Navy Moving Closer to Acquiring Devastating Ship-Killing Stealth Missiles
Top defense contractors are poised to compete in a major industry battle to develop autonomous missiles for the U.S. Navy that can kill enemy ships at sea and demolish air-defense radar sites inland.
Although the Navy has so far released few details on what it plans to buy, missile manufacturers like Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing are keeping a close eye on a program the Navy has dubbed “next-generation strike capability.”
The Navy is seeking funds in its 2016-2020 budget to begin the development of next-generation strike weapons, with the goal to start an industry competition in fiscal year 2017. But the Navy has yet to settle on specific requirements.
In about a decade or so, the next-generation strike capability, or NGSC, would supplement or replace the current Harpoon and Tomahawk cruise missiles. What remains unknown is whether next-generation strike will be a single missile or a mix of weapons that would include ship killers and land-strike missiles that would target enemy air defenses deep inland.
The decision to move forward with next-generation strike comes after years of internal debate on how the Navy should arm itself for potential maritime wars against rising powers like China. The U.S. Pacific Command has singled out a new anti-ship missile as an “urgent operational need.”
Of concern to PACOM and to naval advocates on Capitol Hill is the lack of anti-ship weapons aboard Navy surface combatants, and they fear that current ship-launched cruise missiles are not stealthy enough to be able to penetrate the most advanced air defenses. An extended reach of 1,000 nautical miles or more is a key priority in the next-generation strike program, so Navy ships can operate within range of Chinese surface combatants equipped with anti-ship cruise missiles.
The Navy already has tested a new anti-ship missile that can be fired from fighter jets and strategic bombers — known as the long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM, made by Lockheed Martin.
Started in 2009 under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the LRASM is a modified version of the joint air-to-surface standoff missile-extended range that Lockheed built for the U.S Air Force. DARPA announced in February that an LRASM prototype scored three-for-three in consecutive flight tests.
“Once operational, LRASM would play a significant role in ensuring military access to operate in open ocean/blue waters and the littorals due to its enhanced ability to discriminate and conduct tactical engagements from extended ranges,” DARPA said in a news release.
A key feature of this missile is a terminal guidance system that would allow it to reach a target even if the military were denied access to GPS signals or other network links.
Lockheed officials said the company is independently developing a ship-launched variant in anticipation of a future competition. The Navy chose the air-launched LRASM over other systems offered by Raytheon and Kongsberg. Lockheed is producing 90 missiles for the Navy that will be deployed on Super Hornet fighters and Air Force B-1 bombers by 2019.
In next-generation strike, the Navy merged what used to be two separate projects: One called “offensive anti-surface weapon increment 2” and another dubbed “next-generation land attack weapon.”
The new missile, or family of weapons, would have greater range, destruction power and survivability than the current Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile and the Tomahawk ship-launched land attack cruise missile.
Analysts for years have questioned the Navy’s efforts to keep up with growing technological advances by China and other nations. “China is building a modern and regionally powerful Navy with a modest but growing capability for conducting operations beyond China’s near-seas region. The question of how the United States should respond to China’s military modernization effort is a key issue in U.S. defense planning,” wrote naval analyst Ronald O'Rourke, of the Congressional Research Service.
China has acquired Russian-made anti-ship cruise missiles that are carried by Russian-made destroyers and submarines, and has developed other missiles domestically, O’Rourke said.
The implication for the U.S. Navy is that it needs aircraft and weapons with longer ranges. The Navy is “going to have to adopt an offensive mindset,” naval strategist Bryan Clark, of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told the House Armed Services Committee’s seapower and projection forces subcommittee.
“Today's surface fleet is more focused on defeating enemy missiles and torpedoes, than attacking the aircraft, submarines or sub-ships that have launched them,” Clark said. “Surface forces need to focus on killing the archer instead of shooting down its arrows.” The archers in this case are aircraft, submarines, and surface ships that are able to launch anti-ship cruise missiles, Clark said. “Today, the surface ships we deploy don't have weapons that are able to reach enemy aircraft, ships or submarines until we're already well within range of their anti-ship cruise missiles.”
Missile manufacturers believe the Navy will communicate its next-generation strike wish list some time in 2016. Competitors are weighing how best to position themselves. If the Navy chooses to combine the anti-ship and land-attack mission and select only one manufacturer, the stakes would be huge. Pressure to keep costs under control could benefit companies that spend their own funds to upgrade existing missiles.
Lockheed is viewed as having the inside track because it is already producing an air-launched anti-ship cruise missile and is developing a ship-launched variant. The company is expanding its manufacturing plant in Troy, Alabama, said Hady Mourad, tactical missiles advanced program director at Lockheed Martin. He said the company spent $32 million of internal R&D funds to mature the technology.
What specifically Lockheed would propose for next-generation strike is still to be determined, said company spokeswoman Amy Cochrum. LRASM is being designed as an anti-surface maritime weapon, but with minor retrofits it could be become a dual-role missile, prosecuting both land and sea targets, she told National Defense. “Until U.S. Navy requirements are defined and communicated to industry, final configurations or variants would be speculation at best.”
The Boeing Co. recently unveiled a modernized version of the Harpoon missile but that is not likely to be a contender for next-generation strike, a company spokeswoman said.
Boeing is waiting to hear more about what the Navy wants before it decides on its offering. Designing a new missile is one possibility, but it is too soon to say, said Deborah VanNierop, spokeswoman for Boeing Phantom Works. “Next-generation strike capability is in the very early stages and currently there are no requirements,” she noted. Boeing’s advanced weapons team has “briefed the Navy on key technologies and system options,” VanNierop told National Defense. “The team plans to continue to engage with the Navy as they formulate their requirements.”
Raytheon, meanwhile, expects to enjoy a key advantage as the manufacturer of the Tomahawk missile, as the Navy already has invested huge sums into the program. The company also makes the joint standoff weapon, an air-launched glide bomb that initially competed against LRASM. Raytheon has teamed with Norway’s Kongsberg Defense & Aerospace to develop an air-launched anti-ship missile and a ship-launched version for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship.
Next-generation strike will likely include “improvements to current programs as well as potentially follow-on technologies,” Dave Adams, Tomahawk program director, said in a statement. “Raytheon is working with the Navy to minimize risk and costs by using the proven Tomahawk and JSOW weapon systems.”
Both Tomahawk and JSOW, Adams said, can defeat modern integrated air defenses. “And with the improvements we are developing for Tomahawk, we anticipate that this will hold any high value moving target at risk out to greater than 1,000 miles on land and at sea. And, both JSOW and Tomahawk are already fully integrated on U.S. Navy platforms, saving an enormous amount of integration costs.”
Raytheon recently announced it funded the development of a multi-mode seeker for the Tomahawk Block 4 cruise missile. “This is a critical step in enabling the missile to strike moving targets on land and at sea,” said Mike Jarrett, vice president of Raytheon Air Warfare Systems.