US missile defense test over Pacific Ocean a key milestone

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon successfully tested a U.S. long-range interceptor missile over the Pacific Ocean on Tuesday in an exercise aimed at helping gauge American readiness to counter any potential similar threat from North Korea.

During Tuesday's scheduled test, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency launched an interceptor rocket from an underground silo at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The interceptor directly collided with and destroyed an intercontinental-range missile fired from a test range on Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, the Pentagon announced.

U.S. Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jim Syring called the test a "critical milestone" in a statement.

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Missile defense test from Vandenberg Air Force Base
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Missile defense test from Vandenberg Air Force Base

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017.

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

People watch the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launch during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

People watch as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

People watch as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

People watch as the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the U.S. ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, U.S., May 30, 2017. 

(REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson)

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"This system is vitally important to the defense of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat. I am incredibly proud of the warfighters who executed this test and who operate this system every day," Syring added.

The U.S. military's test comes on the heels of North Korea's reported launch of a military projectile Monday morning that landed in Japan's maritime economic zone. It also comes amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Pyongyang over North Korea's continued provocations.

The $244 million test does not necessarily confirm that the American military is capable of defending itself against an intercontinental-range missile fired by North Korea. Pyongyang also is understood to be moving closer to the capability of putting a nuclear warhead on such a missile and could have developed decoys sophisticated enough to trick an interceptor into missing the real warhead.

Before Tuesday, the most recent intercept test, in June 2014, was successful, but the longer track record is spotty. Since the system was declared ready for potential combat use in 2004, only four of nine intercept attempts have been successful.

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North Korea's Missiles
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North Korea's Missiles
The scene of the intermediate-range ballistic missile Pukguksong-2's launch test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) May 22, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
The long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) is launched during a test in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
Missiles are driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Sue-Lin Wong
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspects the long-range strategic ballistic rocket Hwasong-12 (Mars-12) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on May 15, 2017. KCNA via REUTERS REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
People cheer as a missile is driven past the stand with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and other high ranking officials during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father Kim Il Sung, in Pyongyang April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Military vehicles carry missiles with characters reading 'Pukkuksong' during a military parade marking the 105th birth anniversary of country's founding father, Kim Il Sung in Pyongyang, April 15, 2017. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un supervised a ballistic rocket launching drill of Hwasong artillery units of the Strategic Force of the KPA on the spot in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 7, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERSATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A fire drill of ballistic rockets by Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force is pictured in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang September 6, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
FILE PHOTO - An underwater test-firing of a strategic submarine ballistic missile is seen in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on April 24, 2016. KCNA/File Photo via REUTERS. ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT.
A view of a firing contest among multiple launch rocket system (MLRS) batteries selected from large combined units of the KPA, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on December 21, 2016. KCNA/via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS.
Ballistic rocket is seen launching during a drill by the Hwasong artillery units of the KPA Strategic Force in this undated picture provided by KCNA in Pyongyang on July 21, 2016. KCNA/via ReutersATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. EDITORIAL USE ONLY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THIS IMAGE. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS.Ã TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A test launch of ground-to-ground medium long-range ballistic rocket Hwasong-10 in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on June 23, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. NOT FOR USE BY REUTERS THIRD PARTY DISTRIBUTORS. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A new multiple launch rocket system is test fired in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang March 4, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA
A rocket is launched during a demonstration of a new large-caliber multiple rocket launching system attended by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un (not pictured) at an unknown location, in this undated file photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on March 22, 2016. REUTERS/KCNA/Files ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
A rocket is fired during a drill by anti-aircraft units of the Korean People's Army (KPA) in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang November 3, 2015. REUTERS/KCNA ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. NO THIRD PARTY SALES. SOUTH KOREA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN SOUTH KOREA.
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North Korea says its nuclear and missile programs are a defense against perceived U.S. military threats.

Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, which has criticized the missile defense program, calls the interceptor an "advanced prototype," meaning it is not fully matured technologically even if it has been deployed and theoretically available for combat since 2004.

The interceptors are, in essence, the last line of U.S. defense against an attack by an intercontinental-range missile.

The Pentagon has other elements of missile defense that have shown to be more reliable, although they are designed to work against medium-range or shorter-range ballistic missiles. These include the Patriot missile, which numerous countries have purchased from the U.S., and the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, which the U.S. deployed this year to South Korea to defend against medium-range missiles from North Korea.

(The Associated Press contributed to this report)

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