Land Attack Capability Axed On AGM-158C LRASM Anti-Ship Missile

Development of the AGM-158C-3 variant, which will now remain purely focused on the anti-ship role, has also slipped some two years to 2026.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The Navy no longer plans to acquire a version of the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile with additional land-attack capability.
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The U.S. Navy has completely abandoned plans to acquire a subvariant of the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile with the added ability to strike targets ashore, according to a newly released Pentagon report. The service had previously expected the AGM-158C-3 version to enter service sometime this year, but further changes in the scope of its development have now pushed this back to the fall of 2026, at which time it will not feature the extra ground-strike capability.

Details about the change in plans for the AGM-158C-3 variant of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) were included in the latest annual report from the Pentagon's Office of the Director of Operational Test and Evaluation, or DOT&E. The report covers activities that occurred during the 2023 Fiscal Year, when ended on September 30 of last year.

"The FY22 [Fiscal Year 2022] DOT&E Annual Report stated that a land strike capability was part of the LRASM C-3 upgrade, but the program has since decided to remain focused on surface warfare [anti-ship] capabilities, including employment range and threat target library improvements instead of land-strike," according to DOT&E.

The baseline AGM-158C is an anti-ship derivative of the AGM-158 Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) family of air-launched subsonic land attack cruise missiles. LRASM and JASSM both have very stealthy (low observable) designs to help improve their survivability.

LRASM uses GPS-assisted Inertial Navigation System (INS) guidance to get to a general target area. The missile has a highly autonomous route planning capability that includes the ability to change course automatically in response to the sudden appearance of enemy defenses. A built-in electronic support measures (ESM) package is used to detect those threats. A datalink also provides the missile with threat updates from external sources and can allow for LRASMs to work cooperatively for coordinated strikes.

Once an AGM-158C arrives at the target area, it switches to an imaging infrared (IIR) seeker in the terminal phase of flight. The seeker then searches for targets and autonomously classifies them using pre-programmed parameters that are stored in its threat target library database, as mentioned in DOT&E's new report. It then uses its seeker to execute its terminal attack, striking the ship at its most vulnerable point. LRASM's seeker is passive, which means the ship it is targeting cannot detect the already stealthy missile by scanning for radio-frequency emissions. IIR seekers are also immune to radio-frequency jamming.

Beyond the now nixed land-attack capability, the AGM-158C-3 version's improvements include new "C++ software, enhanced BLOS [beyond-line-of-sight] Weapons Data Link, advanced survivability, and the [AGM-158B] JASSM-ER range," according to previous released Navy budget documents. The extended-range version of JASSM is reportedly capable of hitting targets up to 600 miles away. LRASM's range is said to be more in line with that of the baseline JASSM, or between 200 and 300 miles, based on publicly available information.

Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornets are currently the service's only aircraft capable of employing LRASM variants, but the service is also working to integrate this weapon onto its P-8A Poseidon maritime patrol planes. Air-launched AGM-84D Harpoon anti-ship missiles, which are not stealthy and have a shorter range than LRASM, are also in Navy inventory. The Air Force's B-1B bombers can also launch LRASMs.

The initial public announcement about the C-3 version of LRASM back in 2021 also coincided with the Navy's disclosure of its decision to cancel work on a powered cruise missile derivative of the stealthy AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW) precision-guided glide bomb.

A prototype Joint Stand-Off Weapon-Extended Range (JSOW-ER), the powered cruise missile derivative of the AGM-154 JSOW. Raytheon

The Navy's F/A-18E/Fs can currently fire the AGM-84K Standoff Land Attack Missile-Expanded Response (SLAM-ER) missile, an air-launched land-attack outgrowth of the Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile. However, SLAM-ER has a shorter range (reportedly around 170 miles) compared to even baseline JASSM/LRASMs. It has can provide man-in-the-loop control and excels in littoral environments, but it is not as stealthy or as advanced as JASSM.

The Navy is planning to add JASSM variants to the arsenals available for its F/A-18E/Fs and F-35Cs. In November 2023, the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division put out a contracting notice regarding continued support for integration of JASSM, as well as other missiles, onto F-35 variants. Work to integrate JASSM onto F/A-18E/F, as well as Legacy F/A-18 Hornets, has already occurred as part of sales of missiles in that family to Australia and Finland.

It is important to note that neither LRASM or JASSM can be carried internally by any F-35 variant. F-35s would need to carry these weapons externally, which would negatively impact their stealth capabilities.

A rendering of an F-35 variant with a pair of AGM-158C LRASM missiles under its wings. Lockheed Martin

A land-attack capable version of LRASM would have offered additional flexibility in being able to attack targets at sea and on land. There is still the potential for this functionality to be added into a future variant or derivative of the AGM-158C.

Otherwise, it is unclear what might be the exact cause or causes for the substantial delay in the revised C-3 variant's development. DOT&E's new report adds that there is now no "plan to conduct [an] integrated or operational test until of this new LRASM version until sometime in Fiscal Year 2026, which will start on October 1, 2025.

The Navy does also see AGM-158C-3 as a bridge to a future air-launched hypersonic anti-ship missile. Development of that weapon originally began under the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare Increment 2 (OASuW Inc 2) program, which has now evolved into the Hypersonic Air-Launched Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare missile, or HALO. The OASuW Increment 1 was LRASM.

The goal currently is for HALO to reach an early operational capability the 2029 Fiscal Year, which begins on October 1, 2028. This missile is set to be integrated first onto F/A-18E/F and could then make its way onto F-35C.

An artist's conception of a F/A-18F Super Hornets releasing hypersonic missiles. Boeing via Aviation Week

The re-centering of AGM-158C-3 purely on the anti-ship role, as well as these other developments, do come as the U.S. military is focused primarily on preparing for a potential future high-end conflict in the Pacific against China. The acquisition of new and improved anti-ship capabilities is a major focus of this push and is not limited to just air-launched weapons. The U.S. Army and the U.S. Marine Corps are making particularly significant strides in the development and fielding a host of new ground-based surface-to-surface missile systems with anti-ship capabilities.

Anti-ship missile capabilities could be of value in conflicts elsewhere in the world, too. The ability to conduct stand-off strikes on targets on land remains an essential mission for the U.S. military, even in smaller conflicts. This is something that has been recently been highlighted by strikes on Iranian-backed Houthi militants across Yemen.

Whatever the case, at least for now, the Navy is skipping on plans to acquire an air-launched cruise missile with both anti-ship and land-attack capabilities in the form of the AGM-158C-3.

Contact the author: joe@twz.com

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