Medium-range missile target intercepted during NATO-led naval exercise Formidable Shield

During a NATO-led international ballistic missile defence (BMD) exercise in October a Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) fired from US guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook successfully intercepted a medium-range missile target off the coast of Scotland, according to an announcement by the defence contractor Raytheon.

Formidable Shield 17 is an integrated air and missile defence exercise involving naval forces (14 ships, 10 aircraft and approximately 3,300 personnel) from eight NATO countries (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, United Kingdom and the United States). It ran from the 24 September to 17 October at the Hebrides Range in the Western Isles, off the north-west coast of Scotland and will recur every two years.

The vessels were involved in detecting, tracking and defending against a wide range of anti-ship and ballistic missiles using NATO command and control procedures. Maritime patrol aircraft and NATO airborne warning and control system (AWACS) surveillance aircraft also participated. In addition to the SM-3 intercept, the Spanish frigate SPS Alvaro de Bazan and the Netherlands frigate HNLMS Tromp conducted simulated target engagements of cruise missiles using the Standard Missile-2 and Evolved Seasparrow Missile.

"Real-world events demand real-world testing," Dr. Taylor W. Lawrence, Raytheon Missile Systems president, said in a press conference. "Strong cooperation between allied nations and industry helps ensure we are ready to defeat complex threats around the world”.

Although nominally NATO-led, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and the US Navy—supported by missile defence contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin—designed the event to evaluate the ability of NATO ballistic missiles and air warfare defences at sea. The MDA said the exercise was the first time NATO’s ‘smart defence’ concept was demonstrated with ships serving as air-defence units protecting naval BMD units.

Unlike other missiles that use an explosive warhead to damage or destroy their intended targets, the SM-3 Interceptor hits its targets with the force of a 10-ton truck traveling at 600 mph, according to Raytheon. The technique is referred to as a ‘hit-to-kill’ that Raytheon compares to intercepting a bullet with another bullet.

"The SM-3 interceptor is deployed at sea as part of the US contribution to Europe's ballistic missile defence," Raytheon said of the missile. "The first land-based SM-3 site became fully operational in Romania in 2016, and the Poland site is expected to be in service next year”.

As NATO’s first full-scale, ‘no notice’ (the ships received no prior warning when missiles were launched, so the crews could practice reacting as they would in combat) naval missile-defence exercise, it was designed to send a readiness message in light of a more assertive Russia and a growing nuclear threat from North Korea. Pyongyang has test-fired dozens of missiles in recent years and has reported rapid progress in developing nuclear warheads for its missiles.

However, some analysts suggest that the NATO system in its current configuration lacks the reach and early warning radars to shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles. There have also long been question marks over the effectiveness of BMD more generally.