The Rise of AIM-174B: A Tactical Game Changer for U.S. Naval Aviation


The discovery of the air-launched AIM-174B missile, an advanced variant of the versatile SM-6, has significant tactical implications for the U.S. Navy. This missile, also known as the RIM-174, has recently been seen on U.S. Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighters during the biennial Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. This sighting marks a crucial development in naval aviation and missile technology, shedding light on a weapon system that has been shrouded in secrecy.

The AIM-174B designation suggests that this missile is intended for very long-range air-to-air engagements. However, its capabilities extend beyond this primary role. The missile has the potential to strike high-priority ground targets and warships, functioning as a quasi-ballistic missile. This dual capability enhances its tactical versatility, making it a formidable addition to the U.S. Navy’s arsenal.

Historical Context and Development

The concept of an air-launched SM-6 missile has been in the works for several years, though it has remained unacknowledged by the U.S. Navy. The first public indication of this development came three years ago, when the Super Hornet and SM-6/AIM-174B combination was spotted. Despite this, official recognition of the missile’s existence and capabilities has been lacking.

In April of the current year, further evidence emerged when photographs of the missile carried by an F/A-18E/F north of Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake, California, were released. The aircraft involved belonged to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron (VX) 9 or possibly VX-31, indicating that the missile was still undergoing testing or conceptual evaluation.

The recent sightings at RIMPAC suggest that the AIM-174B is now nearing operational readiness. The presence of fleet aircraft carrying these missiles in their new standard colors, as opposed to the previous orange-colored examples, indicates that the capability is maturing into an operational one.

RIMPAC 2024 and Tactical Implications

The appearance of the AIM-174B during the RIMPAC exercise is particularly noteworthy. RIMPAC, being the world’s largest international maritime exercise, provides a unique opportunity to test and demonstrate new capabilities. The fact that these missiles were spotted on aircraft from Strike Fighter Squadron 192 (VFA-192), the “Golden Dragons,” and VFA-2 “Bounty Hunters,” both attached to Carrier Air Wing 2 (CVW-2) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70), suggests that significant tactical testing is underway.

One potential scenario during RIMPAC is the use of the AIM-174B in a live-fire exercise. The ex-USS Tarawa, a decommissioned U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship, is likely to be sunk off the coast of Hawaii during the exercise. If the AIM-174B retains the surface strike capability of the SM-6, this would be an ideal opportunity to test its effectiveness against a large target. Such a demonstration would not only validate the missile’s capabilities but also send a powerful message to potential adversaries.

Technical Specifications and Capabilities

The AIM-174B is based on the SM-6 missile, which was originally designed to counter air-breathing aerial threats and ballistic missiles in their terminal stages of flight. The SM-6 has since been upgraded to address hypersonic threats under specific circumstances. This missile is networked, capable of receiving critical data from various platforms for remote targeting, enhancing its effectiveness in diverse combat scenarios.

As an air-to-air weapon, the AIM-174B provides the Super Hornet with the ability to engage a wide variety of aerial threats at distances exceeding hundreds of miles. This range significantly surpasses that of the current AIM-120 AMRAAM and likely also the still-in-development AIM-260 JATM. The missile’s air launch at speed and altitude by a fighter aircraft confers greater range and enhanced kinematics compared to the surface-launched variant, despite the absence of the booster used by the standard SM-6.

The surface-launched SM-6 has an estimated range of around 230 miles, but this varies based on usage mode and other factors. The AIM-174B’s range when air-launched is likely to be even greater, providing a substantial tactical advantage. The missile’s ability to engage targets such as airborne early warning, reconnaissance, maritime patrol, aerial refueling, and bomber/cruise missile carrier aircraft at extreme ranges significantly enhances the Navy’s air combat capabilities.

Against ground or maritime surface targets, the AIM-174B offers the Super Hornet a means of striking over considerable distances with a weapon that is difficult to intercept. Its high speed during the terminal stage of flight poses a major challenge to defense systems, and its kinetic energy ensures a powerful impact on fortified targets.

Operational and Strategic Implications

The AIM-174B’s capabilities are particularly relevant in the context of a potential future conflict with China in the Pacific. The U.S. military anticipates that such a conflict would be characterized by very long-range kill chains, with the AIM-174B playing a crucial role in this strategy. The missile’s ability to engage a wide range of targets at extreme distances, combined with its networked targeting capabilities, makes it a key asset in countering China’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) infrastructure.

The missile’s air-to-air capabilities enable the Super Hornet to counter China’s long-range air-to-air missiles, providing a significant advantage in air combat. Its surface strike capabilities further enhance the Navy’s ability to project power and strike high-value targets from a safe distance.

The AIM-174B also integrates into the Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) architecture, which brings together the capabilities of various platforms such as the F-35 stealth fighter, E-2D Advanced Hawkeye radar plane, Aegis-equipped warships, and weapons like the SM-6. This integrated approach allows the AIM-174B to engage targets beyond the range of its launch platform’s radar and to address threats that are otherwise difficult to handle.

Potential Applications and Future Developments

While the primary role of the AIM-174B is as an air-to-air missile, its secondary capabilities against ground and maritime targets cannot be overlooked. The missile’s versatility makes it a valuable asset for various combat scenarios, from engaging enemy aircraft to striking high-priority ground targets and warships.

The possibility that the AIM-174B could also serve as a surrogate for emulating adversary capabilities, such as an air-launched ballistic missile, adds another dimension to its utility. This potential role in training and testing scenarios would further enhance the Navy’s preparedness for future conflicts.

The development and deployment of the AIM-174B represent a significant leap in missile technology and naval aviation capabilities. As the missile moves closer to operational readiness, it will undoubtedly play a crucial role in shaping the future of naval warfare.

In conclusion, the emergence of the AIM-174B missile marks a pivotal moment in the evolution of U.S. naval aviation. This advanced air-launched variant of the SM-6 offers unparalleled capabilities in both air-to-air and surface strike roles. Its development and testing, highlighted by its appearance during the RIMPAC exercise, signal a major enhancement in the Navy’s tactical and strategic capabilities.

As the U.S. Navy continues to refine and integrate the AIM-174B into its operational framework, this missile will provide a critical advantage in future conflicts. Its ability to engage a wide range of targets at extreme distances, coupled with its networked targeting capabilities, positions it as a key component of the Navy’s arsenal. The AIM-174B is set to redefine the landscape of naval warfare, offering unprecedented flexibility and firepower to counter emerging threats and maintain strategic dominance in contested environments.

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