A new Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA missile intercept test conducted off the coast of Hawaii failed, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) said last Wednesday.

The Wednesday test, called Standard Missile-3 Block IIA Cooperative Development Flight Test Maritime-2 (SFTM-2), was a partnership between the MDA and the Japan Ministry of Defense. It involved the use of a medium-range ballistic missile target missile launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility at Kauai, Hawaii.

An SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor is launched from the USS John Paul Jones in a Feb. 2017 test called SFTM-1. Photo: Missile Defense Agency.
An SM-3 Block IIA missile interceptor is launched from the USS John Paul Jones in a Feb. 2017 test called SFTM-1. Photo: Missile Defense Agency.

The USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, detected and tracking the target missile with its onboard AN/SPY-1 radar using its Aegis Baseline 9.C2 weapon system. After acquiring and tracking the target missile, the ship launched the SM-3 Block IIA guided missile, which failed to intercept the target.

“Program officials will conduct an extensive analysis of the test data. Until that review is complete, no additional details will be available,” the agency said in a statement.

This was the fourth developmental flight test and second intercept test of this missile. The first intercept test in February, called SFTM-1, was successful (Defense Daily, Feb. 6).

The SM-3 Block IIA is being jointly developed by MDA, Japan, and Raytheon [RTN] to defend against medium and intermediate-range ballistic missile that could be fired by North Korea or Iran. While MDA noted the developmental interceptor has not yet been fielded by either country, it is planned to be deployed on land and sea starting in 2018.

Lockheed Martin [LMT] supplies the Aegis weapon system and provided the target used in the previous test. MDA did not confirm if this test used the same target vehicle, only saying it was a medium-range ballistic missile target.

The Block IIA uses a larger kinetic warhead compared to earlier versions of the SM-3 that incorporates improved search, discrimination, acquisition, and tracking functions. It also has larger rocket motors that allow the interceptor to engage more sophisticated threats and protect larger regions, Raytheon said after the February test.

The interceptor is designed to operate within the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which currently operate the SM-3 Block 1A, SM-3 Block 1B, and SM-6 missiles.

Thomas Karako, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, highlighted in an analysis that the test record for this Aegis program and the SM family hit-to-kill intercepts is now at 35 successes out of 43 attempts against ballistic missile targets.

He said the failure could have been caused by things relating to the ship, from or between motor stages, or something more directly related to the kill vehicle.

“Depending on the results and how the inquiry into yesterday’s test proceeds, it could presumably affect the schedule for delivery of the first IIA in 2018, as well as the operational deployment on U.S. Navy ships and at Aegis Ashore sites in Europe.”

Karako noted the next step is to ascertain what went wrong to inform the evolution of the SM family of interceptors.

He added while there are no formal current plans for continued incremental or block evolution of the SM-3 beyond the IIA, “the forthcoming missile defense policy review may reconsider this option.”