US Missile Test Fails, Was Russia Watching?

Faye Higbee

Hawaii — Off the coast of Kauai on Saturday, a US Missile test failed. The test of two Standard Missile-6 Dual II (BMD-initialized) – a ‘Flight Test Aegis Weapon System 31,’ failed to intercept the target. The failures are learning experiences that will help the US improve its missile defense. The test had been postponed until Saturday because of the presence of a Russian surveillance ship at 13 miles off the coast.

The US Missile Test

The objective of the test was to demonstrate the capability of ballistic missile defense (BMD )-configured Aegis ship to detect, track, engage and intercept a medium-range ballistic missile target with a salvo of two Standard Missile-6 Dual II (BMD-initialized ) missiles. However, an intercept was not achieved.

Missile Defense Agency

The test was a cooperative effort between the US Navy and the Missile Defense Agency. The MDA has initiated an investigation as to what may have been the problem that caused the US missile test to fail.

Though the Missile Defense Agency and the US Navy specifically said they didn’t let Russia know that the test was scheduled or where, Russia knew – maybe not exactly when or where, but they knew. They can read, and they were paying attention. Numerous American military outlets reported on statements by Pentagon officials in April about a US Missile test of the SM-6.

Screenshot: What the missiles are supposed to do- intercept small and medium range ballistic missiles.

Competition with US Missile test

Both Russia and China either have hypersonic weapons in advanced development or are extensively testing them. In April, a Pentagon official told Congress that the US was going to conduct a test using amid-range Standard Missile (SM-6) to intercept a mock-hypersonic missile. A previous test of the Air Force Air-launched Rapid Response Weapon, or AWWR (pronounced “Arrow”) system failed in April. (

Other countries, including those hostile to the United States, are known to be developing their own versions of the weapons. Russia is working on hypersonic missile defense, and China has its own hypersonic weapons capability. North Korea, according to a report earlier this month, has established a hypersonic missile college. India has also joined the hypersonic race

Meanwhile, a new report says that the United States is preparing a weapon that is meant to combat hypersonic missiles. 

According to The War Zone, the Navy and the Missile Defense Agency are working on an SM-6 missile that can be used against an “advanced maneuvering threat,” which is understood to mean hypersonic missiles. The new missile, per the Pentagon, will be tested later this year. 

National Interest April, 2021

It appears that the US missile test program has some work to do.

Russian Ship Kareliya

U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor said in a statement at the time that it was “aware of the Russian vessel operating in international waters in the vicinity of Hawaii, and will continue to track it through the duration of its time here. Through maritime patrol aircraft, surface ships and joint capabilities, we can closely monitor all vessels in the Indo-Pacific area of operations.”

An official previously said the test was delayed because the United States did not want the Russian vessel to “collect on ” the effort…

U.S. Naval Institute News, which was the first to report the presence of the ship, said it was the Russian Navy Vishnya-class auxiliary general intelligence, or AGI, ship Kareliya (SSV-535 ).

The Vladivostok-based ship is one of seven AGIs specializing in signals intelligence, USNI News said.
 In the waters of the North sea, a detachment of ships of the Baltic Fleet consisting of the corvettes “Steregushchiy” and “Soobrazitelny” conducted electronic missile launches with “Uran” missile systems at targets that imitate a detachment of warships of a mock enemy. Missile firing was carried out by corvettes simultaneously with the use of anti-ship missile systems. (Russian Ministry of Defense)

The Russian website Sputnik reported the Pentagon official’s remarks from April, and linked to the various American sites that also reported them. Also a PDF of her remarks was released and labelled “not for publication until released by the subcommittee.”

Director of Defense Research and Engineering for Research and Technology Barbara McQuiston told a Senate defense committee on Wednesday that the MDA and US Navy had already seen promising signs the advanced SM-6 missile could shoot down “an advanced maneuvering threat-representative target” – a capability they intend to test later this year and continue developing into 2024.

“We are also working with the Missile Defense Agency to accelerate a comprehensive layered defeat capability against adversary tactical hypersonic weapons including kinetic defense in the terminal and glide phases of flight, as well as left-of-launch strike of missile launch complexes,” McQuiston further said. Left-of-launch refers to sabotaging missile programs during their development or even individual missiles on their launch sites to prevent them from being fielded or used. It can also include pre-emptive strikes.

As The War Zone noted, “advanced maneuvering threat” is Pentagon lingo for a hypersonic boost glide vehicle, the unpowered ultra-maneuverable device that nimbly delivers the warhead to its target after being accelerated beyond Mach 5 by a rocket engine.

Hypersonic weapons are notoriously hard to spot and track. The existing Space-Based Infrared System the Pentagon uses to pinpoint ballistic missile launches works by spotting the intense heat from their rocket engines, which stands out against the background heat from the Earth. However, hypersonic missiles don’t use their rocket engines for nearly as long as ballistic missiles, giving the satellites less time to figure out their trajectory before the engine cuts off and the unpowered glide vehicle “goes cold,” disappearing from infrared view. To fill this dangerous hole in US defenses, the Space Force has contracted for a new generation of wide- and medium-field-of-view satellites.

It’s possible the radars on US anti-ballistic missile systems, like the Patriot and THAAD, could also track hypersonic weapons. However, it’s one thing to spot a hypersonic missile – it’s wholly another to shoot one down. Sergei Surovikin, commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces, has said the forthcoming S-500 Prometheus air defense system will be able to shoot down hypersonic weapons and noted that “a certain amount of tweaking” would allow S-400 Triumf and 9K37 Buk missile systems to do so as well. (April 2021)

US Missile test failures are learning experiences for those involved in the programs. When they fail, investigations are conduct to determine the cause. In 2019, a missile test failed because a sailor got the inputs wrong for the launch. They’ll get it right, guaranteed. Meanwhile, Russia is watching and learning from every direction…including sending a surveillance ship to listen in.


Featured photo: A launch of an Aegis missile (screenshot)

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