The more I hear about the LRASM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile), the more I like it. Obviously, the Navy desperately needs a replacement for the obsolete and expired Harpoon and the LRASM is one of the options being seriously considered. In fact, evidence to date suggests that LRASM is the only replacement option being seriously considered, at the moment, although the Kongsberg JSM and Tomahawk are also possibilities.
Scout Warrior website has a nice review and description of the LRASM program (1).
To briefly review, plans call for the LRASM to initially be launched from aircraft, the B-1 (in 2018) and F-18 (in 2019), specifically. This will be followed by launch capability from standard VLS cells. The missile will have a range of 200+ nm, is stealthy, and has a speed in the high subsonic range. On board targeting sensors include radar, infrared, and optical imaging. The missile requires initial target location and can accept mid-course guidance before falling back on its on-board sensors and autonomy for terminal guidance. The warhead is a 1000 lb penetrator with blast fragmentation.
The missile depends heavily on autonomous target identification specifically to avoid a vulnerable dependence on networking, GPS, and other electronic communications that could be subject to countermeasures. This is an outstanding design philosophy in that it recognizes a potential vulnerability and works around it. Of course, the challenge is to develop software capable of that degree of autonomy while still providing the requisite degree of safety. No one wants a weapon that will sink commercial shipping due to mistaken identity. The challenge is compounded due to the electronic countermeasures that the missile will face. The radar signatures that the missile will search for will be distorted and yet the missile will still have to reliably identify target from non-target. Still, this is the only viable way to attack a target that we can’t keep continuous “sight” on during the final approach and terminal attack phases.
Apparently, the LRASM can also be launched from a deck mounted launcher in addition to VLS. This has obvious advantages in some situations. Deck launchers would be appropriate for smaller ships that don’t have VLS cells or have small clusters of them and don’t want to sacrifice any of their few AAW cells for anti-ship missiles. The LCS comes to mind as an example of a ship that could benefit from a deck mounted LRASM launcher.
“We developed a new topside or deck-mounted launcher which can go on multiple platforms or multiple ships such as an LCS or Frigates,” Callaway [Scott Callaway, Surface-Launched LRASM program manager, Lockheed Martin] said.
The adaptation of the surface-launcher weapon, which could be operational by the mid-2020s …“
Of course, the inherent weakness in the weapon is still the requirement to provide the missile with initial target detection at long range, prior to launch, unless we’re going to blind fire a million dollar missile on the hope that it will find a target. Long range targeting remains a key shortcoming of all Navy attack systems and one that is not being given adequate attention. As we’ve noted repeatedly, a 200+ mile missile is useless if the initial sensor range is 30 miles, as would be the scenario for the LCS or Burke when operating independently.
As I said, I’m pleased with this program, overall. It may not be the ultimate, best choice for an anti-ship weapon (I’d prefer a supersonic missile, for starters) but it represents a vast improvement over the venerable Harpoon and is a solid step in the right direction for a Navy that continually seems to find the wrong direction. This is also a reasonably significant addition to the firepower side of the Navy which has been badly neglected in recent years with the likes of the non-combat capable LCS and the Zumwalt which has no munition to fire.
It’s nice to be able to discuss a positive aspect of the Navy even if it’s not perfect. I’m a big believer in the adage, “perfect is the enemy of good”, and this is a good program.
(1)Scout Warrior website, “Navy Weighs New Ship-Deck-Launched Attack Methods for LRASM Weapon”, Kris Osborn,