Four long-range anti-ship missiles team up in historic test

Demonstrating that semi-autonomous weapons are the mainstay of the future and not an oddity, the US Navy and Lockheed Martin have completed a test of four Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) simultaneously in flight with minimal human guidance.

It’s sometime in the next decade and a US Navy group is somewhere in the Pacific Ocean seeking hostile forces threatening the shipping lanes in the region. Satellite intelligence has identified a pair of guided missile destroyers and their escorts 200 nm (230 miles, 379 km) away. Command orders an immediate missile strike.

Two patrolling F/A-18 Super Hornets launch an AGM-158C LRASM each. Meanwhile, a US frigate fires two ship-launched variants from its vertical launch system. The moment these four are airborne, they pick up their line-of-sight data feeds and then additional data feeds from satellites and other aircraft to provide the semi-autonomous machines with the latest information on their targets.

Along the way, the four missiles enter a zone of intense electronic warfare. Communications are jammed. GPS is knocked out. No more data comes in from Command. For earlier systems, this would have been the end of the mission, but the LRASMs switch to autonomous mode and update one another on how to continue the mission.

Using their onboard navigation, the missiles close with the enemy ships, but unexpected hostile forces suddenly appear in their path. The missiles automatically compute a new course and evade the threats as they continue to close on their targets.

Once in visual range, the missiles assess the destroyers’ defenses and escorts. They select the most vulnerable spots on the ships and the weakest area of the air defenses to penetrate. Flying in at wave-height altitude, the four missiles evade the final close-in anti-missile batteries and strike with their 1,000 lb (450 kg) warheads, destroying or crippling the hostiles.

That, essentially, is what Lockheed Martin and the US Navy were working toward during the 12th Integrated Test Event (ITE-12), of which few details were released. With sensor and weapon systems becoming increasingly more sophisticated and lethal, direct engagements between forces, even combat aircraft, are becoming much rarer in peer-to-peer conflicts. As a result, many assets like warships have become more like weapon platforms and command centers for launching long-range weapons at a range of hundreds of miles.

Artist’s concept of an LRASM closing on target

Lockheed Martin

Currently serving with the US Navy, the US Air Force, and the Royal Australian Navy, the AGM-158C LRASM is one such weapon. Though it’s been in service since 2018, it is still undergoing development to make it much more autonomous and capable of acting as part of a team instead of one of a salvo.

The idea is to produce a long-range, winged missile that can be launched from a B-1B bomber, an F-18 Super Hornet, an F-35 Tornado 2 Joint Strike Fighter, or ships or submarines equipped with vertical launch systems. Though it can receive information from a command and control network, it can also act on its own or part of a missile team in areas that a hostile force might try to deny entry to. It can not only acquire its target and assess how to attack it, the missile also has its own countermeasures and the ability to take evasive action as necessary.

“We have continued to invest in the design and development of LRASM’s anti-surface warfare capabilities to ensure that war-fighters have the 21st century security solutions they need to complete their missions and come home safely,” said Lisbeth Vogelpohl, LRASM program director at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control. “This event was a testament to our commitment to deliver reliable products that work each and every time, ensuring those who serve stay ahead of ready.”

Source: Lockheed Martin

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David Szondy