, such a missile could deploy decoys and other measures designed to help the re-entry vehicle that holds the warhead avoid being destroyed by the interceptor.
Although Greaves said that the test demonstrated that the U.S. has “a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat,” some observers have voiced skepticism, saying the military remains far away from creating a defense that can protect against an unexpected incoming launch of multiple missiles or a launch that includes decoys and multiple re-entry vehicles.
In 2017, North Korea flight-tested two models of ICBMs, which are defined by the U.S. government as any ballistic missile with a range capability in excess of 5,500 km. Experts believe at least one of those North Korean designs are capable of hitting most, if not all, of the continental United States.
Since the test of its last ICBM, the Hwasong-15, in November 2017, Pyongyang has held to a self-imposed moratorium on flight-testing any longer-range missiles.
But after U.S. President Donald Trump’s second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jon Un in Hanoi ended in deadlock, it remains uncertain how long this testing halt will continue.
Trump in January unveiled a bolstered U.S. missile defense strategy that labeled Pyongyang an ongoing and “extraordinary threat” despite his earlier claim that the threat posed by the North had been eliminated after his first summit with Kim in Singapore last June.