The Army Is Working To Field A Ground-Launched Strike Version Of The Navy's SM-6 Missile

The missile already has latent land and ship attack capabilities that could be swiftly adapted for the Army's post-INF treaty needs. 

SM-6
U.S. Navy

The Army is working hard to reorient itself toward expeditionary peer-state warfare across huge geographical areas, namely in the vast Pacific Theater. Unbridled by the now-defunct Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, whole categories of land-based missiles that can reach out over long distances to make pinpoint strikes are now once again an option for the service. These missiles could be cruise and ballistic types, as well as hypersonic ones. With an eye on fielding longer-range strike capabilities in Asia to counter-balance China's growing military might and to deter Russia in the Europen theater, the question becomes how can the Army get these long-dormant capabilities re-deployed in a relatively short period of time. The answer is to adapt missiles that other services already have.

This is a no-brainer for the Navy's Tomahawk cruise missile, which is now a multi-role weapon that is able to hit surface targets as well as ones on land, and it can even be retargeted in flight. The Tomohawk's land-based cousin, the BGM-109G Gryphon, served as a major component of the nuclear deterrent in Europe during the last decade of the Cold War. So, this type of application is far from unfamiliar when it comes to America's venerable land-attack cruise missile. 

With this in mind, a version of the new and greatly improved Block IV "Tactical Tomahawk" in a forward-deployed, ground-launched format is the closest thing there is to a mature capability available for the Army's use. Such an initiative is already underway, which you can read more about in this past piece of ours, and the U.S. Marines are slated to receive the weapon for a similar application soon.

In the background is the Tomahawk ground-based launcher used to test the missile in such a format shorty after the INF treaty ended a year ago:

At the same time, hypersonic technology development is moving ahead at a rapid pace and the Army has its own plans to field these extremely fast, precision-strike weapons in the relatively near future, which you can read all about here. But these weapons will be prohibitively expensive and will be primarily reserved for ripping apart the enemy's most critical defenses and strategic infrastructure. They are also still anything but 'off-the-shelf' in terms of availability and even viability. So what's left? Well, it would seem the Navy's SM-6, and the Army clearly agrees. 

During a Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) webinar interview dubbed A Conversation on Army Readiness and Modernization, Bradley Bowman and General Joseph M. Martin, Vice Chief of Staff of the Army, had the following exchange: 

BOWMAN: That’s great. Let’s transition, if I may, to the long-range precision fires, which is, as you know well, the Army’s number one modernization priority as I understand it. Can you very quickly, if you wouldn’t mind, just explain to the average listener, what is long-range precision fires, and why is it so important to the Army?

MARTIN: A couple aspects. There’s strategic, there’s operational, and there’s tactical. Because we’ve got efforts going on in each and every one of those.

So strategic. We’ve got a couple of capabilities we’re developing. The long-range cannon, the strategic long-range cannon. This thing’s going to shoot 1000 miles and be able to deliver multiple rounds simultaneously on a target. The beauty of that capability, artillery has been around for a long time, but it’s never shot that far, but it’s literally undefendable when you can shoot those number of rounds at that rate over that distance. Additionally, long-range hypersonic weapons. Those are game-changers in defeating exquisite enemy capability. Once again, because you can’t defend against a long-range hypersonic weapon. It moves very quickly and strikes its target very quickly. It’s going to allow us to penetrate the anti-access area denial layers. By the way, those capabilities, the long-range hypersonic weapon, fourth-quarter 23, we’ll be fielding our first battery of that.

Operational. We got the precision strike missile. What the precision strike missile will do for us is it allows us to exceed the capability of our ATACM. It’ll go several hundred kilometers beyond that, but we’re also in the process of coordinating with other services to bring some other mid-range capabilities into play. Think about Tomahawks and think about shorter-range hypersonic weapons. We’re looking at land-based, land launched Tomahawk Missiles and SM-6s, which are in the Navy’s inventory. We’re looking at launching those from the land. That capability is coming third quarter of '23.

