Skip to main content

by Kris Osborn

In a recent multi-national missile defense test off the coast of Scotland.

The USS Ross used its Aegis radar technology to identify an approaching ballistic missile threat and then fire a Standard Missile-3 from the ship’s vertical launch tubes up into space to intercept the target, Navy and Raytheon officials said.

The live-fire testing from the USS Ross marked the first time an SM-3 guided interceptor missile was fired from a non-U.S range and the first intercept of a ballistic missile threat in the European theater, a Navy statement said.

A key part of the coalition test was also aimed at demonstrating an ability to successfully defend against longer-range ballistic missiles as well as closer-in air defense threats such as cruise missiles.  While the USS Ross was engaging a ballistic missile target with an SM-3 missile, the Navy’s USS Sullivans, also a destroyer, fired an SM-2 missile to destroy two anti-ship cruise missiles approaching the coalition task force group.

"Nine member nations of the Maritime Theater Missile Defense Forum, under the auspices of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, successfully conducted the simultaneous engagement of a ballistic missile in space and an anti-ship cruise missile target, the first demonstration of this capability in the European theater,” Adm. Mark Ferguson, Commander, U.S. Naval Forces Europe said in a written statement.

The Navy currently deploys four Aegis-radar capable ships in Rota, Spain as part of a broader effort to protect the European continent from ballistic missile threats.

Aegis is the name of the Navy’s ship-based missile defense radar system which is able to send electro-magnetic pings up into space and track approaching short and intermediate-range ballistic missile threats. The system on Navy ships is currently protecting Europe from potential ballistic missile threats such as Iran.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

Integrated technologies and electronics on the ship, including fire control systems, link information from the Aegis radar with a ship’s vertical launch tubes able to fire out SM-3 interceptor missiles. Using various guidance technologies, the SM-3 then flies up into space to destroy approaching ballistic missile threats. The SM-3 missile uses enhanced two-color infrared seeker and upgraded steering and propulsion capability, Raytheon officials told Scout Warrior. These technologies use short bursts of precision propulsion to direct the missile toward incoming targets, the official added.

The SM-3, made by Raytheon, is a weapon able to destroy ballistic missile threats beyond the earth’s atmosphere, a distance described by experts as roughly 60-miles above the earth’s surface.

The weapon uses what’s called a “kinetic energy” warhead with “hit-to-kill” technology, meaning it has no explosives but rather relies purely upon the speed and force of impact to destroy a target. The Raytheon website explains its effect as equivalent to a 10-ton truck traveling at 600 miles per hour.

“We demonstrated the capability to integrate across the departments of defense that are part of this Maritime Missile Defense Forum. That was the sole objective. It is more about the capabilities that have been demonstrated incrementally and bringing it all together with multiple nations. It really just shows the fact that we can work together and demonstrate a sea-based defense capability with multiple nations,” Bill Blair, Vice President of Business Development for Air and Missile Defense, Raytheon, told reporters.

Admiral Ferguson emphasized that international collaboration and inter-operatiliby was a focus of the test in order to assure that key teams of allies could work together in the event of a ballistic missile attack. 

“This achievement also highlights the enduring value of our MTMD (Maritime Theater Missile Defense) Forum member nations - Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, and the United Kingdom-and demonstrates the interoperability of allied navies to conduct integrated air and missile defense,” Ferguson said.

Having an ability to fire an SM-3 missile into space is of particular importance when it comes to missile defense – in part because it can travel beyond the earth’s atmosphere and knock down targets from farther distances than other ship-based defensive technologies. 

Pentagon missile defense experts explain layered missile defense in terms of three key phases of flight for incoming ballistic missiles. The “boost” phase when a missile takes off and travels up into space; the “mid-course” phase, the longest of the three, is when the missile is traveling in space above the earth’s atmosphere; the “terminal” phase is the final portion of a missile’s trajectory when it returns into the earth’s atmosphere and approaches its target.

Therefore, having an ability to target and destroy an approaching missile during the “midcourse” phase is of great relevance because it is the longest window of time during which a missile can be shot down.  This is what the SM-3 missile was able to do – knock down an incoming ballistic missile from space, during its “midcourse” phase of flight.