In a move that was likely watched closely by nuclear-armed North Korea, a U.S. Navy Aegis-equipped destroyer successfully intercepted a mock intercontinental ballistic missile in a first-of-its-kind test Tuesday.
The U.S. destroyer took part in the test off Hawaii, firing off a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile jointly developed with Japan, to destroy the target launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, some 4,000 kilometers from Hawaii.
"This was an incredible accomplishment and critical milestone for the Aegis BMD SM-3 Block IIA program," Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), said in a statement.
Hill said the interception showed that Aegis warships equipped with the missile "can defeat an ICBM-class target,” calling the breakthrough “a step in the process of determining its feasibility as part of an architecture for layered defense of the homeland.”
The result was also hailed in Tokyo on Wednesday, with the top government spokesman, Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato, telling a news conference that the success "demonstrated the high reliability and capability of the missile, which is the embodiment of excellent Japan-U.S. technologies."
Kato said Japan would "make all-out efforts to deal with ballistic missile threats," adding that SM-3 Block IIA missiles will be deployed in Japan in fiscal 2021 or later.
The latest test could give the next U.S. administration a potent new weapon for defending against North Korean long-range missiles targeting the continental United States.
Equipping Japan-based U.S warships and Maritime Self-Defense Forces vessels with the weapon could allow them to intercept North Korean missiles shortly after launch.
Asked if the mock missile in Tuesday’s test was intended to simulate one developed by North Korea, a spokesman for the MDA told The Japan Times that they “are designed to simulate a threat missile from a rogue nation.”
North Korea has conducted three ICBM tests, including of the Hwasong-15 missile, which it claims can hit all of the continental United States with a nuclear warhead. Analysts, however, are divided as to whether the country has perfected the technology needed to protect the warhead during atmospheric re-entry and accurately deliver the weapon to its intended target.
Last month, Pyongyang also revealed a massive new ICBM during a military parade. Experts say it was likely designed to carry multiple warheads in independent re-entry vehicles — a view echoed by Tokyo.
The “hit-to-kill” interceptor used in Tuesday’s test, developed by Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, has improved maneuverability and offers wider defensive coverage compared to previous missiles carried by Aegis destroyers, according to the MSDF.
The missiles are due to be rolled out and deployed on U.S. and Japanese Aegis vessels, including the MSDF’s newest destroyer, the 8,200-ton, 170-meter Maya. Japan currently boasts a fleet of seven Aegis ships, with that set to expand to eight in 2021.
Last August, the U.S. State Department approved the sale to Japan of up to 73 SM-3 Block IIA missiles for an estimated $3.30 billion.
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