Boeing is the prime contractor for the U.S. Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency's Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, which is designed to detect a missile in flight and use an interceptor vehicle to collide with the missile and destroy it before the missile strikes its target.
For the test, a "threat representative" intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. The GMD system detected the missile and launched an "interceptor" from Vandenberg Air Force Base (AFB) in California, which then collided with and successfully destroyed the missile. This was the first-ever test of an ICBM interceptor against a "threat-representative, ICBM-class" prop missile, according to Chris Raymond, vice president and general manager for Boeing's Strategic Missile and Intelligence Systems unit. [The Most Destructive Space Weapons Concepts]
North Korea has been developing an ICBM, which has placed the U.S. and other nations on alert. The Boeing representatives did not mention North Korea specifically, but Raymond referenced the importance of the GMD system when considering the "threats that we read about every day in the news."
The GMD system "is America's only active defense against the threat of long-range ballistic missiles," Raymond said. "[Tuesday's] flight test was crucially important on a geopolitical scale."
A complicated endeavor
Tuesday's test was the first intercept test of the GMD system in three years. During that time, Boeing has been working on "reliability and performance enhancements across the [GMD] program," said Norm Tew, Boeing's GMD vice president and program director.
The interceptors use an Orbital Boost Vehicle provided by the private spaceflight company Orbital ATK to launch from underground silos at Vandenberg Air Force Base or the Fort Greely U.S. army launch site in Alaska.
The interceptor destroys the missile through "only the force of collision," Tew said. This process takes place "over thousands of miles" and between two objects traveling at "thousands of miles per hour." The precision required to make those two fast-moving objects collide has been compared to "hitting a bullet with a bullet," he said, but, in fact, the missiles are traveling 25 times faster than a "high-speed rifle bullet."
"Accomplishing the critical task of defending the entire United States homeland against ICBMs is a complex and daunting task," Tew said. "GMD accomplishes this with assets spanning 15 different time zones on the Earth, as well as in space. It utilizes numerous radars; sensors; command and control facilities; space and terrestrial communications; and interceptors."
The Boeing representatives said all primary and secondary mission objectives were accomplished during Tuesday's test.
The Department of Defense plans to increase its interceptor inventory from 36 to 44 by the end of 2017, according to Boeing.
"I think it goes without saying that our nation, and indeed the entire world, was watching [Tuesday]," Tew said of the test. "The [GMD] system performed flawlessly. The flight test [Tuesday] was indeed a monumentally important flight test."