The Buzz

Report: The U.S. Navy Might Have a New 'Bullet' To Destroy North Korean Missiles

The Navy recently destroyed a ballistic missile target with an SM-6 missile during a test off the coast of Scotland, verifying that the high-tech weapon does have an ability to track and destroy incoming enemy medium and long-range ballistic missiles.

While the Navy did not specifically say the test was aimed at preparing for a North Korean conventional ballistic missile attack on South Korea, the successful intercept did further validate the kind of technology likely to be used to defend South Korea or Japan in that kind of scenario.

"The U.S. Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Navy sailors aboard USS McFaul successfully test fired a Standard Missile-6. That flight test, designated Standard Missile Controlled Test Vehicle (SM CTV)-03, demonstrated the successful performance of an SM-6 launched from an Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense capable DDG (destroyer) and was conducted as part of the system’s flight certification process," a statement from the Missile Defense Agency said

Given the current tensions with North Korea, many observers and military planners have made the point that any kind of US-led military strike upon North Korea would likely be followed by a massive launch of conventional ballistic missiles by North Korea against South Korea and Japan.  As a result, it would by no means surprise anyone to see the US sharpen, test, refine and deploy various missile defense technologies; these include land-based systems such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense weapon and, as tested, an SM-6 fired from a ship at sea.

At the same time, many have questioned whether even the most advanced ballistic missile defenses would be able to track and destroy an incoming barrage of multiple ballistic missiles.

The Navy has been preparing an emerging Standard Missile 6 missile variant for combat by test-firing the weapon engineered with upgraded software - enabling it to perform a range of functions to include air-warfare, ballistic missile terminal defense and anti-surface warfare capabilities, service officials said.

The Navy successfully executed four flight tests of the surface-to-air Standard Missile-6 Block I (SM-6 Blk I) off the Hawaiian coast earlier

Navy and MDA tests have also simultaneously fired two Standard Missile-6 weapons in rapid succession at a single ballistic missile target to assess performance against medium-range ballistic missile threats in the final stage of flight.

Using an "active seeker" technology, two SM-6 missiles were able to simultaneously track and destroy a single target, greatly improving the probability of a target kill.

The concept with an active seeker is to enable the one or two SM-6 missiles to adjust to fast moving targets and stay on track in the event the target maneuvers or changes position.

The SM-6 is unique in several respects; the weapon uses what is called an "active" seeker, meaning it can send a signal or electromagnetic ping forward in addition to receiving them. Electromagnetic signals, which travel at the speed of light, send a signal forward before analyzing the return signal to determine the shape, size, speed or configuration of an approaching threat. Since the speed of light is known, and the time of travel is able to be determined, a computer algorithm is able to calculate the exact distance of an object. This technology is built into the SM-6, using software upgrades.

An "active seeker" gives the missile to better attack maneuvering or moving targets at sea, because it is not wholly dependent upon a ship-based illuminator to bounce a signal off a target for a merely "passive" seeker to receive.

This is the technology which allows a ship commander to fire several SM-6 missiles in more rapid succession or closer to one another in the event that a target needs to be attacked with more than one missile.

"A ship can illuminate or communicate with the missile while looking for a target, Raytheon developers said.

Now, SM-6 "active seeker" technology allows the missile to use its own built-in seeker technology to navigate without needing a ship-based illuminator.

"We had two missiles in the air and we wanted to make sure that we were in fact pulling in on the target and looking at target versus looking at the other missile that’s in the air. Simulations all said the missile would never look at the other missile in the air however, but it’s nice to prove that.

Compared with the SM-3, the ship-fired SM-6 interceptor is designed to track and destroy lower-altitude threats such as a ballistic missile in the "terminal" phase of decent to its target.

The weapon has been established with an ability to knock out ballistic missiles approaching from the sky. More recently, the weapon has been developed for a number of new "offensive" missions including surface attacks against enemy ships or defensive intercepts against anti-ship missiles closer to the surface.

