After the Cold War ended, the US Navy rosed to the top rank of naval forces with most of America’s allies falling behind. Since 9/11, the service has emphasised the support of ground engagements in the Middle East, and anti-ship projects largely came to a halt.

The rise of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy and increased tension between NATO and Russia, however, has brought anti-ship capabilities back to the focus. In the spring of 2021, the US Navy announced its new offensive ASuW Increment 2, the continuation of the development of missiles that can destroy ships from standoff ranges.

The importance of long and medium-range missiles in ASuW

Missiles have seen significant improvements in speed, range and capacity to overcome shipboard air defence by simple brute force. Improvements in stealth and survivability, and the ability to maintain a low observable profile, were also key points in the development of ASuW capabilities.

A collection of abilities that allow operations at standoff ranges became a prerequisite for surface warfare. Basing an emphasis on the development of long-range and ballistic missiles in the past decade was particularly observable with countries that are operating from a position of relative naval weakness, like Russia, China or India. Countries like these have focused on developing anti-ship missiles that would allow them to essentially out-range the airwing of a carrier battle.

Some of the most capable missiles include the Indian Navy’s BrahMos supersonic cruise missile and the new Russian Tsirkon (Zircon) hypersonic missiles with ranges approximately 400 and 350 kilometres respectively.

RUSI research fellow in sea power and military science Dr Sidharth Kaushal tells Global Defence Technology (GDT): “Anti-ship missiles, particularly those with long-range, contribute very much to the development of surface warfare because you can concentrate effects even if platforms are very widely dispersed, thanks to the improvements in range and capabilities.

“There is a large emphasis on what the US Navy calls distributed lethality.” That is the shifting from a single point of failure – an aircraft carrier for instance – to multiple launch platforms which can be dispersed over a wide space over land, air, surface or subsurface. “This can generate quite a good deal of lethality in aggregate, without that single point of failure which can potentially be held at risk by a long-range strike asset,” Kaushal adds.

The main driving forces behind the continuous advancement of these technologies are twofold and are both related to China, he says. “Firstly, vulnerabilities, standoff capabilities that were a problem for the US Navy will also become a Chinese problem as its surface capabilities grow. The Chinese Navy itself didn’t necessarily rely heavily on expensive blue water assets 10 years ago like they do today. They are fielding things like the Type 0055 Cruiser [stealth guided missile destroyer] and other carrier battle groups.”

Increased surface assets represent more targets for the other side as much as they add to a navy’s capabilities.

The second factor is the growth in China’s ‘anti-access system’ and the challenges this poses for the traditional way of war the US used to and thrives on. Relying heavily on carrier battle groups operating relatively close to the combat theatre and dominating the air over the sea space to, in turn, dominate the sea space.

“Consider the Chinese long-range strike capabilities like the DF-21D, which has a 2,000 km range, or the DF-17, a hypersonic glide vehicle, and the growth of the developments of the satellite networks that can actually track vessels on the surface to cue-in these missiles. These make deploying carrier battle groups in the western Pacific exceedingly difficult for the United States,” Kaushal observes.

“So, the real question for the US Navy has been, ‘How do you deny control of the sea to the People’s Liberation Army Navy, without necessarily inserting carrier battle groups into the theatre in the early phases of the war?’”

Long-range anti-ship missiles have been central to the answer. Kaushal says whether it is the US Marine Corps suggesting that they’ll set up expeditionary advanced bases on distributed islands in the Pacific and use them as kind of missile launch platforms, or the US Navy’s and the Air Force is focused on the long-range anti-missile (LRASM), the challenge is the same.

“It is how do you get as much firepower as you can from a distributed set of platforms so not just the traditional carrier air wing, but a combination of aircraft, surface vessels – including the littoral combat ship which can launch the LRASM – and in the future, perhaps, ground-based launches,” Kaushal says.

“So, the key point is how do you distribute your firepower across a broad range of platforms so that one hit on a career doesn’t essentially sink your entire operational plan.”

LRASM launched from aircraft
The US Navy announced early operational capability for the LRASM on the B-1B bomber and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in 2018 and 2019 respectively, but ship launching capabilities have also been demonstrated. Credit: BAE Systems

Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM)

The US Navy announced early operational capability for the LRASM on the B-1B bomber and F/A-18E/F Super Hornets in 2018 and 2019 respectively, but ship launching capabilities have also been demonstrated.

LRASM is equipped with BAE Systems’ long-range sensors, seekers and targeting technology that enables the missiles to detect and engage protected ships in all weather- and visibility conditions without external intelligence and navigation. The sensors allow the missiles to autonomously search for and identify adversary warships while sorting out enemy vessels by matching the radar profile to data to an onboard database.

Another big challenge for the US and its allies is adversaries’ robust electronic warfare and GPS jamming competence which make seeker and guidance systems on traditional standoff capabilities somewhat vulnerable.

To avoid exposure, LRASMs do not use their own radar systems to search for targets. They home in on an enemy’s radar signals instead. The missile seekers are also furnished with BAE’s Systems electronic warfare technology, and a 1,000 lb (454 kg) penetrating blast fragmentation warhead can be carried for ranges of about 240 NM (500 km).

BAE Systems has received a $117m contract from Lockheed Martin to produce next-generation missile seekers for the LRASM. The improved seeker technology is promised to improve target detection and engagement in a contested environment while reducing overall costs.

“The next-generation LRASM seeker enables the platform to detect and engage protected maritime targets in challenging electromagnetic environments. It works without relying on external intelligence and navigation – including ISR platforms, network links and GPS,” BAE Systems’ external communications spokesperson Mark Daly tells GDT.

He says the new technology addresses diminishing sources such as the replacement of obsolescent and limited-availability parts. “Several mixed-technology modules were redesigned to incorporate new components,” Daly continues. “BAE Systems has reduced the seeker cost by almost 40% since the first production lot.”

He warns the LRASM seeker is a highly sensitive topic, and information regarding precise range and the new capabilities of the technology cannot be disclosed. However, it is said the advanced sensor technology enables LRASM to strike targets from longer distances than previously and penetrate enemy air defences more effectively with increased survivability.

Kaushal says: “The aspiration is that the LRASM is jam-resistant to some degree, and the built-in systems allow for data fusion between onboard sensors as well as of off-board cueing. This enables operation and target seeking in an information denied environment. Of course, whether the testing is kept up with that aspiration is a different matter.”