The fundamental achievement–hitting the equivalent of a long-range ballistic missile–is not itself new. “It’s not that remarkable. We first hit an object in space with an interceptor more than 20 years ago,” says Lewis. “Basically, this is the kind of test that will always work unless something goes wrong. There was no principle being tested here. We know we can hit a warhead with an interceptor. We’ve done it.”
Philip Coyle, an assistant secretary of defense in President Clinton’s administration and now an adviser to Washington think tank the Center for Defense Information adds that “this test was simpler than any flight test conducted so far in this program.”
But a missile agency official takes issue with that characterization. “This test was incredibly complex. It was absolutely the most complex one we have ever tried. Everything had to come together, and it did. The critics certainly have to realize how complex this undertaking… was,” says Rick Lehner, the agency’s chief spokesman. “It was the first operational launch from Vandenberg, with operational vehicles, the first operational command and control system in Colorado Springs, with upgraded radar to develop the firing solution.” Lehner adds that “Each time, [tests] show an improvement in the interceptor technology itself. It’s an evolving process to make it better. There is nothing simple about it at all.”
The agency says the test was representative of a real missile fired from North Korea, including the basic trajectory and propulsion that such a missile would use.
But, since no data has been released, it’s not possible to evaluate how realistic the test was, says David Wright, a physicist and co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, MA. “A few years ago [the agency] started classifying all the information about the tests, so there is less information available than there used to be,” he says. “You see them claiming how this was so realistic, how this was simulating a North Korean target. Now there is virtually no way to balance what they say. There are no details about what the nature of the target was.”
The next test is set for December, and, while no decision has been made, it might include decoys or other measures meant to confuse the interceptor, according to the missile agency.