The test could raise arms-control tensions with China and Russia, which fear it may undercut their nuclear deterrents.
A United States warship has intercepted and destroyed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) target in a test conducted northeast of Hawaii, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said on Tuesday, a first for US missile defence systems.
The test, conducted on November 16, involved an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense-equipped destroyer that the MDA did not identify.
“We have demonstrated that an Aegis BMD-equipped vessel equipped with the SM-3 Block IIA missile can defeat an ICBM-class target,” Vice Admiral and MDA Director Jon Hill said in a statement.
The Standard Missile 3 Block IIA (SM-3 IIA) was developed in a joint venture between Raytheon Co and Japan’s Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Ltd.
The test’s target was a mock ICBM that had been launched from a US test range at Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The target missile was not equipped with decoys or other sophisticated systems of the kind that a US missile interceptor might face in a real attack on the US.
Previous tests against ICBM targets had used interceptors launched from underground silos in the US.
The test’s success is likely to draw particular interest from North Korea, whose development of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons is the main reason the Pentagon has sought to accelerate its building of missile defence systems over the past decade.
North Korea has recently refrained from flight tests of ballistic missiles of intercontinental range and has not continued its nuclear testing. But the intentions of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are uncertain as President-elect Joe Biden prepares to take office, succeeding President Donald Trump.
Although the current US approach to missile defence is designed to protect the US against an ICBM fired from North Korea, both Russia and China have expressed concern that the US could use its missile defenses to undercut the deterrent value of their nuclear forces, which are larger than those of North Korea.
Laura Grego, a physicist and missile defence expert at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said the prospect of a major US expansion of missile defences by potentially equipping Navy ships globally with anti-ICBM capabilities is worrying.
“It is likely to have a crushing effect on prospects for new arms control agreements and will also provide motivation (or justification) for Russia and China to diversify and grow their nuclear weapons arsenals,” she wrote on Twitter.
It is likely to have a crushing effect on prospects for new nuclear arms control agreements and will also provide motivation (or justification) for Russia and China to diversify and grow their nuclear weapons arsenals. https://t.co/11SpUlFmfh
— Laura Grego (@LauraEGrego) November 17, 2020
The test had been planned for last spring but was delayed because of restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.