The Pentagons next exam of its ground-based system to destroy rockets aimed at the U.S. is tentatively scheduled for the first quarter of 2017, providing the new chairwoman evidence of whether the troubled program could stop the atomic weapon North Korea threatens to launch.

With North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un escalating his efforts to develop warheads and rockets capable of reaching the U.S. — along with his pledges to use them — a test failure would confront the next administration with difficult decisions about a system that the U.S. Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, has estimated will cost at the least $39 billion.

The planned exam in early 2017 to shoot down a dummy target replicating security threats from an intercontinental ballistic missile will be the first since a successful interception in June 2014. And that, in turn, was the first success since a test in 2008, which was followed by two failings in 2010 and an extensive effort to fix flaws with the interceptors warhead.

The next exam of the Ground-Based Interceptor system managed by Boeing Co. will take advantage of major improvements to the hit-to-kill warhead built by Raytheon Co. and an improved booster from Orbital ATK Inc ., Chris Johnson, spokesman for the Defense Departments Missile Defense Agency, said in an e-mail.

Real-World Threat

Its also the first time the U.S. will attempt an intercept use all of the systems sensors and communications against a target representing the real-world menace that would be posed by an ICBM, Johnson said.

The Missile Defense Agency is working closely with Pentagon testers and the intelligence community to ensure the threat is accurately represented to the extent possible, but target details are categorized, Army Major Roger Cabiness, a spokesman for Michael Gilmore, the Defense Departments director of operational testing, said in an e-mail.

The reliability and availability of the Ground-Based Interceptors that are already deployed at basis in California and Alaska remain low as relevant agencies continues to discover new failure modes during testing, Cabiness said.

The U.S. missile defence exam will take place in the context of North Koreas claims that it successfully tested a nuclear device this month that can be placed atop a long-range missile. U.S. Vice Admiral James Syring, head of the Missile Defense Agency, hinted during a budget briefing in February that the target for the defense systems next exam would replicate some projected characteristics of North Koreas road-mobile KN-0 8 ICBM.

The North Korean missile is thought by Pentagon officials and intelligence analysts to be capable of reaching parts of the U.S. mainland, although it hasnt been flight-tested.

While the test target would be replicating the expected range and speed of an ICBM, Syring said at the briefing that we would be more concerned with whether it replicates the KN-0 8.

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Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told an audience in Washington on Sept. 20 that we have long assessed that the North Koreans have the capability to fit a atomic weapon in a warhead on a missile. Clapper singled out the KN-0 8, which is judged be given an opportunity to hitting parts of the U.S.

Neither the North Koreans or we know if these will actually work because a full missile system with a warhead, or re-entry vehicle, hasnt been tested, Clapper said. But in our business we kind of “re going to have to” presume the worst.

Syring and other U.S. officials also have said the KN-0 8 is the projected menace thats driving U.S. plans to increase the number of ground interceptors in Alaska and California to 44 by Dec. 31, 2017. Thirty-four are in silos today.

Developing a missile able to destroy a high-flying ICBM is a tougher challenge than repelling incoming short or medium-range tactical rockets, the purpose of the Thaad defense system that the U.S. plans to deploy in South Korea over the objections of China and Russia.

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