US Navy 'Desert Ship' Strikes Dummy Aircraft with New Missile System



The U.S. Navy recently test-fired a Standard Missile-6 at a supersonic, over-the-horizon target from a desert ship at White Sands Missile Range, New Mexico, as part of ongoing testing of a next-generation shipboard cruise missile defense system slated to deploy later this year.

The SM-6 was functioning as part of a critical emerging technology for the Navy called Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air, or NIFC-CA.  The NIFC-CA system uses an airborne relay sensor, ship-based radar technology and the SM-6 missile to locate and destroy approaching anti-ship cruise missiles, aircraft and UAV targets at distances beyond the horizon, Navy officials say.

The concept is to use airborne sensors to help identify and destroy approaching cruise missile threats at further distances than traditional ship defenses can currently reach.  Recognizing incoming threats at greater distances gives ship defenses a better chance of intercepting or shooting down an approaching enemy aircraft or missile.

NIFC-CA could allow ships to be closer to the shore because the vessel would have the technology to thwart or destroy land-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. At the same time, there may be instances where NIFC-CA would enable a ship to operate and accomplish its mission objectives at greater distances, officials say.

While the particular airborne relay sensor used for this recent test was not publicly available, the E-2D Hawkeye aircraft has been identified as one of several potential airborne relay nodes for the NIFC-CA system.  An industry source has also said that the Navy and Lockheed Martin are planning to test the F-35 as an airborne relay sensor for the system as well.

During the test at White Sands, the desert ship used an airborne sensor and the Raytheon Co.-made SM-6 to destroy a medium-range, supersonic target from beyond the horizon.

"This flight test is yet another demonstration of SM-6 providing the U.S. Navy with critical defensive capabilities against emerging threats," Capt. Michael Ladner, Program Executive Office, Integrated Weapon Systems, said in a statement.

Full-rate production began in May and the SM-6 missile is now deployed by the Navy as protection against fixed and rotary-wing aircraft, UAVs and cruise missiles, among other things.

"This weapon multiplies the amount of defended space the U.S. Navy can protect," said Mike Campisi, Raytheon's Standard Missile-6 senior program director. "The ships can now use data from remote sensors to support the engagement of targets. Sailors can now launch at threats much sooner than ever before."

Slated to fire alongside the existing longer-range SM-3 missile, the SM-6 weapon is designed to engage targets both over sea and over land. The SM-6 uses both active and semi-active guidance modes and advanced fusing techniques, Raytheon officials said.

“This is part of a series of tests that the U.S. Navy has asked us to do. The target was actual size and it was going supersonic over the horizon. The target was a simulated manned aircraft,” Campisi said.

When using semi-active mode, the SM-6 needs an illuminator off the ship to guide the missile by sending an electromagnetic ping onto the target.  In active mode, however, the missile does not need an illuminator, Campisi said.

“The SM-6 turns on its own illuminator and does not need any kind of ship assist. This frees up the ship for other engagements,” Campisi explained.

Alongside its work on the NIFC-CA testing, Raytheon is also preparing for SM-6 sea-based terminal testing wherein the weapon can be used for ballistic missile defense.

“We are creating a multi-mission set within the missile itself,” he said.

These tests will examine the cuing, sensing and communications technology engineered into the SM-6 so that it can supplement the longer-range SM-3 in ballistic missile defense scenarios.

--Kris Osborn can be reached at

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