The Navy, in conjunction with the Missile Defense Agency, a federal body that develops and deploys missile defense systems for protecting the United States, just conducted a missile defense test of crucial importance: taking down an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The recent test put the Navy’s Aegis ballistic missile defense system through its paces. The test, conducted from the USS John Finn, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer at the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, in the middle of the Pacific, was a success.
During the test, “an intercontinental ballistic missile target was intercepted and destroyed outside Earth’s atmosphere by an advanced SM-3 Block IIA ballistic missile defense interceptor,” according to an official Raytheon announcement.
The Aegis system’s origins lie in the 1970s realization that human reaction times in ballistic missile defense would be too slow. To make up for that latency, Aegis was developed, and has been steadily upgraded since introduction in 1983.
The system is deployed at sea on sixty-two Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers and twenty-two Ticonderoga-class cruisers and is designed to take down short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. There is also a land-based component, Aegis Ashore, that is stained in Deveselu, Romania that protects members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
The test in the Pacific was originally scheduled for May but was delayed due to the ongoing global pandemic. A video of the test can be seen here and is worth the watch.
Standard Missile 3
The missile in question is known rather uncreatively as Standard Missile 3, or SM-3. The Block IIA variant was jointly developed by Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Compared to the preceding SM-3 variants, the new version is equipped with a more sensitive seeker. After launch, the missile rapidly travels into space, where a kill vehicle separates from the missile body and intercepts enemy missiles.
Though it is not the first time the SM-3 has been tested, the missile has struggled in recent tests. One test in 2017 ended in disaster after a sailor inadvertently triggered the missile’s self-destruct sequence. Another test in 2018 failed, though this time not due to human error.
One version of the SM-3 has even been used to test the missile’s efficacy against low Earth orbit satellites, though the successful 2008 test raised questions about how much collateral damage caused by the resulting space debris would be acceptable.
Although the recent test was a congressionally-mandated, it nonetheless serves as a stark message to North Korea: just don’t do it.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer for the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.