updated 5/24/2006 10:07:38 PM ET 2006-05-25T02:07:38

For the first time, a Navy ship at sea successfully shot down a long-range missile in its final seconds of flight, the military said Wednesday.

The test was seen as an important step toward giving ships the ability to shoot down weapons as they are about to hit their targets. Until now, the Standard Missile 2 was only launched from ships to intercept a long-range missile in the early or middle stage of flight.

For the test, a missile fired from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai was destroyed in its final stage by an SM-2 launched from USS Lake Erie.

The Navy already can shoot down a missile in its final stage with a Patriot Advanced Capability 3, or PAC-3, missile launched from land.

The experiment with the SM-2 could broaden a warship’s capability, said Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, director of surface warfare on the staff of the chief of naval operations.

The Pearl Harbor-based Lake Erie is equipped with technology that allows it to detect and track intercontinental ballistic missiles. Since 2004, U.S. warships with ICBM tracking technology have been patrolling the Sea of Japan, on the lookout for missiles from North Korea.

The U.S. military is installing missile tracking radar and interceptor missiles on 18 U.S. Pacific Fleet ships. It is also equipping underground silos in Alaska and California with interceptor missiles.

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