For decades now, the U.S. Navy’s submarine force has served as an addition to the nation’s already formidable ability to project power onto foreign shores, serving as a submersible launch platform for the Navy’s workhorse Tomahawk cruise missiles. These submarines weren’t toothless when it came to other ships, of course, relying on torpedoes to serve as their primary anti-ship weapon. Now, as tensions with China continue to escalate in the Pacific, the U.S. Navy has made the decision to begin arming its subs with anti-ship missiles as well.
Instead of developing and fielding a new and untested weapon, the Navy has instead opted to work with Boeing to refurbish older Harpoon anti-ship missiles and re-certify them for service aboard Los Angeles-class attack submarines. The refurbishment effort is expected to include a modernization of the electronics on board, resulting in a more capable variant of the existing weapon system and offering what the Navy believes to be the best “bang for the buck” short-term solution to concerns about China’s rapidly expanding naval presence in the South China Sea.
The Harpoon, which has been in service in one form or another since 1977, is a solid-fueled missile designed specifically to serve as an anti-ship platform (though a variation has been developed to serve as a Stand Off Land Attack Missile). After launch, the Harpoon uses active radar to locate its target as it flies on a near-horizontal trajectory just above the wave tops — making it an exceptionally difficult missile to intercept even in the modern era of advanced missile defense systems. While the Harpoon has remained in service throughout, the United States has not maintained a submarine-launchable variant since 1997.
Bringing the Harpoon back to American subs is just one aspect of a much broader force-wide anti-ship initiative that also included the Air Force’s new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) that can be fired from aircraft and rely on multiple target-data sources to find specific ships within formations. The missile made headlines last year when it was successfully test fired from the U.S.’s supersonic heavy payload bomber, the B-1B Lancer.
The Naval Strike Missile, another anti-ship platform that has been successfully launched from aircraft, ships, and land-based launchers, also promises to dramatically increase America’s anti-ship capabilities, particularly when fired from the stealthy F-35. An additional effort to produce anti-ship variant Tomahawks for surface vessels is also underway, with the expectation that they’ll begin hitting the fleet by 2022.