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The nation’s trouble-plagued missile-defense system registered a success Sunday when a ground-based interceptor fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California destroyed a mock enemy warhead launched from the Marshall Islands.

Word of the successful interception, which occurred above Earth’s atmosphere over the Pacific Ocean, came from a group that lobbies for missile-defense spending and was confirmed by a person with access to the test result.

A rocket could be seen rising from Vandenberg shortly before 1 p.m., according to residents of Santa Barbara County., Calif. Conditions were mild, with midday temperatures in the mid-60s and visibility of about 10 miles.

Sunday’s test flight carried high stakes for the nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, called GMD, which was deployed a decade ago and, so far, has cost about $40 billion. Boeing has been the prime contractor, working with Northrop Grumman, Orbital ATK and Raytheon.

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In each of the system’s three most recent tests, a rocket-interceptor fired from Vandenberg, on the Santa Barbara County coast, failed to collide with and destroy a mock enemy warhead launched from an atoll in the Marshall Islands, 4,900 miles away.

Before Sunday, the Missile Defense Agency had conducted 16 tests of the system’s ability to intercept such a target; half failed.

The GMD system was intended to shield the United States from long-range missiles that might be launched by an adversary such as North Korea or Iran, which would have limited arsenals compared with a superpower.

The system’s roots trace to the Strategic Defense Initiative, promoted by President Reagan in 1983 as a ground-and-space-based missile shield capable of rendering nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” No such system was ever deployed.

When President George W. Bush, in 2002, ordered the more limited GMD deployed by 2004, he “hoped to carry Reagan’s legacy forward,” Bush’s secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, wrote in his memoir “Known and Unknown.”

The Los Angeles Times reported June 15 that the GMD system’s hurried deployment and expansion denied engineers time to resolve myriad technical problems. Repeated difficulties emerged with the interceptors’ 5-foot-long kill vehicles, which, once boosted into space, rely on a heat-seeking sensor and other complex technology to pursue and destroy an incoming warhead.

The first model of the kill vehicle, CE-1, was not flight-tested against a mock warhead until September 2006 — two years after the vehicles had been placed in the silos at Vandenberg and Fort Greely, Alaska. The article also said senior Pentagon officials had overstated GMD’s capability while congressional proponents fought to keep expanding it.

After a director of the Missile Defense Agency, Lt. Gen. Patrick O’Reilly, slowed expansion of the system in 2009 to spend more money on resolving its technical malfunctions, he was overruled by then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.

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