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A model of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile designed to simulate the mass of the actual weapon. The carrier-based Super Hornet fighter behind it will begin carrying the real thing in operational deployments next year.
When the Soviet Union collapsed and the Red Navy deserted the world’s oceans, America’s Navy turned its attention from securing the sea lanes to shaping events on shore or in nearby littorals. It was a logical move to make, because dictators and terrorists were continuously threatening the established order in the world’s premier oil-producing region — the Persian Gulf — but there were few threats to U.S. maritime dominance.
During the two decades Washington was absorbed with fights in Southwest Asia, though, China emerged as a major economic rival to America. As Beijing gradually translated its economic strength into military might, U.S. defense planners migrated from barely worrying at all about China to concern it might deny U.S. forces regional access to fear it might break out into the vast maneuver spaces of the Pacific Ocean.
While this transformation was unfolding, Russia was rebuilding its own military power. So it was no surprise to see the most recent version of Washington’s national defense strategy shift strategic emphasis from countering global terrorism to coping with the reemergence of great-power rivalry. The danger Russia poses is mainly on land. The Chinese military threat, on the other hand, is all about who will dominate the Western Pacific.
The U.S. Navy plays a central role in countering China’s rising military power. However, two decades of preoccupation with places like Afghanistan and Iraq have left the Navy under-equipped for the prospect of naval warfare with a near-peer adversary. Although the Navy has invested prodigious amounts preparing to defend its warships from missile attack, it has not dedicated extensive resources to weapons that can take out hostile warships.
In fact, a typical U.S. surface combatant (destroyer, frigate or cruiser) today is not equipped with anti-ship weapons. Those that are equipped are out-ranged by the supersonic, maneuvering anti-ship munitions that China is deploying. This situation is not unlike the challenge that the U.S. Army faces in Europe, where Russia’s long-range fires have far greater reach than those of NATO. The Army has responded by making longer-range tactical munitions a top investment priority, and the U.S. Navy is responding similarly with regard to anti-ship weapons.
The most immediate focus of Navy development efforts is an initiative backed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency called the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. Built by Lockheed Martin (a contributor to my think tank and consulting client), LRASM adapts a stealthy cruise missile already carried on U.S. Air Force bombers and fighters for anti-ship missions. In its extended-range Air Force version, the missile has a reach approaching 600 miles.
The Navy isn’t saying how far LRASM can reach once adapted for anti-ship missions, but it’s a safe bet it can cover the entire area between the Chinese mainland and the chain of islands off China’s coast, stretching from the northern Philippines through Taiwan to the Japanese archipelago. This “first island chain” occupies an important place in Chinese military strategy because it defines the area within which Beijing believes it must dominate in the event of an east-west war.
The U.S. Navy aims to turn the tables on the Chinese navy by transforming Beijing’s planned keep-out area into a space from which it cannot escape into the sanctuary of the limitless Pacific. It’s analogous with the “containment” strategy that Washington pursued during the Cold War. LRASM is ideally suited to dominating the chokepoints in the first island chain so that Chinese naval might is bottled up close to home – and then, if necessary, destroyed.
So what makes the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile ideal for this purpose? First, it is stealthy; Chinese naval radars can’t see it, so they can’t intercept it. Second, it has greater range than legacy anti-ship missiles, enabling U.S. forces to launch from beyond the reach of Chinese weapons. Third, it can be launched from numerous “platforms” – Air Force bombers, carrier-based fighters, vertical-launch systems installed in warships, canisters on the deck, and even trucks on land. Fourth, once it is launched it operates autonomously, finding and targeting the most vulnerable points on hostile warships. Fifth, it is designed to operate effectively even when GPS signals and communications links are being jammed, thanks to a precision routing and guidance sensor built by BAE Systems.
That’s a lot of pluses for a system that will cost a small fraction of what China has expended building the warships LRASM will destroy. With a thousand-pound warhead – much more powerful than the warheads on alternative anti-ship munitions – it is sure to do heavy damage. And because LRASM is nearly certain to penetrate to its targets, it costs much less per engagement than other missiles lacking similar survivability. It isn’t hard to see why the Pentagon’s leading research shop and the Navy thought the Air Force’s stealthy cruise missile was perfectly suited to fill the gap in U.S. anti-ship capabilities.
Having a high kill probability is especially important when facing massed Chinese warships near their home ports, because Navy warships can’t reload their magazines at sea. They need a weapon that doesn’t take up much space in launch tubes but has a very high likelihood of doing serious damage to the enemy, in order to maximize the warfighting capacity of on-board systems. It is no exaggeration to say that half a dozen U.S. surface combatants loaded with LRASM could disable most of the major warships in the Chinese fleet.
And that’s before the warfighting potential of other services equipped with LRASM is considered. A single Air Force B-1 bomber can carry 24 LRASM munitions, each one capable of taking out a separate warship (or land target). A Marine Corps version of LRASM deployed on amphibious warships would free up Navy surface combatants from escort duty by giving Marines their own organic anti-ship capability at sea. And if the Marines elected to install LRASM on trucks, they would possess a mobile shore-based anti-ship capability nearly impossible for enemy forces to target.
To summarize, by working with what it already had in the joint inventory, the Pentagon has found a solution to the growing Chinese maritime threat that will be very difficult for Beijing to counter. The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile can be deployed in so many modes on so many platforms that U.S. forces will have a significant warfighting edge even if they must fight far from home on China’s doorstep. With LRASM operational on B-1 bombers this year and Navy F/A-18 Super Hornets next year, U.S. anti-ship capabilities in the Western Pacific are growing fast. Once the weapon begins populating U.S. warship decks in the next decade, China will need to think long and hard before launching aggression at sea.