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The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – A high-powered laser destroyed a target missile in flight off the Central California coast in a milestone test of a futuristic “Star Wars” Death Star type but troubled national defense system.

A laser weapon mounted on a Boeing jumbo jet tracked the missile as it accelerated over the ocean off the Point Mugu Naval Warfare Center Thursday night, then fired an energy beam that heated the missile until it cracked and broke up, according to statements from the Air Force and two aerospace companies involved in the program.

The test is a boost for a program that has had billions in cost overruns and saw its budget sharply cut last year by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who called the concept "fatally flawed" and destined if for minimal research-and-development.

While the success of the test is a technological triumph, it won’t save the airborne laser program from being placed on life-support, a defense analyst said.

"The program results are, unfortunately, two years behind the secretary’s decision to cancel the program," said Jim McAleese of Mcaleese and Associates, a lawyer and defense consultant in Virginia who is not affiliated with the project.

The laser program was designed to kill missiles at short range. The 2011 budget for the concentrates instead on two ship-based missiles — the Aegis and the SM-3 — that are more useful for regional conflicts involving, say, Iran or North Korea, Mcaleese said.

During Thursday’s test, the so-called Airborne Laser Testbed was flown on a modified Boeing 747-400F that took off from Edwards Air Force Base in the Mojave Desert, Boeing said.

The system used two low-energy lasers to target the missile as it was boosting into the sky from a sea platform, then fired a megawatt-class Chemical Oxygen Iodine Laser, or COIL, according to the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency.

"While ballistic missiles like the one ALTB destroyed move at speeds of about 4,000 miles per hour, they are no match for a superheated, high-energy laser beam racing towards it at 670 million mph," Northrop Grumman Corp. said in a statement. "The basketball-sized beam was focused on the foreign military asset, as the missile is called officially, for only a few seconds before a stress fracture developed, causing the target to catastrophically split into multiple pieces."