AIM-174B: the air-to-air SM-6 is officially operational 11/07/2024 | Gabriele Molinelli

After several "clandestine" sightings of modified Raytheon SM-6s carried under the wings of F-18 SUPER HORNETs, it is now official: the air-to-air version exists and is called AIM-174B.

In recent days, in the lead-up to RIMPAC, several images have been released that allow us to appreciate the full size of this weapon, significantly larger than the AMRAAM. According to the US Navy, the SM-6 "Air Launched Configuration (ALC)" is already operationally deployed, indirectly confirming the success of a flight test campaign that has been ongoing, now it can be said with certainty, at least since 2021 when an SM-6 was first spotted under the wing of a VX-31 test squadron SUPER HORNET.

The first Carrier Air Wing to employ the SM-6 ALC is the USS CARL VINSON's CVW-2, which will be operating in the RIMPAC 24 exercise about to begin. The released photos show the inert training version of the missile, which appears to have a significantly greater range than the old PHOENIX. The SM-6, a program that we must assume is effectively (or has been so far, at least) a particularly secret "Special Access Program," responds to modern threats both in the forms of long range anti-ship strike weapons, by allowing interceptions at great distances; and to long-range air-to-air missiles developed in Russia, the R-37M (AA-13 "Axehead"); and in China, the PL-15 (CH-AA-10 "Abaddon") and PL-21 (CH-AA-X-12).

Presumably, the SM-6 represents an additional option, not an alternative, to the new air-to-air AIM-260A Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM), developed by Lockheed Martin, itself a Special Access Program of which little is known, except that it has undergone some qualification firings and is rapidly moving towards active service and series production. Quite literally in step, the end of American orders for the AIM-120 AMRAAM is also approaching. Around the end of the decade, new production for US needs reduces to zero as already illustrated by the multi-year budget outlook for FY 2024 and the upcoming FY-2025.

The SM-6, initially conceived under the deceptively simple description "a Standard missile but with an active radar seeker derived from that of the AMRAAM," has progressively evolved into a truly "all-purpose" weapon with very high performance and a huge range, not yet officially disclosed.

In the surface-to-air version, it also has an anti-ship/anti-surface strike capability that makes it to some extent a first option for hypersonic attack (or almost, assuming that the terminal velocity can remain/fall below the technical threshold of Mach 5).

Most recently, an additional development of the seeker has been announced to modernise it and remove obsolete electronics that are difficult to procure, creating the SM-6 Block I CU. This seeker will be shared with the new version of SM-2, the SM-2 Block III CU. It is difficult at the moment to say where the air-to-air AIM-174B configuration fits in this sense: it might or might not benefit from the same, but adapted, seeker.

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