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Evolved Seasparrow Missile Block 2 Successfully Intercepts Aerial Target in First Live Fire Test

An Evolved Sea Sparrow missile is launched from the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) in July 2010. US Navy photo.

The NATO Seasparrow Project Office recently conducted the first live fire test of the Evolved Seasparrow Missile (ESSM) Block 2 anti-air missile, proving out the missile’s new seeker.

The ESSM Block 2 successfully intercepted a BQM-74E aerial target with its active guidance seeker-head, the main technology that distinguishes Block 2 from the in-service semi-active homing ESSM that finds its target via radar and midcourse data uplinks from the ship that fired the missile. Block 2 will have both active and semi-active guidance systems.

“This flight test is critical to demonstrating the technology for the ESSM Block 2,” Capt. Bruce Schuette, project manager for the NATO Seasparrow Project, said in a July 5 news release.
“I am very proud of the entire NATO Seasparrow Project Team, from our industry partners to our field activities and test facilities, for all the extensive work that went into making this event a success.”

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.

Raytheon was awarded a $77-million contract on May 18 to begin the transition from ESSM Block 2 engineering, manufacturing and development (EMD) into low-rate manufacturing, fabricating and production.

Sailors load an Evolved Sea Sparrow missile system aboard USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) in January 2016. US Navy photo.

Once in production, ESSM Block 2 would help the U.S. Navy and its 11 other NATO Seasparrow Project partners address increasingly sophisticated anti-ship cruise missile threats. According to the Navy, the current ESSM “provides reliable ship self-defense capability against agile, high-speed, low-altitude anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), low velocity air threats (LVATs) such as helicopters and high-speed, maneuverable surface threats.” Adding the active seeker would help the missile better go after current and future threats, according to the news release.

The currently fielded ESSM proved itself effective in combat in October 2016, when guided-missile destroyer USS Mason (DDG-87) fired one ESSM and two Standard Missile-2s to intercept anti-ship cruise missiles fired by Iran-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. Mason is the only ship in the U.S. Navy to ever fire an ESSM in combat.

An Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) launches from the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower (CVN 69), the flagship of the Eisenhower Carrier Strike Group, during a live-fire missile exercise in April 2016. US Navy photo.

The U.S. Navy and its NATO partners also demonstrated the ESSM’s usefulness in a massive collective self-defense exercise last fall, when “the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG-75) successfully detected, tracked and intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target with a Standard Missile-3 Block IB guided missile. Simultaneously, the Spanish frigate SPS Alvaro de Bazan (F101) fired an Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) against an incoming anti-ship cruise missile, while the Netherlands frigate HNLMS Tromp (F803) fired ESSMs against a pair of incoming anti-ship cruise missiles. This was the first time NATO’s smart defense concept was demonstrated with ships serving as air defense units protecting naval ballistic missile defense units.”

The ESSM Block 2 will likely be employed from the Navy’s future frigate for self-defense or to defend logistics ships the frigate may escort. The Block 2 missile could also be fielded on any ship with a Mk 41 Vertical Launching System, which can fit a quad-pack of ESSMs in one VLS cell.

  • Duane

    The last paragraph implies that ESSM requires a Mk41 VLS, but as shown in the pics with the post it can also be fired from a cannister deck launcher, such as may be found on CVNs, amphibs, or any other ship type that also has a volume search radar and a combat management system to provide fire control and tracking data.

    • delta9991

      Bit of a stretch to gather that from the last sentence. ESSMs are already fielded aboard Mk29 launchers of the CVN/LHA fleets. Good on the Navy getting this one out. Multiple simultaneous engagement and more flexibility

      • DaSaint

        I always wondered why the carriers and LHAs still use Mk29s as opposed to VLS. I guess the added level of control regarding directional launch of the missile when conducting air operations helps. Wouldn’t want a missile going off vertically during flight ops.

