Standard Missile 3: Shipboard and Land-based Interceptor

The SM-3 interceptor is a defensive weapon the U.S. Navy uses to destroy short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles.

The interceptor uses sheer force, rather than an explosive warhead, to destroy its target. Its “kill vehicle” hits threats with the force of a 10-ton truck traveling 600 mph. This technique, referred to as “hit-to-kill,” has been likened to intercepting a bullet with another bullet.

Raytheon SM3 Block IIA

The SM-3 interceptor is a critical piece of the Phased Adaptive Approach for missile defense in Europe. The interceptor is being carried by U.S. Navy ships deployed off Europe’s coast and is now operational at a land-based site in Romania, further enhancing Europe’s protection. When the next land-based SM-3 interceptor site becomes operational in Poland, all of Europe will be defended from ballistic missile attacks.

USS Farragut (DDG-99) – Arleigh Burke class Destroyer Equipped with SM3 Missiles

The flexibility of the SM-3 interceptor to be both land- and sea-based offers countries that do not have ballistic missile defense-enabled navies to take advantage of the incredible capacity to protect large areas of land. This is often referred to as regional defense. The SM-3 missile can cover larger areas with fewer installations, when compared to other “lower tier” missile defense solutions.

The program has over 30 successful space intercepts, and more than 400 interceptors have been delivered to U.S. and Japanese navies.

The SM-3 missile, designated RIM-161A, uses the basic SM-2 Block IVA airframe and propulsion, and adds a third stage rocket motor (a.k.a. Advanced Solid Axial Stage, ASAS, made by Alliant Techsystems), a GPS/INS guidance section (a.k.a. GAINS, GPS-Aided Inertial Navigation System), and a LEAP (Lightweight Exo-Atmospheric Projectile) kinetic warhead (a non-explosive hit-to-kill warhead). The SM-3 interceptor replaced the SM-2’s explosive warhead and radar seeker with an additional solid-fueled third-stage motor and infrared homing kinetic kill vehicle, otherwise known as a LEAP.

The JMSDF Maya-class Desteoyer Equipped with SM3 Missiles

The LEAP uses a Forward Looking Infrared (FLIR) sensor to locate its target, and was tested in 4-flight series called Terrier/LEAP from 1992 to 1995. These tests used modified Terrier and Standard Missile-2 missiles. Two intercepts were attempted during these tests, but the LEAP failed to hit the target in both cases. The first flight-test of an RIM-161A SM-3 missile occurred in September 1999, and the third test (in January 2001) demonstrated successful missile flight and control up to fourth stage (i.e. kinetic warhead) separation. In January 2002, the first all-up test of an SM-3 succeeded in intercepting an Aries ballistic target missile. For up-to-date information on testing, see the “U.S. Missile Defense Intercept Test Record” section of our web site. SM-3 has successfully achieved 28 out of 36 intercepts during tests including the satellite shoot down in February 2008.


Whether on land or at sea, the SM-3 interceptor continues to excel in testing. In 2014, the Block IB variant was successfully launched for the first time from an Aegis Ashore testing site in Hawaii. Later in the year, the missile destroyed a short-range ballistic missile target during a highly complex integrated air and missile defense exercise in the Pacific Ocean. The interceptor participated in an international, NATO-led exercise in 2017 that simulated real-life threat scenarios. Strong cooperation between allied nations and industry helps ensure readiness to defeat complex threats around the world.

SM3 Block IIA

The SM-3 Block IB interceptor has an enhanced two-color infrared seeker and upgraded steering and propulsion capability that uses short bursts of precision propulsion to direct the missile toward incoming targets. It became operational in 2014, deploying for the first time on U.S. Navy ships worldwide.


In cooperation with Japan, Raytheon is developing the next-generation SM-3 Block IIA interceptor. It has two distinct new features: larger rocket motors that will allow it to defend broader areas from ballistic missile threats and a larger kinetic warhead. The interceptor’s kinetic warhead has been enhanced, improving the search, discrimination, acquisition and tracking functions, to address advanced and emerging threats.

SM3 Infographic

The SM-3 IIA missile intercepted an advanced ballistic missile threat in its first live target test in early 2017. The flawless intercept was preceded by two successful non-target flight tests.

The Block IIA variant is the centerpiece of the European missile defense system. It will be deployed ashore in Poland to complete Phase 3 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach.

The European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA)

Aegis BMD and the SM-3 make up the foundation of the EPAA. Each phase of the EPAA calls for the deployment of upgraded SM-3 variants to counter the improving ballistic missile capabilities of Iran. In March 2011, Phase I of the EPAA mandated the deployment of 113 SM-3 Block IA interceptors and 16 SM-3 Block IB interceptors to Aegis BMD ships in Europe.

In 2015, Phase II called for 100 SM-3 Block IB interceptors to be deployed in Europe alongside the new Aegis Ashore site in Romania. The new land-based version—Aegis Ashore—is configured as Aegis BMD 5.0 with SM-3 IB interceptors. Aegis BMD 5.0 does not add new functionality, but is designed to integrate Aegis BMD 4.0.1 with the Navy’s open architecture system, enabling any Aegis ship to perform the BMD mission.

Scheduled for 2020, the third phase of the EPAA mandates the deployment of 19 new SM-3 Block IIA interceptors alongside the development of another Aegis Ashore site Poland. Phase IV of the EPAA originally called for the deployment of SM-3 Block IIB interceptors capable of intercepting ICBMs coming out of Iran. However, diplomatic pressure from Russia resulted in the cancelation of the fourth phase of the EPAA and development of the SM-3 Block IIB halted.

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