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U.S. military tests downing an ICBM from a warship for first time

The Missile Defense Agency says footage made public Nov. 15, shows an ICBM in space shot down for first time using an interceptor missile fired from a warship. (Video: U.S. Missile Defense Agency)

The U.S. military has shot down an intercontinental ballistic missile in a test that demonstrated for the first time that the United States can intercept ICBMs from a warship at sea.

The Missile Defense Agency announced the success of the test Tuesday, saying the USS John Finn had struck and destroyed a “threat representative” ICBM using a Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Hawaii.

The test, which took place Monday local time in the Pacific, comes as the United States steps up its missile defense capabilities in response to North Korea’s advancing arsenal. Last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un rolled out a massive new road-mobile ICBM during a parade in Pyongyang, a larger version of the nuclear-capable North Korean missiles that can already reach the United States.

Up until now, the United States has relied on missile interceptors based in silos in Alaska and California to down ICBMs headed toward the U.S. homeland. This week’s test gives the Pentagon another layer of defense by showing that sea-based systems originally intended to down intermediate-range ballistic missiles can intercept even longer-range ICBMs.

The idea is for the ships to serve as a backup if the interceptors based on land in Alaska and California fail to strike an incoming ICBM. Military planners call the concept “shoot look shoot,” meaning they would see whether the silo-based interceptor succeeded in hitting an incoming missile and, if not, shoot at the missile again from a warship.

“This was an incredible accomplishment and a critical milestone,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, the Missile Defense Agency director, said in a statement about the test. Hill said the Pentagon was exploring how to augment its silo-based missile defenses “to hedge against unexpected developments in the missile threat” and described the test as a key step in that process.

The test marks an increase in U.S. defenses against North Korean missiles, but it also could trigger Russia and China — long suspicious of U.S. missile defenses — to devise more-sophisticated weapons and continue an arms buildup that has alarmed the Pentagon.

To conduct the test, the U.S. military took the SM-3 Block IIA — a missile defense system developed jointly by defense contractors Raytheon and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries to down short- and medium-range missiles — and placed it on a warship. The USS John Finn, in the waters off Hawaii, then shot the interceptor at an ICBM test target that the U.S. military launched toward Hawaii from its test site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The strike was successful.

“We have known for some time that we thought it had expanded capabilities beyond what it was designed for,” said Bryan Rosselli, vice president of strategic missile defense at Raytheon. “It was designed for short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.”

The test originally was supposed to take place in May, but according to the Missile Defense Agency, it was delayed “due to restrictions in personnel and equipment movement intended to reduce the spread of covid-19.” In a recent defense policy law, Congress mandated that the military test the SM-3 Block IIA against an ICBM by the end of 2020.

The SM-3 Block IIA is the latest iteration of sea-based missile defense interceptors — and has only just begun to be deployed on U.S. vessels. The events this week marked the sixth test for the SM-3 Block IIA. Two of those tests have failed — one because of human error on the ship and the other because of a failed component. Theoretically, the system also can be used by Aegis Ashore missile defense installations on land.

Russia has long complained about U.S. missile defenses, particularly land-based missile defense systems the United States has placed in Poland and Romania, and has cited them as justification for its new nuclear weapons.

However, Tom Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the interceptor isn’t targeted at a peer competitor such as Russia, which has a large enough arsenal to overwhelm U.S. missile defenses.

“This is not going to chase a Russian ICBM,” Karako said.

He said the SM-3 IIA is geared toward defending against North Korea. It also could be deployed on land in Asia to defend U.S. forces in Guam against North Korean and Chinese missiles and in Europe at missile defense installations in Poland and Romania to protect U.S. forces in Europe and NATO allies from Iranian missiles, he said.

“The fact that it has performed against an ICBM — what that also tells you is that it is going to be more reliable against intermediate range and increasingly complex intermediate-range missiles over in the area of Guam,” Karako said. “This contributes to deterrence — making sure China doesn’t get the bright idea that they can decapitate our forces over there in a single blow.”

Nonproliferation advocates warned that the test could spur an already burgeoning arms buildup by Russia and China, as the two powers view the system as a new threat.

“Plans call for deploying hundreds of these new interceptors on mobile, globally-deployable Aegis (ballistic missile defense) ships. The dramatic expansion of strategic defense cannot escape the notice of Russia and China,” Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonprofit advocacy group, said 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.”

James Acton, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said on Twitter that the test “is likely to continue stimulating Chinese and Russian efforts to bolster their nuclear forces and make arms control to hinder the burgeoning arms race more difficult.”