New Army Weapons Program Ground-Fires Navy Tomahawk, SM-6

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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington, D.C.) It can loiter over targets while sending back video through a two-way data link, it can destroy targets from ranges out to 900 miles and now, it can adjust course in flight to destroy moving targets … the Tomahawk missile, often the first weapon to strike in combat, will now be fired as a land weapon.

While typically fired from surface ships and submarines, Tomahawk missile and SM-6 missile prototypes will now fire from land launchers are part of a new Army Mid-Range Capability weapons program aimed at deploying new medium-range attack weapons giving ground commanders a wider and more lethal sphere of attack options.

“Adapting existing systems as much as possible will allow us to move faster than traditional acquisition methods to get the capability into the hands of soldiers,” Lt. Gen. Neil Thurgood, Director of Hypersonics, Directed Energy, Space and Rapid Acquisition, said in an Army statement.

MRC prototypes, consisting of launchers, missiles and a battery operations center, will be deployed by 2023, according to Army officials. The weapons will likely emerge on this timetable due to their joint characteristics, meaning the SM-6 and Tomahawk have long been an effective Navy attack weapons and the Army intends to use “joint” hardware and software to configure the weapons for land attack.

The SM-6, a long-standing crucial element of the Navy’s surface ship layered defenses, brings a unique ability to pinpoint targets within a specific range envelope, complementing the Army’s high-priority Long-Range Precision Fires program. With ranges able to reach as far as 300 nautical miles, an SM-6 fills a key attack gap between the emerging Precision Strike Missile and longer-range weapons such as new, now-in-development hypersonic weapons.

The possibility of doing this was mentioned earlier this year by Army Vice Chief of Staff General Joseph Martin at an event at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies think tank, as something that will introduce new multi-domain warfare possibilities and bring previously unprecedented tactical options to ground commanders. 

Due to their 900-nautical mile range, loiter-over-target drone-like ability, two-way datalink and combat success, Tomahawks are often the first to strike in the opening moments of military conflict. Built to counter Soviet air defenses years ago, Tomahawks often fly parallel to the surface of the ocean to elude enemy radar. They are precise and have been successful against fixed targets in the opening days of war, destroying enemy command and control centers, bunkers and other kinds of high-value infrastructure. The current Block IV Tomahawk missile continues to receive upgrades, to include a new, more explosive warhead option for commander seeking alternative blast effects.

The Navy is now engineering a newly-configured Maritime Tomahawk variant with an ability to destroy moving targets at sea. This is quite significant, particularly for a weapon that has historically been used against fixed targets, as it brings an entirely new sphere of strike options to commanders amid fast-changing war circumstances. The emerging Tomahawk uses improved radio throughput along with new networking, sensing and targeting applications to adjust and re-route in flight while closing in on moving targets.

While Navy SM-3 already arms land-based Pentagon Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense systems, SM-6 would bring yet another attack or even defensive option to land commanders. The weapon continues to be in high demand by the Navy, in part because software upgrades have given it a “dual-mode” seeker. This enables the weapon to change course in flight and adjust to the radar ping emerging from targets on the move. Instead of needing to rely upon a ship-based illuminator for targeting guidance, a dual-mode seeker-equipped SM-6 has its own built-in receiver, allowing it to both send forward signals and receive new target information while in flight. Given its technical promise and added guidance capability, the Navy has been fast-acquiring more SM-6 missiles and adapting the weapon for offensive use.

This would be useful to ground commanders for a number of reasons. First, as a defensive “interceptor” weapon, the SM-6 could offer a larger, more lethal interceptor with which to track and destroy approaching ballistic missiles. It could potentially fill a needed gap between longer-range defenses such as an SM-3 or closer in defenses such as those used for Forward Operating Base protections. A medium-range interceptor therefore, akin to that now arming surface ships, might allow ground units to operate in higher risk areas otherwise more vulnerable to enemy fire.

Also, the SM-6 has offensive attack uses as well, a technical possibility more fully realized by its use in the Navy’s now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system. The NIFC-CA, as it is called, uses an aerial node as a relay to find enemy attacks from beyond the horizon, network the threat information to surface ships which can then launch guided SM-6s to destroy approaching missiles from much greater distances. The earlier a commander can learn of an approaching anti-ship missile, the better the chances to defend. The successful linking or networking with a surface-ship-fired SM-6 and an aerial node such as a Hawkeye or even F-35, introduces the prospect of using the weapon to launch offensive attacks beyond the horizon as well.

Given these factors, the introduction of land-fired Tomahawks and SM-6 missiles will bring forward positioned ground units an increased ability to hit inland targets otherwise out of range for a sea-launched weapons. Land-fired Tomahawks, as explained by senior Army leaders, are part of the Army’s post-Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty strategy which has now revisited the development and deployment of medium-range missile weapons previously banned by the INF Treaty.Just within the last several years, Russia’s violations of the INF Treaty led the U.S. to withdraw.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.


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