The SM-6 has also been capable of anti-air defense, equipped with an ability to attack or destroy enemy helicopters, drones and other approaching threats.  The weapon has now been established as defensive, offensive and capable of three distinct missions; they are surface warfare, anti-air warfare and ballistic missile defense.

Navy leaders emphasize that the fast-changing threat environment means new offensive and defensive technologies need to emerge in order for the US to maintain its edge over potential near-peer rivals. Along these lines, Russian and Chinese missile modernization is by no means lost on US weapons developers. In particular, both Russia and China are widely known to possess mobile ballistic missile launchers, a scenario which without question magnifies the need for advanced ballistic missile defense.  

SM-6 for Surface Attack

This most recent development comes on the heels of a successful test last year where an SM-6 destroyed and sank a surface ship target off the coast of Hawaii, providing additional strategic relevance for an new offensive use of a missile previous oriented toward air and ballistic missile defense, Raytheon and Navy officials said.

Previous anti-surface warfare tests have proven that an SM-6 can attack surface ships, including an instance wherein the weapon destroyed a Perry-class fast Frigate.

The test, which took place at Pacific Missile Range Facility, Hawaii, involved the rare event of an actual destruction and sinking of a decommissioned or retired Navy ship.

In this instance he firing of the SM-6 was designed to analyze new software configurations on the missile, giving it an ability to track and destroy targets on the surface of the water - as opposed to its typical use of hitting or intercepting incoming enemy fire from the air above a ship or near the earth's atmosphere as a ballistic missile defense weapon.

Using the SM-6 as an offensive weapon against surface targets is a new application for the Navy, bringing another kind of surface fire-power to the fleet. The SM-6 is larger than the SM-3 interceptor and is designed to destroy closer-in air targets. However, this test launches the ability for the SM-6 to function in an additional capacity as an offensive weapon against a wide range of surface targets.

The software adjustments to the missile allow a single SM-6 to perform all of its different functions, developers said.

Raytheon developers say the system will identify a target and send a signal to the firing ship. Based on the signal, it chooses the software path and the activities it is going to perform in engaging its missions.

The SM-6 weapon has been operational since 2013; the Navy has at least 250 of the missiles in its arsenal. Last year, the Navy awarded Raytheon a $270 million deal for 2016 SM-6 production.

SM-6 Technology

The USS John Paul Jones, an Arleigh Burke Class destroyer, fired the SM-6 using on board fire-control technology and Aegis Radar systems equipped with the latest fire-control technology called Aegis Baseline 9. The missile’s final assembly takes place at Raytheon’s state-of-the-art SM-6 and SM-3 all-up-round production facility at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Ala.

An emerging Navy technology called Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air, or NIFC-CA, also relies upon the SM-6 to help track and destroy approaching anti-ship cruise missiles from distances beyond the horizon. The NIFC-CA system, which was first deployed last year, also relies upon an airborne sensor to relay a signal from an approaching enemy target. The Navy has tested and E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane and an F-35 as the airborne sensor able to relay targeting information.

The SM-6 is configured to fire from Navy Cruisers and Destroyers out of a Vertical Launch System tube; although there is not yet a ship deck-mounted launcher for the missile, it appears conceivable that the Navy could explore an option along these lines. This would enable the weapon to fire from a wider range of ships such as the Littoral Combat Ship, Frigates, Amphibious Assault Ships or even Aircraft Carriers.

The development of this weapon, along with other missiles and emerging offensive and defensive technologies, is entirely consistent with the Navy's "distributed lethality" strategy; this ongoing effort aims to better arm ships with next-generation communications technology and cutting-edge, longer-range offensive and defensive weapons. This is informed by a series of key concepts such as efforts to better enable surface ships to conduct open or "blue" water combat against a near-peer adversary, sustain the Navy's global technological edge, hold enemies at risk from farther distances and allow surface ships to both "aggregate" and "distribute" or disperse as needed as a way to reduce the prospect of a successful enemy attack.

This first appeared in Scout Warrior here.

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.