Designed For ‘Hit-To-Kill’ ICBMs Outside Earth’s Atmosphere, US Navy Makes First Kill With SM-3 Missiles

In a historic first, US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyers deployed Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) anti-missile interceptors in combat, successfully intercepting Iranian ballistic missiles aimed at Israeli targets. 

Over the weekend, the Israel Defense Force (IDF) reported that a staggering 350 Iranian missiles and drones were launched at Israel, carrying a combined payload of 60 tons of explosives. Among them were approximately 120 ballistic missiles, 30 cruise missiles, and 170 drones.

The IDF declared that 99 percent of the threats were intercepted, with the US Navy accounting for a key portion. According to the reports, the USS Carney and USS Arleigh Burke collectively shot down at least three ballistic missiles: the USS Carney specifically intercepted three missiles while the USS Arleigh Burke intercepted one. 

These destroyers, equipped with the SPY-1D radar and SM-3 interceptors, demonstrated their capability to detect and eliminate ballistic threats before they could reach their intended targets. 

The USS Arleigh Burke (DDG-51) and the USS Carney (DDG-64) stationed in the Eastern Mediterranean fired a total of four to seven SM-3 interceptors, neutralizing incoming Iranian ballistic missiles bound for Israel. 

Image of an RTX SM-3 Block IB missile being launched.

The deployment of SM-3 interceptors indicates that Iran most likely employed medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of up to 1,800 miles. While SM-3 interceptors have been a crucial component of the US ballistic missile defense network since 2004, this marked their inaugural use in an actual combat scenario. 

The origins of SM-3 deployment can be traced back to the Obama administration’s European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA), which was established to safeguard Europe from potential Iranian ballistic missile threats. 

This defensive strategy involved deploying Aegis-equipped ships armed with SM-3 interceptors in regions vulnerable to missile attacks. The USS Arleigh Burke, currently stationed in Rota, Spain, and the USS Carney, previously part of the Rota mission, exemplify the strategic positioning of US naval assets to counter regional threats. 

More, similar deployments near Japan and South Korea serve as a deterrent against potential North Korean ballistic missile provocations.

While SM-3 interceptors have undergone extensive testing over the past two decades, their deployment in combat signifies a critical milestone in missile defense technology. 

Good News For Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force?

The US Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System, overseen by the Missile Defense Agency in collaboration with the Navy, comprises the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, the Ticonderoga class cruisers, and the fixed Aegis Ashore sites in Romania, Poland, and Hawaii. 

Utilizing SM-3 and SM-6 variants, the system intercepts threats in different phases of flight. While SM-6 tackles ballistic missiles and hypersonic threats in their terminal phases, its operational range is limited. 

On the other hand, SM-3 interceptors engage ballistic missiles, including ICBMs, outside the Earth’s atmosphere during mid-course flight. These hit-to-kill weapons employ a “kill vehicle” that physically collides with the target. 

SM-3s have proven their effectiveness in various ballistic missile tests and were even used to destroy a malfunctioning US spy satellite in 2008. Now, the successful interception of Iranian ballistic missiles validates the effectiveness of SM-3 interceptors in defending against such threats.

This development also brings positive implications for Japan, which faces persistent missile threats from China and North Korea. Japan’s current Aegis destroyer fleet includes four Kongo-class ships, two Atago-class vessels, and two Maya-class destroyers. 

Aegis system equipped vessels (ASEV) - Wikipedia
Aegis system equipped vessels (ASEV) – Wikipedia

Like the US Navy, the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) has conducted numerous tests of SM-3 interceptors.

On November 16, 2022, the Maya-class destroyer successfully launched an SM-3 Block IIA missile, intercepting its target outside the atmosphere in the first such launch from a Japanese warship. Following suit, on November 18, 2022, the Haguro replicated this feat by firing an SM-3 Block IB missile, also scoring a hit outside the atmosphere. 

These tests, carried out at the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Hawaii in collaboration with the US Navy and Missile Defense Agency, demonstrated the ballistic missile defense capabilities of Japan’s newest destroyers.

Japan announced plans in 2022 to procure two upgraded Aegis system-equipped ships instead of Aegis Ashore installations. The first ship is scheduled for commissioning by the end of fiscal year 2027, with the second to follow by the end of FY2028. 

This Japanese decision reflects concerns over China’s extensive ballistic missile arsenal and North Korea’s advances in missile capabilities, including simultaneous launches and higher trajectories.

The new Japanese destroyers will boast larger sizes to facilitate operations in rough weather conditions and improved crew quarters for extended deployments.

Equipped with SM-6 interceptors, they will also possess the capability to intercept hypersonic glide weapons, enhancing Japan’s defensive capabilities against evolving missile threats.