The U.S. Navy has a serious problem. After a decade and a half of focusing on supporting land wars, its basic ability to sink other ships is seriously lacking. To reverse that trend, the sea service wants to buy the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)—and it wants it ASAP.
Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, wants the Navy to put LRASM into service ASAP to counter surface threats in the Chinese, Russian, and North Korean navies. In comments to the Senate Armed Services Committee, Harris LRASM as a "great capability we need to bring online fast."
For decades, the U.S. Navy relied upon the Harpoon missile as its primary ship killer. Introduced in 1977, Harpoon could fly to ranges of 67 miles at sea-skimming altitudes, cruising just above the waves to decrease radar detection range. On impact, Harpoon would smash into an enemy ship, detonating a 468-pound high explosive warhead with devastating effect. Harpoon was adapted to ships, aircraft, and submarines, and is used throughout NATO navies and allies such as Japan.
While Harpoon was a great missile for its time, the end of the Cold War and the lack of any competing navies meant the United States had little interest in upgrading or replacing it. A focus on land wars since 9/11 further delayed the upgrades to the Navy's anti-ship firepower. But now it's 2016, and suddenly the People's Liberation Army Navy—the official name of the Chinese Navy—has new ships quickly rolling off the assembly lines. China built 44 destroyers, frigates, and corvettes in just the last 10 years—and that's not counting other surface combatants, an aircraft carrier, submarines, amphibious ships, and the ships of the China Coast Guard.
LRASM, the Navy's next great hope, is basically an anti-ship cruise missile. The ship version is launched from the Mk.41 missile silo, standard on all U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers. Rising on a pillar of flame and smoke, a rocket booster carries LRASM to a pre-set altitude, whereupon it is ejected and the missile's turbofan engine kicks in. A pair of wings pop out of the missile's flanks to steer it.
LRASM's range is currently classified. It's actually based on an Air Force missile, the (JASSM-ER), which has a range of at least 500 miles. It also packs a 1,000 pound warhead, more than twice that of the Harpoon.
LRASM is first guided by the ship that launched it, then by satellite. The missile is jam-resistant and can carry on even if it loses with the Global Positioning System. As part of the targeting system, the missile can be set to fly to a series of waypoints, flying around static threats, land features, and commercial shipping. LRASM can detect threats between waypoints and navigate around them. If it decides it would be entering the engagement range of an enemy ship not on the target list, LRASM will fly around the ship, even skipping waypoints that might lie within enemy range and going on to the next one.
After locating the enemy fleet, it dives to sea-skimming altitude to avoid close-in defenses. LRASM then sizes up the enemy fleet, locates its target, and calculates the desired "mean point of impact"—the exact spot the missile should aim for, taking into account the accuracy of the missile—to ensure the missile does not miss. In most instances that is the exact center of the ship, with the angle of the ship in relation to the missile taken into consideration.
What really makes LRASM stand out is that all of this is completely autonomous. Human beings tell the missile where the enemy fleet is, which ship to strike, and a provide it with a continuous stream of data—the missile takes care of everything else. Using artificial intelligence, the missile takes data and makes decisions all on its own. Using AI and datalinks, multiple LRASMs can launch a coordinated attack on an enemy fleet.
Chinese and Russian missiles use raw speed in an attempt to shorten the defender's reaction time. The anti-ship missile, for example, accelerates to Mach 2.9 in the seconds before impact. By comparison, LRASM pokes along at below Mach 1. Its attitude: You don't have to outrun what you are smart enough to avoid.
LRASM will arm destroyers and cruisers of the US Navy, where they will fight for space in the vertical launch silos alongside , and surface-to-air missiles, ballistic missile interceptors, land attack missiles, and anti-ship rockets. While that makes fielding the right mix of weapons a little more complicated, it does offer more flexibility in offensive missions, meaning that a destroyer could carry anywhere between 0 and 96 LRASMs.
LRASM will also arm the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which will be able to carry two missiles, and the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter, which will also be able to carry two missiles. The Air Force's B-1 should be able to carry up to 24 LRASMs. JASSM-ER can also be carried on the B-2, B-52, F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16, so it's possible the LRASM could migrate to those platforms also.
The Navy plans to buy the first 24 LRASMs in 2017 towards a total of 464 by 2021, at a cost of roughly half a million dollar apiece. While Navy watchers have bemoaned the lack of a new anti-ship missile for years, it's finally here, and it appears to have been worth the wait. Now all it needs is a good name.