Articles

US 'kill vehicle' test destroys ballistic missile in space

The Pentagon's oft-criticized missile defense program has scored a triumph, destroying a mock warhead over the Pacific Ocean with an interceptor that is key to protecting U.S. territory from a North Korean attack.


Vice Adm. Jim Syring, director of the Pentagon agency in charge of developing the missile defense system, called the test result "an incredible accomplishment" and a critical milestone for a program hampered by setbacks over the years.

"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," Syring said in a written statement announcing the test result.

Despite the success, the $244 million test did not confirm that under wartime conditions the U.S. could intercept an intercontinental-range missile fired by North Korea. Pyongyang is understood to be moving closer to the capability of putting a nuclear warhead on such an ICBM and could develop decoys sophisticated enough to trick an interceptor into missing the real warhead.

The test-fire of Pukguksong-2. This photo was released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on February 13. | KCNA/Handout

Syring's agency sounded a note of caution.

"Initial indications are that the test met its primary objective, but program officials will continue to evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test," his statement said.

Philip E. Coyle, a former head of the Pentagon's test and evaluation office and a senior fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said the May 30 outcome was a significant success for a test that was three years in preparation, but he noted that it was only the second success in the last five intercept attempts since 2010.

"In several ways, this test was a $244 million-dollar baby step, a baby step that took three years," Coyle said.

The previous intercept test, in June 2014, was successful, but the longer track record is spotty. Since the system was declared ready for potential combat use in 2004, only four of nine intercept attempts have been successful.

"This is part of a continuous learning curve," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, ahead of the current test. The Pentagon is still incorporating engineering upgrades to its missile interceptor, which has yet to be fully tested in realistic conditions.

North Korean anti-air missile on parade in Pyongyang.

North Korea says its nuclear and missile programs are a defense against perceived U.S. military threats. Its accelerating missile development has complicated Pentagon calculations, most recently by incorporating solid-fuel technology into its rockets. The step would mean even less launch warning time for the United States. Liquid fuel is less stable and rockets using it have to be fueled in the field, a process that takes longer and can be detected by satellites.

Underscoring its uninterrupted efforts, North Korea fired a short-range ballistic missile on May 29, 2017 that landed in Japan's maritime economic zone.

In the May 30 U.S. test, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency launched an interceptor rocket from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The target was an intercontinental-range missile fired from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.

According to the plan, a 5-foot-long "kill vehicle" released from atop the interceptor zeroed in on the ICBM-like target's mock warhead outside Earth's atmosphere and obliterated it by sheer force of impact, the Pentagon said. The "kill vehicle" carries no explosives, either in testing or in actual combat.

The target was a custom-made missile meant to simulate an ICBM, meaning it flew faster than missiles used in previous intercept tests, according to Christopher Johnson, the Missile Defense Agency's spokesman. It was not a mock-up of an actual North Korean ICBM, and details of its exact capabilities weren't made public.

Officially known as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, the Pentagon likens the defensive tactic to hitting a bullet with a bullet. With congressional support, the Pentagon is increasing the number of deployed interceptors, based in California and Alaska, to 44 from the current total of 36 by the end of 2017.

A ground-based interceptor was launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and its exo-atmospheric kill vehicle intercepted and destroyed the target in a direct collision. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Robert Volio)

While the May 30 test wasn't designed with the expectation of an imminent North Korean missile threat, the military wants progress toward the stated goal of being able to shoot down a small number of ICBMs targeting the United States.

Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has criticized the missile defense program, called the interceptor an "advanced prototype," meaning it is not fully matured technologically even if it has been deployed and theoretically available for combat since 2004. A successful test on May 30, she said, could demonstrate the Pentagon is on the right track with its latest technical fixes.

"Overall," she wrote in an analysis prior to the test, the military "is not even close to demonstrating that the system works in a real-world setting."

The interceptors are, in essence, the last line of U.S. defense against an attack by an intercontinental-range missile.

The Pentagon has other elements of missile defense that have shown to be more reliable, although they are designed to work against medium-range or shorter-range ballistic missiles. These include the Patriot missile, which numerous countries have purchased from the U.S., and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which the U.S. deployed this year to South Korea to defend against medium-range missiles from North Korea.

Featured

Meet the Mighty 25: Influencers Supporting the Military Community in 2018

Throughout the year, the team at We Are The Mighty has the privilege of learning about and meeting people doing extraordinary things in the military-veteran community. This is the inspiration behind our annual Mighty 25: Influencers Supporting the Military Community in 2018 — a list of individuals who are making a difference for military service members, veterans, and their families.

This year, we expanded our list to include not just veterans, prior service members, and reservists, but also civilians who are doing exemplary work in this community.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This is earth's real first line of defense against asteroid strikes

To be big enough to kill all life on Earth, all an asteroid has to do is kick up enough dust to cloud the atmosphere, change the climate, and cause a global extinction. To do so, the asteroid must be larger than 270 meters across — and there are millions of asteroids that size relatively close to Earth. How do we defend against random destruction or an extinction-level event?

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

The hilarious way an Israeli spy convinced Syria to help Israel

There's nothing funny about the tragic way Eli Cohen's life ended. Shortly after returning to Israel to see the birth of his third child, he was caught in the act of transmitting intelligence by radio from his apartment. He was then hanged in May, 1965. His life as a spy put him at constant risk of discovery and execution. But before he was caught, Cohen changed the game for the IDF in the Middle East. He did it by convincing Syria its troops were too hot.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

7 mind hacks Navy SEALs use to take on everything

From day one, Navy SEAL training requires complete dedication from your body and your mind. You can prepare your body for the physical toll BUD/S will exact on you, but mental preparation is something else altogether. Navy SEALs gave out some of their mental preparation hacks that not only got them through training, but also through the high operations tempo SEALs face these days.

Keep reading... Show less
Lists

5 things boots need to do before earning the squad's trust

Squads are the most fundamental part of the military. While you can generally get by with having an issue with someone else in the company, a squad can't function unless everyone is on the same level.

It takes years to earn someone's trust to the point of knowing, without a shadow of a doubt, that they have your back. To get the new guys in the squad up to speed, they'll have to be given a crash course in earning it.

Keep reading... Show less
Articles

This soldier risked everything to save his friend in Tal Afar

Gary Villalobos left his civilian life to join the United States Army. By 2005, he found himself in Tal Afar, Iraq, as Sgt. First Class Villalobos. It was there he learned the true meaning of fear — and what it takes to overcome that fear to try and save one of his own.

Keep reading... Show less
Entertainment

5 questions we have after watching 'Full Metal Jacket'

In 1987, Warner Brothers released Full Metal Jacket, a film that follows a young Marine as he endures the hardships of basic training and gets thrust immediately into the brutality of the Vietnam War.

This film, which is hailed as one of history's most powerful, is a hit especially among service members. As with any movie, questions pop up into our minds as the story plays out and we're left wondering long after the credits roll. Since it's very doubtful the film will ever get a sequel, let's talk about a few questions that we don't think the movie ever answered.

Keep reading... Show less

When the USDA protected the US military it changed the world

For over 75 years, USDA scientists have been developing ways to protect the U.S. military around the world from powerful adversaries — mosquitoes and other biting arthropods that cause disease. Their work began in 1942 in a small USDA field laboratory in Orlando, where scientists made key discoveries about new chemicals for controlling these pests. At the time, the most effective repellents lasted only 2 hours, and the U.S. military needed a repellent that could protect for 10 hours. In 1952, testing in Orlando confirmed DEET was an effective repellent; it was soon adopted for use by the U.S. Army, became commercially available by 1957 — and is still used widely today.

Keep reading... Show less