U.S. sailors aboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS John Finn, successfully intercepted a ballistic missile this week using the new Standard Missile-3. (Its full name is the SM-3 Block IIA guided missile.) This missile uses kinetic energy to destroy its target, which means it doesn’t explode but impacts the incoming missiles at such high speeds that it destroys it upon impact. Built by Raytheon, the Block IIA can be deployed on land as well as at sea. It features larger rocket motors that will allow it to defend broader areas from ballistic missile threats and a larger kinetic warhead, according to the company’s website.
The tests were conducted near Hawaii and jointly researched with Japan, which makes this a subtle message to China. China’s strategy relies on large amounts of new and faster missiles that range from the hypersonic to carrier- killing missiles. They are developing additional ways to fire them such as longer range air-to-air missiles on their J-20 fighter, or drone swarms. All of these missiles are supposed to make it too costly and risky for American forces to operate close or near Chinese waters and areas of activity. The shorthand for this strategy is anti-access area denial (A2AD) and it is talked about breathlessly by policy analysts who claim the carrier is obsolete or China will win the next war.
But this new missile directly responds to that concern. The kinetic warhead makes it less expensive and easier to produce in larger numbers than traditional cruise and patriot missiles. It has a larger motor that allows it to cover a larger area with its defensive capabilities. Most importantly, this new missile represents the traditional response and counter-response for a technology that has been around since World War II. There are multiple layers of defense such as the combat air patrol of jet fighters, or the close-in weapons systems on navy ships.
This technology deals with the two middle layers. The Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers are capable of multiple missions but are ideally suited to countering enemy missiles. They are equipped with Aegis radar and being upgraded to be 35-times stronger which can identify and track missiles twice as far away. The Mk 41 launch system fires straight upwards from cells below the ship’s deck, with no need to load or aim a launcher. As a result, the system responds quickly and can fire its ballistic defense missiles in rapid succession. This successful test shows they are upgrading those missiles to fire faster and farther with more accuracy.
The missiles will form a vital part of American defensive operations in the South China Sea. They are also being placed in Poland by the end of 2018. China produces many scary headlines with their new and upgraded missiles. But the United States is upgrading their counter-measures to the point that perhaps its China that should be concerned the emperor has no clothes and their A2AD will not work in the case of war. We will never know and never hope for war, but there are plenty of reasons, such as this new interceptor, to believe the United States will be fine.