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Navy Theater Missile Defense Test Successful
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Wade Boese

On January 25, a U.S. Navy ship successfully launched a missile interceptor carrying a warhead that collided with a ballistic missile target about 160 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean. The intercept, which the Pentagon predicted as “probable” prior to the test because of the planned flight paths of the two objects, marked the first hit for the sea-based system.

In the test, which the Pentagon described as a “controlled developmental test and not operationally representative,” an Aries target missile was launched from Kauai, Hawaii. Six minutes later, the U.S.S. Lake Erie fired the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3). Approximately two minutes and 250 kilometers later, the SM-3’s warhead struck the Aries target. The test objective was to test the warhead’s guidance, navigation, and control, but not to achieve an intercept.

The January test, the system’s fourth, took place just a little more than a month after the Pentagon cancelled a separate sea-based missile defense program because of spiraling costs and poor performance. Unlike the cancelled system, which employed a blast-fragmentation warhead, the system in the January test, formerly called Navy Theater Wide but now referred to as the sea-based midcourse ballistic missile defense system, uses a kinetic warhead, which destroys a target through force of impact rather than an explosion.

Pentagon plans call for the next test of the sea-based system this June, in what will be considered the program’s first intercept attempt. A Pentagon spokesperson interviewed February 6 said the target and missile trajectories in the upcoming test would repeat those in the January test.

Current sea-based system testing is geared toward defending against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, but the Bush administration wants to develop a sea-based capability to protect against long-range ballistic missiles as well. The Pentagon spokesperson said that, at this time, there is no date for when the sea-based system could potentially be tested against long-range targets. Lieutenant General Ronald Kadish, who directs the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency, told reporters last July that sea-based systems could potentially be tested against long-range targets in the “‘07 and ‘08 time frame.”

The 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty prohibits the development, testing, and deployment of sea-, space-, air-, and mobile land-based defenses against long-range ballistic missiles. Because he wants the freedom to explore a layered defense possibly consisting of these barred systems, President George W. Bush announced on December 13 the U.S. intention to withdraw from the treaty in six months.