By Andrea Shalal-Esa
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. military conducted the second test of the ship-based Aegis missile defense system in a week, firing two SM-3 missiles on Wednesday to intercept a separating target in space, the U.S. Defense Department said.
The Standard Missile-3, built by Raytheon Co, was the highest-ever intercept in space, meaning that a larger area can be defended, the company said on Thursday.
"You want to engage the enemy at the farthest point away from you that you can," said Mitch Stevison, Raytheon's SM-3 program director. Another SM-3 test involving an even more sophisticated target will take place soon, he said, without giving further details.
Wednesday's test, carried out by the Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Navy sailors aboard guided missile cruiser USS Lake Erie, took place in the afternoon off the coast of Hawaii, according to the Pentagon statement.
"This was an operationally realistic test, in which the target's launch time and bearing are not known in advance, and the target complex was the most difficult target engaged to date," the statement said.
Lockheed Martin Corp, builder of the Aegis system, and Raytheon said the test results demonstrated the growing capability of a system used by the United States and Japan to defend against short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
The U.S. military's increased testing in recent weeks sends a message about its capabilities to other countries - such as China and Iran - that are expanding their own missile capabilities, said Riki Ellison, who heads the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
"This test demonstrated and set the highest level of technical achievement in intercepting advanced regional range ballistic missiles by any nation in the world," Ellison said in a statement.
Ellison credited Vice Admiral James Syring, who took over as head of the Missile Defense Agency in November 2012, with successfully negotiating the availability of sufficient funds to pay for the recent tests.
The previous test was conducted September 10, in which an SM-3 missile fired by the Aegis combat system and Lockheed's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system intercepted two medium-range ballistic missiles fired nearly simultaneously.
On Wednesday, a complex separating short-range ballistic missile target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii. The Navy ship detected and tracked the target using its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar, and then launched two SM-3 Block IB guided missiles to intercept it.
The Pentagon said the first SM-3 successfully intercepted the target warhead.
Raytheon said the second SM-3 was launched to test the system's ability to launch multiple missiles at one time against a threat. It was not intended to intercept the target, the company said.
Stevison said data from the test was being analyzed to determine what exactly happened with the second missile.
It was the first time two SM-3 missiles have been shot off a U.S. Navy ship at one time, said Raytheon spokeswoman Heather Uberuaga.
She said the first test involved the SM-3 Block IA missile that is currently deployed, while Wednesday's test used the company's next-generation SM-3 Block IB missile. Company officials said the next test would pave the way for full-rate production of the new missiles.
The Pentagon said the test was aimed at exercising the latest version of the second-generation Aegis weapons system, which is built to engage longer range and more sophisticated ballistic missiles.
(Reporting by Andrea Shalal-Esa; Editing by Vicki Allen and Gunna Dickson)