Op-Ed: In pursuit of distributed lethality, the Navy’s SM-6 missile is leading the waySM-6 (US Navy)
Late in August, the Navy and the Missile Defense Agency successfully intercepted a medium range ballistic missile (MRBM) with two ship-launched SM-6 missiles off the coast of Hawaii. The test was the latest accomplishment for the SM-6, which is quickly becoming the most versatile and effective weapon Navy ships have in their arsenal. No longer just a missile to shoot down aircraft, drones or anti-ship missiles, the SM-6 can also target ballistic missiles in terminal phase and will soon be an effective anti-ship weapon, as well as being able to strike targets on land.
The August 30 test was the second time an SM-6 had destroyed a MRBM, the first event occurring last December. The SM-6 has also destroyed a short-range ballistic missile target in an earlier test. Designed to be part of a layer approach to Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) along with the SM-3, the SM-6 has proven to quite adaptable to nearly all situations a Navy ship may encounter.
The SM-6 is a monster of a missile. At more than 21 feet long and weighing 3,300 pounds, the missile can fit into the Mk 41 Vertical Launching System that is fitted to cruisers and destroyers without any special modification. With a speed reaching Mach 3.5 and armed with a 140-pound warhead, the SM-6 can fly as high as 110,000 feet and hit aerial targets at least 150 miles away, although the real range of the missile is believed to be much closer to 250 miles depending on the type of target. The SM-6 is fitted with the same type of radar seeker that is used by the AIM-120 AMRAAM missile.
In June 2014, the USS John Paul Jones fired a series of SM-6 missiles off the Southern California coast testing what was then the latest version of the Aegis Combat System. One of the tests conducted was called NIFC-CA AS-02A, which was designed to expand the engagement envelope of the Navy’s integrated sensor and fire control network Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air. During that test, the SM-6 achieved the longest engagement in naval history. Unfortunately, the Navy has been reluctant to disclose how far the SM-6 travelled before intercepting the target.
Along with the Marine Corps’ help, the Navy last year demonstrated the ability of an SM-6 to shoot down a simulated anti-ship missile that was flying over the White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico. As the missile flew toward the USS Desert Ship, a concrete structure designed to simulate shipboard conditions in the Southwestern desert, an F-35B used its onboard radar and sensors to track it. Targeting information was passed to USS Desert Ship and an SM-6 was fired, hitting the target. It was the first time an F-35 had acted as a broad area aerial relay node as part of NIFC-CA. This ability to integrate the advanced sensors of the F-35 into the Navy’s defensive architecture will only expand the over-the-horizon reach of the SM-6, much like the addition of the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye several years ago.
Former Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter announced that the SM-6 was also going to be modified to act as a supersonic anti-ship missile, providing the Navy’s surface combatants a weapon they have long been missing. While the 140-pound warhead is by no means a large (by contrast the Russian P-700 Granit anti-ship missile has a 1,653-pound warhead), the Mach 3.5 speed alone will produce dramatic kinetic effects upon impact. Carter said the range of the SM-6 anti-ship modification would exceed 200 miles, which is well beyond the range of the current Harpoon missile. In a successful test in January 2016, an SM-6 successfully sunk a decommissioned frigate off the coast of Hawaii.
Thus far, more than 300 SM-6 missiles have been delivered, according to the missile’s manufacturer, Raytheon, and is currently deployed on more than 60 U.S. Navy ships. Since it was first deployed in 2013, the SM-6 has delivered consistently during test events for the Navy, building on a history of Standard missiles that goes back to 1968 when the SM-1 became operational. A rarity in the modern world of defense acquisition, the SM-6 has proven to be a resounding success, allowing the Navy the flexibility to engage a multitude of targets with one missile, always ready to reach over the horizon to defeat a threat.
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Gary Wetzel is an experienced military aviation photographer and writer. He is the author of two books on A-10 combat operations in Afghanistan and a U.S. Navy veteran, having served aboard fast-attack submarines as a sonar technician.