Expert Commentary

The Sky is [not] the Limit: the Evolution of the Standard Missile

Dr. Mitch Stevison
Vice President, Raytheon

The military called it Operation Bumblebee: a secret program to develop a weapon that – like the insect – could take off vertically, change directions instantly, and deliver a painful sting. Born in the years after World War II, the U.S. Navy program aimed to create a missile that could defend warships against new weapons like fast-moving fighter jets and the missiles they carried.

Early efforts produced three missiles: the Talos, Terrier, and Tartar. Talos was the largest of the three and could take out big threats, like Soviet bombers, however, many smaller ships couldn’t carry such a massive missile. Tartar was lightweight and designed to engage threats at close range. The smallest solution, the Terrier, boasted a cutting-edge (for the time) radar homing guidance system and was used by the Navy post-WWII. The first successful launch of the Terrier missile in the early 1950’s is regarded as the true beginning for the Standard Missile family.

Developments – in what can literally be considered “rocket science” – take time to accomplish. Designing, engineering, testing, and producing the world’s most sophisticated missile defense technologies, especially at a program’s inception, are purposeful and create intentional opportunities to learn and test the limits of the system.

The key to continued success is evolution.

More than 65 years later, the Standard Missile family has experienced a crescendo, accomplishing progressive upward spirals in capability.

Ballistic missile threats continue to advance, and in the same way, the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) is evolving with the help of innovative engineering. A “crawl, walk, run” development approach that builds on proven systems has created an unparalleled ballistic missile killer. It destroys short-to-intermediate range ballistic missiles in space by colliding with its target – like hitting a bullet with a bullet. The SM-3 is the only missile in existence today that can be launched from a ship at sea or from land, offering extraordinary versatility to the warfighter.

Over the years, the SM-3 has flexed its muscle in dozens of flight tests from both land and sea, which are designed to test the full capacity of the missile. In late 2007, the SM-3 was called upon for another, unique mission – destroying an inactive 5,000-pound U.S. reconnaissance satellite that was predicted to reenter the Earth’s atmosphere with hazardous fuel compounds onboard. Titled Operation Burnt Frost, the President directed the U.S. Strategic Command to develop the course of action. The satellite was destroyed at an altitude where it would pose no hazards to population centers and other satellites but without generating dangerous space debris, not unlike the SM-3’s engagement with ballistic missile threats.

The latest variant – the SM-3 IIA – has larger rocket motors and a bigger, more capable kinetic warhead that permits rapid engagement of threats. Complementary to its earlier variants, the SM-3 IIA’s enhanced range allows it to travel further, protect larger regions, and reach velocities much faster than the speed of sound. The SM-3 IIA will join its earlier variants on U.S. Navy and Allied ships and in European land-based sites.

Another member of the Standard Missile family is the Standard Missile-6 (SM-6), a somewhat new missile, first issued to the U.S. Navy fleet in 2013. Over the last four years, the missile has become a shining example of missile defense evolution. Originally designed to defend ships against enemy aircraft, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cruise missiles, the SM-6 has redefined itself again and again by adding new capabilities to its repertoire.

By 2015, it had successfully added and proven the ability to protect ships against ballistic missile threats in their final phase of flight. A handful of months later, it demonstrated the ability to take out objects on the ocean’s surface. A test in January of 2016 resulted in the demise of the decommissioned USS Reuben James. In recent tests, it has shattered its own record several times over for the longest range surface-to-air intercept of its kind in naval history.  Three missions in one missile is remarkable, unprecedented really, but just as impressive is the fact that these new missions are added to an existing missile through software upgrades only. There is literally no physical change to the missile, and it is part of Raytheon’s effort to rapidly spiral capability into the hands of our warfighters.

The evolution of these missiles and others that Raytheon produces is intentional. The rapid development of technologies is only able to occur when you have a robust base of engineering, production, and testing expertise to build upon – a more than 60 year legacy makes a solid base.

Few missiles are started from scratch. Over the years, we’ve taken the best components of the best systems to create versatile powerhouses like the SM-3 and the SM-6. The SM-3 program has leveraged lessons learned during years of testing. The SM-6 program incorporates advanced signal processing and guidance control capabilities of Raytheon’s Advanced Medium-Range air-to-air missile. The SM-6 design is also based on the time-tested advantages of the Standard Missile’s airframe and propulsion.

Nearly 65 years ago, engineers were in uncharted territory. As we continue to work toward perfecting this technology, we’ve seen it expand from defending ships to defending continents. Thanks to the innovation and foresight of our industry and government teams, the next evolution of the Standard Missile family won’t be far away. 

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The Author is Dr. Mitch Stevison

Dr. Mitch Stevison is the vice president of  Air and Missile Defense Systems at Raytheon. Before his current role, Dr. Stevison was the director of the SM-3 program, where he was responsible for the development, testing and production of all variants of the SM-3 missile portfolio. He has held numerous other industry roles in the field of missile defense prior to his current position at Raytheon. Dr. Stevison retired from the U.S. Army in 2005, following an accomplished 20-year military... Read More

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