The Defense Department conducted the first successful intercept by the Lockheed Martin [LMT] Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system of an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) target, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said Tuesday.

The test, called Flight Test THAAD (FTT)-18, began when an Air Force C-17 air launched a ballistic missile target over the Pacific Ocean north of Hawaii. A THAAD system located at Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska (PSCA) in Kodiak, Alaska, detected, tracked, and intercepted the target, MDA said.

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery fires an interceptor missile. Photo: Lockheed Martin.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery fires an interceptor missile. Photo: Lockheed Martin.

The THAAD radar first detected, acquired, and tracked the target. Then THAAD developed a fire control solution and launched an interceptor to destroy the target’s reentry vehicle by hitting it in a direct collision using kinetic energy, Lockheed Martin said.

THAAD launches a missile to destroy a ballistic missile with kinetic energy alone inside or outside the atmosphere during the target’s terminal (final) flight phase. The United States currently operates six THAAD systems.

The agency noted that preliminary indications show the planned flight objectives were achieved and the IRBM target was intercepted by THAAD. MDA referred to the test target as threat-representative of an IRBM target.

The flight test was executed by the MDA, the Ballistic Missile Defense System Operational Test Agency, and Army soldiers of the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade from Fort Bliss, Texas. Other supporters included elements of the U.S. Army, Joint Forces Component Command for Integrated Missile Defense, U.S. Air Force, U.S. Coast Guard, Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska, DoD Operational Test and Evaluation, and the Army Test and Evaluation Command.

Soldiers from the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade conducted launcher, fire control, and radar operations using procedures they would use in a combat scenario. The MDA highlighted the operators were not aware of actual target launch time.

This was the 14th of 14 successful intercept attempts for THAAD since 2005 and the first with an IRBM target. One THAAD battery is located in Guam, which at about 2,100 miles from North Korea, falls within the 1,800 – 3,100 mile range of IRBMs.

An MDA statement specifically characterized THAAD as bolstering the United States’ defensive capability against missile threats in North Korea and other countries.

A Government Accountability Office report from May noted THAAD was deployed to Guam, serving as a counter-IRBM defense since 2013. However, testing to demonstrate a counter-IRBM capability was delayed until 2017, four years past deployment.

MDA Director Lt. Gen Sam Greaves noted how proud he was of the government and contractor team that executed the test.

“This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats. THAAD continues to protect our citizens, deployed forces and allies from a real and growing threat,” he said in a statement.

“Our THAAD system performed flawlessly in today’s test and we are proud to support the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Army as they demonstrate the system’s unmatched capabilities,” Richard McDaniel, vice president of Upper Tier Integrated Air and Missile Defense Systems at Lockheed Martin, added in a separate statement.

“With this successful test, the THAAD system continues to prove its ability to intercept and destroy many classes of the ballistic missile threat to protect citizens, deployed forces, allies and international partners around the globe,” McDaniel added.