Future Tech: The Self-Piloting Ship Smasher

Future Tech: The Self-Piloting Ship Smasher

Ever wondered how navies will sink ships in the future?

Future Tech: The Self-Piloting Ship Smasher

Ever wondered how navies will sink ships in the future? The US military is currently working on just that.

Meet the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). A stealthy anti-ship cruise missile, it's being developed for the US Air Force and Navy by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

It's intended to serve as a replacement for the US Navy's current anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, which has been in operation since 1977. 

Long Range Anti-Ship Missile mass simulator
A LRASM mass simulator on an F/A-18E Super Hornet in 2015

The Harpoon no longer has the range or capability America needs going forward, with the ability to defeat enemy warships having been neglected since the end of the Cold War, when a lack of competing navies meant the US had little interest in upgrading or replacing it.

This was exacerbated by 2001's September 11 attacks, which led to a focus on land wars, further delaying upgrades to the Navy's anti-ship firepower. 

Now, however, it's back at the top of the agenda - with China one of the key reasons. 

The Chinese Navy has modernised rapidly in the past decade, having built 44 destroyers, frigates, and corvettes, an aircraft carrier (with a second reportedly in production), submarines, amphibious ships and a number of surface warships. 

And it hasn't gone unnoticed; with concerns over China one of the key reasons behind Australia announcing in February that it is to spend an additional £15 billion on defence over the next decade.

More - Comment: Why China Is Risking A Conflict With The USA

The Harpoon was cutting-edge when it entered service, able to cruise just above the waves, decreasing radar detection range, for up to 67 miles before hitting a target with its 468lb high explosive warhead. 

Adapted to ships, aircraft, and submarines, it's used throughout NATO navies and by allies like Japan and the UK, although Britain is now looking towards its own next-generation cruise missile, the stealthy, supersonic, Perseus.

To be integrated on all major weapon platforms including warships, submarines, aircraft and land-based platforms, Perseus will have a range of 185 miles, reaching speeds of Mach 3 and carrying a 440lb "main" warhead.

But as the Harpoon nears its fourth decade in service, the US Navy has made clear that it's got even bigger plans.

It wants LRASM in service as soon as possible to counter China's threat, as well as that of Russia and North Korea, with Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, describing it as a "great capability we need to bring online fast."

Russia firing cruise missiles at Syria from the Caspian Sea

Although the missile's exact range hasn't yet been released, it's based on an Air Force missile, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range (JASSM-ER), which has a range of 580 miles.

LRASM's sensor and other features will decrease that range somewhat, although DARPA states that it will still be greater than 230 miles.

It will also carry a 1,000lb warhead, more than twice that of the Harpoon.

Launched from the Mk.41 missile silo standard on all U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers, it's carried to a pre-determined altitude by a rocket booster before being ejected (see below). 

At this point, its turbofan engine begins to take over, with wings being deployed from the side of the missile for steering. 

After initial guidance from the ship that launches it, satellites take over and it dives to sea-skimming altitude to avoid close-range defence systems, although LRASM can still complete its mission even if it loses GPS.

What separates it from its predecessors is its autonomy. After naval personnel tell the missile where an enemy fleet is and which ship to strike, it takes care of everything else.

Although it can be set to fly to a series of waypoints, it's capable of taking data and making its own decisions using artificial intelligence.

Aided by a continuous stream of data from its firer, it's able to detect possible threats, land features or civilian ships, and navigate around them, and could even launch a coordinated attack on an enemy fleet if fired alongside other LRASMs.

Long Range Anti-Ship Missile target practice
A craft used by the LRASM for target practice

It also works out and then aims for the perfect point of impact to ensure it doesn't miss - usually the exact centre of the ship, with the angle of the target in relation to the missile taken into consideration. 

The artificial intelligence and increased adaptability mark a change in direction for anti-ship missiles going forward.

While traditional missiles have used raw speed to try to reduce the defender's reaction time, the LRASM travels at under Mach 1, the idea being that you don't need to outrun what you're capable of avoiding. 

The Russian 3M-54 Klub, by comparison, accelerates to Mach 2.9 just before impact. 

US Navy destroyers and cruisers will carry up to 96 LRASM missiles each, although it'll also arm the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which will be able to carry two.

The B-1, meanwhile, should be able to carry up to 24, and the new missile could possibly find its way onto the B-2, B-52, F-15E Strike Eagle and F-16 in future, as these aircraft can all carry the JASSM-ER. 

Long Range Anti-Ship Missile B-1B Lancer launch
A LRASM launching from a B-1B Lancer

Some naval advisers, meanwhile, have proposed also using it as a land-attack weapon.

By reducing the size of the warhead, it's argued the missile's range could be increased to 1,000 miles, increasing the firer's flexibility.

The US Navy's planning on buying its first 24 LRASMs in 2017, with the missile expected to enter air service in 2018 and naval service the following year.

It's hoped 464 could be operational by 2021, at a cost of around half a million dollars (£350,000) each.

And the US Navy's already looking ahead to its successor - it'll hold a competition for a new anti-ship missile as a follow-on to LRASM that's hoped to enter service in 2024.

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