The Pentagon will soon fire its emerging SM-3 IIA interceptor missile from a land-based Aegis Ashore site for the first time as part of a broad-based, multi-year effort to help defend European allies from short and intermediate-range ballistic missile attacks from Russia, Iran or other potential adversaries.
A follow on to the SM-3, the SM-3 IIA is a larger and more high-tech interceptor missile able to destroy threatening targets at longer ranges; the weapon, being developed as part of a cooperative arrangement between the US Missile Defense Agency and Japan, is designed to work in tandem with Aegis radar systems to track and destroy approaching enemy missiles – by knocking them out of the sky.
“This is the end of the development phase. We are transitioning into production. This is the final flight test before we get into operational testing,” Amy Cohen, SM-3 Program Director, told Warrior Maven in an interview.
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The upcoming test firing, to take place at an Aegis Ashore facility in Hawaii, is part the Pentagon’s European Phased Adaptive Approach, an initiative aimed at building upon the success of Aegis missile defense at-sea with land sites in Poland and Romania. Called Aegis Ashore, the land sites are intended to protect the European continent from potential future ballistic missile threats such as Russia and Iran, among others.
Russia’s reported violations of the INF treaty, resulting in firing of medium-range ballistic missiles, is regarded by many as a substantial threat to NATO countries in Europe. Accordingly, it comes as little surprise that the Pentagon is working vigorously to bolster missile defense in the region. Certain land-fired ballistic missiles fired from Russian territory could, at very least, threaten many NATO-allied bases, force concentrations and other assets.
An Aegis Ashore site became operational in Romania in 2015, and another is slated to stand up in Poland sometime later this year.
A Missile Defense Agency official told Warrior Maven that "the SM-3 Block IIA missile is a larger version of the SM-3 IB in terms of boosters and the kinetic warhead, which allows for increased operating time. The second and third stage boosters on the SM-IIA are 21" in diameter, allowing for longer flight times and engagements of threats higher in the exo-atmosphere.”
The Pentagon is hoping to increase production quantities of the SM-3 IIA as well; they are waiting to see whether Congress succeeds in allocating additional funding for the missiles.
SM-3 IIA Technology
The Missile Defense Agency and Raytheon have configured the emerging SM-3 IIA missile with a more “sensitive” seeker and software designed to accommodate new threat information.
“We’ve also brought in some capability advancements into our kinetic warhead, so we now have higher sensitivity,” Cohen explained.
By adding new software, industry developers create the technical framework necessary to upgrade or “reprogram” new threat information into the missile over time, Cohen explained.
“We can improve the performance through software algorithms. We are not only able to increase the threat space but bring in new threats as they emerge through software upgrades,” Cohen added. "We work with the MDA to define how we’re going to make improvements and what threats we want to incorporate.”
The SM-3 IIA also incorporates sensor technology improvements designed to enable the missile to see or detect targets farther into space, developers explained.
The SM-3 is a kinetic energy warhead able to travel at 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. While many details of the advanced seeker are not available, Cohen did say it includes infrared technology.
“We can see a threat that we are engaging much sooner. As soon as we open our eyes, we can see threats much earlier and we have the ability to track them. This helps us with how we need to maneuver the kinetic warhead to ensure that we have a kinetic engagement with the threats that we are flying against,” Cohen added.
The Aegis ashore deckhouse in Romania was engineered with Aegis BMD Weapons System 5.0 -- an integrated suite of technologies which provides multi-mission signal processing capability, Lockheed officials said.
For instance, the multi-mode signal processor provides the ability to simultaneously track air and cruise missile threats as well as ballistic missile threats, officials added.
The upcoming SM-3 IIA test is a follow on to a previous land-based-firing with its predecessor missile, the SM-3, at a missile range in Hawaii.
During this prior test, the SM-3 Block IB worked in tandem with a technology called AN/TPY-2 radar, a system so precise it can identify a baseball hit out of a stadium from hundreds of miles away, Raytheon engineers say.
“Its hawk-like eyes give the SM-3 a jump-start on its trip through space, allowing it to destroy the threat closer to the enemy instead of the ally,” a Raytheon statement said. “The SM-3 Block IB destroyed an intermediate range ballistic missile target in a launch-on-remote engagement using a cue from an AN/TPY-2 ballistic missile defense radar.”
Aegis radar works by sending electromagnetic “pings” into space to identify the location and trajectory of an approaching missile threat – and then works with an integrated fire control system to guide the SM-3 interceptor to its target, with the intent of destroying it or knocking it out of the sky.
At sea, integrated technologies and electronics on the ship, including fire control systems, link information from the Aegis radar with a ship’s vertical launch tubes able to fire out SM-3 interceptor missiles.
In existence since 2004, Aegis BMD is now operating on 28 Navy ships and with a number of allied nations. U.S. allies with Aegis capability include the Japan Self Defense Forces, Spanish Navy, the South Korean Navy, the Royal Australian Navy, Italy, Denmark and others, MDA officials said.
Using various guidance technologies, the SM-3 flies up into space to destroy approaching ballistic missile threats. The SM-3 missile uses an enhanced two-color infrared seeker and an upgraded steering and propulsion capability, Raytheon weapons developers have told Warrior Maven. These technologies use short bursts of precision propulsion to direct the missile toward incoming targets, they added.
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