Home » Aviation » Navy Restricts Use of ‘A Number’ of SM-2 Missiles Following USS The Sullivans Launch Failure


Navy Restricts Use of ‘A Number’ of SM-2 Missiles Following USS The Sullivans Launch Failure

A Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) launches from the aft Vertical Launching System (VLS) aboard destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG-77) in 2006. US Navy Photo

A Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) launches from the aft Vertical Launching System (VLS) aboard destroyer USS O’Kane (DDG-77) in 2006. US Navy Photo

This post was updated to include the current location of USS The Sullivans (DDG-68).

The Navy has restricted the use of an unspecified number of SM-2 guided missiles following a launch failure on July 18 that damaged destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), Naval Sea Systems Command officials told USNI News.

The older missiles have been restricted to “Wartime Use Only” status while an ongoing Navy failure review board determines the cause of the failure of the SM-2 Block IIIA that exploded shortly after launching from The Sullivans, NAVSEA officials said in a July 24 statement.

Once the findings are complete, “the Navy will reassess its position regarding these particular missiles,” NAVSEA said.
“The missiles placed on Wartime Use Only status are [on] older missile[s], primarily used in fleet exercises and testing.”

While neither NAVSEA nor the Navy have not given specifics on what caused the missile to fail, USNI News has learned the service is examining the more than 25-year-old solid rocket motor of the failed SM-2 — one made by a now defunct company that made also the solid rocket booster (SRB) that started a chain reaction that caused the in-flight explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger.

SM-2s with the older Mk 104 Mod 2 Dual Thrust Rocket Motors (DTRM) manufactured by the defunct Thiokol Corporation (now part of Orbital ATK) before 1992 — which also manufactured the shuttle programs SRBs — have been placed on the “Wartime Use Only” list, USNI News has learned.

USNI News understands the Navy’s stock of SM-3 ballistic missile defense (BMD) interceptors and newer SM-6s are unaffected by the restrictions as they field newer MK 104 engines with different design than the older Thiokol engines.

The explosion of the SM-2 IIIA with the Thiokol engine occurred during a missile exercise off the coast of Virginia on July 18 caused no injuries but damaged The Sullivans and sparked a small fire that was extinguished by the ship’s company.

The ship is now undergoing repairs at Naval Station Mayport, Fla., U.S. Naval Surface Force Atlantic (SURFLANT) told USNI News on Monday.

A Raytheon SM-2 Block IIIA guided missile explodes over USS The Sullivans during a training exercise on July 18, 2015. US Navy Photo obtained by USNI News

A Raytheon SM-2 Block IIIA guided missile explodes over USS The Sullivans during a training exercise on July 18, 2015. US Navy Photo obtained by USNI News

Photos obtained by USNI News showed the older SM-2 missile exploding shortly after launch just above the ship’s mast raining debris on the port side and the surrounding ocean.

As largely a safety measure, the Navy uses less volatile solid rocket propellant in its missiles than more volatile liquid fuel.

Accidents with SM-2s are rare and several experts contacted last week by USNI News failed to recall a similar incident with the missile.

The following is the complete July 24, 2015 statement from Naval Sea Systems Command.

The Navy has restricted a number of SM-2 BLK IIIA’s to Wartime Use Only status until the Failure Review Board has determined the root cause of the 18 July incident, at which time the Navy will reassess its position regarding these particular missiles. The missiles placed on Wartime Use Only status are [on] older missile[s], primarily used in Fleet exercises and testing.

  • Ctrot

    If those missiles are not good enough for testing purposes when there is no one shooting at you what makes the Navy think they’re good enough to be depended on when someone IS shooting at you?

    • Curtis Conway

      Previous failures like this have mostly been qualification testing at White Sands which is where the lessons were learned. One is left to wonder is they X-ray the product after production as a QA measure?

      • Irv Lichtenstein

        It is a known problem with molded solid fuels– they crack as they dry out over the years leading to failures. The SM-2’s should have been shot off years ago and replaced with -3 or later production. The inference that Thiokol made a bad engine is disputed by over 20 years of firing stored missiles with no accidents.

        • KenofSoCal

          This speaks to my suspicion the Navy isn’t getting enough training/practice missile shots in this day and age.

        • Curtis Conway

          Not trying to slam Thiokol/Morton Thiokol or whoever is making the engines. Not that many competing for that business in my opinion. Tough industry.

