Skip to main content

Video Report: Army Research Lab Develops AI-Enabled Robot Tanks

byKris Osborn- Warrior Maven

The Pentagon is testing new upgraded versions of its SM-3 interceptor missile to see if it can destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

This is quite significant, given that the SM-3 has thus far been primarily thought of as a defense against short, medium and long-range ballistic missile threats. For quite some time, the SM-3 has been regarded as a weapon capable of reaching the outermost areas of the earth’s atmosphere, yet not ideally suited for mid-course or ICBM defense.

This may change, according to Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategy, Plans and Capabilities Victorino Mercado, who told reporters that “MDA plans to conduct flight tests of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor against an ICBM-class target.”

As discussed by Mercado, this application would bring new tactical possibilities to layered defenses and expand the attack envelope for the SM-3. The SM-3 Block IIA, now in existence for several years, incorporates a software upgrade enabling the integration of more precise and discriminating sensor technology, longer flight times and greater range beyond the earth’s atmosphere.

The SM-3 is a kinetic energy warhead able to travel at more than 600 miles per hour; it carries no explosive but instead relies on the sheer force of impact and collision to destroy targets.

ICBM defense would be a game-changer for the Pentagon’s missile defense, given that SM-3s fire from both Navy ships and land-based Aegis Ashore launchers in Poland and Romania. Land-based applications of the SM-3 in Europe have been deployed to defend against long-range ballistic missile threats on the continent. Now, ship-fired SM-3s could bring new “kill” or intercept possibilities over ocean areas potentially less reachable by existing defenses.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended for You

The SM-3 IIA, which has recently achieved several new test milestones and already demonstrated an ability to intercept short and medium range ballistic missiles, is the latest, most high-tech SM-3 variant; compared to previous SM-3 variants, the SM-3 IIA is larger, more precise and longer range. SM-3 missiles, launched from both Navy ship Vertical Launch Tubes and land-based Aegis Ashore systems, have had an ability to travel beyond the roughly 60-mile limit of the earth’s atmosphere. However, until now, SM-3 IIAs have not generally been thought of as a weapon able to intercept or destroy larger, faster, space-traveling ICBMs.

Not only are ICBMs obviously operating at much higher altitudes than short or intermediate range ballistic missiles, but they are much faster. Traveling as fast as 10,000 miles per hour in some cases, ICBMs present a harder target to hit, particularly if traveling with decoys and other countermeasures. The SM-3 IIA’s size, range, speed and sensor technology, the thinking suggests, will enable it to collide with and destroy enemy ICBMs toward the beginning or end of their flight through space, where they are closer to the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere.

As Pentagon developers describe it, an SM-3 Block IIA missile is a larger version of the SM-3 IB in terms of boosters and the kinetic warhead, allowing for longer flight times and engagements of threats higher in the exo-atmosphere.

The Missile Defense Agencies’ 2016 “Budget Item Justification” further specifies SM-3 IIA technological advancements, which include more than “doubled seeker capacity” and “more than tripled divert capability.” The budget documents add that the new SM-3 IIA technologies include “lightweight nosecone, advanced kinetic warhead” and a 21-inch second and third stage rocket motors. Aerojet Rocketdyne’s MK 72 booster and MK 104 dual-thrust rocket motor provides the first and second stage propulsion.

Another variable of significance with the SM-3 IIA is its demonstrated ability to extend range with “engage on remote” technology. This relay system, wherein a forward positioned radar connects with ship or home-based radar, shares information in real time to identify approaching enemy threats at much farther ranges. A Raytheon “engage on remote” test was able to demonstrate this successfully with an SM-3 IIA this past December. In concept, “engage on remote” would enable a Japan, South Korea or Guam-based radar in the Pacific to network with ship-based Aegis radar to find a threat much earlier in its flight path.

“‘Engage on Remote’ is an over the horizon fire control system. It enables us to see farther West into the Pacific, and instruct an interceptor missile to fire at certain coordinates. A radar from another location is feeding it data,” a Pentagon weapons developer said.

Moreover, an anti-ICBM SM-3 would bring more “shots” or options to strike or destroy an ICBM as it travels just beyond the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. The SM-3 Block IIA could complement existing Ground Based Interceptors (GBI) and help the Pentagon bridge the time lapse between now and the end of the decade when a new ICBM interceptor becomes available.

The Pentagon and MDA are now working on a new interceptor expected to be ready by 2028. In the interim, military is working to modernize and sustain its current arsenal of GBIs with software upgrades and the addition of more discriminating seekers. Ultimately, the Pentagon hope to arm GBIs with multiple “kill vehicles” to enable a single interceptor to fire many shots at an enemy ICBM, thereby increasing the likelihood of a successful “kill.”

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest*. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.*