Then in tactical, we’ve got the extended-range cannon artillery. That’s a 155-millimeter capability where our typical artillery right now can shoot as far as 30 kilometers, we’re looking to shoot beyond 70 kilometers. That bridges a gap with our near-peer adversary’s artillery capability, providing us the ability to counter their longer-range artillery, which can’t range this particular system. That’s also coming in fourth quarter of '23.

For long-range precision fires, that’s actually our number one modernization program priority. We’re going to make artillery great again, that’s the focus.

SM-6, also known as the Standard Missile-6 or the RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile (ERAM), is primarily a surface-to-air missile, with the capability to swat down air-breathing threats, such as aircraft and cruise missiles, over great distances, while also having a terminal ballistic missile defense capabilities.

Raytheon/DOD

It fits well with the arsenal aboard U.S. destroyers and cruisers as it can add a last line of defense against ballistic missiles, especially anti-ship capable ones, that SM-3 mid-course interceptors may miss. This capability exists alongside offering additional traditional anti-air capabilities that complement the venerable SM-2 series, from which the SM-6 was derived, including being a networked weapon with its own active radar seeker. 

DoD

What most don't realize is that the missile has secondary land-attack and potentially even anti-ship capabilities. In that manner, it is something of a quasi ballistic missile that is already intrinsically multi-role in nature. It is also fast. We don't know specifics, but it likely would descend on ground or surface target at very high supersonic or even hypersonic speeds, making it more survivable than say a Tomahawk. 

DoD

So, the Army could leverage what the Navy has already paid for and thoroughly tested for their land-based needs. What's more exciting is that with additional development dollars from the Army, a joint SM-6 program effort could greatly accelerate the ongoing development of the missile, especially in its new second-generation, larger form-factor configuration. There is even a real possibility the SM-6 could be adapted for air-launch as a very long-range air-to-air missile, as well as a land-attack and anti-ship weapon. This could make it truly a joint tri-service program. You can read all about the SM-6 and its capabilities here, and its next big evolution in this past feature of ours

The idea that the Army could get a networked, precision land attack and anti-ship quasi-ballistic missile, and maybe even a long-range anti-air weapon, all in one package by adopting the SM-6 is undoubtedly a very attractive proposition. This is especially true for a service that is trying to find its way in a new strategic reality where air and sea capabilities seem to have stolen the stage. Land-based SM-6s and Tomahawks could also potentially use the same launch system as they were both designed around the naval Mk 41 vertical launch system's constraints. 

DoD

As a long-range networked weapon, the SM-6 can engage targets that are beyond the detection range of the ship it is launched, using another platform's sensor data, like say from an F-35 or E-2D, to provide targeting information from a forward position. 

One can imagine how ringing contested areas like the South China Sea with forward-deployed and even road-mobile SM-6 missiles could drastically complicate China's anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) strategy. In theory, it could be used to dismantle critical components of that A2/AD strategy from inside its huge protective umbrella during the opening moments of a conflict. 

China is certainly investing in all forms of ballistic missiles, including anti-ship ones, both long-range and short-range. While a U.S. strategy of deploying its own missiles directly into and around contested areas that China says it holds claim over would be a major step in countering Beijing's abilities to militarily back-up those claims, getting friendly countries to allow for U.S. missiles to be based in their territory remains the biggest question mark surrounding such a strategy. Doing so would put host countries right in China's military and diplomatic crosshairs. As such, even though it is pretty clear that the Army could field cruise and ballistic missiles ashore soon, it isn't clear if there will be countries within their relevant ranges that will actually accept to host them. 

Chinese Internet

The CM-401 is a short-range ballistic missile that is guided by an active seeker, allowing it to engage surface targets. 

Europe is a different equation altogether, especially when it comes to whether or not any of these 'new' U.S. weapons will be nuclear-armed like their predecessors, the Gryphon and Pershing II. Still, finding hosts in Europe would likely be easier than in parts of Asia.

Regardless, the SM-6 could very much end up being the Army's super versatile, hard to defend against, quick-strike weapon of choice in the years to come. Considering its growing prominence within the U.S. Navy's own quiver, we could see its secondary capabilities rapidly expanded in the very near future. 

Author's note: Hat tip to Kingston Reif for pointing this out!

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com