What you need to know about the missile defense system that just intercepted a practice target in space

Launching a missile is easy. Hitting another missile with a missile is one of the hardest challenges of modern military engineering, and has been for decades. Today, the Pentagon successfully fired a ballistic missile interceptor at an ICBM-like target, destroying it in space.

It is an impressive achievement, one that comes after billions of dollars spent on the program. It is not a sign that the United States is in any position to deploy a missile defense system that can stop a real ICBM under realistic conditions. That goal is still likely years if not decades away.

What happened today?

The test was run by several groups within the Department of Defense, primarily the Missile Defense Agency and the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing. From a test site in the Marshall Islands, the military launched a dummy ICBM-like missile. Other military sensors picked up wth launch, including a special X-band radar likely mounted on a ship in the Pacific Ocean. These sensors passed along information to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, or GMD, which is the name for the whole missile defense unit. The GMD system took the tracking information and plotted a way to shoot a missile at the dummy target.

At Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, the Air Force launched a “ground based interceptor,” or a special missile designed to reach and stop ICBMs. In space, the interceptor used an “exo-atmospheric kill vehicle” to crash directly into the dummy target, destroying it. That exo-atmospheric kill vehicle is essentially a flying battering ram, released by the interceptor rocket to forcibly slam into the target, disabling it. The whole test cost $244 million.

“This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland,” said Navy Vice Admiral Jim Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, in a statement released by the Department of Defense, “and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat.”

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