The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) conducted its first test of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system’s Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)-like target, the agency said on Tuesday.

The MDA launched an ICBM-range target from Kwjalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands that was tested against a GBI launched from Vandenburg Air Force Base, Calif, the home of four interceptors. This test, designated Flight Test Ground-Based Interceptor (FTG)-15, is notable because it is the first test of the GMD against an ICBM-class target in range and speed.

Ground-based Interceptor Photo: Defense Department
Ground-based Interceptor
Photo: Defense Department

The target was launched from the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands. After launch multiple sensors provided target acquisition and tracking data to GMD’s Command, Control, Battle Management and Communication system, MDA said. The Sea-Based X-band radar in the Pacific Ocean also acquired and tracked the target.

Next, the GMD system received this tracking data and developed a fire control solution to intercept the target, MDA said. Then a GBI was launched from the California site, and its exo-atmospheric kill vehicle “intercepted and destroyed the target in a direct collision,” the agency announced.

“The intercept of a complex, threat-representative ICBM target is an incredible accomplishment for the GMD system and a critical milestone for this program,” MDA Director Vice Adm. Jim Syring, said in a statement.

The agency noted that while initial indications are that the test met its primary objective, “program officials will continue to evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test.”

The test will provide the agency with the data needed to assess the performance of the GMD system, MDA said.

The MDA conducted FTG-15 in cooperation with the Air Force 30th Space Wing, the Joint Functional Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, and U.S. Northern Command.

This test comes a day after North Korea reportedly launched a shorter-range Scud-type missile that landed in the Sea of Japan, inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Earlier in May, North Korea launched a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) capable of potentially reaching U.S. military bases on Guam. This missile reportedly was launched in a “lofted” manner, meaning it was shot over 1,000 miles high to test its performance and range.

This kind of launch allowed North Korea to test the missile without flying over Japan, which a more optimal distance-type trajectory would likely do.

The MDA classifies an ICBM as having ranges over 3,400 miles.

This test was also the first to feature the Capability Enhancement-II (CE-II) Block 1 kill vehicle. It uses newly-designed divert thrusters, the motors that make course adjustments for the kill vehicle before contact with the target. Previous thrusters caused vibrations that interfered with the kill vehicle properly making contact with the target.

Skeptics of the U.S. missile defense system wrote in advance of the test that a successful result would have limited value and the overall system has big flaws.

Laura Grego, from the Union of Concerned Scientists, wrote in a blog post yesterday that the GMD system is “still essentially an advanced prototype. It has serious reliability issues. In 9 of the 17 intercept tests since 1999, the kill vehicle failed to destroy the target.”

A February 2017 MDA Fact Sheet detailed the nine failures, which include malfunctioning sensors, the kill vehicle and booster not separating, interceptors failing to launch, and a guidance error in the final seconds of flight.

The last successful test before today’s was FTG-06b in June 2014.

Grego highlighted frequent criticisms, that the test success record does not appear to be getting notably better over time and that all of the tests “have still not been done under realistic conditions.”

“Even if the test is successful, it is very important to look holistically at the capabilities of the system and what has actually been demonstrated. While this test may demonstrate that the Missile Defense Agency is on the right track with the fixes to the kill vehicle, overall it is not even close to demonstrating that the system works in a real-world setting,” she added in a second blog post.

Kingston Reif, director for Disarmament and Threat Reduction Policy at the Arms Control Association, also recently wrote that “while missile defense has a role to play as part of a comprehensive strategy to combat the North Korean missile threat, it’s neither as capable nor as significant as many seem to hope.”

A 2016 report from the Defense Department’s Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation said the GMD system has demonstrated a “limited capacity to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” 

The report also said the reliability and availability of the operational GBIs is low “and the MDA continues to discover new failure modes during testing.”

Boeing [BA] is the prime contractor for GMD, Orbital ATK [OA] is the main contractor for the boost vehicle, Raytheon [RTN] produces the exo-atmospheric kill vehicles, and Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the contractor for fire control and communications.