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Ship-Based Anti-Missile System Scores Hit

Wade Boese

The Pentagon ratcheted up the degree of difficulty for the latest test of its nonstrategic ship-based missile defense, and the anti-missile system responded by intercepting its target. This system has showed greater progress recently than other missile defenses under development.

The Nov. 17 test marked the sixth successful intercept test in seven attempts for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, which is designed to counter short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This test differed from its predecessors because the mock warhead target separated from the missile booster. Earlier targets stayed in one piece.

Rick Lehner, a spokesperson for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), told Arms Control Today Nov. 21 that the use of a separating target made “the test more representative of medium-range ballistic missile technology of the type now being deployed by North Korea and Iran.” He added that crew members aboard the ship firing the interceptor were in an “alert window” but “did not know the time of the test.”

The separating, medium-range target was fired from Kauai, Hawaii. Using its onboard Aegis system, the U.S.S. Lake Erie detected, tracked, and fired a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor missile at the target four minutes after its launch. Six minutes later, the interceptor’s kill vehicle rammed into the target more than 160 kilometers above the Pacific Ocean and some 600 kilometers away from Kauai.

By the end of this year, the MDA is supposed to have delivered up to 10 SM-3 interceptors to the Navy, which currently has two cruisers outfitted to launch them. The goal is to have one more cruiser and 18 destroyers capable of launching the interceptors by the end of 2008, according to Lehner.

Meanwhile, the short- to intermediate-range Terminal High Altitude Area Defense had its first flight Nov. 22 after a six-year hiatus. The test did not involve a target or intercept attempt.

The MDA announced last July that it intended to conduct two non-intercept tests with its strategic ground-based midcourse defense before 2006, but Lehner stated it is now likely that only one such test will occur by then. The system’s interceptor failed to leave the ground in its last two tests (see ACT, March 2005), and the last time it hit a target in flight was in October 2002.