The U.S. Navy has successfully tested newly enhanced SM-6 missiles against an intermediate-range ballistic target -- just a day after North Korea launched such a projectile over Japan.
The Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency announced Wednesday morning that U.S. Navy sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) used its AN/SPY-1 radar to track a target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai, Hawaii, and launched SM-6 missiles to intercept the target at its final phase of flight.
Two missiles were reportedly fired in the event, known officially as Flight Test Standard Missile-27 Event 2 (FTM-27 E2). The exercise marks the second time an SM-6 missile has successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target, the agency said.
"We are working closely with the fleet to develop this important new capability, and this was a key milestone in giving our Aegis [ballistic missile defense] ships an enhanced capability to defeat ballistic missiles in their terminal phase," Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, the agency's director, said in the release. "We will continue developing ballistic missile defense technologies to stay ahead of the threat as it evolves."
Deployed on Navy cruisers and destroyers, the SM-6 made by Raytheon Co., the world's largest missile-maker, is an endoatmospheric (inside-the-atmosphere) weapon with a range of less than 200 nautical miles. It's designed to target ballistic missiles during their terminal, or final, phase of flight; it can also strike aircraft, ships and anti-ship cruise missiles.
The SM-6 combines the SM-2 propulsion and ordnance with a repackaged advanced medium-range air-to-air missile active seeker, allowing for enhanced performance at extended ranges, according to a March report from the Pentagon's top weapons tester.
The SM-3 Block IIA, by comparison, also carried on naval ships as part of the Aegis ballistic missile defense system, is an exoatmospheric (outside-the-atmosphere) weapon with a range of 1,350 nautical miles and designed to strike ballistic missiles during their boost or ascent phase of flight.
There are 33 Aegis warships capable of long-range surveillance, tracking and ballistic missile defense armed with SM-2, SM-3 and/or SM-6 missiles, according to a report this month from the Congressional Research Service. Roughly half of those are deployed in the Pacific region.
Since January 2002 and excluding the latest test (as well as the 2008 anti-satellite test), the Pentagon has conducted 35 successful intercepts using those three types of missiles out of a total of 43 attempts, for a success rate of more than 81 percent, according to the CRS report.
Mike Campisi, Raytheon's SM-6 senior program director, said the company worked to improve the SM-6 technology in recent months.
"Earlier this year, our customer requested an enhanced capability to deal with a sophisticated medium-range ballistic missile threat," he said in a press release. "We did all this – the analysis, coding and testing – in seven months; a process that normally takes one to two years."
Raytheon also said the SM-6 has now successfully engaged a ballistic missile target in its terminal phase three times -- it was first tested in a successful flight test mission in August 2015 and then again in late 2016 before the latest exercise.
Other weapons designed to target ballistic missiles in their terminal phase of flight include the PAC-3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, made by Lockheed Martin Corp.
Japan's air force demonstrated a PAC-3 system at Yokota in western Tokyo just hours after the North Korean missile flew over Hokkaido, Stars & Stripes reported.
There are six active Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, batteries, as well as ground- and sea-based radars deployed around the world, and 34 ground-based interceptors for long-range homeland defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles or ICBMs (with 44 interceptors expected to be available by the end of 2017), according to CRS.