        • Gregory King

          SM-2 and SM-3 are completely different animals. Different configuration, different mission.

          But current SM-2’s use the same Aerojet DTRM as the newer SM-3. So consuming older units before they age out is still a valid approach…if we can afford it.

      • Gregory King

        Yes, motors are X-rayed after production, But 20+ years is beyond the expected shelf life of most solid rocket motors.

        • old guy

          Added factors, beside age are storage temperature and humidity, shock and vibration and chemical checks. If the birds they fired were in the launchers for awhile, that could explain it.

    • NavySubNuke

      Probably more of an issue of missiles already out there on deployed units. Since the accident was probably due to aging of the solid rocket motor the missiles are safe to keep in the VLS tubes. While you don’t have to rush every ship in the fleet into port to get new missiles — you don’t want to be firing them off willy-nilly either. But if it really comes down it to it (i.e. someone is shooting at you) it is better to fire one of those off and hope for the best then to not fire at all.
      I also wonder if we have enough spare SM-2’s around to actually swap all of these out by the time the motors turn 23 or 24 years. If the navy expected the service life to be 30 years but we as a result of this discover the life of the motor is only 25 years there could be some inventory issues to contend with.

      • Ctrot

        I would hope the Navy could replace just the rocket motor rather than the entire missile.

        • NavySubNuke

          True, but even if you can just replace the motor – you still have to buy the new motors. And the solid rocket motor industrial base isn’t all that healthy right now.
          I know we have SM-6 and SM-3 motors in production but I don’t actually know if we are still even producing SM-2 motors – or if the motors we are producing now are even compatible with the front ends of the missiles that are in question.
          All that said, this could be nothing but a single unit with a problem – and lets hope that it is because if it isn’t and if the rocket motors really aren’t lasting as long as they were expected to this could be a problem.

          • Gregory King

            All three use the the same (or similar) DTRM

          • NavySubNuke

            It is the similar that bothers me — specifically the interfaces between the motor and the front end. A lot can change in 25 years that would make the front ends non-compatible with new build motors.

      • publius_maximus_III

        Most chemicals have a shelf life — just look at any prescription drug or aspirin bottle. I assume that is not the problem here.

        I read an earlier comment about a possible fracture in the rocket engine’s solid propellant core that could have caused such a catastrophic failure. Would such a fracture have been caused by rough handling, or would it have been from poor manufacturing quality? Does the propellant become more brittle with age, and thereby more prone to such fractures?

        • NavySubNuke

          I’ll admit my speculation on unanticipated aging being the problem is just that – speculation. But the reason your prescription drugs and aspirin have a shelf life printed on them is because testing allows you to know when they will go bad. Part of that is deterministic aging — high heat/humidity to “age” the medicine faster — and part of it is just observation. The trouble with new things is you don’t know how they age – because they are new. And you can’t be sure that your deterministic aging is accurate if you don’t fully understand how the chemical properties change with age. Rocket fuel still has quite a bit of art in it. I don’t know anything about these motors specifically but 25 is getting up there for a solid rocket motor age wise.
          As far as other possible causes – yes rough handling/excessive shock and vibration could cause fractures in the fuel which lead to uneven burning and explosions. There could also have been manufacturing problems that caused voids in the fuel – that would also lead to explosions. I don’t worry about those so much since they would be specific to that one motor and therefore not a widespread concern.

  • Doug Bland

    Obama downsizing Navy to bare bones, while China is building up there fleet! Scary

    • redgriffin

      That’s a strange comment since the Republicans place the sequester in place and The Obama Administration and the Democrat has been trying to repeal it so there will be little or no damage to the US Military.

      • Ctrot

        That’s a strange comment since the idea for sequestration came from the Obama White House.

        • redgriffin

          After the urging of the Bush 43’s White House.

          • NavySubNuke

            Provide a source or it didn’t happen.
            Also – is there anything Obama and his cronies won’t blame on Bush?

          • old guy

            GORE the WHORE

          • Ctrot

            What utter nonsense. You are claiming that Bush has so much power and charisma that he talked Obama into proposing the sequestration? Wow, you really are delusional.

          • redgriffin

            Yes just as you and your ilk continue to blame Barack Obama fand the Democrats for ALL the ills that country is suffered well my friend I tell you there is enough sin to pass onto everybody including yourself and me.

          • Ctrot

            Hello? Obama has been POTUS the past 6 years, of course I blame him for the failure of HIS policies.

