The U.S. missile defense shield got a victory when it needed one most. In a test over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday, a ground-based interceptor fired from California successfully destroyed an intercontinental ballistic missile meant to simulate the sort of attack most likely to come from a nuclear-armed adversary such as North Korea. The high-stakes test, coming close on the heels of North Korean saber-rattling, should reassure those uncertain about U.S. missile defense capabilities — and give ground-based interceptors housed at Fort Greely some needed support.
According to the Missile Defense Agency, Tuesday’s test was the first time the system had faced a live-fire ICBM-class test. In the test, a mock ICBM fired from a base in the Marshall Islands was launched and a ground-based interceptor from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California flew to knock it out. The missile defense shield concept, where the interceptor must detonate close enough to the incoming missile to destroy it, has been likened to hitting a bullet with a bullet, but that’s not an exact analogy — it’s actually harder. ICBMs usually travel at a midcourse velocity of about 2.5 miles per second, which is roughly five times faster than a typical bullet.
In light of the difficulty of a successful intercept, it’s not surprising that the defense shield’s success in testing has been spotty. The interceptor “kill vehicle” has successfully eliminated the dummy warhead in nine of 17 tests so far, with the last test — which was a success — taking place in 2014. But ICBMs were a new wrinkle for the system, and recent missile tests by North Korea indicate the rogue Asian nuclear state is moving toward ICBM capability. With tensions high between North Korea and its neighbors, that made Tuesday’s test critically important. The ability of the U.S. to shoot down ICBMs will no doubt have significant bearing on its dealings to contain and isolate North Korea.
And ground-based missile defense is a far bigger deal for the Interior than one might expect. The vast majority of U.S. interceptor missiles are based at Fort Greely, with more than two dozen operational and several more slated to come online by the end of 2017. And the system’s Long Range Discrimination Radar, meant to help interceptors find and destroy missiles, is under construction at Clear Air Force Station. It’s not a stretch to say that the missile defense capability of the U.S. hinges largely on its operations here in the Interior.
Sen. Dan Sullivan would like to see that capacity increase. This week, he introduced a bill that would expand the missile defense system here in Alaska and around the U.S.; he’s hoping to insert it into this year’s National Defense Authorization Act. The timing of Sen. Sullivan’s bill is apropos given North Korea’s aggressive moves. As Alaskans well know given the state’s recent budget troubles, however, there’s only so much money to go around. Given that, Sen. Sullivan may have his work cut out for him convincing his colleagues that missile defense should be a higher priority, but he has company — his bill has seven co-sponsors, including Republicans and Democrats.
With unstable powers such as North Korea on the world stage, it’s hard to be completely at ease about the state of global politics. But this week’s test of the missile defense shield shows that in a worst-case scenario, the U.S. has a fair shot to avoid catastrophe. That’s a small comfort, at least.
— Fairbanks Daily News-Miner,