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On 14 April 2022, the Russian Federation Navy Project 1164 Slava (Atlant)-class cruiser RFS Moskva sank after reportedly being struck by two Ukrainian Neptune anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). In the Russo-Ukraine war, which began on 24 February 2022, the spotlight has fallen largely on the land campaign. However, the Moskva’s sinking highlighted several factors underlining the importance of naval matters in the current strategic environment, given returning great power rivalry and the outbreak of conventional conflict.

First, even in a land-focused campaign, war at sea with ships being lost will have fundamental operational, strategic, and political impact on events. Second, the sinking underlined NATO’s own long-held concern, that coupling new, long-range anti-ship missile (ASM) capability to aircraft, submarines, and surface ships presents a 360° stand-off threat to any surface ship at sea. This underlines the importance for navies of developing improved ASM capability in both defensive and offensive terms. Third, in parallel to the return of competition and conflict, several Western navies have been recapitalising core capabilities. One such capability is ASCMs. In the context of NATO seeking to enhance collective deterrence and defence and conflict returning at sea, newly emerging ASCM capabilities will play a significant role for NATO navies going forward.

ASMs can be launched from a range of platforms, including fighter and strike/bomber aircraft, large and small surface combatants, submarines, and containers fitted to vehicles or shore sites to provide mobile or fixed coastal batteries. The fact that commercial ships could also carry such containers underlines the extent of the ASM threat. ASM capability can be delivered by ballistic missiles (ASBMs) or ASCMs. Prominent Western ASCM capabilities include the Boeing/McDonnell Douglas Harpoon; Kongsberg’s Joint Strike Missile (JSM) and Naval Strike Missile (NSM) family, Saab’s RBS15, and Lockheed Martin’s Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM).

For the United States, and in terms of providing stand-off, air-launched ASCM capability, Lockheed Martin’s AGM-158C LRASM meets the US Navy’s (USN’s) Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment 1 programme requirement to deliver a long-range ASM capability. LRASM meets the requirement to deliver a “near-term solution for the [OASuW] air-launch capability gap that will provide flexible, long-range, advanced, anti-surface capability against high-threat maritime targets”, according to Naval Air Systems Command (NAVAIR). LRASM is replacing the USN’s AGM-88 Harpoon weapon system.

An artist’s impression of LRASM attacking a surface ship target. Delivering and countering anti-ship missiles is a central element of contemporary naval operations.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

According to NAVAIR, “When operational, LRASM will provide the first increment of a next-generation offensive anti-surface weapon to the warfighter, and will play a significant role in ensuring military access to operate in open ocean and the littorals due to its enhanced ability to discriminate and conduct tactical engagements from extended ranges.”

In sum, a stand-off, air-based capability like LRASM will be central to deterring and defending against long-range, surface ship-based missile threats, in the context of enabling Western surface forces and other assets to enter and push through adversary anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) ‘bubbles’ that may be inflated around key maritime access points.

LRASM was conceived for two primary purposes. Broadly, it was designed to deliver a new-generation ASCM capability to target heavily defended adversary ships from stand-off range, using both pre-planned and variable attacks. More specifically, it was designed to offset the increasing surface ship threat from China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), not only in terms of countering the PLAN’s growing mass in surface fleet numbers, but to offer capability for ‘lancing’ A2/AD ‘bubbles’ in key littoral regions around the first island chain in the South China Sea.

A fiscal year (FY) 2022 US Office of the Secretary of Defense Director Operational Test and Evaluation (DOT&E) report on US defence programmes, published in January 2023, stated that “OASuW Increment 1 [was] the first weapon of an incremental approach to produce an OASuW capability in response to a US Pacific Fleet Urgent Operational Need generated in 2008.” “Increment 1 is an accelerated acquisition programme to procure a limited number of air-launched missiles to meet this near-term … requirement by leveraging the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) LRASM,” the report added.

According to a Department of the Navy Selected Acquisition Report (produced in December 2021 and cleared for publication in April 2022) looking at the OASuW Increment 1 programme, “The development and acquisition of LRASM has been structured to be fielded at a pace relevant to maintain overmatch against long-term strategic competition.”

However, since the LRASM programme was stood up in 2008, the world’s threats and balances have shifted. Evolving events in the Euro-Atlantic theatre both before and during the Russo-Ukraine war have underlined the fact that surface ship threats and A2/AD constrictions are now global naval challenges, and that strategic competition is having immediate impact.

