The U.S. Navy is assessing whether to conduct a competition for a new anti-ship missile, which is needed in the coming years as a response to the latest sophisticated Chinese DF-21 ship-killing ballistic missile and to keep Beijing's carriers at bay.

But, mixed messages from the service regarding the threat have prompted lawmakers to question just how urgent the need is and how much money is required within what timeframe.

Despite deep and long-standing trade ties between Beijing and Washington, China is developing potentially the most formidable threat to U.S. naval superiority in the Pacific. Increasingly, the Pentagon's war plans include scenarios involving China or that call for U.S. ships to fend off Chinese hardware sold to adversaries.

This DF-21 ballistic missile is believed to be capable of forcing U.S. ships to stand off farther than previously thought in such an engagement; thus the Navy is looking for a long-range option for its own anti-ship weapons in order to put land- and sea-based targets at risk from the longer distances. Also needed is a missile that can operate without GPS guidance, as such scenarios assume a complex jamming environment.

Though there is consensus on the threat, there is confusion over the timing. The Navy has been working with two different fielding dates, 2018 and 2024, which has lawmakers perturbed. Senate authorizers cut $100 million of the $136 million request because the “urgency of the [requirement] is now in doubt,” their fiscal year 2014 report states. House authorizers fully funded the request, noting a change in procurement strategy.

The Navy, however, declined to explain or define its strategy and denied an interview request. Service officials were directed to provide a procurement plan to explain the discrepancy to Congress by Oct. 1, but a Navy spokeswoman says the effort remains under review.

An Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) weapon is needed “to ensure freedom of maneuver and to maintain open sea lines of communication in all environments well into the 21st century,” the Navy said in the statement for Aviation Week.

Industry sources suggest the 2018 date is associated with an older plan to field an upgraded Tomahawk, while the 2024 date refers to a clean-sheet design.

To contractors, the confusion represents an opportunity.

Manufacturers are scrambling to offer options in hopes of procuring a spot in this arena. Work on the plan is likely to slip further because civilian contractors and acquisition officials have been placed on furlough, thanks to the government shutdown that began Oct. 1.

An abrupt decision earlier this year for the Navy to forgo an upgrade to its most recent Raytheon Tomahawk ship-launched cruise missile, the Block IV, has the manufacturer concerned. Raytheon executives fear the Pentagon will sole-source the work to Lockheed Martin, which holds a $373 million contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to modify the company's air-launched Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (Jassm) with a new seeker and to integrate it with the Navy's MK41 ship-launched missile system. Lockheed Martin officials are hoping progress with this weapon, the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (Lrasm), will convince the Navy to forgo plans for a competition.

Both companies argue that their options incorporate the latest in available technology while reflecting designs that offer safe, proven readiness.

Jassm is a stealthy, air-launched cruise missile designed to travel 200 nm to a fixed target. Though the Air Force has been accepting delivery of Jassms and is funding a Jassm-ER (extended range), designed for 500-nm standoff range, Lockheed officials acknowledge work lies ahead to prepare it for use from the Mk41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) on Navy ships. But, they say they can deliver Lrasm for “well under $2 million” per unit, according to Frank St. John, vice president of tactical missiles for Lockheed Martin. Cost was previously an issue for Jassm, as technical problems forced its price upward to about $1 million per missile, far exceeding the planned unit cost.

That experience, however, gives the company confidence in their estimates for Lrasm, St. John says. The missile design is based on and shares 85% common parts with the Jassm-ER, he notes. Though Darpa's demonstration calls for only 200 mi. of flight to wring out the sensor and guidance section, the system would be capable of the full Jassm-ER range.

Lockheed won the Darpa contract in 2009 to develop Lrasm, beating out other options, including one from Lockheed Martin that used a ballistic trajectory and designs submitted by Raytheon and Boeing. The outcome of the competition reinforced the notion that the lowest-risk approach for a new anti-ship missile would be to use a low-flying, stealthy platform rather than one operating at high speed through high altitudes.

During a recent test at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., funded by Lockheed, its Lrasm design cleared the canister but did not ignite under its own power. That test is forthcoming and will be funded by the government; the overall project is jointly funded by Darpa and the Office of Naval Research. They are planning to conduct a trial by the end of fiscal 2014 to loft out of the VLS and prosecute actual targets. The company has funded $30 million of Lrasm's development, mostly focused on that Sept. 4 test where a weight-representative test vehicle was launched from the VLS canister.

A Lrasm test vehicle was separately used in an Aug. 27 trial to hit a moving shipping target, though it was not canister-launched, St. John says. After being dropped from a Boeing B-1B flying at about 20,000 ft. and at Mach 0.8, the weapon cruised to the target area, autonomously located the ship and hit within a “few feet” of its target, he says. He declined to address whether countermeasures, such as GPS jamming, were used during the demonstration. But, it was “operationally representative” and “a very difficult test.”

Alternatives to Lrasm for the OASuW mission are not suitable, St. John says. “There is a range of bad options” that includes systems that are very “long in the tooth.”

Raytheon officials bristle at the notion that an upgraded Tomahawk draws on old technology. “If you want to talk about long in the tooth, Jassm is older than Tomahawk Block IV,” says Chris Daily, deputy Tomahawk program manager for Raytheon, adding that the first production contract for the weapon was in 2004. Jassm production started in 2001; production of the ER variant followed in 2012.

Raytheon is self-funding continued work on the TacTom-plus, an upgrade to the Block IV's so-called Tactical Tomahawk that would include an anti-radiation homing seeker in addition to an imaging infrared sensor and enhancements to operate in an complex jamming environment.

Until the Pentagon's reversal on Tomahawk early this year, Raytheon was told the upgraded Block IV would be an interim solution until an objective OASuW weapon could be procured. The company was on a path to field the upgrade in 2017, Daily says, and it would make use of the 1,000-nm range of the Block IV version.

“Tomahawk is already integrated on ships. To develop and integrate another missile to launch out of a VLS is probably well in excess of $1 billion,” Daily says.

“Why would you take a system designed to be air-launched and try to modify it and integrate it into a ship or a sub?” Daily asks rhetorically. “You would be taking a system and adding Tomahawk-like capabilities to it [and] you would have a missile that is no more capable and has less than half the range of Tomahawk.”

Raytheon officials have put the anti-radiation sensor through its paces in an “open air” test, meaning outside of the laboratory, against realistic threat emitters, Daily says. The company is planning a similar test, perhaps as soon as this month, that will feature a captive-carry, production-representative sensor operating against threat emitters.

Daily says up to $250 million would be needed to be able to field the new seeker that could be used for moving-ship targets in 2017. He adds that a new anti-jam GPS receiver is already fielded on the weapon.

The per-unit Tomahawk Block IV cost was under $1 million based on the latest contract, Daily says. Roughly 35 are being produced per month.

Officials have not disclosed whether Jassm has been fired in a conflict. Tomahawk Block IV, however, has been used with success against at least one target during the Libya conflict, according to program sources.