Exclusive: U.S. plans to test THAAD missile defenses as North Korea tensions mount

The United States plans to carry out a new test of its THAAD missile defense system against an intermediate-range ballistic missile in the coming days, two U.S. officials told Reuters on Friday, as tensions with North Korea climb.

Despite being planned months ago, the U.S. missile defense test will gain significance in the wake of North Korea's launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4 that has heightened concerns about the threat from Pyongyang.

The test will be the first of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to defend against a simulated attack by an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), one of the officials said. The THAAD interceptors will be fired from Alaska.

The United States has THAAD interceptors in Guam that are meant to help guard against a missile attack from a country such as North Korea.

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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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The officials who disclosed to Reuters the precise nature and timing of the upcoming test spoke on condition of anonymity.

Asked by Reuters, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) confirmed that it aimed to carry out a THAAD flight test "in early July."

Chris Johnson, an MDA spokesman, said the THAAD weapon system at the Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska in Kodiak, Alaska, would "detect, track and engage a target with a THAAD interceptor."

"The test is designated as Flight Test THAAD (FTT)-18," Johnson said. He did not elaborate.

Still, in recent testimony to Congress, Vice Admiral James Syring, then the director of the Missile Defense Agency, said FTT-18 would aim to demonstrate THAAD's ability to intercept a separating IRBM target.

MDA said THAAD had a 100 percent successful track record in its 13 flight tests since 2006. After previous tests, the U.S. military has publicly disclosed the results.

SOUTH KOREAN DEPLOYMENT

THAAD is a ground-based missile defense system designed to shoot down short-, medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

Lockheed Martin Corp, the prime contractor for the THAAD system, said it has the ability to intercept incoming missiles both inside and outside the Earth's atmosphere.

This year's U.S. deployment of THAAD in South Korea to guard against North Korea's shorter-range missiles has also drawn fierce criticism from China, which says the system's powerful radar can probe deep into its territory.

Earlier this month Moscow and Beijing, in a joint statement, called on Washington to immediately halt deployment of THAAD in South Korea.

The statement said Washington was using North Korea as a pretext to expand its military infrastructure in Asia and risked upsetting the strategic balance of power in the region.

THAAD's success rate in testing is far higher than the one for America's Ground-based Midcourse Defense system (GMD), the system specifically designed to shoot down an ICBM headed for the U.S. mainland.

That GMD system has only a 55 percent success rate over the life of the program. But advocates note that the technology has improved dramatically in recent years.

In a key development, the GMD system successfully shot down an incoming, simulated North Korean ICBM in a test in May.

That led the Pentagon to upgrade its assessment of America's ability to defend against a small number of ICBMs, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters.

MDA told Congress in June that it plans to deliver 52 more THAAD interceptors to the U.S. Army between October 2017 and September 2018, for a total of 210 since May 2011.

In a sign of U.S. congressional concern about missile defense, several lawmakers filed amendments to a sweeping defense policy bill on Friday that addressed North Korea. Republican Representative Don Young, whose home state Alaska is seen as especially vulnerable to the North Korea threat, asked for more ground-based interceptors for his state, and a study of potential additional sites on the East Coast or Midwest.

Democratic Representatives John Conyers and Sheila Jackson Lee, along with Republican Walter Jones, filed an amendment to the annual National Defense Authorization Act saying that nothing in the bill should be construed as authorizing the use of force against North Korea.

The full House of Representatives is due to consider the bill, and its amendments, next week.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and James Dalgleish)

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