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Co-Director of Program on Science and Global Security, Princeton University
June 1, 2018
Third Sea-Based Missile Intercept Succeeds
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A ship-based missile defense system designed to shoot down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles scored its third consecutive success in a November 21 intercept test off Hawaii.

Unlike the past two tests, which took place in January and June, this latest test required the sea-based midcourse defense system’s Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor to strike the target while it was still rising minutes after launch rather than when it was descending back toward Earth. The intercept happened after the target’s boost phase, meaning that its rocket engine had stopped firing.

The Pentagon launched the target from Kauai, Hawaii, and about two minutes later the USS Lake Erie, which was stationed approximately 250 kilometers from the target launch site, fired the SM-3. The intercept occurred roughly 90 seconds later when the SM-3’s kill vehicle, a warhead that maneuvers in space to find the target, collided with the Aries missile at an altitude of 150 kilometers. The previous two intercepts took place at about the same altitude, 160 kilometers.

While the two earlier tests spanned eight minutes from start to finish, the latest test totaled three and a half minutes. A spokesperson from the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which manages U.S. missile defense programs, said the ship had a 70-85 second window to locate the target after its launch and fire the SM-3 at it.

This test marked the first in a new series of six tests that might eventually involve a target warhead separating from its booster. The Aries type of missile used in all three intercept tests to date remains in one piece and is larger than the missiles the sea-based midcourse defense might have to destroy in a real missile attack by another country.

The new round of six tests is not expected to include any long-range targets, according to the MDA spokesperson. For now, the testing focus is on developing an emergency capability against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles by 2006.

The next intercept attempt for the ship-based system is not yet set, but it will not take place before next spring.