by ROBERT BECKHUSEN
On July 17, the U.S. Air Force carried out its first captive flight test of the long-range anti-ship missile. It’s a signal the U.S. is moving quickly on its plans to field a new weapon that can sink rival warships at much further distances than ever before. No wonder, since it’s going to start becoming a lot harder as China fields new ships and missiles of its own.
July’s missile test of the LRASM (pronounced “el-raz-em”) didn’t involve the missile traveling by itself. Instead, the prototype was carried aboard an airborne B-1 bomber based at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas. And the version carried aboard the bomber is only meant as a test device, not a weapon that can be deployed — yet. A solo flight test for the missile itself expected later this year. By 2015, if all goes well, the missile will go operational.
“This is a big stepping stone toward fielding an anti-surface warfare cruise missile,” said Maj. Shane Garner of the 337th Test and Evaluation Squadron, which conducted the test. “However, at the end of this program, this particular missile is not going to be a fielded weapon; it’s what we call a technology demonstrator. The point of this program isn’t to field a missile, but to demonstrate the new technologies they want to put into an anti-surface warfare JASSM variant.
Here’s how the LRASM is supposed to work. In a few years, U.S. warships or aircraft will be able to launch the GPS-guided missile towards naval targets hundreds of miles away. (The precise range is unknown, but will likely be significantly further than the Navy’s existing stocks of 150-mile-range Harpoon missiles.) The missiles are then to receive commands mid-course, and use a suite of multi-modal sensors to detect and home-in towards its target at subsonic speeds. It’s also expected to have the ability to select targets by itself. Finally, it has a planned 1,000-pound blast-fragmentation warhead to make shipwrecks of whatever it strikes.
“One of the biggest improvements of this weapon is its ability to receive target or coordinate updates in-flight,” Garner said. “Unlike the JASSMs ‘fire and forget’ mentality, this new technology gives you the chance to ‘fire and change your mind.’ Because of the standoff feature these weapons possess, they tend to be in-flight for some time. For us to be able to change its coordinates on the fly provides us with a large range of flexibility.”
The Pentagon doesn’t get into specifics about the reasons for a new anti-ship missile. But the reasonable speculation is to counter China, which has invested heavily in recent years building (or buying) lots of new warships, including a carrier, and buying and manufacturing increasingly lethal anti-ship missiles of its own. The U.S. is also planning to spend $65 million over three years developing a new suite of anti-missile radar systems to be mounted on ships in the Pacific. The reason: “an immediate threat for naval fleet operations.”
The fear from America’s admirals, given a long enough timeline, is that Beijing could make large sections of the western Pacific a treacherous place for the Navy to sail — with missiles capable of sinking ships outside of the Navy’s range to counter-attack or stop the threat before it strikes. Many of those missiles could be launched above mainland China.
China, meanwhile, not only has the ability (growing every year) to mine waterways and sic small boats after U.S. ships, in the event of a catastrophic conflict, it has a growing inventory of imported Russian missiles like the SS-N-22 Sunburn ship-destroyer. There are new, terrifying anti-ship ballistic missiles like the DF-21D, and a plethora of other domestically-built and imported weapons designed to sink ships.
“We want U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers to be able to stand off from outside of potential adversaries’ direct counter fire range,” Rob McHery, a program manager at the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, told Aviation Week. “And be able to safely engage and destroy high value targets they may be engaging against from extended range, well beyond potential adversary ranges that we may have to face.”
The LRASM is also intended as one piece of a larger Pacific warfare pie called AirSea Battle — a warfare concept developed by the Army and Air Force to counter “a new generation of cruise, ballistic, air-to-air, and surface-to-air missiles,” according to a Defense Department summary released in June. In short, it means acting aggressively to destroy enemy weapons systems before they have a chance to scan, lock-on, and blow you up. Long-range bombers — in addition to submarines — are key to doing exactly that. “Due to the nature of [Anti-Access/Area Denial] threats and potentially short indications and warning timelines posed by adversaries, joint forces must be capable of effective offensive operations as soon as conﬂict begins, while simultaneously defending or re-positioning deployed forces, protecting land and sea bases, and bringing forces forward from garrison with acceptable levels of risk,” the Pentagon report noted.
Once the missile launches on its own later this year, we’ll see just how capable it is.