The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is planning a second intercept flight test of the Standard Missile (SM)-3 Block IIA against an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) target following the first successful test last year.

Last November, MDA and the Navy successfully intercepted an ICBM-type target via an SM-3 IIA launched off the Aegis-equipped destroyer USS John Finn (DDG-113) using an engage-on-remote capability. The scenario was to defend Hawaii against a North Korean-style lone missile attack. The test was called Flight Test Aegis Weapon System-44 (FTM-44) (

Defense Daily, Nov. 17, 2020).

Congress previously mandated FTM-44 in the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization act to test the feasibility of adding an additional layer to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System (GMD) to defend the U.S. from small numbers of ballistic missiles.

Vice Adm. John Hill, Director of the Missile Defense Agency. (Photo: MDA)
Vice Adm. John Hill, Director of the Missile Defense Agency. (Photo: MDA)

“What’s next is to go against a more complex intercontinental ballistic missile threat and maybe even change the scenario. This scenario was a defense of Hawaii scenario against a rogue nation, you guess which one out there in the Pacific. And in the future we’re going to go to a more complex [threat] – and that’s within the next couple of years,” MDA Director Vice Adm. Jon Hill said during the annual McAleese FY 2022 Defense Programs Conference on May 12.

Hill said the agency is still analyzing data from the November test and then plans to make upgrades and changes to the combat system and missile “in terms of threats that it can take on the higher end threat, so we’re working that target now. So that’s really the next event from a test perspective.”

He said there is still other development required in that effort because if it is geared against a more complex ICBM-type threat, that involves more tweaking for the ship combat system and the missile.

However, Hill admitted this is all tied to policy.

“So we have to decide, do we want ships in that role of being off the West Coast, for example, in a ship stationed to defend against ICBMs as a layer to the Ground-based Midcourse Defense [system]. That’s an incredible conversation, we’re having that now, and it’s hard to predict where we go and the department will decide what’s best for the ships.”

The director said feasibility of using an SM-3 IIA against a simple ICBM is one thing but going against more complex threats, even maneuvering hypersonic missiles is likely beyond its capabilities.

“So we’re building NGI (Next Generation Interceptor) to take on those threats. Would I like another layer? Hey, I’m the technical development guy. The answer is I think there’s a way to go do that, but part of that is not just parking the ship or doing something else with an SM-3, you’ve got to integrate the manned and control pieces.”

He noted Gen. Glen VanHerck, commander of Northern Command, cannot track threats that an Aegis-capable ship can see, “so there’s some integration that we have to have in order to enable that. We have done integration with [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD)] and Patriot and we’ve integrated THAAD and Aegis. but what we have not done is integrate these regional systems with the homeland system.” 

Hill also responded in part to a recent Government Accountability Office report that said FTM-44 used only a simple ICBM target and “it was executed under highly favorable conditions. More development work is needed for the SM-3 Block IIA to support a layered homeland defense capability.”

“First, we’ve got to go back to first principles here,” Hill said. “What was the Aegis Combat System designed to do and what was the SM-3 Block IIA designed to do?”

He noted Aegis was originally designed to do air defense and the military leveraged space tracking and eventually ballistic missile defense and now has integrated air and missile defense. “The way I’d define that is doing ballistic missile defense operations with air defense at the same time.”

“The SM-3 IIA cooperative development with Japan was designed to go against intermediate-range missiles. So, part of that test in November and the reason why we went with a simple ICBM, which meant it wasn’t full of countermeasures and other things to screw up the system. It was to prove that we have the ability to leverage the robustness in the program. So that was really the first test, just to see if it’s feasible. And we learned a lot,” he continued.

Hill argued the test had some uncertainty because there was some lack of sensor coverage for the long range flight and John Finn had to maneuver to allow the interceptor the highest intercept altitude. 

“Two walkaways from that first test, which is why I think it was really important, was that it was the longest propagated error or uncertainty that we have ever seen in any test and then we had the highest divert. That meant the missile was maneuvering to actually take it down and it still took it out which was really great.”

Last year, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear and Missile Defense Policy Robert Soofer said SM-3 IIA in a homeland missile defense role would be in the late midcourse terminal phase and could operate after an initial attempt by the GMD’s Ground based Interceptor.

“In other words, whatever you couldn’t intercept with the GBI (Ground Based Interceptor) you might get another shot with the IIA missile,” he said.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] is the prime contractor for Aegis while Raytheon Technologies [RTX] builds the SM-3 IIA and Northrop Grumman [NOC] is the prime contractor for the Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile and ICBM targets used in these tests.