On the heels of criticism about its questionable record, a ground-based missile-defense system interceptor blasted out of an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base on Sunday and successfully met up with its target missile — thousands of miles away.
The Vandenberg Ground-Based Interceptor roared away from North Base just before noon, minutes after the mock target took off from the Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean, 4,200 miles away.
Somewhere high above the Pacific Ocean, the interceptor identified the decoy objects and hit the mock warhead, Missile Defense Agency officials confirmed about two hours afterward.
“This is a very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system,” said Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency. “We’ll continue efforts to ensure our deployed Ground-based Interceptors and our overall homeland defensive architecture continue to provide the warfighter an effective and dependable system to defend the country.”
Cheers of “Go” and “Yeah, baby” accompanied the three-stage interceptor missile’s rumbling rise into the sky. Program workers exclaimed as they saw the interceptor missile’s second stage ignite as the flight continued to climb away from the Central Coast.
The test was delayed for more than two hours by a problem with the target missile. But spectators waiting at a Vandenberg viewing site didn’t complain — the extra time allowed the marine layer to dissipate so they could watch the departure.
While it appears that all components performed as designed, Missile Defense Agency officials will “spend the next several months conducting an extensive assessment and evaluation of system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test.”
Opponents of military activities planned to protest “the launch and the ongoing waste” at Vandenberg’s main gate Sunday morning, according to organizer Dennis Apel, from the Guadalupe Catholic Worker movement.
“It’s time to name the program for what it is, corporate welfare for big defense contractors using money stolen from programs to benefit those whose taxes pay for it,” he said. “From our children’s education, to our deteriorating infrastructure, to the betrayal of our veterans and the benefits they were promised, this program, along with our bloated defense spending in general, need to be scaled back and the money put to life-giving programs.”
Sunday’s test involved the second-generation Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle, which suffered back-to-back failures in 2010 tests involving Vandenberg launches.
In a recent Los Angeles Times article, “$40 Billion Missile Defense System Proves Unreliable,” critics noted the system’s flaws — even during scripted tests. Of 16 tests, eight have succeeded.
Missile defense program advocate Riki Ellison blamed the test record on misguided leadership from a previous director and skimpy budgets for the past six years.
“These leadership decisions and lack of adequate funding over this time period impacted the confidence, reliability, maintenance and modernization of the entire GBI fleet and the system as a whole,” said Ellison, who leads the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and is a retired NFL linebacker.
He agrees the Pentagon rushed to deploy interceptors, but said the speed to declare the program operational was related to the nation's lack of defense against long-range missiles as reports claimed North Korea was close to developing that type of weapon.
The Times article also noted the system’s inability to defend against a multiple missile attack as the nation likely would face.
But Ellison said the missile defense system has always been designed for a limited attack and likely would include the firing of multiple interceptors at an enemy missile.
After the successful test, Ellison noted, “This success is a significant milestone and long-awaited requirement that demonstrates the system's reliability and increases the confidence of the North American Combatant Commander and Command who is responsible for the defense of the country.”
The system currently has four interceptors on alert at Vandenberg, plus 26 more at Fort Greely, Alaska.