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Missile-Defense Test Involving Vandenberg AFB Aims at Intercept

Planned launch of interceptor from underground silo will attempt to hit mock target from Kwajalein Atoll

Personnel at the Missile Defense Integration and Operation Center on Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, work at the test control facility during a prior flight test for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. Click to view larger
Personnel at the Missile Defense Integration and Operation Center on Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, work at the test control facility during a prior flight test for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. (U.S. Air Force photo)

For the first time in nearly three years, the ground-based missile-defense system will attempt to hit a mock target during a test involving a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The Missile Defense Agency plans to conduct the test Tuesday, with the ground-based interceptor blasting out of an underground silo at Vandenberg between noon and 4:14 p.m. in an attempt to intercept the target, which is set to lift off from the Kwajalein Atoll. 

The intended collision will occur somewhere above the Pacific Ocean and will not be visible from the Central Coast.

The test involves the Ground-based Midcourse Defense Segment, designed for a limited attack against the United States involving intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles fired by rogue nations such as North Korea or Iran.

The system includes communication networks and sensors to support the ground-based interceptors sitting on alert at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, Alaska.

Each interceptor is topped with an Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), described as a sensor/propulsion package that uses the kinetic energy from a direct hit to destroy the incoming target vehicle. 

“This will be the first test of an upgraded kill vehicle, and the first test against an ICBM-class target,” said Chris Johnson, MDA's director of public affairs.

An ICBM-class target involves a missile with a longer range and faster speed, Johnson added.

Previous tests involved intermediate-range ballistic missiles, he added.

The last intercept occurred in June 2014, and the system has recorded nine intercepts among 17 attempts since 1999, according to MDA records. 

In an April 2016 speech to a subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, MDA director, said a successful test, once planned for late 2016, would allow MDA to meet its commitment to boost the number of ground-based interceptors to 44.

A missile defense interceptor blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a prior test. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense segment program will conduct a flight test Tuesday, with plans for an interceptor launched from Vandenberg to hit a target launched from the Kwajalein Atoll. Click to view larger
A missile defense interceptor blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a prior test. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense segment program will conduct a flight test Tuesday, with plans for an interceptor launched from Vandenberg to hit a target launched from the Kwajalein Atoll. (U.S. Air Force photo)

“MDA will complete deployment of eight additional GBIs in Alaska by the end of 2017, for a total of 44 GBIs to improve protection against North Korean and potential Iranian ICBM threats as they emerge,” according to the agency’s proposed budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year .

This month’s mission comes after the January 2016 test that did not involve an intercept attempt, but instead gathered data about the performance of  “alternate divert thrusters,” a component redesigned to fix a flaw that caused an earlier failure. 

Missile-defense officials called the test successful.

However, last summer the Los Angeles Times story, and another in February quoted Defense Department scientists who questioned the success, claiming a thruster malfunctioned causing the interceptor to veer off course

“We disagree with that classification,” Johnson told Noozhawk. “We met the objective we laid out in the test.” 

A successful mission Tuesday will set the stage for the agency to conduct a broader test of the GMD system’s full capability with a “two GBI salvo” — or two interceptors launched at the same time from Vandenberg— for an ICBM target.

Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced May 5 the launch of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review, which will occur concurrently with the Nuclear Posture Review. A final report will be delivered to the president at the end of the year.

The ballistic missile assessment will  “identify ways to strengthen missile-defense capabilities, rebalance homeland and theater defense priorities, and provide the necessary policy and strategy framework for our nation's missile defense systems.”

“Defending the nation and U.S. interests abroad from ballistic missiles is one of the department's highest priorities,” the announcement said

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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