* Japanese destroyer downs target missile off Hawaii
* Test follows Clinton talks with Japan foreign minister
* U.S., Japan forces hail it as “milestone”
By Jim Wolf
WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - A Japanese naval destroyer equipped with a Lockheed Martin Corp (LMT.N) Aegis ballistic missile defense system carried out a successful flight-intercept test on Thursday in a “milestone” of growing cooperation, Japanese and U.S. forces announced.
The test focused attention on mounting U.S. missile defense ties with Tokyo even as Washington urges its NATO allies to join in a NATO-wide shield prompted largely by concerns over Iran.
Japan’s interest in missile shields jumped in August 1998 when North Korea test-fired a Taepo Dong-1 ballistic missile that flew over Japan before falling in the Pacific.
The intercept test, about 100 miles (160 km) above Hawaiian waters, marked the fourth time a Japan Maritime Self-Defense force had engaged a ballistic missile target, including three successful intercepts.
It “verified the newest engagement capability” of the ballistic missile defense upgrade of the JS Kirishima, the U.S.-Japanese statement said. The ship is the fourth Japanese destroyer to be upgraded for this mission.
“We hit it!” e-mailed Riki Ellison, a prominent missile-defense advocate who viewed the separating 1,000 km- class ballistic missile target as it was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Barking Sands, Kauai, Hawaii.
The long-planned test came shortly after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton met Japan’s foreign minister in Hawaii at the start of a two-week trip to an Asia-Pacific region rattled by recent Chinese assertiveness.
The Kirishima’s crew detected and tracked the target. The Aegis Weapon System then launched a Raytheon Co (RTN.N) Standard Missile -3 (SM-3) Block IA missile, the statement said.
Also joining in the test were Aegis-equipped U.S. Navy ships Lake Erie and Russell. They cooperated to detect, track and conduct a simulated intercept engagement against the same target, the statement said.
Missile defense is a multibillion-dollar business for Pentagon contractors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing Co (BA.N),Northrop Grumman Corp (NOC.N), Raytheon Co (RTN.N) and Orbital Sciences Corp ORB.N.
The target missile was launched shortly after 5 p.m. Hawaii time on Thursday, or shortly after noon Tokyo time on Friday. The test was a “significant milestone in the growing cooperation between Japan and the U.S. in the area of missile defense,” the statement issued by the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency said.
Lockheed Martin said in a separate statement the test completed the planned upgrade of the Japanese navy destroyers with their new Aegis missile defense capability. (Editing by Peter Cooney)