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Sailor pushed wrong button and self-destructed interceptor missile during ICBM defense test

SM-3 Interceptor Missile (Raytheon/Released)
July 25, 2017

A sailor aboard the U.S. destroyer John Paul Jones pushed the wrong button that identified an incoming ballistic missile target as “friendly,” which caused the SM-3 interceptor missile to self-destruct during its flight toward the target.

The U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said the mistake during the June 22 failed test was due to the wrong input, according to a recent report.


“A tactical datalink controller, in charge of maintaining encrypted data exchanges between ships and aircraft, accidentally identified the incoming ballistic missile target as a friendly in the system, causing the SM-3 missile to self-destruct in flight, according to a source familiar with the test,” Defense One reported.

The MDA director did not comment on the human error; it said the review confirmed the failed test “wasn’t an issue with the SM-3 Block IIA missile or the Navy’s Aegis combat system.”

” ‘Though the review is still in process, the SM-3 IIA interceptor and Aegis Combat System have been eliminated as the potential root cause,’ of the failure, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, MDA Director,” Defense One reported. “We are conducting an extensive review as part of our standard engineering and test processes, and it would be inappropriate to comment further until we complete the investigation.”

This was the fourth test of the SM-3 interceptor missile and only the second time it was launched from a ship. There was a successful test launch in February.

Raytheon is developing the missile, which is a joint project between the U.S. and Japan. It is the hope of many that such a project would be able to counter any missile threats from North Korea, which recently test-launched an intercontinental ballistic missile.

While disappointing, the operator error is actually a relief, as opposed to the alternative – the missile not working at all.

“As unfortunate as this might be, it’s a good thing that this wasn’t a technology issue or some deeper failure that needs to be investigated at great length and time,” said Thomas Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Security and International Studies, Defense One reported. “There is no reason to believe the basic capability that has already been demonstrated has any new problems.”