By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A new version of the SM-3 interceptor used in the U.S. ballistic missile defense program failed to hit a target in its first test on Thursday in an initial setback for its advanced steering systems.
The Missile Defense Agency said the interceptor -- a Raytheon Standard Missile 3 Block 1B -- was unable to achieve the intercept of a ballistic missile target during a test over the Pacific Ocean near Hawaii at 3:53 a.m.
The sea-based interceptor was fired from the USS Lake Erie at a short-range ballistic missile target that was launched from a Navy range on Kauai. The interceptor is a kinetic warhead designed to pulverize a target by smashing into it -- like a bullet hitting a bullet.
"This was the first flight test of the advanced SM-3 Block 1B interceptor missile," the agency said in a statement. "Program officials will conduct an extensive investigation to determine the cause of the failure to intercept."
Rick Lehrner, a spokesman for the Missile Defense Agency, said the interceptor missile was being developed as part of the second stage of the Obama administration's so-called "phased, adaptive approach" to missile defense in Europe.
Shortly after taking office, President Barack Obama scrapped his predecessor's controversial plan to place ground-based interceptors in Poland and a related radar site in the Czech Republic.
President George W. Bush's European missile defense plan had angered Russia and contributed to a chilling of ties with Moscow, which viewed the program as a threat to its nuclear deterrent.
Obama's phased, adaptive approach called for the United States to initially deploy missile interceptors on ships in the Eastern Mediterranean or Black Sea. The second phase of the adaptive approach would include missile interceptors on ships as well as at a single site in Europe.
Lehrner said the new version of the SM-3 interceptor being developed for the second phase has improved pursuit and steering mechanisms.
"It has a more advanced ... attitude control system, which is kind of a steering mechanism for the interceptor. And it has a different ... seeker, which is a component of the interceptor that enables it to home in on the target," he said.
The current version of the SM-3 -- the SM-3 Block 1A -- is deployed as part of the missile defense shield. It has had 22 successful intercepts out of 27 at-sea attempts since testing of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system began in 2002.
A modified version of that interceptor, also was used in the successful shootdown of a defunct U.S. spy satellite in February 2008.
The Pentagon said the unprecedented shootdown of the bus-sized satellite was aimed at destroying a load of hydrazine fuel that could have been released as a toxic gas if it had fallen to Earth.
But some security and space experts viewed the satellite's downing as a U.S. response to China, which used a missile to destroy one of its own satellites a year earlier.
(Editing by Cynthia Osterman)