Navy Blasts Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target With SM-2 Missiles In Impressive Video

The video offers an impressive look at the Navy’s Aegis-equipped warships’ ability to quickly engage supersonic sea-skimming cruise missiles.

byEmma Helfrich|
U.S. Navy anti-ship missile defense test using a GQM-163 target
U.S. Navy


The U.S. Navy has released footage recorded during an exercise where SM-2 surface-to-air missiles were used to intercept a GQM-163 Coyote supersonic sea-skimming target. The GQM-163 rapidly accelerates right off its launch stand and rips across the screen at impressive velocity as it heads out for its mock attack on the nearby surface combatants.  

Information released along with the video, which was recorded by an infrared camera, states that the overall exercise took place in the Atlantic Ocean right off NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on March 27. The GQM-163 used is designed by Northrop Grumman and serves primarily as a non-recoverable sea-skimming supersonic target that can simulate anti-ship cruise missiles as well as some ballistic missile-like threats. 

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Seconds after the deployment of GQM-163 in the footage, the target is engaged by what appears to be at least two Raytheon SM-2 Standard interceptors. These weapons were fired by the Ticonderoga class cruiser USS Philippine Sea (CG-58) and the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87). Both SM-2s seemingly made contact with the GQM-163 as it skimmed across the ocean’s surface, causing it to explode back into the air in pieces before ultimately falling into the water below in a fireball.

The missile defense exercise was held for the purpose of conducting Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training (SWATT) in the Atlantic along with Carrier Strike Group Two, which is led by the Nimitz class aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN-69). SWATT exercises, as described by the Navy, are developed and led by the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) and are broadly meant to provide surface units with advanced tactical training to better prepare for a high-end conflict. 

The Ticonderoga class guided-missile cruiser USS Monterey launches a harpoon surface-to-surface missile during a Surface Warfare Advanced Tactical Training exercise. Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Fire Controlman Third Class Raymond Castillo

Indeed, supersonic sea-skimming anti-ship missiles, like those the GQM-163 target was meant to simulate in this SWATT exercise, are among the most troubling threats that Navy ships could face during a high-end attack. While missiles of this kind do travel in low-to-medium altitudes during their flight out to the target area after launch, the weapons eventually drop down to heights barely above the ocean’s surface for their terminal attack run. This sea-skimming flight path gives its target’s defenses little time to react as it limits their sensors' ability to detect the threat over the horizon.

Both Philippine Sea and Mason relied on their Aegis combat system backbone to facilitate this kind of engagement using the SM-2 missiles. 

Aegis leverages a combination of advanced software and computing elements, sensors, and the ships’ weapons to detect, classify, track, and engage incoming threats. Aegis is also designed with an inherent networking ability, meaning it can connect multiple vessels, aircraft, and other sensors and shooters together to form an integrated defense bubble to more comprehensively address large-scale attacks. As you can see, speed of action is critical to Aegis' effectiveness, and this exercise was clearly meant to simulate a very sudden and imminent threat. 

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It’s worth noting that in 2016 AEGIS actually prevented a missile attack on Mason after multiple unsuccessful attempts to strike the ship. Mason was transiting the Bab el Mandeb strait when AEGIS detected two cruise missiles fired from a Houthi-controlled coastal area of Yemen and launched its own missiles in response. The adversary’s attack wasn’t successful, but the anti-ship missile was far less sophisticated and high-speed than the capabilities being developed in this realm today.

For instance, China is actively working on its own anti-ship missile arsenal, which could be a factor in any potential future conflict with the country in the Indo-Pacific. One such weapon is the YJ-18, which is integrated into the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s Type 052D and Type 055 class destroyers. The YJ-18 is said to have a range of up to 335 miles and can cruise subsonically before reaching Mach 3 in its terminal phase, making it especially difficult to defend against, especially without airborne sensors. 

YJ-18 missiles on display during a Chinese military parade. Credit: Salah Rashad Zaqzoq/Wikimedia Commons

China also has the YJ-12, an air-launched anti-ship cruise missile capable of deployment from the country’s H-6K medium-range strategic bombers. The YJ-12 reportedly has a range of around 240 miles and can travel at speeds of Mach 3.

And these are just a couple of examples. China is working on or has fielded an impressive array of anti-ship missiles, ranging from subsonic sea-skimming types to multiple ballistic missile-like types, some of which are capable of reaching targets over vast distances. Hypersonic anti-ship weapons are also thought to be in development. 

Russia is no stranger to the high-speed anti-ship missile, either. In fact, they largely pioneered this capability in an operational form. Soviet-era supersonic anti-ship missiles remain in service and newer types are also being fielded or exported.  

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The country has most famously developed the Zircon, a hypersonic anti-ship weapon that is said to be capable of reaching speeds of Mach 9 while in terminal flight. While the actual maturity of the weapon is unclear, it has been said that Zircon can be deployed from standard vertical launch cells on Russian warships or potentially submarines, and the missile reportedly possesses certain levels of maneuverability to evade detection. 

Just days ago, Russia also tested its P-270 Moskit medium-range supersonic cruise missile in the Sea of Japan. Two P-270s, which are said to have a range of about 75 miles, were fired at a mock target in the area and both supposedly made contact

In this photo made from video provided by the Russian Defense Ministry Press Service on March 28, 2023, a Russian Navy ship launches an anti-ship missile test in the Peter The Great Gulf in the Sea of Japan. Credit: Russian Ministry of Defense via AP

Other supersonic anti-ship missile types exist around the globe and are proliferating among various allies and enemies alike. This is making it so close-in reaction training against real representations of those threats as we see in the Navy’s video is only becoming increasingly critical. 

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