The Buzz

How to Sink Warships: U.S. Navy Reveals Anti-Ship SM-6 Missile

The U.S. Navy and Raytheon recently demonstrated that the company’s Standard SM-6 missile could destroy an enemy warship for the first time. During the test, USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53)—an Arleigh Burke-class—destroyer sank the decommissioned Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Reuben James (FFG 57) with a SM-6 missile.

“This test event demonstrated Raytheon's decades of continued technological development and partnership with the U.S. Navy,” said Dr. Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon’s missile systems division, in a statement released on March 7. “The ability to leverage the Standard Missile Family and the legacy AWS [Aegis Weapon System] in newly fielded systems brings additional warfighting capability to the U.S. Fleet.”

Until last month—when U. S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter disclosed the closely held secret that the SM-6 is capable of engaging surface targets—most analysts believed that the U.S. Navy lacked any meaningful capability to attack enemy warships. With the revelation that the SM-6 does have anti-surface capability, it is now known that the U.S. Navy does have a long-range supersonic anti-ship missile at its disposal. This capability would be essential should any serious conflict arise with the Chinese or Russian navies, for example.

According to Raytheon, the recent test was a demonstration of the Navy’s “distributed lethality” concept where firepower is dispersed amongst a multitude of warships. It also showcased the SM-6’s expanded mission capabilities—which include anti-air warfare, sea-based terminal missile defense and anti-surface warfare.

The SM-6—which incorporates an active radar seeker and networking—was designed to engage targets beyond a ship’s radar horizon. Using the Naval Integrated Fire Control (NIFC) battle network, an Aegis warship could engage over-the-horizon targets—including aircraft and missiles—by using targeting data from a Northrop Grumman E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.

The physical radar horizon for a S-band radar such as the Aegis SPY-1D is about 250 nautical miles for a target flying at about 30,000 feet. For target flying at lower altitudes, the radar detection range would be shorter—which is where the E-2D comes in. While the range for the SM-6 is classified, the weapon’s range could potentially be greater than 250 nautical miles.

Because the E-2D has the capability to track air and surface targets, the SM-6 would effectively allow U.S. warships to engage enemy surface combatants over-the-horizon with a Mach 3.5+ missile. While the SM-6’s warhead was designed to kill aircraft—and as such is relatively tiny—the fact that it also has ballistic missile defense capability suggests it has a hit-to-kill capability.

Given that modern warships are not the armored battlewagons from the battleship era, it is relatively easy to achieve a “mission kill” on a current-generation surface combatant. That means even with its small warhead, the SM-6 should be more than effective against, for example, a Russian Kirov-class battlecruiser or the Chinese Type 52D destroyer due to the warhead's speed. The kinetic energy from a very fast missile can do enormous damage by itself—as the recent test against USS Reuben James (FFG 57) amply demonstrated.

Thus far, Raytheon has delivered more than 250 SM-6 missiles, which became operational in 2013. Production will continue for the foreseeable future as the Navy begins to replace its older Standard missiles with the new weapon.

Dave Majumdar is the defense editor for the National Interest. You can follow him on Twitter: @davemajumdar.

Image: Flickr/U.S. Department of Defense.