A U.S. Navy ship at sea successfully shot down a target test missile in its last few seconds of flight, the military said on Wednesday.

Until the test off Hawaii, only ground-based interceptors have shot down targets in their final stage. Ships had only intercepted target missiles in the early or middle stages of flight.

The interceptor is part of the Missile Defense Agency's multibillion-dollar program to protect the United States and its allies from an enemy missile attack.

Rear Adm. Barry McCullough, director of surface warfare on the staff of the chief of naval operations, said in a statement that the test was an important step toward enabling ships to shoot down ballistic missiles as they are about to hit their targets.

He said Patriot Advanced Capability 3, or PAC-3, missiles are currently the only interceptors the military has that are able to shoot down terminal phase target missiles.

For Wednesday's test, the Pearl Harbor-based USS Lake Erie launched a Standard Missile 2 to shoot down a missile fired from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai.

Pat Dolan, a spokeswoman for the Naval Sea Systems Command, said the interceptor destroyed the target but further analysis would be needed to say exactly how.

The experiment comes after the USS Lake Erie successfully shot down a mid-range missile during a November test. In that case, the ship intercepted and destroyed a warhead as it separated from its booster, marking the first time a ship at sea had shot down a multi-stage missile.

The November test used the Standard Missile 3 interceptor which is designed to shoot down mid-range targets and not the longer range targets the SM-2 missile is designed for.

The 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.

North Korea shocked Tokyo and other nations when it test-fired a ballistic missile over northern Japan in 1998. Analysts say North Korea is developing long-range missiles capable of reaching Alaska, Hawaii or perhaps America's West Coast.

The U.S. military is currently 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.

Japan has joined the U.S. missile defense program and is spending millions of dollars to develop a special nose cone for the SM-3 missile.

In March, the Missile Defense Agency said the clamshell nose cone successfully separated from the U.S.-designed SM-3 during another test off Kauai. That trial marked the first U.S. missile defense flight test using Japanese parts.