Alongside events like the sinking of the Moskva, the Russo-Ukraine war has highlighted the strategic importance of several Euro-Atlantic maritime ‘choke points’, in the context of A2/AD challenges. These include the Skagerrak/Kattegat Straits connecting the North and Baltic Seas, the northwestern Black Sea region between Crimea and Ukraine, and the Eastern Mediterranean region including the Bosporus and Dardanelles Straits that connect the Mediterranean and Black seas. Moreover, increased naval activity in the Barents and Norwegian seas points to the increasing strategic and operational prominence of the Bear Island Gap between Svalbard and Norway, reiterating too the enduring importance of the Greenland-Iceland-UK Gap. In the event of wider conflict across the Euro-Atlantic theatre, each of these regions would likely be significant in strategic and operational terms, with ASM capability required to either enable access through any A2/AD ‘bubbles’ or to provide a defensive barrier to prevent adversary forces’ break-out.

LRASM is pictured being launched from a US Air Force B-1B Lancer strategic bomber. The missile first reached operational capability onboard the B-1B, with EOC achieved in December 2018.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

LRASM offers several core capabilities with clear relevance to operating in A2/AD environments. First, when coupled with aircraft, submarines, or surface ships, it provides ‘stand-off’ capability for operating around or through any such ‘bubbles’. Second, reflecting the practicalities of fighting inside an A2/AD ‘bubble’ where communications may be denied or where Western forces may wish to reduce their own electronic signatures, LRASM is designed to operate within such environments. “The weapon reduces dependency on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, network links, and GPS navigation in electronic warfare environments,” said NAVAIR. “Semi-autonomous guidance algorithms will allow it to use less-precise target cueing data to pinpoint specific targets in the contested domain.”

According to Lockheed Martin, in the contemporary operational environment, LRASM meets the requirement to penetrate sophisticated air defences, including providing precision guidance and targeting, and can deliver day/night and all-weather capability. Moreover, it is designed “to interdict a variety of surface threats at very long range, navigating semi-autonomously to the target, and delivering a precise payload from safe, stand-off range”.

Family system

Like other ASCMs, LRASM is developed from a family of missiles. In LRASM’s case, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) was the baseline system, although LRASM’s internal componentry is very different.

Reflecting the broad operational requirements in applying ASM capability and the broad range of platforms that can deliver ASM effect, LRASM is being deployed on the USN’s aircraft carrier-based Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter aircraft and the US Air Force (USAF) land-based Rockwell B-1B strategic bomber. Carrier-based F/A-18 deployment will provide the flexibility to manoeuvre the capability around and into A2/AD ‘bubbles’. B-1B deployment will provide, in particular, the ability to reach targets at greater distance, including deeper into hostile environments.

Operational deployment on these two airframes was achieved under an Accelerated Acquisition contract, designed to generate early operational capability (EOC). Using the LRASM 1.0 baseline variant, EOC was achieved in December 2018 for the B-1B and November 2019 for the F/A-18E/F.

NAVAIR is looking at other air-basing options, including the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. According to Lockheed Martin, initial fit checks have been completed, within an ongoing integration assessment. Integration efforts also are underway to certify LRASM for the USN’s P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft.

An artist’s rendering of an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) carrying Lockheed Martin JASSM and LRASM missiles. Fitting LRASM to JSF shows how the USN is seeking to spread anti-ship capability across air and surface platforms.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

Reflecting the broad deployment options an ASM capability can generate, and the need to spread such capability to help deter an adversary and complicate their planning, the United States is also investing in surface launch options. These include: using in-service Lockheed Martin Mk 41 vertical launching system (VLS) modules, with integration including fitting LRASM with a Mk 114 booster; and developing a deck-mounted launcher.

LRASM is designed to bring range, survivability, and lethality. “Coupling those inherent features with the ability to launch from multiple platforms provides a significant deterrence value to US and allied warfighters in any domain,” Jay Pitman, Lockheed Martin’s vice-president for Air Dominance and Strike Weapons systems, wrote in an online paper published by the company in September 2022.

Requirement to deploy ASM capability, including across multiple domains, is growing across Western navies. Adaptable capabilities like LRASM are having an impact, here. For example, Australia ordered LRASM for its own F/A-18F Super Hornets, operated by the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). The in-development surface-launched capability also provides an option for fitting LRASM across the Royal Australian Navy’s surface fleet, including its Hunter-class future frigates and in-service Hobart-class guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) and FFG 7 Anzac-class frigates. According to a Naval News report published during the Indo-Pacific defence exposition in Sydney in May 2022, Lockheed Martin has also proposed an adapted version of LRASM to be fitted on the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) to meet Australian Army ground-based strike capability requirements.

