Last week, news broke that Chinese hackers had successfully infiltrated an unnamed U.S. Defense contractor, making off with over 600 gigabytes of data relating to America’s undersea warfare efforts. The compromised data included signals and sensor data, information relating to cryptographic systems, and the Navy submarine development unit’s electronic warfare library — but perhaps the most damaging revelation to surface as a result of the hack were plans relating to a new submarine launched anti-ship missile known as “Sea Dragon.”
For months now, the United States Navy has been working tirelessly to find ways to offset the strategic advantage presented by China’s hypersonic anti-ship missile platforms like the massive DF-21D, but little attention has been paid to America’s offensive response. The Sea Dragon, while not hypersonic, does shed some light into America’s own anti-ship endeavors, and while little information is available regarding the platform itself, what little we know is actually rather illuminating when given the benefit of a little extrapolation.
Two primary bits of information we know about the Sea Dragon is that the Navy and the unidentified contractor were working to expedite development of this new platform by utilizing already-developed technologies, and second, that the missile itself is said to be able to achieve supersonic speeds (faster than Mach 1). The former suggests that this new platform must be a variation or combination of complimentary existing platforms, and the latter tells us that it can’t be based on any of the four currently employed anti-ship missiles in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal.
The Navy’s compliments of Tomahawk cruise missiles, Harpoon anti-ship missiles, Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, and new Naval Strike Missiles are all notable sub-sonic platforms. They rely on maneuverability, rather than speed to close with targets and circumvent missile defense systems. Because the Navy’s Sea Dragon program aims specifically to integrate “an existing weapon system with an existing Navy platform,” each of those missiles can be ruled out as the basis for the new weapon. So, if the new missile is supposed to sink enemy ships and travel at supersonic speeds, already exists in some form in the U.S. inventory, can travel at supersonic speeds and is not based on a standing anti-ship platform — it must be a variation on a platform intended for other targets, like the ship-launched air defense missile, the SM-6.
The Standard Missile-6, or SM-6, is a Raytheon developed platform intended for use as an air defense missile for cruisers and destroyers, though Raytheon has long touted its capabilities not only as a missile designed to intercept inbound aircraft of missiles, but also potentially for surface vessels as well. The missile’s primarily claim to fame is its ability to integrate targeting data on the fly from not only the launching vessel, but airborne assets like nearby F-35s or E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft, increasing its target range to beyond the horizon despite the line-of-sight limitations presented by a destroyer or cruiser’s targeting apparatus. The missile itself, however, doesn’t quite carry the punch one would expect in an anti-ship platform, meaning the modifications on the “Sea Dragon” likely extend beyond outfitting them for the submerged launch platforms of an attack submarine.
Raytheon noted the missile’s anti-ship capabilities in a press release early this year:
In 2016, the SM-6 missile engaged its first-ever surface target, the decommissioned guided missile frigate USS Reuben James. The test demonstrated the missile’s capability in anti-surface warfare and illustrated how it directly supports the U.S. Navy’s distributed lethality concept to increase the offensive might of the surface force.
It seems likely, then, that Raytheon has been working to modify the SM-6 platform into a Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM) specifically for the purposes of anti-ship warfare. The platform has a range of 150 miles and travels at speeds in excess of Mach 3.5, making is not only supersonic, but the fastest moving anti-ship weapon in America’s arsenal until one of the numerous hypersonic missile programs comes currently under development come to fruition.
It remains unclear how the United States will respond to the Chinese government’s infiltration of its undersea warfare systems, but the leak of the Sea Dragon may not be as damaging as it has been presented, seeing as it appears to be a modification on an existing platform. Analysts within foreign competitors likely could have surmised that the anti-ship successes of the SM-6 in testing would have led to its use in ship-to-ship warfare. The Sea Dragon may not have been overtly discussed by Pentagon officials, but it does not represent a revolutionary leap in the U.S. Navy’s combat capabilities.
Featured image: The Los Angeles-class attack submarine USS Houston (SSN 713) leads a formation of ships from USS George Washington (CVN 73) Carrier Strike Group and Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force (JMSDF) for a photo exercise during the final day of Exercise Keen Sword 2011. The exercise enhances the Japan-U.S. alliance which remains a key strategic relationship in the Northeast Asia Pacific region. Keen Sword caps the 50th anniversary of the Japan – U.S. alliance as an “alliance of equals.” | U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Adam K. Thomas/Released