The pressure is on for the Missile Defense Agency and Boeing to prove that they can successfully fly the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (MDA) system with a new kill vehicle as North Korea ramps up rhetoric and testing plans for ballistic missiles aimed at the United States, its self-proclaimed "sworn enemy."
While GMD, designed to protect the U.S. homeland from ballistic missile attack from North Korea, has been grounded for two years owing to a technical issue, North Korea has managed to improve on its ability to launch long-range missiles.
Pyongyang issued a statement today, one day after the U.N. accepted a Washington-backed set of sanctions against the reclusive country following its December rocket launch, which placed a satellite in orbit. Though intelligence officials don't think the satellite is transmitting or under positive control of Pyongyang, the task demonstrates an ability to lob objects at intercontinental ranges, a step forward for North Korea's ambitions to hold U.S. territory under threat.
"We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States," North Korea's National Defence Commission said, according to state news agency KCNA.
Meanwhile, the MDA is preparing for the long-awaited return to flight Jan. 26 of the GMD system, which has not achieved a successful intercept in more than four years. After the December 2008 intercept, officials turned their focus to testing the Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) Capability Enhancement 2 (CE-2) upgrade for the Raytheon-made hit-to-kill mechanism of the system. The CE-2 was found to have vibration problems in a thruster in a 2010 test. This was one of two GMD trials that year that failed to achieve an intercept since the December 2008 flight.
The January 2010 test was said by program officials to demand the most complex kill geometry to date because an intercept required a head-on kill. The forthcoming flyout will likely follow roughly the same flight path. This test was slated to take place late last year under the watch of U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, MDA’s former director. However, he left the position in November and has since been succeeded by Vice Adm. James Syring.
Mating of GMD boosters, made by Orbital Sciences, with the Raytheon EKV remains on hold pending a successful flight test.
If Saturday’s test goes well, officials hope to destroy a target in a separate demonstration between March and June, according to MDA spokesman Rick Lehner.
Editor's Note (added 1-25-13): While the GMD system using the EKV CE-2 has been grounded, the legacy version of the system has been operational and deployed at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., and Ft. Greely, Alaska.