Friday, July 13, 2018

ESSM Test Firing

The Navy is excited about the first live fire test of an Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) Block II which just recently occurred.  The Block II incorporates an active guidance seeker in addition to the legacy semi-active seeker of the previous version.  In the test, the ESSM Blk II successfully intercepted a BQM-74E drone target.  The BQM-74E is a subsonic drone with a max speed of around 500 kts at sea level.

Okay, so what’s noteworthy about this?  The noteworthy part is the extent of the test program, or lack thereof.  From a USNI News article,

“The recent test follows two June 2017 Controlled Test Vehicle flight tests to prove the missile’s ability to launch. Four additional live fire tests will follow, ahead of starting production of the Block 2 missile.” (1)

So, a grand total of five live fire tests will be conducted prior to beginning production.  Does that really sound sufficient?  Will five tests really prove out the reliability of the missile, the performance of the seeker under the hundreds of possible scenarios, the effect of an ECM/decoy environment on the seeker, the effectiveness of the seeker against supersonic missiles, the stability of the seeker in response to launch and Mach 4+ maneuvering stresses, etc.?

The simple lack of testing against a supersonic target would seem reason enough to delay production, wouldn’t it?

The Navy, in their zeal to enter production, is glossing over critical testing.  We’re putting essentially untested weapons into the fleet.  People are potentially going to get killed expecting this thing to work, only to be tragically proven wrong.

Come on, now, ComNavOps, you say, the ESSM has been around for quite a while and this is just a seeker head upgrade – no big deal and no big test program is needed.  Once a missile has been in service for a while we don’t really need repeats of extensive testing – there’s nothing else to go wrong and nothing else to find out.

Well, there’s a few things wrong with that.  First, while I don’t have the data, I’m pretty sure the original testing program was far from extensive.  For example, I don’t recall off the top of my head that the ESSM has ever been tested against a supersonic target drone.  Just as importantly, I know there hasn’t been enough testing to demonstrate overall missile reliability.

To illustrate the reliability concern, consider the Standard missile which has been around forever and, supposedly, thoroughly tested.  Guess what?  They keep blowing up!

  • A Standard SM-2 Block IIIa blew up upon launch from a German frigate on 21-Jun-2018. (2)

In both cases, it appears that the rocket motor exploded.  Apparently, testing was insufficient to detect the rocket flaw and the missile was released into the fleet where it is now putting ships and personnel at risk.

Considering how few live fire tests are performed each year, even these couple of explosive failures are disturbing.

The point of this post is not the reliability of the Standard SM-2 Block IIIa missile.  I have no problem with failures.  That’s how you find problems and fix them.  The point is that without extensive testing, these kinds of problems can’t be found.  Five test launches is not enough to detect whatever problems are lurking in the ESSM – and they’re there - we just haven’t tested enough to see them.

This reluctance to test is typical of the Navy’s constant, on-going battle with DOT&E.  DOT&E wants to conduct proper testing and the Navy constantly wants to skip testing and rush weapons into production.  Recall that DOT&E had to go around the Navy to get the Navy to conduct shock tests on the LCS.  Remember the result of those tests?  Sure enough, the LCS failed and the tests had to be conducted at reduced explosive levels and the final tests had to be dropped due to the certainty of excessive, possibly fatal, damage.  And yet, the Navy keeps wanting to rush systems into production.

Everyone except the Navy is all too aware of the now legendary problem with the WWII torpedoes that the Navy refused to properly test.  Everyone except the Navy recognizes the wisdom of extensive and realistic testing.  Everyone except the Navy understands that it is far better to find problems in peacetime than during combat.

The Navy needs to put the ESSM through rigorous testing under realistic conditions and against supersonic target drones using evasive maneuvers and ECM. 

The Navy got people killed by not taking the time to train and certify personnel on the recent Burke collisions and now they’re failing to take the time to properly test the ESSM.  More people will die someday.  Why can’t the Navy learn its lessons?  Why do people have to die because the Navy won’t take the time to properly train and test?  CNO Richardson, this is directly on you.


(1)USNI News website, “Evolved Seasparrow Missile Block 2 Successfully Intercepts Aerial Target in First Live Fire Test”, Megan Eckstein, 6-July-2018,

(2)USNI News website, “Missile Explodes During German Frigate Training Exercise; Incident Similar to 2015 U.S. Navy Explosion”, Sam LaGrone, 27-Jun-2018,


  1. Explain to the CNO that testing is good for Acquisitions, items that do poorly in tests need to
    "acquire" more testing. We need to present things in
    a way that motivates the Admirals, meaning presenting
    things as Acquisitions. Which seems to be the purpose
    of the Navy as understood by upper management.
    (cynic mode off)

    Cat Trainer.

