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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 growing capabilities of countries like North Korea and Iran.
The mission off Hawaii late Tuesday was against a medium-range, separating ballistic missile, the Pentagon agency responsible for it said. The mock warhead split from the target's booster section, presenting what is supposed to be a more realistic attack scenario.
"Initial indications are that all components performed as designed resulting in a very accurate intercept," the Missile Defense Agency, or MDA, said in a statement Wednesday.
Richard Lehner, an agency spokesman, declined to say whether the drill incorporated 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 United States plans to deploy increasingly capable versions of Raytheon's Standard Missile-3 through 2020 to help counter missiles that might some day be capable of delivering chemical, biological or nuclear warheads from Iran or North Korea.
The new model, dubbed Block 1B, is to be put in land-based launchers in Romania in 2015 as well as on ships. It is a key part of President Barack Obama's plan to guard NATO's European territory from Iran, at odds with many countries over its nuclear program.
The event was the second successful flight test of the new interceptor after it had failed to hit its target in September 2011, the first attempt. The previous successful test, on May 9, involved a less challenging, non-separating target missile.
The latest test marked a "critical accomplishment" for the current 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.
Obama's fiscal 2013 budget request calls for 29 of the new interceptors in the first production batch, down from 42 projected a year earlier, amid Pentagon budget scalebacks to meet deficit-reduction requirements.
Japan also is expected to seek the Block 1B interceptor now that there have been two successful flight tests in a row, Wes Kremer, Raytheon's executive in charge of the program, said in a telephone interview.
The test was 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's newest model incorporates an enhanced two-color infrared seeker and uses short bursts of precision propulsion to steer toward incoming targets.
The target in the test, with a substantial range and the second, separating stage, reflects 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 become more complex "as we demonstrate the full capability of the SM-3 Block IB against more advanced threats."
Editing by Vicki Allen