Pentagon on Tuesday, 30 May said its $40bn (£31.2bn) defence missile system for the first time in a test successfully intercepted and destroyed an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). The $244m test comes amid the increasing threats from North Korea.

A ground-based interceptor, launched from a California airbase, shot down a mock ICBM warhead over the Pacific Ocean, said the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). The mock threat was launched from the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands.

The Ground-based Midcourse Defense program (GMD) has so far cost about $40bn in the past 15 years and often been criticised for its expensive nature. Interestingly, of the nine intercept attempts, only four have been successful in the past since the GMD was declared combat-ready in 2004.

For the GMD, it was the first-ever test against a simulated ICBM. Pentagon has hailed the milestone as an "incredible accomplishment". "This system is vitally important to the defence of our homeland, and this test demonstrates that we have a capable, credible deterrent against a very real threat," Vice Admiral Jim Syring, director the MDA, said.

The test was originally planned for 2016 but was pushed back due to the required modifications to the missile interceptor. It gains additional significance since the North Korean regime has constantly ratcheted up its missile programmes in recent months and inching towards acquiring ICBMs capable of delivering nuclear warheads. There are also concerns that the hermit kingdom could develop sophisticated decoys along with the real warheads to trick the incoming interceptors.

"North Korea is obviously one of the reasons why we have this capability," said Pentagon spokesman Navy Captain Jeff Davis but played down the timing of the test to coincide Pyongyang's aggressive acts. When asked about the efficiency of the anti-missile system and the latest test, Davis responded: "We improve and learn from each test, regardless of the outcome. That's the reasons we conduct them."

The test comes after North Korea fired its Scud missile on Monday, 29 May marking a rapid ramping up of such events. It was North Korea's third test within three weeks.

US missile defence system and North Korea
The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) element of the US ballistic missile defense system launches during a flight test from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California Lucy Nicholson/Reuters