CBRN Assessment

US homeland missile defence system scores first ICBM target intercept

31 May 2017

The US homeland missile defence system, known as Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), succeeded in its first ever attempt to intercept a simulated intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) target, according to the Pentagon.

The GMD system has a troubled test record that many attribute to its rushed fielding and 'concurrent' buying and testing acquisition strategy. (US MDA)The GMD system has a troubled test record that many attribute to its rushed fielding and 'concurrent' buying and testing acquisition strategy. (US MDA)

The GMD system is specifically designed to shoot down missiles in the event of a limited North Korean attack against the US homeland. This test was a long-planned event, but GMD is directly linked to Pyongyang's missile programme. North Korea has not yet fielded an ICBM but is expected to begin testing one soon.

The GMD system launches a Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) that boosts a kill vehicle into the exo-atmosphere. The vehicle then separates from the rocket booster near the incoming warhead's path and tries to identify it and then collide with and destroy it.

This test used the latest re-design of the kill vehicle, known as the CE-II Block I, which is meant to fix issues with the original kill vehicle's thrusters that direct it towards the target.

An ICBM-class target was launched from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, and "multiple sensors provided target acquisition and tracking data", the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said in a statement. A GBI was then launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, and "its exo-atmospheric kill vehicle intercepted and destroyed the target in a direct collision", the agency said.

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

GMD's interceptors have had a troubled test record. Both variants of its Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle have suffered problems and failed intercept tests, spurring several short- and long-term upgrade efforts to address reliability and capability shortfalls.

This is the 18th intercept test for GMD since the programme kicked off in 1999, and the 10th since it was declared operational in 2004.

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