WASHINGTON: The US military will follow up its experimental shoot-down of an intercontinental ballistic missile by firing two interceptors simultaneously at an incoming dummy warhead in a "real world" test next year, a Pentagon official said on Wednesday (May 31).
The high-tech, extremely costly tests of US missile defences come as North Korea continues to push ahead with development of potentially nuclear-tipped ICBMs.
Wednesday's first-ever success at knocking a mock-up ICBM out of the sky as it headed toward the United States was called a "critical milestone" in firming up the country's missile defenses.
But, with only 44 of the expensive ground-based interceptor missiles expected to be in service at the end of this year, the next test will not take place until late 2018, Vice Admiral Jim Syring, director of the Missile Defence Agency, said.
"We want to exercise the GMD (ground-based missile defence) system with more than one interceptor to gather data," Syring said in a Pentagon press briefing.
Shooting two interceptor missiles at one incoming ICBM target would help understand what the second one does after the first destroys the target, he said.
This scenario is "the next step in ever increasing operational realism," he told journalists.
Tuesday's successful test saw an interceptor missile blast into space from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and then deploy its "exo-atmospheric kill vehicle," which smashed into the dummy ICBM, destroying it.
The US military describes the interception as akin to hitting a bullet with another bullet - though at far higher speeds.
Syring said after the test that it "demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat."
NORTH KOREA THREAT
The missile defence trial came a day after North Korea test-fired yet another ballistic missile, the latest in a series of launches that have ratcheted up tensions over Pyongyang's quest to develop weapons capable of hitting the United States.
So far North Korea's tests have involved short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
But on Wednesday, after the US test, Pyongyang suggested it was prepared to launch a long-range ballistic missile in the near future.
"We're prepared to test-fire ICBMs anywhere and anytime on orders from the supreme commander (Kim Jong Un)," the Rodong Sinmun paper said in an article entitled: "No one can stop the nuclear power state, rocketry master in the East."
The paper added: "The United States must know our declaration that we can turn the devils' den into ashes with nuclear weapons is not an empty threat."
Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis said Tuesday's trial was not timed specifically in response to Pyongyang but that "in a broad sense, North Korea is one of the reasons why we have this capability."
He also pointed to Iran's increasing missile capabilities.
With its interceptor missiles based in California and Alaska, the GMD system remains highly experimental and expensive. Tuesday's test alone cost some US$244 million to carry out.
It showed that under certain conditions it can stop a fast-moving, high-altitude single ICBM threat.
But the interceptors would be overwhelmed by a full-scale attack from countries like Russia or China, which could fire dozens of missiles at a time.