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SM-6 Goes Long
by James Dunnigan
July 25, 2014

In June 2014 the U.S. Navy conducted more life-fire tests of its new SM-6 anti-aircraft missile and all five firings were a success. This included the longest surface-to-air engagement (missiles shooting down target) in naval history. The distance achieved was not released, but the max range of the SM-6 is given as 240 kilometers. The new version of the Aegis fire control software was also successfully tested under realistic combat conditions.

It was only in 2013, two years after receiving the first production models, that the Standard Missile 6 (SM-6) anti-aircraft missile successfully it hit an aircraft (a BQM-74 target UAV) over the horizon. The SM-6 is basically the existing SM-2 anti-aircraft missile with the more capable guidance system of the AMRAAM air-to-air missile, as well as other improvements in the electronics and other components. The SM-6 is a 1.5 ton, 6.55 meter (21.5 foot) long, 533mm (21 inch) diameter missile. It has a max range of 240 kilometers and max altitude of 33 kilometers (110,000 feet).

The older SM-2 is 1.35 ton, 8 meter (26.2 foot) long missile with a max range of 190 kilometers and max altitude of 24.4 kilometers (80,200 feet). The main change for the SM-6 is the AMRAAM guidance system which is self-contained and will seek out any target it comes within range of. The SM-2 uses a "semi-active" guidance system, which requires that a special targeting radar "light up" the target with a radar beam, which the SM-2 guidance system detects and homes in on. The "active" guidance system of the SM-6 is thus harder to jam and can home in on targets beyond the range of targeting radars. The SM-6 can attack anti-ship missiles as well.

The SM-6 took 9 years to develop and has been in production since 2011, with the initial order for 1,200 missiles at a cost of $4.3 million each. SM-6 will replace many of the SM-2 missiles currently carried by American and Australian warships.

Meanwhile, the navy has been continuing years of improvements in the Aegis radar and fire control system that controls SM-2, SM-6, and the smaller SM-3 anti-missile version. The SM-3 can destroy ballistic missiles and low orbit satellites. Aegis equipped ships began getting version 4.0 of the Aegis anti-missile software in 2013 and the next major upgrade (5.0) makes the anti-missile capabilities a standard feature of Aegis software. New destroyers are having anti-missile Aegis software installed as standard equipment. Much of the anti-missile capability of the original Aegis anti-aircraft system came from upgrades to the Aegis software.

The Aegis anti-missile system has had a success rate of over 80 percent in knocking down incoming ballistic missile warheads during test firings. To achieve this, two similar models of the U.S. Navy Standard anti-aircraft missile are in service, in addition to a modified (to track incoming ballistic missiles version) version of the Aegis radar system.

The RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 (or SM-3), has a range of over 500 kilometers and max altitude of over 160 kilometers. The Standard 3 is based on the anti-missile version of the Standard 2 (SM-2 Block IV). This SM-3 missile has a shorter range than the SM-2, which can destroy a warhead that is more than 200 kilometers up. The SM-3 is optimized for anti-missile work, while the SM-2 Block IV was designed to be used against both ballistic missiles and aircraft. The SM-2 Block IV also costs less than half of what an SM-3 costs. So going after aircraft with SM-3s is discouraged unless absolutely necessary.


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