U.S. Navy Played Key Role in Protecting Israel From Iranian Missiles

SM-3 launch
Test-launch of an SM-3 missile (USN)

Published Apr 17, 2024 11:06 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Navy was more helpful in defending Israel from an Iranian attack than initially reported. Half of Iran's projectiles failed in flight, a defense source told The Intercept, and American forces shot down the majority of the 160 remaining threats headed for Israeli territory. This includes as many as seven ballistic missiles that were destroyed by USS Arleigh Burke and USS Carney in mid-flight. 

It is the first time that the Navy has ever used the SM-3 antiballistic missile interceptor in combat, and the results appear to have been a success. The SM-3 is an advanced design that can intercept ballistic missiles in mid-course, outside of the earth's atmosphere at altitudes of more than 100 nautical miles. 

To engage and destroy a large, hypersonic ballistic missile with any kind of reliability, it's not enough to detonate an explosive payload somewhere near it - it's necessary to hit it head on, much like striking a bullet with another bullet mid-flight. It took decades of work and billions of dollars to solve this engineering challenge, and the SM-3 is the result. The business end of the SM-3 is the Lightweight Exo-atmospheric Projectile, a guided but otherwise inert device that maneuvers to collide with the incoming ballistic missile. 

According to defense analyst David Axe, the successful performance of SM-3 - while not unexpected, given its successful history in testing - will be a reassurance to the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific. American missile-defense capabilities will be essential in any conflict with China or North Korea. As an endorsement, Japan is a participant in the SM-3 program for its own self-defense. 

The SM-3's development is about as old as USS Arleigh Burke, the first ship in the prolific class of the same name. She was modernized at the General Dynamics yard in Norfolk for ballistic missile defense in 2019, and is one of about 50 warships in the Navy's inventory with this capability.