By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. forces using a new Raytheon Co interceptor missile downed another missile in a high-stakes test of systems built to thwart what experts say are advancing capabilities of countries like North Korea and Iran.
The mission off Hawaii late Tuesday was against a medium-range, separating ballistic missile, the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency said. The mock warhead separated from the target's booster section, presenting what is supposed to be a more "threat-representative" attack scenario.
"Initial indications are that all components performed as designed resulting in a very accurate intercept," the agency said in a statement Wednesday.
Raytheon's Standard Missile-3 Block IB is the U.S. Navy's newest interceptor of weapons that could eventually be tipped with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads.
It is to be put in land-based launchers in Romania in 2015 as part of President Barack Obama's push to defend NATO's European territory from missiles that could be fired by Iran, which is at odds with many countries over its nuclear program.
The event was the second successful intercept test of the new Raytheon interceptor in less than six weeks after it had failed to knock out its target in the first attempt in September 2011.
It marked a "critical accomplishment" for the current, second phase of Obama's so-called Phased Adaptive Approach to missile defense in Europe, the Missile Defense Agency statement said.
The test was the 23rd successful intercept in 28 flight test firings for the systems based on Lockheed Martin Corp's Aegis ballistic missile defense system, the agency said.
At 11:15 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time on Tuesday (5:15 a.m. EDT Wednesday), the target missile was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, located on Kauai, Hawaii.
The USS LAKE ERIE, positioned off the coast of Hawaii, detected and tracked the missile with its onboard radar. The ship, equipped with a second-generation Aegis BMD weapon system, launched the SM-3 Block IB missile in response.
Using only the force of a direct impact, it collided with and destroyed the target in space in a so-called hit-to-kill intercept.
The SM-3 is used to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The newest model, dubbed Block IB, incorporates an enhanced two-color infrared seeker and a mechanism that uses short bursts of precision propulsion to steer the missile toward incoming targets.
(Reporting By Jim Wolf; Editing by Vicki Allen)