Move Over, Tomahawk. The U.S. Navy's New SM-6 Is In Town.

David Axe

Key point: The SM-6 may be the most versatile missile yet.

The U.S. Navy in late January 2019 confirmed the designation of its newest cruise missile, in the process clarifying its long-term plan for arming its growing fleet of warships.

The plan heavily leans on one missile, in particular. It's the SM-6, an anti-aircraft weapon that quickly is evolving to perform almost every role the Navy assigns to a missile.

The Navy dubbed the newest version of the venerable Tomahawk cruise missile the "Block V" model, Jane's reported. There are two separate variants of the Block V missile, one with an anti-ship warhead and another with a warhead the Navy optimized for striking targets on land.

Raytheon's Tomahawk has been the subject of controversy in Washington, D.C. In order to save money the Obama administration wanted to pause production of the long-range missile, which since the 1980s has been the Navy's main weapon for striking land targets from the sea.

Congress overruled the Obama administration and continued buying Tomahawks for roughly $1 million apiece, adding potentially hundreds of the missiles to the thousands the fleet already possesses.

But it's the less-well-known SM-6, which also is a Raytheon product, that could dominate the Navy's planning. Of the 10 major missiles that arm the Navy's 285-and-growing surface ships and submarines, only the SM-6 is capable of striking targets at sea, in the air and at the edge of the atmosphere.

The Navy plans to buy 1,800 SM-6s through 2026 at a total cost of $6.4 billion. The missile arms certain destroyers and cruisers equipped with the Aegis radar system. As of late 2018 the U.S. fleet included 38 Aegis warships that are compatible with the missile-defense interceptors such as the SM-6. The Navy wants to grow that number to 41 in 2019.

Only the SM-6 can sink ships, shoot down planes and intercept ballistic missiles. And with a few modifications, the SM-6 also could target enemy ground forces and even submarines. "A single missile in a single launch tube could thereby provide the warfighter with a range of effects," missile-expert Thomas Karako wrote for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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