America's primary anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, has been in service now for close to 40 years and the Navy has been very reluctant to evolve when it comes to its anti-ship capabilities. Times are changing, with China's Navy on the rise and Russia flexing its muscle, the Cold War staple just won't do. Enter Lockheed's ninja-like Long Range Anti-Ship Missile to save the day.
The Harpoon was once the 'gold standard' of anti-ship cruise missiles, but its subsonic flight profile, limited range, less than stealthy design, and relatively simple targeting and navigation methodology have left it as almost an afterthought in the Navy's quiver. Sure, it is still able to strike ships at sea, but its ability to safely do so against an advanced foe with anti-access capabilities and advanced defenses is highly questionable. Lockheed's LRASM program began in 2009 in hopes of righting this wrong and was originally part of a two-pronged anti-ship missile procurement concept.
This two-prong next generation anti-ship missile approach saw the development of the LRASM-A, the subsonic, low-flying and stealthy weapon that is still in development today. The other was the LRASM-B, a high-altitude supersonic, ramjet powered anti-ship missile, similar to the Russian Brahmos supersonic anti-ship missile. LRASM-B was cancelled in 2012 under tightening defense budgets, with DARPA focusing on the lower risk and more pressing LRASM-A concept.
LRASM is a cousin of Lockheed's stealthy JASSM cruise missile and is aiming to replace and expand the mission of both the AGM-84 aircraft-launched and RGM-84 ship-launched Harpoon. The video below depicts generally how LRASM works and some of the capabilities it brings to the table. In it you will see its most prominent feature is that it will "intelligently" sense and avoid hostile threats via an on-board passive radio frequency and threat warning receiver. Additionally, LRASM is equipped with an on-board data-link, advanced artificial intelligence software, low probability of intercept radar, imaging infrared sensor and an inertial navigation system with embedded GPS. All of this is tied to the sneaky missile's autopilot and cutting-edge computing core.
Basically, this stealthy missile will have enough AI on-board to survive via the automatic dissemination of high-quality electronic service measure (ESM)/radar warning receiver data. In other words, it sniffs out the enemy's electronic emissions (especially radar emissions) classifies them, geolocates them, and then figures out its own a route of best survival, or it decides to attack one of these threats directly.
In addition to LRASM's own electronic 'sniffing' abilities, high fidelity off-board data can be sent to it via data-link from external sensors. This means and aircraft like the P-8 Poseidon, E/A-18G Growler, MQ-4C Triton or EP-3 Aeries or AEGIS cruisers and destroyers can help build a real-time 'picture' of the enemy's electronic order of battle, so that the missile has a very high chance of making to its target area alive.
Not only can LRASM avoid threats in order to sneak into an enemy's naval operating area alone, but it can also work with other LRASMs to infiltrate and prosecute an attack cooperatively, as a swarm. In fact, working with other LRASM missiles would most likely make their attack that much more potent, as they could use their threat emission detection and geolocating capabilities together, communicating among themselves in real-time. Such a tactic would provide a much higher resolution picture of exactly where the bad guys' threatening emissions are coming from via triangulation. Keep in mind this is all done passively, minus short transmissions via low-power data-link, so LRASM would remain almost totally emissions silent.
LRASM can also search for its own target autonomously, hundreds of miles away from its launch point. It does this using its primary active sensor, its radar, and its passive sensors, such as its imaging infrared and its aforementioned radio frequency listening and threat warning (electronic service measures) sensors. Once it is in an area where enemies may be operating, or if it 'sniffed' an enemy radar belonging to a ship it was programmed to attack, it would activate its radar, sweeping the area quickly while hopping frequencies in order to remain undetected. It could also have a 'radar picture' sent to it from virtually any aircraft or ship via data-link, allowing it keep its radar in standby mode, thus giving the enemy one less chance of detecting it. The missile's networking abilities, via its data-link allow the missile to maintain total emission silence all the way through its terminal attack if external targeting data is available.
If that data is not available, and LRASM uses its own radar, once LRASM picked up a radar return that matches that of an enemy ship in its memory banks full of 3D targeting models, it would begin prosecuting its attack, planning a route based on the threats in the area and its target's unique defenses. Once within range of its infrared sensor's view, it would use both it and its radar to pick the part of the targeted ship that is most vulnerable to strike. Then it would drop just feet above the water, possibly with its radar turned off (as long as its IR picture stayed consistent) and it would make its final, highly tailored attack run at the enemy ship.
Although other emerging cruise missiles systems , such as the Block IV Tactical Tomahawk, have similar enemy radar sensing and evading capabilities, with its very small radar cross-section, a low infrared signature, and having nearly no radio frequency emissions for the enemy to detect in certain modes, LRASM makes for a very tough target to detect and engage engage. This is especially true as it barrels towards a ship's most vulnerable area at nearly the speed of sound, just above the ocean chop. Seconds later it would crash through the ship's outer hull and detonate its 1,000lb payload of high explosives.
Game over for the bad guys.
The missile's stealthy shape and skin, along with its reduced infrared signature and a low probability of intercept (LPI) active sensors and its ability to attack on passive sensors and off-board information alone, makes it a very hard target for enemy defensive systems to sense and successfully engage it. In addition to LRASM's already hard to detect attributes, there are some rumors that eventually some cruise missiles, LRASM included, could work as escort jammers for other similar, albeit warhead packing cruise missiles, or other LRASMs in this case, thus providing electronic screening for a LRASM swarm attack.
