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Pentagon plans next major missile intercept test for late May

By TONY CAPACCIO | Bloomberg News (Tribune News Service) | Published: April 6, 2017

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon has tentatively scheduled for late May the next intercept test of its $36 billion ground-based missile defense system — the first in nearly three years, according to a spokesman.

With North Korea ramping up its ballistic missile development and President Donald Trump vowing to rein in Kim Jong Un’s regime, the success of missile defense efforts has taken on heightened importance in Washington. The head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, told a Senate panel this week that “although North Korea is not an existential threat,” it’s “the most dangerous and unpredictable actor in the Pacific region.”

While confirming the May target, the next missile defense test remains contingent on the availability of testing resources, Missile Defense Agency spokesman Christopher Johnson said via email. Interceptors are located at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The system is managed by Boeing Co.

North Korea’s weapons program is expected to be a major subject of talks between Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida starting Thursday.

The U.S. president has said Beijing can do more to rein in North Korea. Beijing, in turn, has protested an Obama administration decision to deploy an Army missile system called Thaad in South Korea designed to intercept short and medium-range systems

The new Trump administration hasn’t backed down on the Thaad deployment.

“Pyongyang’s evolving ballistic missile and nuclear weapons program underscore the growing threat” as it’s “also pursuing development of Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) and Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles capabilities, and an improved Intermediate Range Ballistic Missile,” Hyten told senators.

The next U.S. intercept attempt will be the first since a successful test in June 2014. Before that, two tests that failed in 2010 prompted an extensive effort to fix flaws with the interceptor’s warhead. The missile defense agency says those have now been fixed.

North Korea this week fired a projectile that flew about 37 miles into the East Sea, South Korea’s military leadership said. It follows ballistic missile tests in February and March, as the isolated country defies United Nations sanctions and works on a missile that could deliver a miniaturized nuclear weapon to the continental U.S.

The U.S. test will attempt to shoot down a target that replicates for the first time the speed, trajectory and closing velocity of an ICBM. The U.S. also will test avionics updates to the booster rocket built by Orbital ATK Inc. that carries an improved version of a hit-to-kill conventional warhead, Missile Defense Agency officials have said.

Hyten disclosed Tuesday that North Korea’s Feb. 11 missile test demonstrated new capabilities, saying it “was a very important date because that’s the date the North Koreans launched a new solid" fuel medium-range ballistic missile off a new mobile launcher.

North Korea published photos after the test that demonstrated “a very challenging technology for us” to detect before launch, he said.

Unlike a liquid-fuel missile that takes time to erect and fuel, activities which “we can watch,” mobile solid-fuel weapons are more difficult to track, he said.

“They moved what was demonstrated at sea onto land, onto a new launcher and did it in a very quick way,” Hyten said.

The Pentagon last April told Congress that North Korea continues to develop a mobile Intercontinental Ballistic Missile that “would likely be capable of reaching much of the continental United States.”

The KN-08 missile would have an estimated range of more than 3,400 miles, and North Korea already has six “road-mobile” launchers for it, according to the annual report delivered to congressional committees.

©2017 Bloomberg News
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The Missile Defense Agency's Flight Test 06b Ground-Based Interceptor launches from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., June 22, 2014.
U.S. AIR FORCE

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