Many defense analysts, media commentators, and even some senior military personnel have been quick to criticize the U.S. military for its alleged failure to modernize rapidly. These sources are likewise quick to equate military modernization with building something new. The reality is that the U.S. military is an extremely innovative enterprise. It is supported by a defense industrial base that excels at modifying, upgrading, and enhancing weapons systems. This process has allowed the Department of Defense to extend the service lives of major platforms and systems and steadily and reliably add new and advanced capabilities.
Most major U.S. defense programs have been based on both revolution and evolution. Historically, the Pentagon has invested in an initial leap-ahead capability, one designed to provide the military with a qualitative edge. But from their early years, virtually all major acquisition programs include plans to add newer capabilities as they become available. Whether it is the B-52, M1 Abrams tank, F-15 and F-16, Minuteman and Trident ballistic missiles, Arleigh Burke destroyers or Virginia-class nuclear submarines, initially revolutionary capabilities have been repeatedly upgraded to ensure they remain the world’s best for decades to come. The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter has already gone through multiple enhancements with pre-planned software “drops,” better computers, advanced displays and improved sensors.
Perhaps the best example of this combination of revolution and evolution is the Standard Missile family. Since its deployment in the late 1960s, the Standard Missile has become the mainstay of the Navy’s demonstrated capability to defeat air and missile threats. As threats have evolved, so has the Standard Missile, first to deal with high-flying jets, then to engage low-flying platforms, and most recently, the ability to defend against fast-moving cruise and ballistic missiles at long range. Together with the SPY radars and the Aegis Combat System, the Standard Missile family has become the centerpiece of the Navy’s air and missile defense capability.
Each new installation of the Standard Missile has provided improved capabilities and an expansion in the number and complexity of the missions that it can perform. Equally important, by evolving the missile over time, keeping the best features, and adding new ones, the Standard Missile program has avoided the costs and schedule delays often experienced in the introduction of new systems. According to one well-placed observer: “Over the decades, a plethora of different missiles were tested, and some were fielded, with varying degrees of success. But today’s defensive missile success can ultimately be traced to the Navy’s decision to ‘neck down’ its missiles into one family, the Standard Missile.”
A historical analysis of the SM program shows clearly that one reason for its tremendous success over so many years is the program’s careful adherence to sound system engineering principles from its inception. Enhancements to the missile, including step-function changes, were closely tied to well-thought out, long-term operational requirements. The program has sought maximum commonality in critical components and interfaces when advancing from one generation to the next.
The patriarch of the Standard Missile family today is the SM-2, introduced in the mid-1970s. Evolved from the earlier SM-1, the new missile retained the essential characteristics of the family, a solid fuel, dual-thrust rocket motor and autopilot function. This gave the system greater range and a larger engagement envelope compared to existing missiles. The basic aerodynamics structure of the SM-1 lent itself to future modifications and enhancements.
The SM-2 has undergone near-continuous improvements that have made it possibly the most effective air defense interceptor in the world. Beginning with the SM-2 Block II, the missile added longer-range intercept capabilities and stepped up its ability to handle new commands mid-flight. There were improvements to the fuse and warhead, as well as a better guidance system and a new propulsion system to better engage high-speed targets. The most advanced version of the SM-2, the Block IV Extended Range variant, can not only address air-breathing threats out to around 100 kilometers but has a demonstrated ability to engage short-range ballistic missiles in the upper atmosphere.
The next version of the Standard Missile to be fielded was the SM-3 in 2014, designed to engage ballistic missiles exoatmospherically. The SM-3 builds on the SM-2 Block IV airframe and propulsion systems. But it also has some unique characteristics, such as a deployable nosecone, a new guidance/targeting system, and improved propulsion systems. The SM-3 has undergone several block improvements to enhance its intercept capability against longer-range ballistic missiles. The newest variant, the SM-3 Block IIA, is the product of a cooperative development agreement with Japan. This is the version that, in a recent test, successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile.
The SM-3 is also the missile that arms the Aegis Ashore installations. Two of these systems, essentially a land-based version of the ship-based Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, are being deployed in Europe to defend against medium-range ballistic missiles launched from the Middle East. Aegis Ashore is also being considered for the defense of Hawaii, Guam and Japan.
The newest member of the Standard Missile family is the SM-6, which is based on the SM-2 Block IV airframe, and comes with proven cueing and guidance technology. One unique advance of the SM-6 is how it marries the Standard Missile airframe with technology from the Air Force Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile. The SM-6 will complement the SM-2, extending the Navy’s ability to engage planes, helicopters, unmanned aerial vehicles, and cruise missiles. The SM-6 has demonstrated the ability to find and attack “over-the-horizon” threats and also has a surface warfare capability. It was recently chosen by the U.S. Army as a candidate for that Service’s new mid-range missile. By taking the best features of the existing and then adding critical new technologies and software, Raytheon has basically achieved a revolution via evolution.
Deployed on nearly 100 U.S. cruisers and destroyers, and with the ships of more than a dozen allied navies, the Standard Missile can rightly be described as the Free World’s premier air and defense missile. Given the ability to provide continuous enhancements and upgrades, it is likely that this will remain true for decades to come.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.