  2. ComNavOps, don't go off half cocked. First, ESSM has had many test vs supersonic sea skimmers, launched from the remote-controlled Self Defense Test Ship (ex-Paul F Foster) due to range safety concerns. Second, ESSM Blk 2 is scheduled to do many test flights from the SDTS as well as a DDG 51 class prior to a normal IOT&E by COMOPTEVFOR. Unless you go into production you won't have enough missiles to support the test program, and hand-built test articles would not be "fleet representative." Nothing to see here, move along.

    1. I'm willing to be convinced. Give me a source describing the testing that has been done and the planned test program.

    2. Going to have to question the claim that "unless you go into production you won't have enough missiles to support the test program...". That sounds like a program management issue, not a testing issue.

      You don't need to start up a full production line and commit to acquiring hundreds of rounds in order to complete testing. Granted, the low volume production units will have a very high per unit cost, but that's preferable to having hundreds of units in the arsenal that don't work.

      That sounds like concurrency, not methodical development. And the auto industry has robust methods for dealing with the exact same development issue.

    3. "That sounds like concurrency, not methodical development."

      Excellent point. This is what has lead us to having hundreds of F-35s that are not combat capable and will likely never be upgraded to usable combat status.

      Really good comment!

  3. BTW, the ESSM Blk 2 is derived from the seeker in SM-6, which has been thoroughly tested. It has nothing to do with SM-2 Block IIIa.

  4. The Navy sure wouldn't like to be reminded of the performance of the original Sparrow missile, especially its 0.5% hit ratio (ie 1 out of every 200 missiles) in the Vietnam War.

    The only war in which the Sparrow performed reasonably well was Desert Storm, against incompetent iraqi pilots fleeing straight to Iran... and even then it didn't achieve a 25% hit ratio.

    1. Tanguy
      There was little wrong with the sparrow itself in the end
      Problems primarily were lack of pilot training, few if any pilots had fired two missiles in training
      Furthermore, missiles were not cycled, a missile would be removed from the armoury, attached to a plane, sent in to the air, land, be attached to a new plane and the cycle repeated until the missile was fired, at which point it failed.

      Kill rates climbed dramatically once those two factors (and others) were fixed.

      The Navy most certainly needs to be reminded that "testing" is not proof that it can work, but proof of the circumstances under which it will fail.

      Had they tested a take off and landing cycle until missiles started failing there would not have been an issue.

    2. "Had they tested a take off and landing cycle until missiles started failing there would not have been an issue."

      I've never heard cycling as an issue and it does not sound plausible to me. Do you have a reference for that?

      Wiki's writeup (not that Wiki is the ultimate source for reliable information) cites many problems with Sparrow but makes no mention of cycling.

      Give me a reference.

    3. "Sparrow missile, especially its 0.5% hit ratio (ie 1 out of every 200 missiles) in the Vietnam War."

      Wiki states the following statistics for Sparrow hit ratio:

      "Of the 612 AIM-7D/E/E-2 missiles fired, 97 (or 15.8%) hit their targets"

      Do you have a source for your numbers? They sound far too low.

    4. I know there are fatigue factors for A2A missiles and how many times they can be flown, is that what Tanguy is referencing? Not quite sure what "cycling" is and what was the "remedy"?

      I know Sparrow was horrible in Vietnam but 1% is way too low and not realistic.

    5. The source of the 0.05% (actually 0.08%) hit ratio is this RAND report from 2008:

      This january 1990 article from Aerospace America is worth checking as well:

      As well as this presentation by Colonel James G. Burton:

      These links were provided to me by Blacktail, so you can also check out his article on the Sparrow on Military-Today:

      He also sent me his sources to back his article up:

    6. "The source of the 0.05% (actually 0.08%) hit ratio is this RAND report from 2008:"

      I see what the problem is. That RAND report is citing a pK = 0.08. That is the fractional probability, NOT THE PERCENTAGE. The percentage is 8.0%

      For example, on that same slide, they report the AIM-120 as having a pK=0.59 and give data of 10 kills in 17 shots. Doing the math, 10/17=0.59 which is 59%.

      To get percentages, multiply the fractional probability by 100.

      I think the issue is further clouded by the difference between hit probabilities and kill probabilities. The higher 16% hit probability number is HITS. Some aircraft were hit but not killed. The RAND report appears to be citing KILL probabilities. So, the two numbers are likely using the same data set but one is the hits and the other, lower, is kills.

      Hit probability is 16% and kill probability is 8%.

      Does that make sense to you?

    7. Yeah... Right, that makes more sense.

      Anyways, a 8% hit ratio is sucky enough.

    8. "sucky enough."


