A flight test of the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system
Gene Blevins / Reuters
The Pentagon on Tuesday will test shooting down a dummy version of a North Korean missile capable of reaching US cities.
While North Korea doesn't currently have a rocket that could fly that far, the reclusive nation has steadily expanded the range of its missiles in the last decade — and claims it is working on nuclear-capable and sub-based missiles. It last test-fired a missile on May 13, one that travelled 435 miles before splashing down in the Sea of Japan.
The "threat representative class target" dummy missile will test a ground-based interceptor missile system that aims to blow up incoming ballistic missiles in middle part of their flight, according to Missile Defense Agency's Chris Johnson.
"This the first time they will be trying to test against an [inter-continental ballistic missile] class target," physicist Laura Grego, of the Union of Concerned Scientists, told BuzzFeed News. Not only that, the test will be the first flight of an improved "kill vehicle" and an improved booster rocket by the Missile Defense Agency, an $8.3 billion part of the US Department of Defense.
In response to North Korea's improved missiles, the Pentagon has aimed to add to the number of its intercepter missiles in Alaska and California, bringing the total to 44 by the end of the year, from the current 36. The increase comes despite incomplete testing of the system.
"There is a lot of pressure to do something about North Korea but I'm not sure it is building more intercepter missiles that don't work very well," Grego said.
The intercepter will fire from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and the target ICBM will launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. ICBM's travel at least 3,400 miles but the test flight will cover less distance.
North Korea does not now have an ICBM, but is presently working on a KN-14 missile, a two-stage projectile that might develop into one that might threaten the US.
"Most such tests are designed to protect allies. This, however, is about protecting the homeland," a US defense official told BuzzFeed News. "That said, North Korea is nowhere close to comparable ICBM capability."
BuzzFeed News / Peter Aldhous
The last such test was three years ago, and the intercepter missiles have a mixed success rate. Should it fail to hit the ICBM, it will land in a designated debris field in the Pacific Ocean