US pushes for more SM-3 interceptors after Iranian missiles downing

In response to the recent successful use of Standard Missile-3 [SM-3] anti-ballistic missile interceptors against Iranian ballistic missiles aimed at Israel, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro has issued a call for more of these weapons. His request comes at a critical time, given the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency [MDA] plans to cease purchasing the SM-3 Block IB versions by the end of this year and limit its acquisition of the forthcoming Block IIAs to only 12 units annually until Fiscal Year 2029. 

Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat
Photo credit: MDA

“I wholly believe that the demand for SM-3s will grow in light of the successful missions that recently safeguarded Israel,” stated Del during Toro a House Armed Services subcommittee meeting. “The recent usage of these missiles was highly effective. Therefore, when we contemplate the emerging threats and the Indo-Pacific defense mission, we foresee an escalating need for more SM-3s.” 

Although the SM-3s have long remained a pivotal part of the Navy’s arsenal, they were finally put to the test during the large-scale Iranian missile and drone attack against Israel on April 14. Reportedly, during this assault, the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers USS Carney and USS Arleigh Burke intercepted and destroyed four Iranian missiles.

This noteworthy, yet restrained action contributed to the fact that only about 1% of the approximately 120 ballistic missiles, 30 cruise missiles, and 170 drones fired at Israel reached their target, as per the Israeli Defense Forces [IDF]. The majority of these threats, like the example shown below, failed to penetrate Israeli airspace.

Recent events have prompted Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro to revisit his previous decision to cease purchasing Block IBs. He mentioned that the Navy might require more SM-3s in the future. 

This statement was made after Congressman Joe Wilson [R-SC] voiced his concerns. He was anxious that by ceasing the production of this reliable defense weapon, we could potentially expose ourselves to vulnerability in the Central Command region. 

Both Del Toro and Wilson expressed clear surprise at the MDA’s decision to halt the production of the Block IB variants, especially considering the present and forecasted threats. Wilson didn’t restrain his shock, emphasizing the importance of staying prepared for a rapidly evolving world. 

Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat
Photo credit: MDA

He referred to current circumstances – Iran’s aggressive posture towards Israel, ongoing attacks on Red Sea shipments by Iran-backed militants, and potential conflicts with China or Russia – stating, “It’s vital that we stay one step ahead and adapt to the unfolding changes”.

Of late, the missile stockpile of the US Navy has witnessed a significant decrease due to ongoing defense operations against assaults from the Houthi forces in the Red Sea, Bab al-Mandab, Gulf of Aden, and Israel. These forces have been actively launching a consistent barrage of ballistic and cruise missiles, along with airborne and maritime drones, targeting both military and commercial structures. 

This depletion of the U.S. missile inventory comes with a considerable expense, as recently pointed out by Del Toro. He highlighted that the United States has amassed a bill exceeding $1 billion for missile defense in response to attacks from the Houthis, primarily with the costly SM-2 and SM-6 surface-to-air missiles. From October of the previous year, the Navy has discharged approximately 100 missiles from the Standard family to intercept incoming missiles and drones from Yemen. This rapid utilization of munitions against Houthi threats has sparked serious concerns about resource sufficiency and broader implications. 

The Missile Defense Agency [MDA] recently disclosed a strategy to purchase merely 43 Block IB units annually from 2026 to 2028. This presents a significant deviation from their previous plan, and the reason for this disparity remains unclear. To unravel this enigma, we reached out to the Pentagon. We’re curious to see if Del Toro’s recent alarms bear any correlation to their decision.

The MDA collaborates with the Navy to ensure the protection of the U.S. Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System [BMD]. This system comprises various components both on land and at sea, including several Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and an increasingly dwindling number of Ticonderoga class cruisers, all of which have been modified to support the Aegis BMD mission. On land, specialized Aegis Ashore facilities are stationed in Romania and Poland, along with a testing site in Hawaii. The Aegis BMD system typically uses SM-3 and SM-6 types for their current anti-missile interceptors. 

As discussed earlier, the SM-6 type can handle ballistic missiles and upcoming hypersonic threats towards the end of their flight, even though its range is somewhat limited. This versatile missile also proves useful in targeting various airborne objects, in addition to sea and land targets. Recent actions in the Red Sea, protecting commercial vessels and allied warships from ballistic and cruise missiles, and drones launched by Houthi militants with support from Iran in Yemen, led to the first-known combat launch of the SM-6 missile. 

Simply put, SM-3 series interceptors are adept at tackling ballistic missiles beyond Earth’s orbit during the mid-flight stage. They utilize a ‘kill vehicle’ that launches toward the end of an intercept and crashes into the target. Demonstrating their prowess, the SM-3s have successfully intercepted different ballistic missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles [ICBMs] in tests. Interestingly, an SM-3 was put to use in 2008 to destroy a malfunctioning U.S. spy satellite. 

Japanese ship fired SM-3 Block IIA interceptor for the first time
Video screenshot

The Block IIA, like its predecessor, can be launched from both land and sea. However, it’s an even more potent interceptor. Thanks to its larger and more agile ‘kill vehicle’, additional firepower for enhanced range and altitude, and superior terminal velocity, it is capable of dealing with more formidable targets such as ICBMs.

The Block IB is a more affordable option, costing only $12.5M per round. In contrast, the Block IIA almost doubles the cost, reaching around $28M per shot. This raises the question of whether the superior features of the Block IIA are necessary for most threats. Ballistic missile defense now involves more than just protecting large areas from missile threats. 

US warships are now vulnerable to long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles, which are far more advanced than those seen in the Red Sea to date. This makes any SM-3s a potential key player in protecting American vessels during conflicts with countries like China, which are heavily investing in this missile capability. However, it’s interesting to note that the Navy is only purchasing a limited number of SM-3s, and only the most expensive ones. 

The plea for more SM-3s by Del Toro signifies a major shift in thinking about how the Navy’s surface combatants are used. Back in 2018, Adm. John Richardson, a former CNO, was clearly unhappy with the use of Navy vessels for missile defense patrols. He pointed out that such tasks were placing an unnecessary burden on the combatants, much like the current missions some warships are undertaking. 

“The capability is pretty good and we’re ready to provide missile defense when needed,” Richardson said at the U.S. Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum, as Defense News reported. But Richardson’s future vision now seems outdated, particularly given the wider spread of ballistic missiles and the huge threats they pose in potential conflicts with peers, including those capable of targeting the ships that are meant to combat them.

About six years ago, Richardson discussed a significant change, suggesting that we should focus on land-based defenses in the coming decade. “This defense could be in the form of AEGIS ashore or another kind. My hope is for a shift from long-distance missile protection to a more dynamic missile defense,” he stated. Even though our focus is shifting toward land defenses, it is essential to remember that our navy will remain crucial in missile defense for the foreseeable future. 

Israeli Hetz 3 or US Navy SM-3 caught Iranian exoatmospheric threat
Photo credit: Raytheon

However, when we examine the actual threat posed by China, we recognize a potential issue. Even the originally planned 43 units of the more affordable Block IBs per year may not be sufficient. Reducing production to just 12 per year of the cutting-edge Block IIA variant is inconsistent with the real military challenges the U.S. and its allies face, introducing a disconcerting level of risk.


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