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
- Previously, a Standard SM-2
Block IIIa blew up on launch from the USS The
Sullivans (DDG-68) during a
training exercise off of Virginia on
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,
(2)USNI News website, “Missile Explodes During German Frigate Training Exercise; Incident Similar to 2015 U.S. Navy Explosion”, Sam LaGrone,