        • Duane

          The reason that Mk 41 or Mk 54 VLS are only used on surface combatants like the DDG-51s and DDG-1000s is that the hull interior design must be built around the VLS, which is a bit over 25 feet deep, extending thru three deck levels. It cannot be bolted on as a retrofit like a cannister deck launcher. On a carrier, every bit of the deck serves to support flight ops, so a VLS does not comport. On non-aviation amphibs and LCS, the only way to add missile launchers is via cannister deck launchers.

          As for a near horizontal launch attitude, it works better in defending against incoming cruise missiles at short range, as it eliminates the tipover time after launch that goes with a vertical launch cell. Tipover is of course not an issue with BM defense.

          • DaSaint

            Understood regarding Mk41, but VL ESSM does not require a 25′ cell. The sponsors that carry the MK29 launcher could be redesigned to carry VL ESSM.

            But your last point is probably the real reason, regarding tipover. That said, having to train and elevate brings risk eliminated by VLS. RAM/SeaRAM on CVNs are also traditionally launched so clearly the confidence in trainable systems obviates the need for VL capabilities.

          • Hugh

            Isn’t there a short VLS as on RAN FFGs and a long VLS as on RAN FFHs?

          • The ANZAC and Adelaide classes both use Tactical Length cells.

          • DaSaint


          • DaSaint

            The height (missile length) of the launcher comes in three sizes: 209 inches (5.3 m) for the self-defense version, 266 inches (6.8 m) for the tactical version, and 303 inches (7.7 m) for the strike version.

            The Self-defense version is for quad-packed ESSM or single Sea Sparrow only. The Tactical length is for ASROC and SM2 Block II and III; Strike length can handle Tomahawk and SM2 Block IV and IVA.

          • Bubblehead

            I would imagine whatever tip over time is lost, is equally lost training a Mk29 launcher. It isn’t much either way. I would also guess Mk29 would have negligible increased range due to not requiring a tip over launch.

          • DaSaint

            Both points seem logical to me. I’d think that the reliability of VLS outweighs the risk of a mechanically trained system. Would be great if USNI could pose the question to the Navy, wouldn’t it?

          • Duane

            It is an issue for defending at short ranges. And that is why all ASCMs today travel down low at wavetop level for all (if subsonic) or most of their flight profile (if supersonic). Wavetop flying eliminates any long range advantage of defending missiles because radar is limited to just beyond LOS, and LOS for a missile flying just a couple meters above the waves is just a few miles. Allowing time for a surface radar to sense, target, and track a wavetop missile traveling at say 550 mph, from within 10-20 nm, there are precious few seconds to waste on tipover.

            That is why getting long range networked targeting data from airborne sensors is so valuable to the defending ship. But we have quite a way to go to get that capability to all of our surface ships.

          • sferrin

            “is that the hull interior design must be built around the VLS, which is a bit over 25 feet deep”

            The “Self Defense” length (depth) is much shorter.

          • Duane

            Yes, for some like the SM-2 and much smaller ESSM the shorter cells work, but self defense also includes the much longer and heavier SM-3 and SM-6 which requires the longest cells, as do the VLS to handle the long range land attack Tomahawks.

            In any case the point is still the same:

            You cannot bolt on as an afterthought or retrofit any version or cell length of Mk41 or Mk 57 VLS …. the hull must be designed from the keel up around the system and not the other way around.

            With a deck mount cannister launcher, you CAN bolt it on to any available deck space, anywhere from a flight deck to a foredeck, on a hangar roof, etc. as long as the physical deck space is available and the exhaust gas from the cells does not cause any harm.

        • Marauder 2048

          I had also heard that it was due to the jettisonable TVC interfering with flight ops.

          • Rocco

            Agreed! Every weapon systems ever to be put on carriers including 5″ guns had to be angled away from the Flight deck & normally mounted on sponsons. Only exception was all Essex class Carrier’s with twin 5″gun mounts that could turn 360°.

        • Well the Nimitz & Wasp were both designed before VLS was a proven system. But it does seem odd that Ford & American didn’t upgrade to it (especially with that massive sponson on Ford). I’ve heard all sorts of plausible explanations but none of them are really convincing since the French, Italians, Indians, Russians, and Japanese all use VLS on their carriers.

          Further, even if it complicates flight ops, defensive missile launches are incredibly rare events but moving to a VLS would save weight, space, and likely manpower – advantages that should actually simplify flight ops for the vast majority of time when missiles are not being fired.

          • DaSaint

            I thought the same thing. I’m not an aeronautical engineer, but even if they had to, couldn’t they slightly angle the VL cannisters away from the flight deck? I’d love to hear a detailed reason why we are still using trainable launchers that had their IOC back in 1975. Maybe the reason is that the Mk29 is reloadable at sea whereas the VLS can not be readily reloaded at sea.

          • Rocco

            Not in agreement!! Those large sponsons on the Ford class are hangar bay extensions. Which looks hideous if you ask me. So VLS wouldn’t work.

      • Duane

        That was my point.

    • Marauder 2048

      Those launchers need to be modified to accommodate the greater weight of the Block II.

      • Duane

        According to this post, the only change from Block 1 to 2 is the seeker (bi-mode vs single mode), which would have no significant effect on missile weight.

        • Marauder 2048

          The post is incomplete; the Block II is about 40 lbs heavier. So that’s well over 300 lbs for the 8 loadout Mk 132.

          • Duane

            40 pounds is only a 7% weight increase. It seems that would not overtax the Mk 29 cannister launcher.

            Do you have a source for that info? What is the reason for the additional weight?

          • Marauder 2048

            Search for “MK132 Launcher Modernization”

            There’s the seeker, the warhead repackaging, the dual-band transceiver and the weight from the extra structural material for the full, 10 inch diameter.

          • Duane


          • sferrin

            How’s that effect performance?

  • One of the largest advantages of ESSM Block II that you don’t see mentioned often is that it will be produced in a single variant that is comparable with all combat systems instead of the three separate variants we have now (Aegis, SSDS, and X-band).

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      Could you expand on that? I am not knowledgeable about having different ESSM variants and would like to hear about the differences etc. thx! (I realize that just sounded like I’m some kind of spy lol)

      • Aegis, SSDS, and DDG-1000 use very different methods of controlling their missiles. The first combines an S-band uplink with X-band illumination, the second is home all the way, and the third has an X-band uplink and ICWI illumination. ESSM Block I requires minor hardware changes to the guidance system to interface with these different systems. The John’s Hopkins APL (which helped develop the missile) has several good articles online if you want to read more about the differences.

        • Marauder 2048

          Did they decide on X-band uplink/ICWI for CVN-78?

          • Yes, Ford uses ICWI, vastly improving its air defense compared to a Nimitz.

        • ElmCityAle

          Which is one of the semi-hidden “gotchas” of the DDG 1000 class that hasn’t received much attention yet: different/new combat system which will require different missile setup from Aegis systems.

          • USNVO

            Well, that is one way to look at it.

            The other would be to note that using X-Band for uplink allows the DDG-1000 to escape the older S-Band uplink of AEGIS and promote efficiency by using the same data link aircraft use maximizing commonality with the AIM-120 and any future data-linked AAMs.

          • Duane

            It’s not a “gotcha” or a problem for the DDG1000s. It just requires that the correct missile be loaded. Over time we will end up with common systems, but plug and play has not been a priority in years past.

  • Ed L

    Remembering the number of missile ex I witnessed. From an enlisted point of view it was observed that the missile ex had very tight control parameters that did not reflect on real world situations

  • delta9991

    Wonder if block I can be reworked to block II? Regardless, ESSM procurement has been very painfully slow;we need plentiful stocks if we plan on meaningfully using that quad pack configuration. Let’s get some big block buys going for this. Contract Raytheon for a SeaRAM system for each DDG to supplement its Phalanx while we’re at it.

    • Ser Arthur Dayne

      I’m pretty sure one of the reasons ESSM procurement in particular has been slow is because we have to share them with the entire nations of the ESSM consortium … and they probably realize it’s the best deal and value for their ships… quad-packed ability, VLS and dedicated launcher capable, very high (some sources state *very very high*) success rate… and not every nation’s Navy needs or even wants the SM-2 series or can put VLS on each ship etc. So , ESSM is very desirable for the 12? nations of the ESSM Consortium… which makes less available for US purchase.

      • delta9991

        Pretty sure the consortium doesn’t dictate the size of the individual nations buys and Raytheon definitely wont limit the number of orders it accepts. Max rate isnt a concern either as Navy budget docs have that listed between 300-420 per year (and FY18 we’re buying 31). The contractor isn’t competing the nations against one another.

        • Ser Arthur Dayne

          Where are you getting these figures from?

          • delta9991

            Navy budget documents. Wealth of information if you’re willing to look for it

    • The USN appears to regard ESSM as nothing more than a point defense system and for that use small numbers are fine (since it’s only dealing with leakers that get through SM-2/SM-6) and SeaRAM would be redundant.

      However, this policy does seem short-sighted and the paper capabilities of the weapon should be capable of handling almost all within the horizon engagements. If true, trading a dozen SM-2 for four dozen ESSM would massively increasing magazine depth. One thing I do wonder about is the feasibility of developing a booster for ESSM to create an “ESSM-ER” that can match the range of SM-2 Block III while still being packed four to a cell.

      • delta9991

        I completely agree on this being a leaker backup and I prefer to have more SM-6 to shoot the archer first. But we can’t always do that (see USS Mason or similar style of incident) or it doesn’t make sense to. We can’t fill our VLS as is, so lets stock a few extra of these onboard to flesh out against a more likely threat we’ll face going forward.

        Like the idea of an ER version, but the capability gain I dont see making a big impact to be honest. Sure, its easy to look at and say we like quad packed SM-2’s, but lets not get away from what makes ESSM a great weapon. Shorter range than our big sticks, lower cost, and great accuracy. There is a real need for that mid-range ASM/SAM. Replacing the SM-2III is adding cost to a good platform to cover a capability gap which really doesn’t exist

        Don’t think SeaRAM is too redundant. Again, not all threats require that mid-range missile or can be engaged by it. Plus it’d provide an additional mount for any follow-on upgrade program such as a laser addition as has been floated.

        • Duane

          ASCM defense cannot be performed at all at long range (beyond the horizon) UNLESS the ship is using off platform airborne radar sensors networked into the battle management system (AEGIS or COMBATTS-21). ASCMs all travel at wavetop altitude and cannot be sensed by any surface radar beyond the radar horizon (which is just a few miles beyond the visual horizon). The US Navy is developing networked sensors via CANES but only about 50 surface warships as of today have CANES installed

          Airborne platforms with high resolution lookdown AESA synthetic appurture radar as found on most of our newer attack fighters, SH-60 choppers, and MQ-8 UAS can sense incoming wavetop skimming ASCMs from very long ranges.

          • Refguy

            Not sure about the synthetic aperture part of the comment; it’s good if the speed of the platform is high relative to the speed of the target, but that’s not the case if you’re looking or ASCMs

          • Duane

            The synthetic apperture feature is what aids in picking low flying targets out of sea or ground clutter. When combined with the higher target resolution and longer detection ranges of AESA radars, SA ensbles airborne look down radars to detect and track wavetop skimming ASCMs from far longer ranges than any ship based surface radar can.

            The MQ-8s with their very long endurance (15 hours for the C model, 8 hours for the B model) make them ideal as radar pickets to provide early warning and networked targeting data for any surface warship. The Navy plans to integrate the C model on ships like the Flight II and later Arleigh Burkes as well as the new frigate, and also amphibs.

          • Refguy

            Not consistent with how SAR works; it uses the speed of the platform to increase the effective aperture of the radar. Great for ground mapping and precision targeting against stationary and slow moving targets, not immune to sea clutter and hasn’t been used against fast movers. Check out E-8 and the SAR mode on Strike Eagle.

      • Duane

        Actually, you have it backwards. The SM series missiles are mainly useful for high altitude, long range defense against aircraft and ballistic missiles, while ASCMs are much more effectively defended by ESSM and SeaRAM/RIM 116. A surface radar cannot detect wavetop skimming ASCMs except at very close ranges (within the horizon) due to the physics of radar. So the long ranged, heavy weight, high flying, and therefore much more expensive, SM series missiles are a waste against sea skimmers. The short to medium range, relatively inexpensive, and lightweight (and therefore much more maneuverable) missiles like ESSM and SeaRAM are much better ASCM interceptors than the SM series.

        When the USS Mason was targeted by a barrage of Houthi fired Chinese C802 Silkworm missiles in late 2016, it is no accident that the Mason used ESSMs in defense (along with their Slick 32 ECM), and not any of their SM series missiles.

        • Then why did Mason fire 8 SM-2 and only 1 ESSM when she came under missile attack off Yemen?

          • Duane

            You have bad info. The Mason only fired two missiles, both ESSM, and most of the incoming missiles were splashed by ECM, not destroyed by counterfires.

          • Nope, you are wrong on every count.

            The first attack (October 9) consisted of 2 incoming missiles and Mason fired 2x SM-2 and 1x ESSM. One missile was intercepted and the second crashed.

            The second attack (October 12) consisted of 1 incoming missile and Mason fired 1x SM-2 and intercepted the missile.

            The third attack (October 15) consisted of 5 incoming missiles and Mason fired 5x SM-2. Four missiles were intercepted while the 5th was decoyed by a Nulka fired from Nitze.

            Bottom line: 8x SM-2 and 1x ESSM fired with 6 hard kill (all SM-2) and 1 soft kill.

          • Duane

            The Navy has never published an official account of what exactly happened, and only reported a single attack on the Mason itself, the only attack in which the Mason engaged any defensive measures. A prior attack earlier that week on a UAE vessel, the former HSV2 Swift, resulted in a hit on the Swift that was unescorted at the time.

            As for various unofficial reports of the Mason attack, they have been all over the place with conflicting details on numbers and types of defensive measures taken.

            You can choose to believe whatever you want, but the fact remains that a ESSM is a far better anti-ASCM munition than the far older, much heavier, much less maneuverable SM-2 and its useless 90 mile engagement range when the incoming missiles skimming at wavetop (just 1 m above water in terminal mode for the C802) can only be detected and tracked from just a few miles away by a surface radar.

          • Have you done any reading about the events of Yemen at all? The Navy has officially acknowledged all three attacks and stated that Mason fired missiles during all of them. While details of the 2nd and 3rd attack are slightly harder to find, the first attack was quite widely published and every single account is in agreement that during it Mason fired 2x SM-2 and 1x ESSM – completely demolishing your assertions.

          • Duane

            Yes I have.

            “Acknowledging” the attacks is simply stating they occurred and the end result. The Navy never makes public the details of after action reports, which is very sensitive classified information.

            Every thing published about the details has come from unofficial posts.

          • Yes. But your last comment said that the Navy “only reported a single attack” – that is not true, it reported all three attacks.

          • Duane

            A single attack on the Mason. The earlier attack on the Swift did not engage the Mason.

            In any case, the Navy will not divulge specific performance data on individual weapons ans sensors and ECM for the obvious reason that such information in the hands of enemies would be used against us.

            For the same reason that all of us in the nuke sub force were specifically directed never to reveal specific sub performance data. We were directed to say only “greater than 20 knots and greater than 700 feet”. We were also directed never to say we carried nuclear warheads.

          • You are the only one bring up the attack on Swift. The US DoD officially announced three attacks on Mason and the other US ships off Yemen:

            October 9: news . usni . org / 2016 / 10 / 11 / uss-mason-fired-3-missiles-to-defend-from-yemen-cruise-missiles-attack

            October 12: nbcnews . com / news / world / uss-mason-fired-again-coast-yemen-officials-n666971

            October 15: reuters . com / article / us-yemen-security-usa / u-s-warship-targeted-in-failed-missile-attack-from-yemen-official-idUSKBN12G004

  • ew_3

    Duane, I admire the way you can p!ss everyone off and withstand the counter fire.
    As a former EWO (Electronics Warfare Officer) I really appreciate missiles like this.
    Get away for director/illuminators radars. The make the launching platform a target for a HARM.
    When I was in the Soviets had a trick, launch 2 missiles (SSN-2s or whatever) one active one passive.
    If we jammed the first the 2nd was coming on our ULQ-6 antenna very close to my office in CIC. 🙁
    Give the missile a lat/lon/alt to go to and tell it what to hunt. And all these parameters can be changed during flight. This protects the launching ship and utilizes our remote sensors to their best ability.
    Even the lowly LCS can use missiles like this.
    Here’s where I get counter fire.

    • Duane

      People get pissed off when determined trolling is defeated. That is their problem. I stick to facts and logic, and even when I disagree with a particular decision the Navy leadership makes, I always grant Naval leaders the benefit of the doubt that angry internet trolls most assuredly do not deserve.

      Our missile defenses are most definitely a work in progress, and definitely should have been upgraded much sooner. Networking with off ship sensors will be a critical capability in years to come for both offensive and defensive fires, but so far only about 50 of our 284 warships are equipped to date with CANES. Also, we still have a lot of legacy missiles that are not yet network capable.

      I would hope that within the next five or so years every warship and munition will be 2-way networked. But that is a tall order.

      Fortunately even older missile bodies can be retrofitted with advanced multi-mode seekers, some degree of autonomy, and secure digital 2-way comms. Boeing is under contract now to produce and install upgrade kits on TLAMs to convert them to very long range ASCMs.

  • Chesapeakeguy

    Reading this article makes me conclude that I have been wrong about something. I thought the EVOLVED Sea Sparrow was a vertically launched version only, that it was specifically developed for launch from the Mk 41 VLS. Evidently that isn’t the case..

    • sferrin

      I’m not sure how you ever could have got that conclusion as most of the initial test launches were from the 8-cell box launcher and that’s how ALL large ships (carriers, LHDs, etc.) carry them.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        That ‘conclusion’ came about from multiple publications on the subject. Turns out there is vertically launched VERSION of the ESSM. I stand corrected. OK?

        • Duane

          I don’t believe there is any difference in the missile itself if launched from a VLS vs. a cannister deck launcher. There is often a difference between a given missile being air launched as compared to surface launched version if a booster is needed.

          • Chesapeakeguy

            That is the case. I always thought that the box launchers fired ‘Sea Sparrows’, and the VLS launched ESSMs. I didn’t get the memo that ESSM appears to have replaced all the other versions. Live and learn…

    • Rocco

      Dude I could of told you that! What do you think replaced the old big box Sea Sparrow missile system.

      • Chesapeakeguy

        But the box launchers have not been replaced. They are still in use.

    • Secundius

      “Evolved” could also imply “Mutli-Platform” usage! Just because photo’s show Mk.29 Launchers being used in Tests, doesn’t necessarily imply “Horizontal Pivoting Box Launchers” only. Even the Mk.41’s and Mk.57’s are “Box Launchers”. I’m waiting to see whether or not Sandia National Labs/Lockheed-Martin ELM (Electromagnetic Missile Launchers) are used…

  • old guy

    I am very happy to see that we are giving the latest Sea Sparrow to Spain. We should have accepted “Meroka” as our CIWS since, in tests, it proved to be the best anti- swarm system. Ego? politics?