Four Stealthy AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles Flew Together In “Historic” Test

Two F/A-18E/F Super Hornets fired the quartet of AGM-158C missiles, a reflection of how these weapons would be employed in actual combat.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The Navy and Lockheed Martin recently conducted a "historic" test in which four AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles were in flight simultaneously.
A rendering of four AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LRASM) in flight. Lockheed Martin


The U.S. Navy and Lockheed Martin recently conducted a test in which a pair of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets launched four AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, or LRASMs, which then flew on simultaneously. Described as "historic," this appears to be a first-of-its-kind event and one that is more representative of how these weapons would be employed in combat, especially in a future higher-end conflict, compared to just launching a single missile at a time.

Lockheed Martin announced the completion of the quadruple AGM-158C test, which is the 12th integrated flight test event for LRASM, or ITE-12, yesterday. The company said that the test was a success, but did not say where or when it had taken place specifically.

An AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) in flight during a previous test. USAF

In ITE-12, "the U.S. Navy was able to demonstrate the weapon’s inherent high-end lethality from mission planning through kill chain integration and its effects on the target. All mission objectives were met, reinforcing high confidence in the weapon’s capabilities and superior firepower," according to a Lockheed Martin press release. "The successful test was a graduation exercise for the missiles’ latest configuration and lays the foundation for increased capabilities to come."

Two F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, each carrying two AGM-158Cs, were employed as the launch platforms during ITE-12, a U.S. Navy spokesperson told The War Zone. The Navy declined to answer questions about whether the missiles were launched from or approached their targets from different vectors, citing operational security.

The Super Hornet is currently the only Navy aircraft known to be capable of employing LRASM. The Navy is working to integrate the AGM-158C onto its P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft. There are also plans to add it to the arsenal of at least some F-35 Joint Strike Fighter variants, but for external carriage only. U.S. Air Force B-1B bombers can also employ LRASM.

A US Navy F/A-18F test et carrying an AGM-158C (in black under the right wing) among other stores. Lockheed Martin

In addition, Lockheed Martin, in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, has previously demonstrated a surface-launched version of the LRASM that can be fired from a strike-length Mk 41 Vertical Launch System cell.

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It is not entirely clear what specific versions of the LRASM were launched during ITE-12.

"The configuration being tested is the latest evolution of the LRASM weapon system, offering a solution that establishes the warfighter’s anti-surface dominance in any region," a Lockheed Martin spokesperson told The War Zone when asked. "The superior range, survivability, and targeting capabilities of LRASM provide real Distributed Lethality and ability to pace the threat far into the future."

There are currently two main subvariants of the stealthy AGM-158C, the C-1 (also known as LRASM 1.1), which is in service now, and the still-in-development C-3 (now also referred to as the LRASM-Extended Range or LRASM-ER). The core LRASM design is derived from that of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) family of land-attack cruise missiles.

The C-1 version has a reported maximum range of between 200 and 300 miles, which is in line with that of the AGM-158A JASSM. The missile uses an onboard GPS-assisted Inertial Navigation System (INS) guidance system to first get to a designated target area. LRASM has a built-in route planning capability that is highly autonomous and is linked to an onboard electronic support measures (ESM) package. This enables the missile to change its course automatically if it detects the sudden emergence of enemy defenses and to better detect potential targets by their radio-frequency emissions.

Once in the target area, the missile switches over to an imaging infrared sensor in the nose for terminal phase of flight. The seeker is designed to search for and categorize targets autonomously using data stored in a built-in threat target library database. The seeker is also capable of steering the missile to hit the ship's most vulnerable point. Since it is passive, the imaging infrared sensor does not give off radio-frequency emissions for an enemy to detect and is also immune to radio-frequency jamming.

The weapon also has a datalink that allows it to get threat updates while in flight and work cooperatively with other LRASMs during coordinated strikes, something we will come back to later.

