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Vandenberg to launch first test of ICBM intercept and ‘upgraded kill vehicle’

A missile defense interceptor blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a earlier launch. The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense segment program will conduct a flight test Tuesday, with plans for an interceptor launched from Vandenberg to hit a target launched from the Kwajalein Atoll.
A missile defense interceptor blasts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base during a earlier launch. The Ground-Based Midcourse Defense segment program will conduct a flight test Tuesday, with plans for an interceptor launched from Vandenberg to hit a target launched from the Kwajalein Atoll.

For the first time in nearly three years, the ground-based missile-defense system will attempt to hit a mock target during a test involving a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base.

The Missile Defense Agency plans to conduct the test Tuesday, with the ground-based interceptor blasting out of an underground silo at Vandenberg between noon and 4:14 p.m. in an attempt to intercept the target, which is set to lift off from the Kwajalein Atoll.

The intended collision will occur somewhere above the Pacific Ocean and will not be visible from the Central Coast.

The test involves the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense Segment, designed for a limited attack against the United States involving intermediate- and long-range ballistic missiles fired by rogue nations such as North Korea or Iran.

The system includes communication networks and sensors to support the ground-based interceptors sitting on alert at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, Alaska.

Each interceptor is topped with an Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV), described as a sensor/propulsion package that uses the kinetic energy from a direct hit to destroy the incoming target vehicle.

“This will be the first test of an upgraded kill vehicle, and the first test against an ICBM-class target,” said Chris Johnson, MDA’s director of public affairs.

An intercontinental ballistic missile-class target involves a missile with a longer range and faster speed, Johnson added.

Previous tests involved intermediate-range ballistic missiles, he added.

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Personnel at the Missile Defense Integration and Operation Center on Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado, work at the test control facility during a prior flight test for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense program. U.S. Air Force photo

The last intercept occurred in June 2014, and the system has recorded nine intercepts among 17 attempts since 1999, according to MDA records.

This month’s mission comes after the January 2016 test that did not involve an intercept attempt, but instead gathered data about the performance of “alternate divert thrusters,” a component redesigned to fix a flaw that caused an earlier failure.

Missile-defense officials called the test successful. However, two Los Angeles Times stories quoted Defense Department scientists who questioned the success, claiming a thruster malfunctioned causing the interceptor to veer off course.

“We disagree with that classification,” Johnson told Noozhawk.com. “We met the objective we laid out in the test.”

A successful mission Tuesday will set the stage for the agency to conduct a broader test of the GMD system’s full capability with a “two GBI salvo” — or two interceptors launched at the same time from Vandenberg — for an ICBM target.

Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at jscully@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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