The land-based version of a U.S. antimissile system intended for European deployment had an initial test-launch on Tuesday, the Defense Department says.
A Pentagon news release describes the trial flight of the Aegis Ashore system as successful. It took place shortly after 7:30 p.m. local time at the Pacific Missile Range Facility and at a complex specially set up for testing the missile defense technology.
The Defense Department said the event confirmed the functionality of Aegis Ashore components that detected and monitored a simulated ballistic missile threat and then fired a land-based Standard Missile 3 Block 1B interceptor in response. No live target was used in the trial.
Aegis Ashore and two dozen Block 1B interceptors are planned for fielding in Romania next year as part of the Obama administration's "phased adaptive approach" for providing missile protection to European NATO members. The White House on Tuesday said the Romania site "is firmly on budget and on schedule to be operational by the end of 2015." A follow-on Aegis Ashore site with more capable SM-3 interceptors is planned for fielding in Poland in the 2018-2020 timeframe.
The United States is also currently fielding a planned total of four Aegis-equipped warships to the Mediterranean in support of the NATO ballistic missile shield. However, having a land-based version of the technology offers some important advantages, according to the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
"Placing the system on ground at a fixed site enhances its 24/7 persistence, accuracy and communication, further increasing the interceptors' capability," the advocacy group said in a press release. "Being dedicated to the singular mission of missile defense permits the full use of its processing power, as opposed to sharing that power for multiple missions that a ship would be required to do."
Achieving a timely activation of the Aegis Ashore site in Deveselu, Romania, has taken on a new political importance amid resurgent NATO tensions with Russia. The Obama administration is careful to note in public that planned antimissile systems for Europe are not technically capable of countering Russia's strategic nuclear missiles. Still, some Republican lawmakers have called for speeding up the SM-3 interceptor deployment schedule in order to send a deterrent signal to Moscow and reassure allies in Eastern Europe.
While the Obama administration officially opposes a House effort to set mandates on the timing of the fielding of antimissile systems in Poland, it has dispatched Aegis-equipped warships to the Black Sea to bolster the confidence of NATO members.
The USS Donald Cook guided-missile destroyer spent several weeks in the Black Sea earlier this spring. The USS Vella Gulf is slated to shortly enter the area "to conduct port visits and combined maritime training with allied naval forces, according to a White House fact sheet on bilateral reassurance measures with Romania
During a speech to U.S. and Romanian troops at the Otopeni military base near Bucharest on Tuesday, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden emphasized that the U.S. commitment to the collective defense of NATO "is a sacred obligation in our view."
"I'm here to say on behalf of the president ... You can count on us. Period," the vice president said. "We do what we say, and we mean what we say."