The US military on Tuesday conducted its first operational test of Lockheed Martin Corp’s THAAD missile defense system paired with the ship-based Aegis system, intercepting two medium-range ballistic missiles fired nearly simultaneously.
The test was conducted early Tuesday near the US Army Kwajalein Atoll test site and surrounding areas in the western Pacific, according to a Pentagon statement.
Missile defense experts said the test was important because it demonstrated the ability of the US military to defend against possible regional ballistic missile threats from countries like Iran or North Korea or even accidental releases.
V.-Adm. James Syring, who heads the US Missile Defense Agency, told Reuters that launch crews had been waiting for nearly a month for the tests but were not given any specific details on when the missiles would be fired or from where.
“It was all no-notice, unscripted in terms of what they saw,” he said. “The sailors, soldiers and airmen who operated those systems just performed flawlessly, which gives me great confidence in our capability.”
Rick Lehner, spokesman for the US Missile Defense Agency, said Lockheed’s THAAD system – which stands for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense – had been successfully tested 10 times, but this was the first operational test of that system and its ability to work together with the Aegis system on the USS Decatur, a guided-missile destroyer in the region.
The Aegis system was last year involved in a joint US-Israeli missile defense test, when US naval ships carrying the Aegis positioned themselves off the Israeli coast, and worked with Israeli defense systems to intercept simulated enemy missiles. One US Navy ship carrying the Aegis docked at Haifa Port during the tests.
During that three-week drill, held in November, patriot missiles were fired from the Palmahim Israeli air base, south of Tel Aviv at decoy enemy missiles.
Israeli air defense systems, such as the Iron Dome anti-rocket shield and Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile batteries, were deployed during the exercise, as well as US and Israeli Patriot batteries.
Israel and the US have spent $30 million each on the drill. More recently, representatives from the US Missile Defense Agency took part in an Israeli missile defense drill last week, which was picked up on Russian Navy radars and announced by Moscow, forcing the Defense Ministry to acknowledge the test.
On Tuesday, the US Defense Department said its flight test in the Pacific was planned more than a year ago and was not connected to events in the Middle East, where the United States is weighing a limited strike on Syria over its use of chemical weapons.
Earlier this year, after North Korea threatened to launch a nuclear attack on the US, the Pentagon moved two Aegis guided-missile destroyers to the western Pacific and a THAAD system to Guam.
Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the nonprofit group Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, called Tuesday's test a “tremendous achievement” and said it demonstrated the layered capabilities of the US Ballistic Missile Defense System.
“This historic test presents the most realistic operational success of intercepting ballistic missiles with current capabilities,” Ellison said. He urged the Pentagon to move a THAAD system to Turkey, Jordan or Israel to protect any potential chemical ballistic missiles fired by Syria.
Syring declined comment when asked if there were plans to move the THAAD system to the Middle East.