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US Defense Secretary Announces Navy Can Blow Up Anything It Wants, Any Time It Wants

The US Navy's SM missile can now hit anything from ships to land targets to satellites. That may not sound like a big deal — but to Chinese military planners, it certainly is.

by Ryan Faith
Feb 3 2016, 11:30pm

A technician performs maintenance on a Standard SM-2 surface-to-air missile. US Navy photo by Eleno Cortez

US Defense Secretary Ash Carter is continuing his campaign to redirect the entirety of the US military-industrial complex before Obama leaves office.

According to people familiar with a Wednesday speech by Carter to sailors in San Diego, the secretary used the occasion to announce that the US tested the Navy's SM-6 as an anti-ship missile just last month.

That may mean little to people outside of a small circle of defense planners, but in brief, Navy has been using the SM or "standard missile" series for an age and a day. The SM-6 is also known under the snappy and exciting name "RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile." And this latest incarnation as ship killer means the SM is now able to do pretty much everything a missile can, and hit everything the US may want to hit. That is especially important to one nation across the ocean from where Carter was speaking: China.  

The SM family started out as a ship-mounted missile intended to shoot down hostile aircraft and helicopters. In the intervening years, earlier incarnations of the missile have been used in a variety of roles: homing in on hostile radars, shooting down ballistic missiles, and in 2008, even taking down orbiting satellites.

The Navy is continuing to push the envelope with the newest edition of the missile, the SM-6. In recent years, the SM-6 has been used against land targets. But a role as an anti-ship missile rounds out the portfolio of things that it can conceivably blow up.

This plugs into a few other recent Navy missile developments, which together paint an intriguing picture. If you're China, a really important picture.

First off, the Navy has already been basing some SM missiles and Aegis radar on land. These so-called "Aegis Ashore" bases have been a key component in the US's effort to deploy ballistic missile defense to Europe. But if you can put that stuff on land in Europe, you can put it on islands in the Pacific, close to China.

At a Wednesday briefing on Capitol Hill, Dr. Andrew Krepinevich, former director of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, spoke about that very thing: How to stifle Chinese plans to kick US ass in any big war, which is a matter of defending the so-called "First Island Chain" — a string of islands that collectively form a wall, boxing in Chinese air and naval power and preventing them from getting out into the Pacific and doing real damage. In his talk, Krepinevich mentioned how attractive it might be to put SM-6 missiles on all those tiny little islands sitting off the Chinese coast to swat down Chinese aircraft.

Krepinevich also mentioned that it would be really helpful to put long-range rockets and ballistic missiles on all those little islands, so they could take out key Chinese targets far inland from the first island chain. That could be an enormous complication for Chinese military planners.

The guided-missile destroyer USS Chung-Hoon fires an SM-2 missile during a live-fire exercise. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jonathan Jiang

And that's not all. The US has already run tests with the SM missile and the F-35 fighter-bomber, in which an SM missile has been fired from a ship but with no target identified. An F-35 in flight took control of the missile in midair, and then as the missile proceeded downrange, handed control of that missile to another F-35. Thus you could imagine a small, hardened launcher on an island popping up a missile and flinging it way into China, where it gets vectored on to target by a stealthy F-35.

The ability of the SM-6 to perform many roles — shooting down airborne targets, hitting ships, attacking deep inland, and hitting ballistic missiles — means that it could be the perfect way to turn that first island chain into a major headache for Chinese military planners.

And if we look past the SM-6, it turns out that the Navy is up to a whole lot of other stuff with its missile portfolio.

Related: Are China and Japan Heading for a South China Sea Showdown?

In his budget speech Tuesday, Carter confirmed that its well-known long-range Tomahawk cruise missile has been tested as an anti-ship missile. Launched from ships or submarines, it has been a standard tool for attacking targets far inland for years. By adding an anti-ship missile capability to the Tomahawk, the ability of Navy surface ships or submarines to engage targets can be expanded dramatically.

Then consider the stealthy Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) which is still under development and is currently scheduled for deployment before the end of the decade. The LRASM can be launched from air or sea and hit targets up to 500 miles out.

If you take all three of those missiles, you've pretty much got a collection of weapons that can be tasked to do just about anything a missile can be expected to do. They can hit targets in space, coming from space, in the air, on land or on the water. They can be launched from the air, from sea, from land, or from underwater. At this point, the only real question is whether or not there's a need to double up on capabilities or tweak missiles for very specific niche applications. (There's not a huge amount of demand for a submarine-launched anti-aircraft missile, for example.)

What are the main takeaways? The big one is that it seems that the US Navy is paying some very serious attention indeed to Chinese ambitions in the Pacific. It's developing or dramatically expanding the capabilities of three entire missile families to be launched from about anywhere to hit anything. This suggests that Carter's emphasis on expanding the ability of the US to engage high-level threats is a hell of a lot more than lip service.

Zooming out past the US military posture and looking regionally at the Pacific, Japanese shifts to protect their southern islands and Philippine outreach to Japan and the US for military support both suggest that various parts of the First Island Chain are looking very seriously about how to fight back against China in the event of a war.

Related: The Philippines Are Finding Themselves Between a Chinese Rock and an American Hard Place

To be sure, there's some other stuff that's almost certainly coming down the pike in Carter's upcoming speeches. From a political point of view, if he's dropping bombshells like this just two days in to his sales pitch, he definitely wants to not only redirect the US military away from counterinsurgency and towards fighting a high-tech foe, but he wants everyone in the US and overseas to know about it.

Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan

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