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This U.S. missile is about to get a ship-killing upgrade

Launched from the USS John Paul Jones, a Standard Missile-6 demonstrated its ability to intercept ballistic missiles in their final seconds of flight during live fire tests July 28-Aug. 1, 2015. (Photo: Missile Defense Agency)

In an apparent move to show how serious the Pentagon is about countering conventional threats such as Russia and China, Secretary of Defense Ashton B. Carter announced Wednesday that the U.S. Navy would get a new ship-killing missile.

The SM-6 is a vertically launched system fired from the deck of destroyers and cruisers. The missile was designed and fielded to intercept ballistic missiles in flight while they are passing through the upper atmosphere, but now, with Carter’s announcement, the SM-6 will be upgraded to defeat enemy ships.

“It makes the SM-6 basically a twofer,” said Carter to an audience of sailors in San Diego. “[It] can shoot down airborne threats. And now you can attack and destroy a ship at long range with the very same missile.”

The SM-6 is another step forward as the Pentagon moves to configure certain weapons systems to defeat enemy ships. In February 2015, the U.S. Navy showcased a video of a U.S. destroyer firing a Tomahawk cruise missile that hit a moving barge. Tomahawks are primarily used for hitting stationary land-based targets, so if they could be widely converted and used for anti-ship use it would give U.S. ships an additional, and much needed, long range anti-ship strike capability.

Carter admitted to secretly testing the SM-6 last month and added that the Pentagon’s upcoming budget sets aside $2.9 billion to purchase 600 of the missiles.

Currently, the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship missiles are the Harpoon variant, which have a range of only around 50 miles.

Writing in the national security journal War on the Rocks, the Hudson Institute’s Managing Director for American Sea Power, Bryan McGrath, summarized the advancements in the Navy’s anti-ship missile capabilities.

“What this means is that in the space of a year, the Navy’s surface force, which many…had believed was becoming ‘outsticked’ by adversary surface forces, has gone from 50 ships capable of firing missiles out to 75 miles, to 90 ships capable of firing a subsonic anti-ship missile to nearly a thousand miles,” McGrath wrote. “Add to this the Navy’s plan to ‘upgun’ the Littoral Combat Ship with medium-range surface-to-surface missiles, and we see that the promise of distributed lethality…is beginning to be realized.”