      The entire Sparrow saga illustrates the vital need to thoroughly test weapons, UNDER REALISTIC CONDITIONS, prior to committing them to combat. At that time, the Sparrow was to be the chief air-to-air weapon and the pilots had to find out the hard way that it didn't work as advertised. That's the premise in this post - that we need to test the ESSM THOROUGHLY and under combat conditions to see what's wrong with it. That kind of testing and fixing will make the weapon more effective. I would think the Navy would want that instead of hiding the flaws because they're afraid they'll lose funding.

      The Navy needs to be up front about testing and acknowledge that they will find problems but that they will fix them. Congress can understand that. The problem occurs when you lie and tell Congress that the weapon is perfect and then it's found to be flawed.

  5. I believe it was "Red Baron" and the "Ault" report

    The Air force and the Navy treated missiles no differently than unguided bombs and cannon shells, they were pulled from stores and repeatedly carried by aircraft until, finally, one of them tried to fire it.

    Missiles were quite happy to grow from 40*c and 90% humidity, to freezing, over a few minutes, and back again, but they werent capable of surviving that happening, 10, 20, 30 times

    The solution was, as still happens, weapons are taken from storage, put in service for a limited number of sorties, and then returned to the factory for service.

    1. The Ault report cites the main performance degradations as being due to:

      -Missile control system performance
      -Aircrew performance (procedural or tactical errors,
      out of envelope, etc.)
      -Missile motor fire

      Repetitive captive carry (your cycling, I believe) is mentioned only in passing and as a very minor contributor causing problems more in the overall maintenance aspect than flight to flight performance degradation.

      The report clearly relegates repetitive captive carry to a minor factor, if that.

      If you have a specific reference stating otherwise, please quote it. Otherwise, I'll assume this was not a major issue.

    2. Regarding Missile control performance and missile motor fire.

      What changes were made to the control system and motor to fix the misfire rate?
      The answer is none.

      The motors and control systems stopped failing when the missiles started to receive flight hour based maintenance.

      The point of testing is to determine *when* something fails.

      Not only should the Navy be testing dozens of missiles, tests should include increasing levels of fatigue of the missiles.

  6. Also remember the last two real world missile firings (not including cruise missiles): the SM/ESSM possible AShM intercept off Yemen, and the F-18 shooting down that Syrian MiG. In the case of the MiG, the Sidewinder totally failed and the pilot had to use an AIM-120. As for Yemen, from what I recall there was dispute if the missiles even managed an intercept, if the AShM's failed on their own, and how many AShM's were even fired.

    That kind of failure and uncertainty in a combat situation demands much more extensive testing and training.

    1. "there was dispute if the missiles even managed an intercept"

      It is not even certain if any anti-ship missiles were fired. The Navy has no idea whether the defensive missiles hit anything or if there was even anything to hit. A pretty poor showing for Aegis.

  7. I would like say first of all how much I enjoy reading your Blog and the discussion that often follows. Thanks for the time you put into these discussions.

    I think that before any new weapon is put into production and acceptance that it should pass a standard test. It should be compared to the pre-existing weapon that is used. In terms of air defence I think that the standard test for the ESSM would look like something like this.

    A DDG is loaded with the new air defence missile. A saturation attack by a mix of (perhaps 10) coyote target drones, harpoons without warheads and perhaps a stealthy missile (i.e. Naval strike missile). getting within 2000m of a DDG should be considered a failure. Clearly if the missile works well and defeats the saturation attack and more importantly is better than the current standard defence missile it should be accepted. If not it goes back for further development and is not accepted until it is shown to be better.

    Given the problems discovered with AMRAAM in Norwegian cold climate tests, the tests should be done in both Arctic and Equatorial conditions. I know the test would probably cost about $20 million and is expensive. However to lose a DDG in a real war is not that cheap either.

    Having a solitary ESSM block 2 defeating a solitary target shows that the missile works but does not show that is an effective missile for defence.

    1. Agreed. Even better if it was an open competition. Which ever design performs best gets the 1000 missile buy contract. I want to pick between prototypes.

    2. "Given the problems discovered with AMRAAM in Norwegian cold climate tests"

      I'm not familiar with that testing or the problems found. Tell me about it. It seems odd given that airborne missiles routinely encounter -50 to -70 deg at 30,000-50,000 ft altitude. Norway ground temps are warm by comparison. Are you talking about just handling issues?


      It's a similar issue as with gun propellants, apparently:

    4. Back in 2012, The Norwegians found that the rocket motors on their AMRAAMs were not igniting. It appears that the manufacturer AKT had changed the formula to meet an environmental directive but then did not test to see if the missiles worked in all conditions.

      The Norwegians found that in high altitude tests with obvious very low ambient temperatures that the AMRAAM would not fire!

      When a significant change is made to a missile, it needs to be tested in all possible conditions before acceptance.

  8. anyone know if there's a target drone in US arsenal that's supersonic or hypersonic capable ?

