The Standard Missile sets the standard for air defense weapons. Reliable and relatively easy to upgrade, the missiles have evolved to fill multiple roles for the U.S. military. Navy ships rely on these systems to protect against cruise missiles, enemy aircraft and land-based threats. One version of the missile is an essential part of the Navy’s missile defense programs, while future versions could take on new land attack roles and offer more precision at longer range. Already, the missile family can protect against a wide range of threats, from hundreds of miles away.
When the first Standard Missile, dubbed SM-1, debuted in the early 1970s, it was a big improvement over the previous generation of anti-air missiles. The unique dual-thrust rocket motor and autopilot function of the solid-fueled Standard Missile-1 enabled it to adjust to velocity changes caused by burnout or changes in atmospheric pressure, giving it vastly greater flight performance than earlier systems could provide. Over time, the missile has adopted several new incarnations and also incorporated a steady stream of improvements through block upgrades.
Standard Missile-2 quickly became the U.S. Navy’s foremost surface-to-air missile. It was originally designed to counter anti-ship cruise missiles, but the SM-2 also proved lethal against surface targets. Over the course of numerous upgrades, the SM-2 added longer-range intercept capabilities and stepped up its ability to handle new commands mid-flight. Improvements in areas like guidance, low-altitude missile interception, and countermeasure detection have also been incorporated. SM-2s vary somewhat in size, with medium-range versions only measuring 15 feet in length. The two-stage extended range SM-2 Block IV is 21 feet 6 inches long, 21 inches in diameter, has a wingspan of 3 feet 6 inches, and weighs about 3,225 pounds, with a range of 115-230 statute miles.
In more than a thousand test firings, the SM-2 has repeatedly demonstrated its worth against a wide range of targets. It has defeated stationary targets and those traveling at supersonic speed. It has hit targets at low and high altitudes alike, and in inclement weather conditions – and it also can overcome countermeasures along the way.
The Standard Missile-2 has been an integral part of the Navy’s Aegis Weapon System, and, therefore, a vital part of America’s ballistic missile defense ambitions. In January 1997, the Navy shot down a ballistic missile for the first time using the Standard Missile, successfully showing its theater missile defense abilities. A decade later, the missile continues to rack up test milestones. In May, a modified SM-2 successfully intercepted a short-range ballistic missile, marking the first sea-based intercept of a ballistic missile in its terminal phase. But other versions of the Standard Missile have made an even greater mark on U.S. missile defense systems.
The Standard Missile-3 has become the sea-based midcourse missile defense weapon of choice. It is deployed on Aegis cruisers and destroyers to defend against short- to medium-range ballistic missile threats. Like other missile defense interceptors, the SM-3 destroys targets by colliding directly into them, commonly referred to as “hit to kill.” The U.S. is currently working with Japan to upgrade the SM-3 to meet intercontinental ballistic missile threats.
The SM-3’s “evolutionary design” builds on the SM-2 Block IV airframe and propulsion systems. But it also has some unique characteristics, such as a deployable nosecone and a three stage guidance system. Much of this new technology has been successfully tested. For instance, the Missile Defense Agency tested the SM-3’s maneuvering system in March. This test marked the fourth and final ground test for the upgraded Solid Divert Attitude and Control System (SDACS). The upgraded SDACS adds more thrust and maneuverability to the SM-3’s Kinetic Warhead. A Multiple Kill Vehicle payload system has also shown promising signs. Other recent test milestones include an April 26 intercept test, which brought the success rate of sea-based missile defense “hit to kill” technology to 80 percent. This was the first flight test for the SM-3 Block IA upgrades. In addition, the SM-3 successfully destroyed a ballistic missile target outside the earth’s atmosphere during a trial over the Pacific Ocean in June, marking the ninth successful intercept out of eleven attempts for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program.
Future incarnations of the Standard Missile hold even greater promise. The next generation of the Standard Missile is the SM-6, which will be based on the SM-2 Block IV airframe and proven cueing and guidance technology. The SM-6 will extend the Navy’s projection range, enabling it to destroy “over-the-horizon” threats, as well as planes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cruise missiles – over land as well as over water. The SM-6 will be able to counter sophisticated enemy countermeasures better than earlier missile systems, while adding a layer of protection for civilian population centers and allied forces.
Like other Standard Missiles, the SM-6 will be launched from a Vertical Launching System (VLS). The sealed VLS canisters are easily transportable and their multi-missile storage and firing system gives the Navy a tremendous amount of firepower. Another good quality of the SM-6 is its low cost. By being totally compatible with current and future generations of Navy cruisers and destroyers, and because its vastly increased set of capabilities are based largely on existing Standard Missile and Air Force Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile technology, the SM-6 is relatively cheap to develop and produce.
The Standard Missile, in all of its incarnations, continues to anchor the U.S. military’s air defenses. It is a standard bearer for a weapons technology that can adapt to new threats without losing its ability to carry out its existing missions.
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