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In addition to the C-1's capabilities, the improved C-3 version will have a comparable maximum range to the AGM-158B JASSM-ER, or around 600 miles. The new variant will also feature new "C++ software, [an] enhanced BLOS [beyond-line-of-sight] Weapons Data Link, [and] advanced survivability" capabilities, according to previously released Navy budget documents. The original plan for the C-3 also called for the addition of land-attack functionality, which would've made it something of a hybrid between the LRASM and the JASSM-ER, but this is no longer the case.

The Navy's current goal is to reach early operational capability with the AGM-158C-3 first on the F/A-18E/F in mid-2026, according to the service's most recent budget request for the 2025 Fiscal Year. The Air Force also plans to acquire a stock of C-3s LRASMs, but has not yet publicly defined a hard EOC schedule.

The U.S. Navy and Air Force both see the expanding LRASM family as providing key capabilities for use in future conflicts, especially high-end ones against near-peer competitors like China or Russia. These missiles would be especially critical in any future major fight in the Pacific against China, which continues to dramatically expand the size and capabilities of its surface fleets. In such a scenario, the expectation is that large volumes of these weapons would be employed to help improve the likelihood of achieving the desired objectives, as well as just due to the total number of potential targets. The ability of LRAMSs to automatically avoid threats, and use its passive radio-frequency detection capability to pick targets, as well as work cooperatively with each other to maximize their effectiveness would be on full display.

The Navy and the Air Force have been pushing in recent years for budgets that include large multi-year purchases of LRASM, as well as other advanced munitions. In their respective Fiscal Year 2025 budget proposals, the Navy and the Air Force asking for nearly $380 million to buy 90 and 115 LRASMs. In both cases, the funding is for a mixture of C-1 and C-3 missiles, the unit costs for which are both around $3 million, according to official budget documents. Collectively, the two services are looking to spend billions of dollars to buy more than 1,000 LRASMs by the end of the decade. The Navy, at least, is also expecting to stop requesting funds for more C-1s and transition entirely to purchasing C-3s after the 2025 fiscal cycle.

Lockheed Martin

The Navy and the Air Force say that the funding for these large buys will also help expand production capacity to keep supplies of those weapons flowing in the future. There has been some pushback to this from members of Congress, who have cited poor performance by certain contractors in past attempts to increase production of key munitions. There are separate concerns about the current multi-year procurement plans still being insufficient to meet the likely demands of a potential future high-end conflict.

All of this underscores the significance of the recent ITE-12 test. Even with just four missiles in flight at once, this would have allowed the Navy and Lockheed Martin, as well as others like the Air Force, to gain important data and other insights into how LRASMs perform in the context of a larger-scale barrage. As Lockheed Martin's press release yesterday notes, this also offered an opportunity for the personnel involved to gain valuable experience from going through the actual steps of planning and executing this operation from end-to-end, right down to four real missile launches.

Though it is hard to say for sure without knowing the exact test parameters for ITE-12, it's possible that it also offered a unique opportunity to collect data on the performance of defensive countermeasures against LRASM. These insights, in turn, could help with work on future improvements to LRASM to make them more effective and survivable. This could also feed into other research and development efforts. Earlier this year, the Navy put out a contracting notice laying out basic requirements for a potential new anti-ship cruise missile that certain variants of the F-35 could carry internally. Such developments could be of interest to the Air Force, which has also been working to develop advanced collaborative capabilities for various types of munitions through its Golden Horde program.

Data from ITE-12 could also contribute to the development of new and improved defensive capabilities for U.S. warships.

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Advanced modeling and simulation capabilities, and hybrid test events involving a mixture of real and simulated assets, can also help provide similarly useful data and experience. However, there is really no substitute for actually going through the motions and employing actual weapons in an end-to-end form, from mission planning to loading, all the way to target impact and evaluating the damage.

With all this in mind, the recent quadruple LRASM test indeed looks to have been a significant event for the continued development of this growing family of missiles, which are set to be a key component of the U.S. anti-ship arsenal for years to come.

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