A Navy Destroyer Just Shot Down an ICBM Target for the First Time

SM-3 Block IIA is launched from the USS John Finn
A SM-3 Block IIA is launched from the USS John Finn, an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System-equipped destroyer, Nov. 16, 2020, as part of Flight Test Aegis Weapons System-44 (FTM-44). (Missile Defense Agency)

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A U.S. Navy destroyer shot down an intercontinental ballistic missile target for the first time on Tuesday in a historic missile defense test, the Missile Defense Agency announced.

Early Tuesday, an unarmed target missile simulating an enemy ICBM threat was launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands toward an area of open ocean near Hawaii.

During this defense of Hawaii scenario, the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System-equipped destroyer USS John Finn collected tracking data from the Command and Control Battle Management Communications network and fired off a Standard Missile-3 Block IIA interceptor, which successfully destroyed the target missile.

The MDA released an animation of the intercept.

"This was an incredible accomplishment and critical milestone for the Aegis BMD SM-3 Block IIA program," Vice Adm. Jon Hill, the MDA director, said in a statement.

"We have demonstrated that an Aegis BMD-equipped vessel equipped with the SM-3 Block IIA missile can defeat an ICBM-class target," he added.

The SM-3 Block IIA is an interceptor developed by Raytheon Missiles & Defense in partnership with Japan's Mitsubishi Heavy Industries. Tuesday's intercept test was the sixth time the ship-launched interceptor has been tested against a simulated missile threat. Although the interceptor was originally built to take down intermediate-range ballistic missiles, the US military has demonstrated a new capability.

"This first-of-its-kind test shows that our nation has a viable option for a new layer of defense against long-range threats," said Bryan Rosselli, the vice president of Strategic Missile Defense at Raytheon Missiles & Defense, in a separate statement.

As Tuesday's ICBM intercept test was a preliminary test of a new combat capability, the ICBM target did not deploy countermeasures.

Even though the test was not a complex, fully-operational evaluation, the test stressed the interceptor, pushing it beyond what it was initially designed to do. The MDA said in its statement that the SM-3 Block IIA will be evaluated further.

A sea-based counter-ICBM capability would augment the existing ground-based missile defense systems in place to protect the US from threats long-range missile threats, such as those posed by China, Russia, and more recently North Korea.

Although the MDA did not mention North Korea specifically in its statement on Tuesday's intercept test, an agency spokesperson explained to the Japan Times that the target missiles are "designed to simulate a threat missile from a rogue nation."

While US missile defense systems would theoretically be able to stop a North Korean missile, it is unclear how they would fair against more advanced ICBM threats, such as those posed by China and Russia.

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