Ballistic missiles will fly above the Earth's atmosphere Friday afternoon, allowing the U.S. military to test whether it believes it can accurately defend against an actual ICBM attack.
The test of the first-generation Capability Enhancement I Exoatmospheric Kill Vehicle follows two failed attempts for a different missile in 2010. It also comes at a time of heightened nuclear weapons tensions worldwide, as well as skepticism from some experts who see missile technology as an elaborate and expensive shell game.
At some point between 2:30 p.m and 6:30 p.m. EDT, a missile will launch from the Marshall Islands. Roughly 15 to 20 minutes later, the interceptor missile or "kill vehicle" will launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. A large floating radar system and a U.S. Navy ship will track the incoming test missile and feed that information back to a command and control center, which will direct the kill vehicle to make adjustments to get in the path of the oncoming warhead and destroy it with a direct collision.
All of this takes place above the Earth's atmosphere and is not visible to the naked eye. The Department of Defense will issue a press release later Friday with details on whether the test was successful.
The U.S. military last conducted a successful missile test in 2008, and has since experienced two failures in 2010 on a more sophisticated interceptor system.
Eight out of 15 tests have been successful since 1999, according to the military's Missile Defense Agency, headquartered on Virginia's Fort Belvoir just outside of the Capital Beltway.
"It's performance today will certainly boost our confidence in its capabilities," says Rick Lehner, MDA spokesman. The test requires significant interagency cooperation, he says. "It's quite a challenge."
Missile defense has grabbed worldwide attention in recent years. North Korea's latest saber rattling and test rocket launches prompted the U.S. military in March to commit 14 new missile defense interceptors in Alaska.
But some missile defense experts say these tests do little more than feed into the politics that back the proliferation of ballistic missiles, which are not a true threat even in countries like North Korea.
"[These tests] are all aimed at just being able to hit an object," says Theodore Postol, a professor at MIT and expert on missile defense. "If you have a combat situation, it's almost certain they won't have a single target to shoot at."
Any actual ballistic missile attack would involve multiple missiles or decoys, Postol says. The military designs its tests like Friday's, he says, to make it very easy for the kill vehicle to differentiate between an incoming missile and decoys – if there are decoys at all.
MDA's Lehner said any information regarding countermeasures is classified and declined to comment on such details for Friday's test.
"What they want you to believe is the big problem is hitting the target," says Postol. "And if you solve that problem, we have the beginnings of a real defense. That couldn't be further from the truth."
"The real problem they have...is they cannot tell the difference between warheads and decoys," he says.
The threat of a missile attack is largely driven by internal politics, he adds, not external threats from countries such as North Korea that are still as far away as 15 years from building a guide missile that could actually target U.S. soil.
That missile threat is not real at this time, Postol says.
"We've invented this threat that people somehow accept that only a totally suicidal adversary would do," he says.
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A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Friday’s missile test was for an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile. It was actually for a missile defense system. It also incorrectly stated the missile would use explosives, when in fact it will destroy the test missile through a head-on collision.