  9. Very limited knowledge is that aircraft missiles have a limited life, are manufactured to a standard to enable them to survive 1000 hours? flight time and be operationally effective, as always a trade-off for additional cost to build in longer life when if used in anger missile may only fly one mission.

    Missiles propellants, explosives and electronics, have to survive temperature swings from ~ + 70 on ground and - 70 at 35,000 feet and sometimes extreme vibrations, LM were having difficulties with the Marine F-35Bs weapons bay meeting spec. to carry missiles due to the extreme heat and vibrations incurred on vertical take off and landings exceeding missile specs. Mention has been made that aircraft with unused missiles and bombs returning from missions will have to dispose of in sea so as not to exceed F-35B limited max vertical landing weight?

    PS The USN uses the GQM-163 Coyote a supersonic sea skimming target missile, but that is another can of worms as ship safety zone is so large as to make test meaningless, need to use unmanned ship defense test ship, SDTS, Navy has one ship, Spruance class, DD-964.

    1. "GQM-163 Coyote a supersonic sea skimming target missile"

      More important than just the speed of the target drone are factors like radar cross section, thermal/radar/optical signature, ECM, and terminal maneuvering to actually simulate any particular enemy missile. That realistic emulation is what the Navy lacks and refuses to pay for. They'll spend billions on new ships and weapons but won't spend a few million for a realistic target drone. DOT&E has addressed this numerous times and provided cost estimates which are on the order of hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars, depending on specifics. This is the crime the Navy is committing.

    2. "A few million for a realistic target drone"

      MSST alone was going to be around a $1 billion development.

    3. That was the cost to add some capabilities to an existing missile, not a brand new development effort.

    4. They've funded several of those initiatives for GQM-163 which is why DOT&E stopped whining about it.

      But it's unclear if any of that will turn Coyote into a realistic Thread-D surrogate. DOT&E estimated that developing one is in the $700 million to $1 billion range.

      If you are going to argue for rigorous testing you need to present a fair accounting of the costs.

  10. (1) "The Block II incorporates an active guidance seeker in addition to the legacy semi-active seeker of the previous version."

    I suppose that's misleading. The missile's radar has one forward-facing antenna that can be used in active mode and semi-active mode AFAIK.

    (2) About the quantity of test shots: Other countries participate in the development. Maybe they have their own test firings prior to quantity production that add to the program.

  11. "A Standard SM-2 Block IIIa blew up upon launch from a German frigate on 21-Jun-2018. (2)"

    "blew up" is not quite a correct description. Both its rocket and its (insensitive munition) warhead burned out in the VLS cell.

  12. Maybe you're too rough. US WW II torpedoes sank a submarine that fired them twice. Both Lübeck and The Sullivans survived. So, there is a visible improvement.

  13. The ESSM seems like a perfect fit for a land based medium range air defence replacement for the HAWK.

  14. They saved the last two profiles for the supersonic Coyotes. The first one, Goddard says, came at them skimming at its minimum safe height. ‘You probably have 10 to 11 seconds to react, and as soon as you’ve made it “hostile” the system just automatically does it and of course it’s just “hands off.”’ In fact, when that first Coyote came at them the system fired two missiles. The first smashed into the target and the second took out the debris. ‘The Americans said “We’ve never seen that. You’ve actually taken out the target and we thought the second missile would just disappear. But all of a sudden it turned and actually took out the debris on the way through.”’ On the second attack, only one ESSM was needed—the Coyote was pulverised. However, a ‘ghost’ image had appeared briefly on the screen and Lee Goddard actually fired three ESSMs, two of which weren’t needed. ‘So it was all very positive,’ he says.

    From Rearming the ANZACS ASPI

    1. Who or what are you describing? I skim listened to the linked video and came across nothing remotely like this. Give me a time reference in the video and explain what point you're trying to make.

    2. It should be from a report on page 71. The link to the pdf is on the right hand side of the page. A direct link to PDF should be

    3. Okay, got it now. That's an amazing story that I've never heard. I'm going to have to do a post on it. It appears to be so far beyond any testing the US Navy has ever done that it's almost unbelievable. Thank you very much for the link.

    4. A number of unrelated observations.

      Australia is a partner in ESSM project and a RAN ship was first ship fitted with it.

      We went to America because the USN has the best instrumented ranges. Australia has lots of large ranges and half the militaries in the world train here (Singapore and USNMC for two). But we went to the US to test. We also do our own testing here.

      It occurs to me for a SAG without air support all that is really needed is ESSM due to the horizon. It has a range from some sources of 70km (presumbably against MPAs such as the P8 that flies high).

      While Bourkes may be needed is it likely they will be fighting 144 bombers? Maybe 40 Meko's A200 (4,800 crew) gives mass in a more flexible way. And history says escort ships get cargo through and that is one big thing needed.


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