The U.S. Navy Just Sank a Frigate With an Anti-Aircraft Missile
A modified SM-6 destroyed USS 'Reuben James,' and that's a big deal
For more than 28 years, the frigate USS Reuben James served out a distinguished career in the U.S. Navy. Then two years after she retired, the former Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate ate an American missile and sank off the Hawaiian coast.
It was no accident.
In January, with the help of defense contractor Raytheon, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS John Paul Jones hit the decommissioned frigate with a Standard Missile Six, or SM-6, according to a company statement.
That’s a big deal. For one, the SM-6 is primarily an anti-aircraft weapon, and has a significantly longer range than the Navy’s primary ship-to-ship missile, the Harpoon.
This is “a newly publicized capability,” said Eric Wertheim, a naval expert and author of the U.S. Naval Institute’s authoritative Combat Fleets of the World. “It gives so much more flexibility.”
In 2013, Navy cruisers and destroyers started carrying SM-6s strictly in the anti-aircraft role. In August 2015, the Pentagon announced that the destroyer USS John Paul Jones successfully intercepted mock cruise and ballistic missiles in an earlier series of tests.
But now that the SM-6 can hit warships, American destroyers and cruisers should soon have the ability to attack from longer ranges than before — and carry fewer types of missiles during their patrols.
The Standard missile family has always had the ability to attack enemy ships, at least in theory. The Navy received the first anti-aircraft versions in 1968, and shortly thereafter began looking at expanding the missiles’ roles.
With a state-of-the-art seeker for the era, the missile — with a few modifications — could have detected radar transmissions from enemy ships and home in. The Pentagon never bought that variant.
But in 1988, the Perry-class frigate USS Simpson lobbed four SM-2 surface-to-air missiles at the Iranian corvette Joshan in the Persian Gulf, according to Lee Allen Zatarain’s America’s First Clash with Iran: The Tanker War, 1987-88. The missile crippled the Joshan, which Simpson and other Navy warships finished off with cannon fire.
Above — the USS Reuben James in 2010. At top and below — the USS John Paul Jones fires SM-6 missiles during tests in 2014 and 2015. Navy photos
In the late 1990s, the Navy again considered modifying Standard missiles to support Marine beach assaults. These “land attack” SM-4s would be able to take out enemy artillery, missile launchers and other equipment.
However, the sailing branch and the leathernecks were unimpressed by the missile’s inability to hit moving targets or blast its way through fortified structures. Besides, the missile’s relatively small 250-pound warhead didn’t pack enough punch.
So it’s interesting that the SM-6, which has the same warhead as all other current Standard missile types, successfully took out Reuben James. “That says a lot about the power of a Mach-3 missile with a small warhead,” Wertheim explained.
But it shouldn’t be surprising. The almost 22-foot-long SM-6 flies at more than three times the speed of sound. While neither the Navy or Raytheon has described the damage to Reuben James in detail, the missile doesn’t necessarily need to carry a lot of explosives. Combined with improved precision, the sheer force of a 3,000-pound SM-6 slamming into a vessel’s bridge, engine compartment or other vital areas makes it a dangerous weapon.
“At high speeds you don’t need a warhead,” Wertheim noted, pointing to other high- and hyper-velocity projectile like advanced tank shells and experimental rail guns. “This is going to do a different mission from a Tomahawk.”
The other advantage is distance. The SM-6 has a range of nearly 150 miles, more than double the range of the Harpoon.
Raytheon’s Tomahawk cruise missile packs a 1,000-pound charge and has a range more than double that of the SM-6, depending on the version. America’s surface ships and submarines primarily use the Tomahawk to take out large, static targets on dry land.
The recent tests show that the SM-6 could supplement those missiles and others in development. The Pentagon asked for more than a billion dollars in its 2017 budget request specifically for the anti-ship SM-6, improved Tomahawks that can hit moving targets — including ships — and the Long-Range Anti-Surface Warfare Missile.
The budget reflected increasing long-range threats to U.S. surface ships from Iran, North Korea, Russia and China. Perhaps most worrisome, at a parade celebrating the end of World War II in September 2015, Beijing showed off a host of very long-range ballistic missiles, including the highly maneuverable DF-21D “carrier killer.”
Earlier that year, the Navy expressed concern about an unspecified Russian-made threat, likely a supersonic cruise missile. To put the threat into further perspective, the Russian navy’s 3M54T Kalibr missiles have a range of 410 miles.
“No ship in our inventory can disable another ship with its organic weapons at ranges greater than approximately 70 miles (the range of the Harpoon missile), and no ship has been added to the inventory since 1999 that can fire the Harpoon missile,” Bryan McGrath, a naval consultant and former U.S. Navy officer, warned Congress in December.
With SM-6s alone, U.S. warships will still be at a disadvantage, but a lesser one.
America’s real edge may instead be information. Those ships may not even need to see their targets to help out in a crisis. The Navy is working on a set of targeting gear — called Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air — that will let friendly vessels, aircraft and other sources quickly pass data back and forth.
With the right systems installed, cruisers, destroyers or E-2D radar planes could conceivably relay target information to a warship with SM-6s ready to fire. This is an important consideration for the Navy’s warships, which often sail the seas alone or in pairs, Wertheim said.
Two years ago, War Is Boring simulated a skirmish between American and Chinese warships in the South China Sea. Using the detailed computer wargame Command: Modern Naval/Air Operations, the Chinese vessels quickly out-ranged the U.S.’s small Littoral Combat Ships.
In the scenario, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Halsey tried in vain to save the corvettes by shooting down some of the Chinese anti-ship missiles with her SM-6s. What if Halsey could have just attacked the enemy ships in the first place?
“Longer range weapons keep our forces out of harm’s way,” Wertheim noted. “It allows you to protect assets very far away.”
Since the anti-ship SM-6 is an evolutionary weapon, Raytheon should be able to manufacture them on the cheap. The missile’s basic design borrows heavily from later versions of the SM-2, and includes a version of the radar seeker from the equally successful AIM-120 air-to-air missile — another Raytheon product.
On March 8, the firm announced that it had secured another contract from the Navy worth $270 million for more SM-6 missiles and spare parts. By that time, Raytheon had delivered more than 250 missiles to the sailing branch in total.