This tactic is already evolving via the miniature air-launched decoy (MALD) program and has been implemented more primitively via the use of target drones packed with chaff and jammers during the opening stages of both wars in Iraq. LRASM paired with expendable escort jamming LRASMs would really make the enemy's life hell and would bring a whole new element to the global anti-ship missile race.
Think of the LRASM as the ninja of anti-ship cruise missiles missiles. It relies on stealth, intelligence, guile, avoidance, silent communication and keen observation to win the day, not brute force or high-speed alone.
LRASM is currently planned to be integrated on both aircraft, such as the Super Hornet and even the USAF's B-1B bomber, and on U.S. Navy surface combatants. Unlike its ship-borne Harpoon ancestor that required its own unstealthy tube launchers, it can be launched via the Navy's flush mounted Vertical Launch Systems. In fact, compatibility with LRASM, VLS and a booster rocket have already been proven during live-fire tests (see video above).
Not only is LRASM much more survivable than Harpoon, but it also boasts double the warhead size and at least three and a half times more range. Although details are limited, LRASM is thought to have a range of at least 200 miles, but that could be extended much longer, approaching 1,000 miles, depending on the configuration and the flight profile. For instance, if its warhead were reduced in size and weight, that extra capacity could be used for more fuel. This makes this new stealthy cruise missile ideal for breaking down an enemy's naval-based anti-access capabilities from outside their sensors' ability to detect and engage the LRASM launch platform itself.
The LRASM missile seems almost perfectly suited for the DDG-1000 Zumwalt Class stealthy destroyers, the first of which will soon be underway for sea trials. These super high-tech destroyers will almost certainly operate closer to the enemy's territory than any other U.S. Navy surface combatant. A 'broadside' of LRASMs, launched while a Zumwalt Class destroyer, still outside the edge of the enemy's detection capabilities, could result in a devastating blow to an enemy's fleet. With this in mind, it is almost without a doubt that LRASM will also be adapted to strike land based targets, just as the Harpoon evolved into the SLAM and SLAM-ER standoff land attack missiles. This would give the Zumwalt Class the stealthy punch its design calls for, something the current BGM-109 Tomahawk tactical land attack missile (TLAM) cannot offer.
As mentioned earlier, reducing LRASM's warhead size could increase the missile's range to close to 1,000 miles, which could be a very logical move considering China's anti-access technologies, including the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. A single DDG-1000 could ripple off up to 80 land-attack modified LRASMs in a single volley while still remaining outside of China's core threat envelope. Such a capability could do wonders for taking out China's coastal air defenses and over-the-horizon radars used for target ships far out at sea.
This scenario also highlights the possibility of a submarine launched ground attack variant of LRASM, as a single Ohio Class SSGN could theoretically volley 154 of these missiles much closer to shore than even the DDG-1000 could manage.
Lockheed's LRASM, which has already gone through multiple realistic live-fire tests, did have some stiff competition leading up to its selection for the first part of a two tier competition that will see a new anti-ship missile fielded in mass. Raytheon in particular claimed that their JSOW-ER missile system was cheaper and roughly as effective as Lockheed's LRASM. Even after a formal protest, and at the request of DARPA, an order for an initial batch of 90 LRASM was initiated. This is some reflection of just how dire the situation has become with the Navy's aging anti-ship missile capabilities in regards to China's rise and Russia's military reemergence on the world stage.
The final winner of the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW)/Increment 2 selection will come in the next few years, but seeing a so much risk reduction work has been done on LRASM, and an initial order has already been made, it is clearly a favorite to win. These new missiles would be fielded in mass by the mid-2020s.
In many ways, the U.S. military has led the world in weapons platforms, but has strangely lacked at times when it comes to revamping their 'expendable' weapons used by these leading weapons platforms. We saw this with the fielding of the AIM-9X decades after Russian fighters were outfitted with a high-off bore-sight short range air-to-air missile, the slow evolution of the AIM-120 AMRAAM, a weapon that has a range less than the modern fighters that fire it can see, and the looming mismatch between the non-stealthy Tomahawk cruise missile and the Navy's new stealthy ships that will be forced to launch it. Yet nowhere has the Navy dropped the ball more than with the Harpoon and the anti-shipping realm.
Harpoon has served with 29 nations, both friends and friends turned enemies alike. Sure it has seen some upgrades, but it is probably one of the best understood American weapons by our potential naval foes around the world. Meanwhile, Russia continues to grow and evolve its anti-ship missile slinging armada, which is has always seen as a major counter to US carrier groups. With this, along with China's anti-access capability buildup, in mind, the Navy really needed LRASM like yesterday.
Although LRASM-A is truly an exciting and clearly capable new anti-ship technology, it is too bad that the LRASM-B, the supersonic ramjet powered ship killer brother of the LRASM-A, was cancelled, as dealing with both threats at the same time would most likely equal nearly certain death for enemy flotillas. Regardless of this fact, with LRASM-A, for the first time in decades America's naval foes around the globe may have an anti-ship missile to really fear. It may not be the fastest or the biggest, but it certainly is the smartest and stealthiest.
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com