updated 11/30/2006 10:55:43 PM ET 2006-12-01T03:55:43

The Japanese military successfully tested a new surface-to-air defensive missile in a live training exercise for the first time Thursday in a remote area of Fort Bliss.

The Chu-SAM missile was launched about 30 miles northeast of El Paso, Texas, at McGregor Range, where Japanese forces have been training on their defensive missile systems. The missile, manufactured by Mitsubishi Electronics, is designed to knock down aircraft, air-to-surface missiles and cruise missiles.

Japanese Maj. Gen. Masanori Takeda said the firing was not in response to North Korea announcement of a successful underground nuclear test in October.

The missile had been tested six times previously at nearby White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, but Thursday’s launch was the first as part of a live training exercise.

Takeda and other Japanese military officials cheered and hugged moments after the successful launch, which was delayed several times after technical problems with a drone.

The design phase of the $1.29 billion missile program was completed in 2002. The Chu-SAM will replace the HAWK missiles that Japanese defense forces have relied on since 1965.

Takeda, who spoke through a translator, said the new missile is more effective and versatile than the HAWK. It has a range of about 31 miles, or 50 kilometers and is designed to directly hit targets. Up to 10 missiles can be fired from a single launcher to destroy multiple threats, the general said.

The test comes amid Japanese and U.S. efforts to bolster Japan’s missile defense system. The U.S. military has said it planned to upgrade two ships deployed to Japan and equip them with missile interceptors.

Japanese officials have been debating about whether the country’s forces should shoot down missiles aimed at other countries, including the United States. Fumio Kyuma, the head of the Japanese Defense Agency, has said the country’s post-World War II pacifist constitution prohibits that sort of action. But Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has suggested that the government would review the issue.

Japan became the only country to suffer a nuclear attack when U.S. atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki near the end of World War II in 1945.

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