The US State Department has approved a possible Foreign Military Sale of 38 Standard Missile-6 Block I (SM-6) units to the South Korean Government on 14 November 2023.

This order includes MK 21 Vertical Launch System cannisters; obsolescence Engineering, Integration, and Test (EI&T) materiel and support; handling equipment; spares; training and training equipment and aids; technical publications and data.

An SM-6 missile, also known as RIM-174, is a ship-launched, anti-air and anti-surface missile designed by Raytheon, an RTX subsidiary, to allow the US Navy to intercept ballistic and cruise missiles.

SM-6 is capable of being deployed aboard 60 surface ships in the fleet and the company has already supplied more than 500 missiles to the US Navy.

The SM-6 missile is being offered in three variants namely SM-6 Block I, SM-6 Block IA and SM-6 Dual I.  Block I was initially deployed onboard the Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, which is built around the Aegis combat system. The new variant is powered by a highly sophisticated rocket booster and advanced rocket motors.

Broadening the US-South Korean alliance

This order comes just after several developments in the two nations’ 70-year-old political and military alliance.

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On 13 November, the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin III, and South Korea’s Defense Minister Shin both affirmed US-South Korean relations during the commemoration the alliance’s anniversary. Austin renewed US commitment to the Republic of Korea given that the “alliance [has] broadened in scope and scale.”

Among his commitments, Austin affirmed that the US would support the South Korean vision to increase its contributions to the Indo-Pacific as a Global Pivotal State.

The SM-6 in a Korean context

Simultaneously, the South Korean Government also signed a deal with Hanwha Ocean to build two more FFX Batch III frigates in a deal worth Won793.3bn ($600m).

“The construction of the next-generation FFX Batch-III frigates is part of South Korea’s naval modernisation strategy, which is mainly aimed at countering the increasing threat posed by North Korea’s new ballistic missile-armed submarines,” GlobalData Defence Analyst, Tushar Mangure stated.

Over the years, North Korea has pursued an aggressive ballistic missile development programme that now comprises several types of weapon systems. The North Korean arsenal boasts of one to two missile brigades made of Scud missile launchers, one to two missile brigades equipped with the Nodong, and one missile brigade formed but yet to be formally equipped with the Hwasong-10 (Musudan) missile system.

To complement its new SM-6 missiles, South Korea plans to develop a blue-water naval force that is capable of projecting naval power over long distances and is in the process of inducting new KDX-III Aegis equipped destroyers.

These Aegis equipped destroyers are slated to be supplemented by new, heavy KSS-III submarines over the next decade.