          • sferrin

            Consider the average mentality of an individual who would vote for Obama. Yeah, that’s what you’re wasting your time on.

      • old guy

        wrong. If you look at the record you will find that Obama drove the sequester and shifted the blame to the dumbbell Republicans. Kill your partisanship and examine the FACTS.

  • old guy

    JEEZ, while we build crummy ships in the Navy Allotted, Unlimited, Shipyard, Expense Assist (NAUSEA) program, weapon development goes begging, except for a stupid, expensive showboat program, railgun

    • Joe smith

      Railguns and lasers are going to be a core part of our hardware in the coming decades.

      • old guy

        I must disagree with you, in part. In the 70s and early 80s I was in charge of NAVSEA R&D. It was apparent that lasers and directed energy were excellent weapons candidates. As a result, a program to develop them was started. I believe that the first PM was a Capt Skolnik, a very bright guy, with a PhD.
        On the other hand, our investigations showed little future for rail propulsion as a weapon, but great promise as an aircraft catapult or a missile launcher. The catapult program was started and turned over to Lakehurst. The missile launcher died. At the same time a joint Navy-Atomic agency program for electo-thermal-chemical (ETC) gun tested out great. After I left It was killed for the more glamorous “railgun”. I will not go into the details here but it won’t succeed for many reasons.

    • Jim Johndrow

      In what way are the US Navy ships crummy exactly? What is the basis for that statement?

      • old guy

        The LCS was an ill-concieved, mission less ship. The modular equipment concept was created by my people back in 1975, called SEAMOD. It was developed in conjunction with the German MEKO. LCS is all flash and no use. Please read some of the other comments in other articles in USNI. a group of expert advanced ship designers offered their services as evaluators,during preliminary design, but they were turned down because the arrogant guys in SEA 05 had already decided on a Brit style trimaran and a semi-plantng hull. The result is this overpriced (2X bid cost) hunk-a-junk.
        The DD1000 is a stupid tumblehome design which in tests in the turning basin at Carderock, capsized in a hard turn.

        • Jim Johndrow

          I agree with those 2 assessments. I am talking about TICONDEROGA and ARLEIGH BURKE Class ships. They are the SM shooters.

          • old guy

            When we, originally, designed the DD(X), Burke( who I knew), OPNAV added so much junk, that we had to go to a new design, called DD(M).
            After much wrangling , we came up with a new DD(X), but even then, it got so over junked, that tin order to make cost targets, he first fight came out without aircraft handling ability., which was the ORIGINAL top feature.
            Ticonderoga is great.

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  • Joel Weinbaum

    There is a shelf life to everything. Now after a significant failure of rocket motor/airframe the next SM2 missile firing will be “wartime use only.” Now thats courage, but could be telling of a coming stand down in Naval warfare. Big Gun diplomacy has always been effective with nary a shot fired. But there is always hope that the “potato bin” will be close at hand for the next submarine capture(see USS O’Bannon DD450 – Fletcher class).

  • Top pic looks like it may have been photoshoped. The MK 72 solid-fueled rocket booster should be visible. It looks like MK 104 was overlaid to the picture, or it was some kind of dynamite high speed camera that shoots thru smoke & such.

    • Jim Johndrow

      The MK 72 booster is used on SM 2 BLK IV, SM 3 and SM 6. The picture is of a SM 2 BLK II or III launch. Picture is absolutely correct

      • sferrin

        Shhhh. This dude is an “expert”.

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  • OLDNAVYVET

    Wartime use only! Lets wait until they are really needed to find out if they will work or not. Right.

    • Jim Johndrow

      The article says an unspecified number, not all of them. The restriction would on be rocket motors older than some number of years, probably 10 years. The Navy has plenty of newer rocket motors and building more every year. By the way, the Navy has not been engaged in many anti-airwarfare battles for many years now so it is unlikely that any ship will need to launch a few dozen SM 2 BLK III’s any time soon.

      • OLDNAVYVET

        Unspecified number, probably 10 years. That pretty much nails it down.

  • sferrin

    “While neither NAVSEA nor the Navy have not given specifics on what
    caused the missile to fail, USNI News has learned the service is
    examining the more than 25-year-old solid rocket motor of the failed
    SM-2 — one made by a now defunct company that made also the solid rocket
    booster (SRB) that started a chain reaction that caused the in-flight
    explosion of Space Shuttle Challenger.”

    Oh FFS is the author really that stupid?

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