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former IAEA Director-General

New Interceptor Missile Scores a Hit
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March 2017

By Maggie Tennis and Kingston Reif

The United States and Japan last month conducted the first successful test of a new ballistic missile defense interceptor that will increase the capability of U.S. and allied regional defenses in Europe and Asia. 

Meanwhile, a January report from the Pentagon’s top testing official strongly criticized the missile defense system designed to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited long-range missile attack from North Korea or Iran, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system. The successful Feb. 3 test and the critical report on the GMD system from the Pentagon’s director for operational test and evaluation come as the Trump administration prepares to conduct a formal review of U.S. missile defense policy and posture. 

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency, the Japan Ministry of Defense, and U.S. Navy sailors aboard USS John Paul Jones successfully conducted a flight test February 3, resulting in the first intercept of a ballistic missile target using the Standard Missile-3 Block IIA off the west coast of Hawaii. (Photo credit: Leah Garton/U.S. Missile Defense Agency)In the February test, a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA launched from the USS John Paul Jones off the western coast of Hawaii successfully destroyed a medium-range ballistic missile target launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii. The SM-3 IIA is being developed cooperatively by the United States and Japan to defeat medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The interceptor is part of the Aegis missile defense system and can be fired from specially designed Aegis ships or land-based sites. 

The Aegis system is a central component of the U.S. missile defense architecture in Europe and Asia. As of Feb. 3, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) has conducted 41 intercept tests of the system, of which 34 were successful. 

The Defense Department is planning to deploy the SM-3 IIA missile in Poland in 2018 as part of the third phase of the so-called European Phased Adaptive Approach. (See ACT, June 2016.) The approach is the U.S. contribution to NATO’s missile defense system and is designed to protect Europe against short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles launched from Iran. 

Russia has strongly opposed the planned Polish site and claims that the alliance’s missile defense plans are aimed at undermining Moscow’s nuclear deterrent. U.S. and NATO officials have stated repeatedly that the SM-3 system will not be able to shoot down Russian intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

In a Feb. 8 email to Arms Control Today, Christopher Szkrybalo, an MDA spokesman, said the SM-3 IIA “was neither designed nor planned to defend the U.S. against ICBM threats.” 

Although the SM-3 IIA was successful in its first intercept test, the Pentagon’s testing office raised concerns about the viability of the GMD system. Consistent with prior assessments, the office’s 2016 annual report states that the system “has demonstrated a limited capability to defend the U.S. Homeland from small numbers of simple intermediate-range or intercontinental ballistic missile threats launched from North Korea or Iran.” 

The report notes that the “reliability and availability” of the system’s interceptors “are low” and the MDA “continues to discover new failure modes during testing.” The report also notes that “[f]ew cybersecurity assessments have been performed” of the system to date. 

The GMD system consists of interceptor sites in Alaska and California. A total of 44 interceptors are scheduled to be deployed at these locations by the end of fiscal year 2017. 

It remains to be seen whether and how President Donald Trump will adjust missile defense policy. In a Jan. 27 executive order, he ordered Defense Secretary James Mattis to conduct a new Ballistic Missile Defense Review “to identify ways of strengthening missile defense capabilities” and “rebalancing homeland and theater defense priorities.” Such a rebalance could lead to greater emphasis on and funding for expanding the GMD system, including by building a third GMD site in the eastern United States, at the expense of regional defenses such as the Aegis system. (See ACT, January/February 2017.

Last year, Congress voted to open the door to expanding national missile defenses beyond the currently limited goal of defending against Iran and North Korea as some, predominantly Republican backers eye actions that some worry could upset the nuclear balance with Russia and China. (See ACT, January/February 2017.)

Posted: March 1, 2017