First developed during the Cold War as part of former US President Ronald Reagan’s multi-billion dollar "Star Wars" effort to counter Soviet ballistic missiles, the US missile interceptor has only had nine successful tests among the 17 conducted since 1999.
After a recent successful missile test, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the US mainland was in "sighting range for a strike," and claimed that they have missiles capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead, though this has not been verified.
Earlier this week, US Defense Intelligence Agency Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart warned a Senate hearing that if Pyongyang’s activities aren’t reined in, "the regime will ultimately succeed in fielding a nuclear-armed missile capable of threatening the United States homeland," calling such an event "inevitable" if action isn’t taken.
Though the Pentagon has a number of missile defense systems, only one of them, the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, is designed to counter a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This system is also the least reliable, according to critics.
The Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency has scheduled the test for Tuesday, when a target will be launched from the Kwajalein Atoll test range in the Pacific. The intention is that the missile will be met by an interceptor launched from an underground chamber at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Missile Defense Agency spokesman Christopher Johnson explained that the target will be custom made to resemble an ICBM, meaning it will travel at a quicker pace than test missiles used in the past.
"We conduct increasingly complex test scenarios as the program matures and advances," Johnson said on Friday. "Testing against an ICBM-type threat is the next step in that process."
There has been much saber rattling between Washington and Pyongyang, with the two countries trading barbs and shows of force. North Korea refuses to halt its nuclear weapons and missile testing despite international calls for denuclearization and sanctions from the United Nations.
The US has riled Pyongyang by sending a Navy carrier strike group led by the USS Carl Vinson along with the USS Michigan, a Tomahawk missile-armed nuclear powered submarine, near its waters.