You could almost hear the champagne corks popping, from Vandenburg AFB to Washington.
Barely two hours ago--around 3:30 p.m., eastern time--an interceptor missile from the California base slammed into a target missile over the eastern Pacific Ocean. The test simulated the intercept of a long-range ballistic missile, like those being developed by North Korea and Iran.
Politically, today's test came at a particularly critical moment for the missile defense program. President-elect Barack Obama has voiced opposition to "unproven" missile defense systems, suggesting he may terminate them. The successful intercept provided a major boost for one of the key components of the missile defense shield, demonstrating the ability of ground-based interceptors to engage long-range ballistic threats.
The threat-representative missile was launched at 3:04 p.m. from Kodiak, Alaska, followed 19 minutes later by the interceptor missile. Over the next six minutes, the defensive missile maneuvered into the target's predicted orbit and delivered its kill vehicle, which destroyed the target missile.
Today's test featured several new operational wrinkles, as described by the Missile Defense Agency:
This was the first time an operational crew located at the alternate fire control center at Ft. Greely, Alaska remotely launched the interceptor from Vandenberg AFB. In previous interceptor launches from Vandenberg, military crews at the fire control center at Schriever AFB, Colo. remotely launched the interceptor.
The target was successfully tracked by a transportable AN/TPY-2 radar located in Juneau, Alaska, a U.S. Navy Aegis BMD ship with SPY-1 radar, the Upgraded Early Warning Radar at Beale Air Force Base, Calif., and the Sea-Based X-band radar. Each sensor sent information to the fire control system, which integrated the data together to provide the most accurate target trajectory for the interceptor.
The interceptor’s exoatmospheric kill vehicle is the component that collides directly with a target warhead in space to perform a "hit to kill" intercept using only the force of the collision to totally destroy the target warhead.
Initial indications are that all components performed as designed. Program officials will evaluate system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test.
According to MDA, today's test was the 37th successful hit-to-kill intercept (in 47 attempts) since 2001. But even that number is a bit misleading; most of the unsuccessful tests occurred in the early years of that period. As missile defense technology evolved, so has its accuracy and reliability.
Given his campaign rhetoric, most analysts still think that Mr. Obama may cut some missile defense programs. But the string of recent successes--including a successful firing of the Airborne Laser last month and February's dramatic intercept of a failing U.S. spy satellite by naval based-missile defense systems--will make that effort more difficult.
It's worth noting that the interceptor missile used in today's test was launched from the Ronald Reagan Missile Defense Site at Vandenburg. The Gipper's Dream, once derided as little more than science fiction, is steadily advancing toward reality.