A high-powered laser destroyed a target missile in flight off the Central California coast in a milestone test of a futuristic but troubled national defence system, the Air Force announced on Friday.

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 on 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 programme.

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

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

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.

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