FAIRBANKS -- The Missile Defense Agency declared a $200 million test a success Sunday morning, saying that a rocket launched from California collided with a target fired into space from the South Pacific, more than 2,400 miles southwest of Hawaii.
"I am very proud of the government and industry team conducting the test today. Their professionalism and dedication made this test a success," Navy Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the agency, was quoted as saying in a press release.
The two missiles collided in space above the Pacific Ocean, destroying the target, an intermediate-range ballistic missile. The interceptor fired from California was a long-range ballistic missile. Some sources say the closing speed of the two projectiles is in the range of 22,000 mph.
Syring called the knockdown a "very important step in our continuing efforts to improve and increase the reliability of our homeland ballistic missile defense system."
The interceptor fired from California is similar to the 26 missiles in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four others at Vandenberg Air Force Base that make up the ground-based midcourse defense system. If a real missile launch is ever detected, missiles from Fort Greely would be fired to try to knock it down in space. The "kill vehicle" atop the interceptor rocket does not contain explosives and is designed to stop an attack with blunt force at many thousands of miles per hour.
The Colorado crew in control of the interceptor launch knew that a target was to be fired from the Marshall Islands on Sunday morning for the training exercise, which took place in a narrow corridor between Vandenberg and Kwajalein for safety reasons. The target was launched at 10:49 a.m. Alaska Daylight Time, according to a statement from Boeing.
The U.S. Navy destroyer USS Hopper picked up the target on radar, as did the Sea-Based X-Band radar. Six minutes after the target missile left the launchpad in the Marshall Islands, the three-stage interceptor missile lifted off from Vandenberg, the agency said.
After detaching from the final stage of the interceptor rocket above Earth's atmosphere, the 140-pound "kill vehicle" maneuvered into position with thrusters, and successfully used sensors to distinguish between the target and other objects, the press release said.
"Initial indications are that all components performed as designed. Program officials will spend the next several months conducting an extensive assessment and evaluation of system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test," the agency said.
Supporters of missile defense and Alaska's two U.S. senators issued statements praising the knockdown.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski said the "test shows that we have turned the corner on technical issues" and said she supports the plan by the Obama administration to put 14 more missile at Fort Greely.
"The success makes it more likely that additional intercept vehicles will be stationed at Fort Greely -- something I will continue to strongly support through the appropriations process. Growth at Fort Greely, along with the introduction of the Long Range Discrimination Radar to Alaska in the near future, will bring a significant boost to the state economy and secure Alaska's strategic importance," she said.
Sen. Mark Begich said it's crucial to install 14 additional missiles at Fort Greely by the end of 2017. He said the administration has not committed to the spending needed to improve the system.
"I have requested additional funding above the President's proposal because I want to make sure Alaska stands ready to protect against an attack," he said in a press release.
"It is in our national security interest to move forward with the necessary investments in the ground-based interceptors currently deployed while simultaneously testing and fielding the additional interceptors," he said.
Critics of the missile defense said "not so fast" with the plans to add 14 more interceptors.
Laura Grego, a senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said that the track record on missile defense is not good enough to warrant the additional $1 billion for interceptors at Fort Greely.
She said this is the first time in three tries that this version of the so-called "kill vehicle" detached from a rocket and managed to nail the target. She said a one-for-three record might be OK for a developmental program but not for an operational system. The technology has to work the first time, she said.
"Even under heavily scripted conditions, the interceptor has failed two out of three times. The previous version, the CE-I, seemed to be doing OK, with two successful intercepts, but then failed last summer with a flaw that turns out to be common to both CE-I and CE-II kill vehicles. The interceptors have not demonstrated reliability and adding more interceptors of low reliability does not do much at all to protect against a potential missile."
Philip Coyle, a senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, also said that the additional interceptors should not be fielded with a kill vehicle that is not up to the task.
"The idea of deploying 14 more of the existing flawed interceptors at Fort Greely in Alaska as proposed by the Obama administration last year would be throwing good money after bad," he said.
"We need to make sure we have a system that works, not expand a system we know to be deeply flawed," he said.
Reach Dermot Cole at email@example.com.
By DERMOT COLE