Last Updated: 05/30/2013*
The military called it Operation Bumblebee: a secret program to develop a weapon that -- like the insect -- could take off vertically, change directions instantly and deliver a painful sting.
Born in the years after World War II, the U.S. Navy program aimed to create a missile that could defend warships against new weapons like fast-moving fighter jets and the missiles they carried.
This month defense officials are celebrating the product of that effort, the Standard Missile, which has evolved from defending ships to protecting entire countries as part of the United States’ integrated air and missile defense system.
"Because we've been perfecting this technology for 60 years, we've seen it expand from defending ships to defending continents,” said Dr. Taylor Lawrence, president of Raytheon Missile Systems. “As we look back on all that has been accomplished in the last six decades, we can't help but recognize that what was impossible yesterday, is possible today. The unimaginable of today will be tomorrow's solutions."
The Standard Missile’s history begins in the 1940s, when U.S. Navy leaders found themselves grappling with a new problem: missiles launched from airplanes.
“The question was: could the ships defend themselves?” said retired Vice Adm. Rod Rempt. “We found we needed much faster missiles and capabilities than the guns that were prevalent during WWII.”
What the Navy needed was a supersonic, guided missile complete with new kinds of propulsion and control. Success was, even to avid believers, a long shot.
“Developing this capability was no easy task. Engineers were in uncharted territory,” said Wes Kremer, Raytheon’s vice president of Air and Missile Defense Systems.
Operation Bumblebee engineers eventually produced three missiles: the Talos, Terrier, and Tartar.
Talos was the ‘big brother’ of the three, weighing nearly four tons. It was designed to take out big threats like Soviet bombers. However, it was large and expensive, and many of the smaller ships couldn’t carry Talos.
With a cutting-edge (for its time) radar homing guidance system, the smaller Terrier saw wide use by the Navy post-WWII.
Tartar was the lightest-weight system and was designed to engage targets at close range.
The first successful launch of a Terrier missile from the USS Mississippi in 1953 is broadly considered the event when the Standard Missile family’s story truly began.
Over the decades the missile family has evolved and now includes:
Standard Missile-1—Nicknamed “Home All The Way,” the SM-1 protected the U.S. fleet against low-flying, anti-ship missiles. Combining high performance and short reaction time, the missile “homed”’ in on a target throughout its flight. Several U.S. allies still use it today.
Standard Missile-2— SM-2 was the first variant that could acquire a target after launch, and that ability doubled its range and altitude. Today it is the world’s premier fleet-area air defense weapon and is used by the U.S. and allied nations.
Standard Missile-3—The SM-3 is the only missile in existence today that can be launched from a ship, blast into space, and take out short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles. The SM-3 uses a non-explosive warhead – a concept often described as “hitting a bullet with a bullet.” Both the U.S. and Japanese navies have deployed it on ships.
Standard Missile-6— The SM-6 is a new, over-the-horizon air defense weapon. In 2015 it will take on a new role defending against ballistic missile threats.
Video: The 60 Year History of Raytheon's Standard Missile Family (Length: 21 min.)
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