The United States Navy tested the new, improved SM-6 missile last month, executing four successful test firings off the coast of Hawaii, the Navy announced last week. The Standard Missile-6 Block I — better known as the SM-6 — has been operational in the Navy arsenal since 2013, but until now was designed only as a surface-to-air missile, deployed to blast incoming enemy missiles and other aircraft out of the sky.
The new upgrade secretly tested off Hawaii between January 11 and January 22 now has a second devastating capability — the SM-6 can now target and destroy an enemy ship at an expected range of about 200 miles. Until now, the Navy's primary anti-ship missile was the McDonnell Douglas Harpoon, which has a range of only about 50 miles.
The SM-6 is manufactured by Raytheon, the Massachusetts-based arms maker perhaps best known for producing the Patriot Missile Defense System.
"It makes the SM-6 basically a twofer," U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said last week, speaking to a military audience in San Diego, California, saying the SM-6 can now "shoot down airborne threats. And now you can attack and destroy a ship at long range with the very same missile."
Though the January test launches of the upgraded SM-6 were conducted secretly and no photographs or video of the tests has been made public so far, Raytheon put together the following video showing several launches of the SM-6 missile from Navy warships, compiled from previous rounds of testing.
"These flight tests, once again, demonstrate the versatility and capability that the SM-6 provides for our Navy's fleet defense," Navy Captain Michael Ladner, of the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems, said in an official Navy press release.
"I'm extremely proud of our Standard Missile team for their hard work and efforts in achieving four more successful SM-6 missions. These tests mark the longest downrange and cross-range engagements of the SM-6 to date," Ledner added.
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But despite the Navy's declaration of the SM-6 missile's apparently awesome new capability, not every military expert was buying in.
#US Navy confirm SM-6 Surface-to-Air Missile will be modified to include Anti-Ship role https://t.co/ZLy00tiWhh pic.twitter.com/kCQQEKZ5wJNaval War College Professor of Strategy James Holmes, for one, remained skeptical that the upgrade SM-6 represented a genuine ship-destroyer.
— Joseph Dempsey (@JosephHDempsey) February 5, 2016
"It's important not to get too swept away with the SM-6 news. First of all, it's doubtful a 'bird' designed to bring down aircraft and missiles will represent a true shipkiller," Holmes wrote in the online military journal War On The Rocks. "Few ever deluded themselves that the SM-2's "limited" anti-ship capacity was an adequate substitute for a purpose-built anti-ship missile."
Holmes also noted that naval commanders may be reluctant to use their best surface-to-air missiles to take out enemy ships, especially at a cost of $4 million per missile. And the gunners tasked with aiming and launching the missiles, the professor believes, will likely not receive adequate practice time with the SM-6 anti-ship capabilities.
"The advent of an SM-6 anti-surface capability, moreover, sets up a zero-sum competition between anti-surface, anti-air, and missile defense missions. How will commanders assign missiles to cope with a multidimensional threat along multiple axes when the fleet faces attack both from surface ships and from aloft?" he asked.
But Eric Tegler of Popular Mechanics was more enthusiastic about the Navy announcement, writing this week that the upgraded SM-6 missile "would create yet another headache for the vessels of U.S. adversaries, who'll potentially have to deal with a supersonic missile capable of reaching out and touching them from more than 200 miles away."
[Featured Photo By United States Navy]