A U.S. Navy ship lit up the skies of Hawaii on Tuesday night when it tested a new missile interceptor, just one day after North Korea sent a missile over Japan.
The U.S.S. John Paul Jones, a Navy missile destroyer, fired SM-6 guided missiles at a medium-range ballistic missile, successfully destroying it in midair. The test was a major milestone for what is known as the Aegis missile defense system, a state-of-the-art combination of high-tech radar, advanced computers and guided interceptors which blows enemy missiles out the sky before they can do any damage.
Monday's test was especially momentous because it demonstrated Aegis' ability to shoot down enemy missiles in their terminal phase, the final moments before they strike their targets.
"We are working closely with the fleet to develop this important new capability, and this was a key milestone in giving our Aegis BMD ships an enhanced capability to defeat ballistic missiles in their terminal phase," said Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves in a statement.
Other interceptors missiles are non-explosive and literally knock enemy missiles out of the sky during earlier phases. The SM-6 uses an explosion to blast targets towards the end of their flight path. That means they need to be ultra-precise, as their is no room for error in the later moments of a strike. Should North Korea ever launch a nuclear missile, the SM-6 could be the last line of defense.
The idea to use Aegis as a missile interceptor derived from President Ronald Reagan's infamous Strategic Defense Initiative (nick-named Star Wars), a Cold War-era program which aimed to use a combination of Earth and space-based interceptors to shoot down Soviet nuclear missiles. The program suffered from high costs and technological limitations, leading to criticism from opponents. It was effectively halted after collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, though SDI would later be revived by the Bush administration in 2002 in an effort to counter rogue nations. Those attempts had minimal success, but officials realized the existing Aegis air defense system used to shoot down enemy planes could also take out missiles.
Military officials haven't look back since, making Aegis the nation's shield against a potential missile attack.
"We will continue developing ballistic missile defense technologies to stay ahead of the threat as it evolves." said Greaves.