Let’s follow up on the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) a bit, shall we? For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume that we now have a 500 nm, ship launched (VLS), high subsonic missile that doesn’t, yet, have complete and fully functional autonomy. In other words, it’s a missile like all the rest of our missiles. It requires a destination (target) and then it can use it’s own on-board sensors (short range radar and/or EO) for final guidance. That’s exactly what ComNavOps suggested ought to be produced in the previous post as an interim product while the fantasy autonomy was being perfected.
So, we have a missile. Somewhere out there we think there might be a surface target. How do we find the target (the right target!) and generate a shooting solution?
Well, the first possibility is the ship’s own radar, Aegis/AMDR. Unfortunately, the detection range will be on the order of 50 nm (the Navy has declined to tell me the exact detection range in this scenario).
Another possibility is a carrier AEW Hawkeye. Two problems here, though. One is the range is still limited to probably around 150 -200 nm. Yes, the claimed detection range of the APS-139/145 radar is 300+ nm but that’s for large airborne, non-stealthy targets. A semi-stealthy ship (and every ship built today is semi-stealthy) in the “ground clutter” of the ocean’s surface is not going to be detected at anywhere near those ranges. The second problem is that if we’re going to be dependent on a Hawkeye then that means that our LRASM is only effective as part of a carrier group.
Of course, we could always postulate that we extend the Hawkeye’s location out a couple hundred miles in the direction of the anticipated threat. However, since we’re going to launch a missile, presumably we’re at war. That means that the enemy will be busy doing pesky little things like shooting down Hawkeyes that stray away from the protection of the carrier group. In fact, the reality is that the Hawkeye may actually operate somewhat behind the group for greater protection. So, I guess that option is out.
Satellites? They don’t generate shooting solutions despite what popular belief might hold.
Submarines? Possible, though that’s a very unreliable, hit and miss proposition complicated by the difficulty the sub would have transmitting targeting data without giving up its location.
The ship’s own helos? Helos have relatively short ranged radars and extending their location carriers the same risk as the Hawkeye. It’s just not realistic to send a helo a few hundred miles out to attempt targeting.
UAVs? That’s a possibility. I don’t think we have a surface ship launched UAV with the requisite range, sensors, and stealth but such a UAV could possibly be developed.
Passive sensing? That’s a very real possibility but would involve triangulation of multiple sensor sources. This is, at least partly, what I believe the Navy’s OUTBOARD/COBLU system is designed to do. The actual capabilities of the system are not public knowledge so I have no basis to comment further.
F-35? Well, here’s an option that has some possibility. A stealthy, survivable aircraft that can operate on its own and penetrate enemy air coverage and defenses would be just the ticket for this type of targeting challenge. This may be a mission the F-35 could excel at. Of course, as with the Hawkeye, this ties the LRASM to F-35A land bases or F-35C carriers and limits our ability to operate our surface ships offensively on their own. This also assumes that the F-35 works as advertised which it does not, as yet. Aside from stealth and flight issues, the F-35 apparently lacks a “stealth” means of communication to transmit targeting data, as we’ve discussed in previous posts (see, "Can Anyone Talk To The F-35?").
Hopefully, by now you’re getting the idea. A weapon is only half the problem. The other, and more important and more challenging, half is targeting (see, "Weapons Don't Matter!"). There’s no point having a 5,000 nm missile if you can’t reliably target beyond 50 miles. [that’s why the Chinese “carrier killer” is a joke] So, am I suggesting that we only design short range missiles and abandon the LRASM? No! I’m suggesting that we give equal thought to development of targeting capabilities and development of appropriate tactics that will enable long range targeting.
The astute among you will have noticed that I haven’t addressed target discrimination. It’s not enough to simply detect a “blip” a few hundred miles out. You also have to know whether that blip is friendly, neutral, or hostile. Generally, that means getting the detecting platform and sensor even closer to the enemy – a difficult problem becomes even more difficult.
I’ve also not addressed the use of air launched LRASM. That’s a separate topic with its own considerations.