By Dr. Daniel Goure
On February 20, 2008 a single modified Standard 3 missile (SM-3) launched by the Aegis cruiser Lake Erie hit and destroyed an errant U.S. intelligence satellite some 130 miles above the Earth. Culminating a series of successful tests, this event demonstrates that missile defense has come of age.
The aforementioned event was not merely a demonstration of the ability of the SM-3 to intercept a target. It showed the ability of the missile defense architecture as a whole to function effectively in a real world scenario. The February 20 event involved an array of capabilities including the Aegis missile defense system onboard the Lake Erie, the X-Band Sea-Based radar, and an advanced kill vehicle.
This system was able to acquire, analyze and transmit information halfway around the world and to a speeding missile heading into outer space. The warhead for the SM-3 had been modified to increase its ability to intercept a new type of target traveling at nearly 23,000 miles an hour, no small accomplishment in the few months available to the engineers.
The SM-3 is a system based on the venerable Standard Missile, but with a number of unique features. Currently, the SM-2 air defense interceptor is the principle air defense missile for the U.S. Navy. The SM-3 has demonstrated an unparalleled record of successful intercepts. In late 2007, the Lake Erie successfully conducted a simultaneous intercept of two ballistic missiles, something not yet demonstrated by any other missile defense system.
The SM-3 is unique insofar as it is a collaborative program with Japan. Japan is paying part of the development costs for the SM-3 as well as participating in the development of the system. In December, 2007 the Japanese Aegis destroyer Kongo conducted the first successful Japanese intercept of a ballistic missile.
The current version of the SM-3 employs a new kill vehicle with an improved “eye” to detect the target and advanced divert motors that allows the warhead to maneuver in the seconds before it impacts the target. The next version of the SM-3 will take advantage of the space available in the Aegis’s Vertical Launch System to employ a larger booster motor that will give the SM-3 greater intercept capabilities and the ability to engage faster flying ballistic missile threats.
This version of the SM-3 will also have additional anti-satellite potential, a useful deterrent to the threat posed by Chinese anti-satellite weapons.
The U.S. needs working missile defenses today. Currently, the SM-3 is deployed on only a handful of Aegis cruisers and destroyers. In the face of threats from North Korea, Syria, Iran and China, the Navy should move expeditiously to deploy the SM-3 on additional warships. It should examine also the potential for a sea-based missile defense of Europe against potential Iranian missile launches.
Such defenses will eventually require a larger and faster missile such as the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI).