Sign In

The US Navy’s insane new air-to-air missile: The AIM-174

Share This Article


New images of a US Navy Super Hornet carrying air-launched SM-6 missiles underwing may suggest the branch is about to put one of the longest-ranged air-to-air missiles in history into service. These new weapons, we’ve come to learn, have been given the designation AIM-174, and could give America’s carrier-based fighters the means to engage enemy aircraft from literally hundreds of miles away, while also offering the ability to engage enemy warships and even to intercept inbound threats like ballistic or cruise missiles. Put simply, equipping Super Hornets with these new weapons could provide the Navy’s fighters with a huge leap in both offensive and defensive capabilities, especially within the sprawling expanse of the Pacific.

Or to put it another way, this air-launched variant of the SM-6 could be seen as something of a Franken-weapon, combining similar capabilities to Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal with the legendary air-to-air prowess of the AIM-54 Phoenix, all in a system that has already proven itself on the battlefield.

RTX’s SM-6 missile is among the Navy’s most versatile weapon systems. Designed to be launched from the Mk. 41 vertical launch systems employed by the vast majority of the branch’s warships, these high-speed interceptors have successfully downed a wide variety of threats in both training exercises and, in recent months, actual combat operations in the Red Sea.

The Pentagon refers to the SM-6 as a “tri-mission capable” weapon, denoting its ability to serve in anti-air, sea-based terminal defense, and anti-surface warfare roles. In other words, this single weapon system can be used to down enemy aircraft, inbound ballistic or cruise missiles, and even surface targets like enemy warships and more from ranges of more than 200 miles.

This weapon is so capable, in fact, that the head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, U.S. Navy Vice Adm. Jon Hill, described it as the only interceptor in the U.S. arsenal that is already capable of taking down maneuvering hypersonic missiles in 2022.

But as capable as the weapons have proven to be, this new air-launched variant of the SM-6, known as the AIM-174, could have even greater implications… And may arguably make it the longest-ranged air-to-air missile on the planet today.

The mysterious origins of the AIM-174

(U.S. Navy photo)

Earlier this week, aviation photographer @aeros808 was the first to post images of two AIM-174s mounted on an F/A-18E Super Hornet from the VFA-192 “Golden Dragons,” on the taxiway of Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. This Super Hornet and at least one more were spotted carrying inert iterations of this new air-launched weapon as they took part in the ongoing Rim of The Pacific 2024 (RIMPAC 2024) maritime combat exercises — a massive slew of seaward wargames taking place between June 27 and August 1, with some 29 nations and more than 25,000 military personnel participating.

@AEROS808 on Instagram

These images are actually where we learned the weapon’s new designation — AIM-174 — with “NAIM-174B” clearly painted on the side of the weapon’s forward fuselage. That “N” prefix denotes the weapon’s testing status as a system that’s been so modified from its original use case that “a reconversion to the original configuration is neither planned nor feasible at reasonable costs.”

These weapons were clearly marked “inert,” and also carried the traditional blue bands which denote the same. As pointed out by The Warzone, a small black-and-yellow marking close to the center of the missile’s body suggests the intent of these flights was to study the behavior of the weapon during captive-carry tests, or potentially even when dropped.

While these images were the first to show the AIM-174 in what seems to be a nearing operational trim, this was not the first time Super Hornets were spotted carrying what is believed to be air-launched variants of the SM-6. The first SM-6s spotted under the wing of a Super Hornet actually date back to 2021, when an F/A-18F from VX-31 was spotted carrying one with orange accent paint.

Then, on April 17th of this year, another Navy Super Hornet, believed to hail from the Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 9, was spotted carrying the same weapon about 60 miles north of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake. While it remains possible that this new air-launched weapon may not be destined for operational service, the compiling evidence certainly suggests that it is, and that the Navy’s been working on bringing this capability to bear for at least three years now.

The most capable air-to-air missile in history?

The Standard Missile 6 (SM-6), also known as the RIM-174 Standard Extended Range Active Missile (ERAM), was originally designed specifically to serve as an anti-aircraft weapon that could engage inbound air-breathing threats (including fighters, bombers, and cruise missiles) from beyond the horizon, thanks to its ability to receive updated target information from a wide variety of nearby assets via the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air concept, or NIFC-CA.

Once launched, the missile can be guided to its intended target area via semi-active radar control, leveraging the powerful radar arrays employed by AEGIS-equipped warships, other aircraft, and more, or it can leverage onboard GPS and inertial guidance. Once the weapon reaches proximity to its target, it transitions to its own onboard radar seeker, wich is actually a larger iteration of the same millimeter-wave radar system found in the AIM-120 AMRAAM.

When launched from a Mk. 41 vertical launch tube, the weapon is carried aloft by a Mk72 rocket booster, which is not present on the air-launched AIM-174, allowing the missile to engage targets at an unclassified range of at least 230 miles. While it’s difficult to assess exactly what the weapon’s maximum range would be when launched from a fighter like the F/A-18 when flying at high speed and altitude, it would almost certainly be greater. We can say this with some degree of certainty thanks to other air-launched variants of warship-based weapons, like the Harpoon anti-ship missile — which boasts an unclassified range of some 67 miles when launched from a surface vessel, and at least 138 miles when launched from an aircraft.

A Harpoon missile is launched by the guided missile destroyer USS Donald Cook (DDG 75) during a sinking exercise off the coast of Florida. (U.S. Navy photo)

This means the AIM-174 could very likely engage airborne targets at ranges beyond 200 miles, and surface targets from even further — offering more than double the reach of the latest iteration AMRAAM radar-guided air-to-air missiles. In fact, this incredible range would mean the weapon itself can hit targets further away than the Super Hornet’s AN/APG-79 Active Electronically Scanned Array radar could find them — which is why the missile’s integration with that Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air concept is so vital. In effect, the Navy’s Super Hornets could launch these missiles from hundreds of miles out, relying on other radar arrays, like the incredibly powerful systems found on Navy ships, airborne early warning and control aircraft, or stealth sensor-fusing platforms like the F-35 to relay the necessary target data to allow the missile to close with a target until its own onboard radar seeker can take over.

In effect, the AIM-147 could allow the Super Hornet to serve as a “missile truck” for stealth F-35Cs flying further ahead into contested airspace, with the F-35s spotting targets with their powerful AN/APG-81 radar arrays and relaying those coordinates back to non-stealthy Super Hornets lugging these 3,300-pound missiles underwing.

It’s worth noting that engaging enemy fighters from such a range will always be a tricky proposition, as the incredible distance the weapon has to cover gives agile fighters ample opportunity to shake them — but these weapons could prove absolutely devastating to larger, more sluggish targets like AWACS, tankers, ISR aircraft and bombers. And just as importantly, the weapons’ secondary role as a surface warfare asset means this one missile could allow Super Hornets to engage aircraft or enemy warships from standoff ranges, making it an extremely valuable commodity as the U.S. positions itself for the possibility of conflict with China in the Pacific.

It’s likely that this weapon would reach hypersonic speeds as it closes with surface targets, making it something of a quasi-ballistic missile similar in some respects to Russia’s Kh-47M2 Kinzhal when used in such a role. Conversely, when engaging air-to-air targets, the weapon could be seen as somewhat reminiscent of the now legendary AIM-54 Phoenix once carried by the F-14 Tomcat… Except with more than twice the range.

The implications of this weapon are significant

(U.S. Navy photo)

The U.S. military is actively developing a slew of new air-to-air weapons meant to engage targets at greater ranges than ever before, including the forthcoming AIM-260 Joint Advanced Tactical Missile (JATM), which itself is believed to boast a range in the neighborhood of 200 miles, but the AIM-174 boasts the important distinction of already being combat proven, as well as a much broader capability set.

Super Hornets armed with these weapons could represent a massive increase in both the offensive and defensive capabilities of a carrier air wing. In 2014, a SM-6 set a record for longest surface-to-air engagement in Naval history (at a distance the U.S. Navy did not disclose), only to go on to break its own record two years later in January of 2016 when SM-6s were used to intercept five separate targets from beyond the horizon. That same year, SM-6s were used to sink the decomissionedUSS Reuben James, a Perry-class guided missile frigate. Then, in Decemebr of 2016, an SM-6 broke its own record once again, scoring the new longest range surface-to-air intercept in Naval history, once again, at an undisclosed range.

In another set of exercises carried out in 2017, SM-6s intercepted medium-range ballistic missiles in their terminal phase, demonstrating that this weapon could likely intercept China’s DF-21D and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles, which serve as a vital part of the nation’s anti-access/area denial strategy in the Pacific. In April of 2021, an SM-6 was used to hit a Naval target some 250 miles away from its launch platform — the USS John Finn, despite the weapon’s publicly acknowledged range at the time being listed as just 150 or so miles.

In December of 2023, the SM-6 made its combat debut, successfully intercepting three anti-ship ballistic missiles launched by Houthi forces in the Red Sea — a feat the USS Carney would repeat in January of 2024 in the Gulf of Aden.

This weapon’s ability to cover great distances at high speed, acquire target data from a wide variety of platforms, and engage a variety of targets in the air, on land, and at sea, make it extremely useful as a ship-based system, but by launching them from aircraft as well, the Navy can dramatically increase the possible vectors in which the missile can close with a target, significantly complicating matters for adversary forces hoping to defend against an onslaught of inbound weapon systems.

Which means not only does the AIM-174 have the potential to be America’s most capable air-to-air missile, but it also promises to be a truly general-purpose weapon akin to the ones we once considered silly in games like Ace Combat.

And now, with AIM-174s flying as a part of RIMPAC 2024, it seems very likely that the U.S. Navy will be putting this weapon into service in the not-too-distant future.

Read more from Sandboxx News

Related Posts
Alex Hollings

Alex Hollings is a writer, dad, and Marine veteran.