US Missile Defense System Achieves Successful Intercept Amid Rising Tensions With North Korea

REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Handout via Reuters

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Ryan Pickrell China/Asia Pacific Reporter
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The U.S. successfully tested a missile defense system Tuesday as North Korea continues to advance its missile program.

The U.S. tested a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system in Alaska against an intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from an Air Force cargo plane near Hawaii. North Korea successfully tested a new IRBM, the Hwasong-12, in May.

The U.S. began deploying a THAAD anti-missile system in South Korea to better defend U.S. allies after North Korea fired a salvo of four suspected extended-range Scud missiles into the East Sea/Sea of Japan early in March. The system has achieved initial intercept capabilities.

While the overall U.S. missile defense record is a bit spotty to say the least, THAAD has an excellent intercept record. The system is designed to eliminate short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, but not intercontinental ballistic missiles like the one North Korea launched last Tuesday.

A successful ICBM intercept test was conducted in late May as North Korea geared up to test a brand new long-range weapon. An interceptor launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California eliminated a mock long-range missile fired from the Reagan Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the Pacific. While the U.S. military asserts that it is confident that the U.S. could defend itself against a North Korean missile strike, there are some expert observers who suggest that the tests are not realistic enough to provide any real comfort.

“I would not say we are comfortably ahead of the threat; I would say we are addressing the threat that we know today,” Vice Adm. James Syring, the director of the Missile Defense Agency, told the House Armed Services Committee in June.

The U.S. also tested the new SM-3 Block IIA interceptor in late June, but the system failed to intercept the mock mid-range missile. This anti-ballistic missile system, which was tested successfully in February, is still being developed.

Increased emphasis on missile defense comes as North Korea develops its capabilities. This year alone, North Korea has launched seventeen missiles, including new short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, an ICBM, and surface-to-air missiles and coastal defense cruise missiles, most of which were displayed in a military parade in April.

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