The U.S. Navy has purchased its first new anti-ship missile platform in decades, in hopes of keeping pace with the rapidly developing anti-ship weapon systems employed by competitor navies.
For nearly a half a century, the United States Navy has relied on the Harpoon Missile as its primary anti-ship weapon system. With a range of approximately 67 miles, the Harpoon can fly just above the surface of the water in order to avoid enemy detection, and deliver a 468-pound explosive warhead directly into the hull of an enemy warship. The platform has proven so successful since its first deployment in 1977, that a land based variant, the SLAM missile, soon followed suit.
After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, the United States found itself without a peer-level competitor to contend with, and as such, American focus shifted toward current threats and how best to engage them. Because none of those threats possessed powerful navies, the Harpoon platform remained the U.S. Navy’s anti-ship weapon of choice, if only because they saw little need to invest in something newer, if there weren’t any threats to aim at.
Of course, in recent years, that’s changed. China has grown increasingly aggressive in bodies of water like the East and South China Seas. The South China Sea, in particular, is estimated to have nearly a third of all global commerce shipped across its surface, as well as harboring significant deposits of natural resources – and as such, China has claimed sovereignty over nearly the entire waterway, despite international law and the complaints of other nations in the region. To coincide with their newly aggressive stance, China has also rapidly expanded its Naval presence in the region – and the weapons those ships carry.
Enter the LRASM, or Long Range Anti-Ship Missile. This new missile, based on the Air Force’s Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), uses multiple modes of communications and autonomous course corrections to not only engage its target, but to avoid potential threats along its route that may intercept the missiles before they can reach an enemy ship. They can operate via line of sight communications with the ship or aircraft that fired them, via satellite uplink, or without any guidance from external communications whatsoever.
“This first production lot of LRASM brings a new level of capability to both the U.S. Air Force and the Navy,” said Mike Fleming, LRASM director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “LRASM enables our warfighters to prosecute even the most advanced enemy ships.”
Perhaps more importantly, the LRASM can be fired from the existing Mk.41 silos that are already standard equipment on U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers. Unlike the Harpoon, which has to be carried in box launchers on the deck of the ship, firing LRASM’s from the missile silos means a ship could potentially carry as many as 90 or more anti-ship missiles, a significant improvement over the maximum of just eight harpoons most ships currently carry. By using the same silos as other missile platforms, a Navy ship can now be equipped with a variety of different missiles, allowing for specialized loadouts depending on the mission parameters or potential threats a vessel may come across.
Once the LRASM comes to within radar range of an enemy vessel, it drops down to skim the surface, just as its harpoon predecessor does, in order to avoid detection, and then delivers a whopping 1,000 pound explosive warhead directly to its target. They also offer a significant increase over the Harpoon’s range, covering a maximum distance of over 200 miles.
Thus far, the Navy has ordered just 23 production missiles, which will be equipped on Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets intended for carrier operations. This offers America’s massive super carriers the ability to (potentially) field as many as 88 LRASM missiles on the wings of its fighter squadron, which is still eight fewer than might be carried in a single destroyer, but serves as yet another means by which to defend our super carriers from enemy vessels.
Like the Harpoon, the LRASM is a subsonic speed platform, making it significantly slower than Russia’s Klub missiles, for instance, which can reach speeds as high as Mach 2.9 on approach, but the Navy chose to field the slower missile intentionally, opting to prioritize stealth and the ability to intelligently make course corrections on the fly over top speed.
With the first order fielded, it would seem the Navy has faith in this new platform, and will likely begin placing orders in the next few years to outfit the fleet with them, but at a whopping $86.5 million for the first batch, it may be some time before the LRASM has replaced the Harpoon as the U.S. Navy’s new anti-ship standard.
You can watch a simulation of the LRASM in action below:
Image courtesy of U.S. Air Force