By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. forces using a new Raytheon Co interceptor missile downed another missile in space in a high-stakes test of a shield built to thwart 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, known as MDA, said in a statement Wednesday.
Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman, declined to say whether the drill incorporated any decoys or other so-called countermeasures of the type an enemy likely would use to confuse the defense.
"We don't divulge presence of countermeasures in any of our missile defense tests," he said by email.
The new model of Raytheon's Standard Missile-3, dubbed Block IB, is the U.S. Navy's newest interceptor of missiles 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 drive to guard 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 flight test of the new interceptor in six weeks after it had failed to hit its target in its 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 MDA said.
Production of the new model, delayed after the initial intercept failure, will start in the fall, Lehner told Reuters on Tuesday.
The outcome marked the 23rd successful intercept in 28 flight test firings for the overall Lockheed Martin Corp's ship-based Aegis ballistic missile defense system.
Aegis is the sea-based leg of a layered U.S. shield that also includes some 30 three-stage interceptors in silos in Alaska and California in a ground-based program managed by Boeing Co. The United States is spending about $10 billion a year to develop, test and deploy missile defenses.
A total of 28 specially equipped Aegis warships - 24 in the U.S. Navy and four in the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force - now have the capability to engage ballistic missiles and perform long-range surveillance and tracking missions. The number of such ships is expected to rise to 36 by 2014.
At 11:15 p.m. Hawaii Standard Time on Tuesday (0915 GMT Wednesday), the target missile was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, MDA said.
The USS LAKE ERIE, positioned off the coast of Hawaii, tracked it with onboard radar and launched the interceptor 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 incorporates an enhanced two-color infrared seeker and a mechanism that uses short bursts of precision propulsion to steer the missile toward incoming targets.
The target in the test, with a substantial range using a second, separating stage, reflects the capabilities already in Iranian and North Korean arsenals, said Riki Ellison, a prominent U.S. missile-defense advocate who watched the test from Kauai.
Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon's Missile Systems unit, said test scenarios would increase in complexity "as we demonstrate the full capability of the SM-3 Block IB against more advanced threats."
(Editing by Vicki Allen)