The Pentagon plans to put its defense system up against an intercontinental-range ballistic missile for the first time Tuesday during a high-profile dry run designed to show rockets fired by North Korea’s unhinged dictator wouldn’t reach the U.S. homeland.

A dummy missile will lift off from a test range in the Marshall Islands — setting off a system of ground and space radars to pinpoint its path for an interceptor missile to be fired from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in Southern California, the U.S. military’s Missile Defense Agency said.

If successful, the interceptor will strike the dummy missile — in space — a feat the Pentagon has struggled to master and one that officials have compared to “hitting a bullet with a bullet.”

The focus on missile defense has intensified in the wake of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s unwavering efforts to field an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of delivering a warhead to U.S. territory. The isolated nation’s tests have been unsuccessful, though Pentagon officials fear it’s only a matter of time before they get it right.

Marine Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said this week that “left unchecked,” Kim will eventually succeed.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense System being tested Tuesday has a mixed track record, counting a successful intercept only four of the last seven attempts, according to Pentagon statistics. Those numbers may offer little confidence to west coasters with nightmares about ICBMs, but defense experts say in a live intercept, the military would fire multiple interceptor rockets to meet a single ICBM.

Michael O’Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told the Herald it’s critical the tests hew to battlefield conditions and, specific to missile defense, can find the rocket amid a “cloud” of decoys that could be released by an ICBM.

“It’s impressive enough to shoot down a bullet with a bullet,” O’Hanlon said, “but if it’s a bullet with a thousand things that look like a bullet, it’s much harder.”

The Pentagon’s stand-in for a North Korean ICBM will fly faster than previous mock-up missiles, upping the ante amid growing fears about North Korea’s growing capabilities.

“I can’t imagine what they’re going to say if it fails,” said Philip Coyle, senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. “These tests are scripted for success, and what’s been astonishing to me is that so many of them have failed.”

The interceptor system has been in place since 2004, but it has never been used in combat or fully tested. There are currently 32 interceptors in silos at Fort Greely in Alaska and four at Vandenberg. The Pentagon says it will have eight more, for a total of 44, by the end of the year.

In its 2018 budget presented this week, the Pentagon proposed spending $7.9 billion on missile defense, including $1.5 billion for the ground-based midcourse defense program. Other elements of that effort include the Patriot designed to shoot down short-range ballistic missiles and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which the U.S. has installed in South Korea as a defense against medium-range North Korean missiles.

Herald wire services contributed to this report.


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