A weapon launched from Alaska’s spaceport successfully shot down an incoming rocket on Monday night in the most difficult test to date for a missile defense system owned by the U.S. Army.
The test was also a success for the state-owned Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which hosted its first significant operations since 2014, when a U.S. Army missile exploded shortly after liftoff, damaging the spaceport.
About midnight Tuesday, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System missile lifted off from the Pacific Spaceport Complex at Narrow Cape on the east end of Kodiak Island. Its target was an incoming missile launched from a cargo aircraft north of Hawaii.
A thermal imaging video provided by the Missile Defense Agency appears to show the THAAD interceptor hitting the incoming missile and exploding. The video could not be independently confirmed, and an MDA spokesman did not say how many interceptors were fired before the unarmed test missile was destroyed.
“I couldn’t be more proud of the government and contractor team who executed this flight test today,” said MDA Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves in a prepared statement. “This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats. THAAD continues to protect our citizens, deployed forces and allies from a real and growing threat.”
Gov. Bill Walker and U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, also praised the success.
The test late Monday night came one week after North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile apparently capable of reaching Alaska with a nuclear weapon.
The THAAD test was scheduled more than a year before North Korea’s test took place, and the interceptors used Monday night have never been tested against an intercontinental ballistic missile like North Korea’s.
Monday night’s test was against an intermediate-range ballistic missile. Under the definitions used by the Missile Defense Agency, that’s a missile capable of reaching 2,800 miles. THAAD has previously been tested against medium-range ballistic missiles (1,900 miles) and short-range missiles. All tests have been successful.
North Korea’s test last week appeared to show a missile with a range of 4,100 miles.
While THAAD has not been tested against ICBMs, larger interceptors based at Fort Greely (near Delta Junction) and at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California have been tested against those larger missiles, albeit with mixed results.
The Missile Defense Agency announced limited details about the launch, but inhabitants of Pasagshak, about seven miles from the launch site, reported hearing the sound of the launch shortly before midnight.
The target of the missiles also was not identified, but the U.S. Coast Guard had previously identified a “caution area” in a broad swath of the Gulf of Alaska stretching from south of Kodiak Island to south of Seward. Missile debris is believed to have fallen into the ocean.
Stacy Studebaker, a naturalist and Pasagshak resident, said the U.S. Army began blocking access to Narrow Cape about 2 p.m. Sunday.
While the spaceport has existed since the late 1990s, the arrival of the 11th Air Defense Artillery Brigade has changed the scene this summer, Studebaker said.
“It’s just so odd to go out there to our favorite spot and have all these guys in camouflage and combat boots walking around,” she said by phone.
Near the spaceport is a popular surfing beach and scenic cape. This summer, visitors have had to compete with marching soldiers and the arrival of new equipment.
On Sunday, Studebaker said the THAAD launchers were elevated, resembling boxy beige cannons. The missiles themselves are contained, protected from the elements before firing.
“They change the skyline when they’re looking up,” she said.
Studebaker has in the past criticized the actions of Alaska Aerospace, but the company began an outreach campaign this year, holding public meetings in Kodiak.
Other factors have also changed her mind somewhat, she said.
“In light of North Korea, it kind of changes your thinking a little bit. They’ve got to test this interceptor technology,” she said.
Craig Campbell, CEO of Alaska Aerospace, said last week that the test had not been accelerated or altered by North Korea’s actions, something confirmed by MDA spokesman Christopher Johnson.
Even without North Korea, the MDA’s business is important to the state corporation, said range director Barry King.
“The contract with MDA is critical for us as a company. (Monday) night’s mission was also critical in getting back to flight. It’s been three years since we launched, due to the failure in 2014,” he said by phone.
The company no longer receives state subsidies and must rely on what it can raise. In 2016, according to the company’s latest annual report, it posted a net operating loss of $9.6 million.
That same year, it signed an $80.4 million contract with the Missile Defense Agency. It was the largest single deal since the company was created.
Bruce Abel of Juneau is on the company’s board of directors.
“The tests are pivotal for both the corporation … but it’s also extremely important for national security, and Alaska’s on the forefront of that,” he said Tuesday.
He said he’s enthusiastic about Alaska Aerospace, the spaceport, and the prospects to come.
“Alaska has a world-class facility. It’s something we should be proud of,” he said.
In Kodiak itself, Chamber of Commerce director Trevor Brown said Alaska’s space program is “definitely good for Kodiak, and I think it’s good for the state, too. It gives us another way to diversify our economy.”
Monday night’s test was the first of two planned for Kodiak, but an exact date has not been released. Previous announcements by the MDA have indicated that will take place in late summer. A Notice to Airmen from the FAA indicates it will take place before August 1.
An Israeli missile defense system will be tested in Kodiak next year, the company expects, and commercial launches are expected late this year or early next year.
Correction: The original version of this story said Don Abel sits on the AAC board of directors. It is his son, Bruce Abel.
• Contact reporter James Brooks at 523-2258 or firstname.lastname@example.org.