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The US missile-defence programme has announced a successful test in which a theatre-range ballistic missile of the type possessed by various rogue nations was destroyed above the atmosphere by an interceptor launched from a warship in the Pacific.

A Standard SM-3 missile launching from a US warship. Credit: MDA

The US Navy pops one off.

At 7:52pm last night (UK time), according to a statement issued today by the Missile Defense Agency, a trial intermediate-range ballistic missile was launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The missile's dummy warhead, soaring above the atmosphere, was tracked by US satellites and by an X-band radar on Wake Island.

Data on the missile was passed to the destroyer USS O'Kane, equipped with the Aegis firecontrol system and armed with Standard SM-3 antiballistic interceptors. The O'Kane acquired the speeding warhead on her Aegis radar and launched an SM-3 against it.

The SM-3 rocket lobbed a so-called Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) up into the path of the hurtling warhead. The EKV used its own telescope to lock onto the warhead and moved directly into its path using small manoeuvring jets. The combined, multithousand-mph velocities imparted by the launch stacks of warhead and EKV did the rest.

Under the Bush administration, the US Missile Defence effort focused on full-fat intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) with worldwide range. These, during the main middle part of their journey (so-called "midcourse") fly too high for an SM-3 to get in their way. Accordingly much funding was assigned to massive Ground Based Interceptor rockets (GBIs) with the potential to knock down even an ICBM warhead. To deal with the possibility of multi-warhead missiles and/or decoys, there were plans to fit GBIs with multiple EKVs.

In addition to GBI fields in Alaska and California, there was to be another, complete with X-band radar, in Eastern Europe.

But in fact the rogue nations of the world failed to develop working ICBMs: and the GBI had a spotty test record. Meanwhile the seagoing Standard SM-3 did much better – in one case successfully shooting down a crippled US spy satellite.

Thus under the Obama administration the focus has been more on protecting US allies and deployed forces from shorter-ranging ballistics of the types which are actually possessed by nations of concern, rather than guarding the continental USA from ICBMs which have yet to appear. For this task, the smaller, cheaper, apparently more reliable and accurate SM-3 is seen as more than adequate.

Last night's test saw the SM-3 employed as it might be, say, to guard Japan against North Korean weapons or Europe against Iranian ones. This was the first time that the SM-3 had made use of remote tracking data. According to the MDA:

The ability to use remote radar data to engage a threat ballistic missile greatly increases the battle space and defended area of the SM-3 missile.

America's allies might in some cases be able to use the SM-3 to defend themselves rather than relying on US ships to do so. Japan has Kongo-class destroyers carrying SM-3 already, and South Korea, Australia, Norway and Spain all have Aegis vessels, which could be so armed.

The UK has chosen instead to purchase the European-made Principal Anti Air Missile System (PAAMS) for use in its new billion-pound Type 45 destroyers. PAAMS offers no midcourse ballistic interceptor capability. It may soon offer an improved Aster 2 missile capable of hitting targets "in the medium/high endo-atmospheric domain". ®

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