Missile Mystery

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Lockheed Martin is making an aggressive pitch for its Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), a maritime-strike version of the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile - Extended Range (JASSM-ER) that it builds for the USAF. Although LRASM is still a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstration project, Lockheed Martin says that it could be operational as an air-launched weapon as soon as 2016, with a vertically launched shipboard version following two years later.

Lockheed Martin briefed the project at the Air Force Association show near Washington on Tuesday, because the USAF is already involved in the project -- a B-1B will be the test platform and the concept is important in terms of the joint USAF-Navy Air-Sea Battle concept.

The Lockheed Martin proposal constitutes a direct threat to the Navy's current plan to field an anti-ship version of the Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile, as well as providing a possible alternative to new versions of the Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon and Raytheon AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon. As with those weapons, the goal is to provide the Navy with a more accurate, discriminating anti-ship missile which can tackle heavily defended targets in a cluttered environment. The watchword is "net-enabled weapons": missiles that can get inflight targeting updates from other platforms but can still work if the net or even GPS is taken down by an adversary.

LRASM looks the same as JASSM but adds a datalink, an imaging terminal seeker that can classify or identify the target and pick an aimpoint, and active and passive countermeasures. But it also has a radio-frequency guidance system that allows it to detect a ship target from outside the range of the target's own missile defenses, after which the missile drops to sea-skimming height for the attack run.

Developed by BAE Systems (the former Sanders unit in Nashua, NH) the seeker is key to LRASM and in many ways DARPA built the program around it. It has RF apertures in the nose and wingtips, and according to Lockheed Martin it is passive -- non-transmitting. Which raises an interesting question: where does the RF energy come from? No ship target collaborates in its own demise by transmitting continuously -- emission control or EMCON is a basic part of naval operations. It's an interesting question, but no answers except "ask DARPA" are forthcoming.

Three "tactically representative" missiles are to be launched in 2013, and a test vehicle is to be launched vertically (using an Asroc canister and booster) in 2014. The weapon was originally known as LRASM-A -- development of a high-supersonic anti-ship weapon, LRASM-B, was terminated early this year.

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