These options demonstrate the design and requirements flexibility LRASM offers. The potential capacity to deploy a capability like LRASM across different Western countries, across different domains, and across different platforms illustrates the US-led Western focus on generating distributed operations and lethality to offset adversary mass, including around (for example) maritime choke points that may be covered by A2/AD ‘bubbles’.
“Ensuring LRASM is capable and integrated across a wide array of domains and platforms (like F-35, P-8, and HIMARS) represents a key facet of our roadmap,” a Lockheed Martin spokesperson told ESD on 21 February 2023.

ASM capability

LRASM delivers a 454 kg (1,000 lb) blast/fragmentation warhead. Its sub-sonic speeds, when combined with a low radar cross-section airframe design and anti-jamming capability, help reduce its signature and improve its stealth in contested airspace. Once launched, LRASM navigates to a waypoint using GPS, and then uses a combination of sensors – including radio-frequency (RF) sensing and semi-autonomous optronic/infra-red multi-mode seekers – to locate, identify, and strike targets. LRASM is also fitted with a datalink. While LRASM’s range is not confirmed publicly, its reach, especially when deployed onboard aircraft, allows target engagement at distance, in principle beyond the range of adversary direct counter-fire capability.

Advancing LRASM through different variants, and adding improved capability including increased range, is critical to out-pacing adversary threats.

Currently, there are three LRASM variants. LRASM 1.0 is the baseline system. In September 2020, a live LRASM 1.0 missile was test-launched during Exercise ‘Valiant Shield’, off Hawaii. The exercise, hosted by US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), is designed to build Indo-Pacific security and stability.

A VLS-launched LRASM is test-fired from a surface ship. Deck-mounted launchers can also be used to provide surface ship strike capacity.
Credit: Lockheed Martin

Under an incremental upgrade to deliver LRASM 1.1, the second variant, missile hardware and software improvements are being introduced to enhance targeting capabilities. The LRASM 1.1 programme also is focused on augmenting operational realism within the modelling and simulation infrastructure used to support capability testing and development.
A current area of focus for the USN and US Department of Defense (DoD) is integrated operational test and evaluation (IOT&E) on LRASM 1.1 configuration set against expected operational requirements. Flight test events to support this process commenced in October 2021. In 2022, aircraft captive carry and free-flight testing took place to capture telemetry data to support IOT&E development. The test process included, in August and September, F/A-18E/F aircraft launching three inert-warhead LRASMs at mobile maritime targets, with a view to collecting telemetry and impact data. According to the FY 2022 DOT&E report, LRASM 1.1 EOC declaration is scheduled for the first quarter of FY 2023.

The third version, LRASM C-3, is focused on improving land-attack capabilities while reducing unit cost. According to the DOT&E report, C-3 variant concept of operations development is still to be completed. The report added that an integrated test shot for C-3 is planned for the first quarter of FY 2024, followed by EOC scheduled for the fourth quarter of FY 2024.

While LRASM development is ramping up, the realities of the changing nature of contemporary combat are reflected in the fact that the USN’s OASuW programme Increment 2 requirement is targeting development of a hypersonic anti-surface warfare (ASuW) capability, under a programme known as the Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive (HALO) ASuW requirement. Hypersonic capability – in sum, increased speed – is required to offset emerging air defence threats bringing increased range and sophistication; such capability will also provide greater responsiveness in tackling time-urgent targets. LRASM 1.1 has been funded until an Increment 2 programme of record is established.

LRASM is delivering a significant augmentation in ASM capability for the USN. The question – as it is with every programme, given the implications of the first full-scale conventional war in Europe in almost 80 years – is how well positioned the LRASM programme is to keep up with accelerating requirements in terms of delivering new capability, in numbers, and as fast as possible, to prepare for the practicalities of a ‘hot’ fight. Speaking at the inaugural Paris Naval Conference at IFRI (the French Institute for International Relations) on 18 January 2023, alongside his chiefs of navy counterparts from the USN and French Navy, UK First Sea Lord and Chief of the Naval Staff Admiral Sir Ben Key said “Loss at sea is an inevitable outcome of brutal war, and that is what happened to the Moskva, and we need to adapt.” The Russo-Ukraine war has demonstrated that technology is being introduced quickly and is changing quickly. However, in more conventional military terms, the war has shown that significant amounts of ordnance will be expended quickly and that ships will get hit.

Dr Lee Willett