Could Upgrades Turn the SM-3IIA Into a Nuclear Missile Killer?
January 25, 2021 Topic: Security Region: Americas Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: SM-3IIASM-3MDAICBMMissile Defense

Could Upgrades Turn the SM-3IIA Into a Nuclear Missile Killer?

The military is looking to build on previous successes with the SM-3IIA.

The Pentagon needs a faster, more precise and massively upgraded interceptor to find, track and destroy an emerging new generation of enemy ICBMs by “finding its way through a maze of countermeasures” to stop missile attacks in space, a threat circumstance now informing the fast-moving development of a new Missile Defense Agency program called Next Generation Interceptor (NGI).

Multiple industry teams, to include Lockheed, Boeing and a Northrop Grumman-Raytheon team are now working to design, engineer and offer NGI solutions to the MDA, a welcome development for Pentagon weapons developers increasingly concerned about Russian, Chinese, Iranian and North Korean nuclear-missile threats.

“We are asking teams to come up with the best NGI they can,” a senior Pentagon official told The National Interest.

While of course stopping short of offering any detailed specifics regarding threats, the senior official did cite both North Korea and Iran as “rogue nation” threats, indicating they were continuing to present unpredictable and serious threats to U.S. security.

The NGI guidance system and sensing, the Pentagon official said, will need to not only identify, elude and defeat countermeasures, decoys and other impediments by drawing upon new technical methods of target discrimination and utilizing an effective “filtration system for the optics” to find an enemy warhead.

The strategy is to advance the technical curve, carve out space for innovation and future enhancements in part by building upon the best, most cutting-edge upgraded existing or newly emerging weapons systems. Recent improvements to the SM-3 missile for example, have enabled a new variant to reach greater ranges, better distinguish targets and destroy a wider sphere of threats. Not long ago, the new SM-3IIA variant destroyed an ICBM type target for the first time, offering an example as to how the best available current technologies can be amended, upgraded with new software or adapted to new warfare requirements.

Melissa Morrison-Ellis, Raytheon Missiles & Defense Director and Deputy Program Manager, explained that SM-3IIA innovations offer an example of how the best new adaptations to weapons systems can help “bridge the gap” to the emergence of new technologies, such as those needed for NGI.

The SM-3 is a kinetic energy warhead able to travel more than 600 miles per hour; it carries no explosive but instead relies on the sheer force of impact and collision to destroy an enemy target. As Pentagon developers describe it, an SM-3 Block IIA missile is a larger version of the SM-3 IB in terms of boosters and the kinetic warhead, allowing for longer flight times and engagements of threats higher in the exo-atmosphere. Some of the improvements engineered into the SM-3 IIA missile are described as “sensitivity increases” which use a larger focal plane array for detection and more computer processing power. An improved seeker can better see approaching targets from longer distances compared to the SM-3 1B.

It makes sense that increased sensing “sensitivity” and target discrimination enhancements engineerined into the SM-3IIA could inspire new work being done for NGI, as particular technical solutions were “left up to the offerors,” the senior Pentagon official told The National Interest. He said that industry partners were given a set of specific requirements and then given leeway to enterprise methods of meeting or exceeding them.  

Given that an SM-3IIA has already shown an ability to knock out exo-atmospheric ICBMs, it seems entirely feasible that these types of innovations would inform emerging work on NGI. Such a developmental strategy is entirely consistent with current Pentagon, MDA and Air Force weapons development strategies which seek to achieve an optimal balance between a need to fast-track promising and effective new systems to war and improve and help expedite the acquisition and development process while also seeking to ensure that the best new technologies can be added in the near term, yet also built with the technical standards necessary to enable continual upgrades over time to stay in front of threats. 

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

Image: Reuters.