After the Cold War ended, the U.S. Navy dropped the ball with respect to anti-ship weaponry as the prospect of a major sea battle faded from view.

China took a different tack by spending big on naval modernization with new ships and submarines and an increasingly sophisticated array of anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles or “carrier killers” fired from land, sea and undersea. China’s road-mobile DF-21D missile, for instance, can target military vessels about 810 nm (1,500 km) off the coast and its YJ-18 subsonic cruise missile fielded in 2015 can reach out 290 nm, creating a threat ring of approximately 264,200 nm2. Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to rely on the sea-skimming Boeing Harpoon Block 1C missile introduced in the mid-1980s, with an unclassified range of 67 nm. 

Seeing the Navy increasingly forced into a defensive crouch and responding to the White House’s “Pacific Pivot,” DARPA and the Office of Naval Research began tinkering with the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), derived from Lockheed Martin’s extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile, which boasts a range or more than 500 nm. Sharing 88% common components including the airframe, engine, anti-jam GPS receiver and 1,000-lb. penetrating warhead, the weapon has been upgraded with a multi-mode seeker designed by BAE Systems for semi-autonomous strikes against specific naval vessels, even when mixed among noncombatants. 

The program was launched in 2009 and achieved its first successful strike against a maritime target on Aug. 27, 2013, fired from the B-1B bomber. The weapon’s design has been validated two other times in flight testing in 2013 and 2015 and was adopted by the Navy in 2014 to meet an urgent requirement for an air-launched anti-ship weapon, a requirement called Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) Increment 1. Moving at roughly twice the speed of a normal acquisition program, LRASM received clearance from the Pentagon to enter low-rate initial production in late 2016 to support fielding on the Air Force B-1B next year and the Navy F/A-18E/F Super Hornet in 2019. Built in Troy, Alabama, Lockheed will turn out 110 missiles to meet the immediate need and then compete for the follow-on requirement known as OASuW Increment 2. It is also pitching surface-launched versions fired from the Mark 41 vertical launch tube and a customized deck-mounted launcher for the Littoral Combat Ship.

“It puts the most heavily defended and sophisticated maritime threats at risk—period,” says Alan Jackson, director of strike systems at Lockheed Martin Missiles and Fire Control.

“It gives us the edge back in offensive anti-surface warfare,” adds Capt. Jaime Engdahl, head of Naval Air Systems Command’s precision-strike weapons office.

The other defense candidates were Embraer for the development of the KC-390 tanker/transport; Lockheed Martin for the F-35 Lightning II; the Netherlands and Luxembourg for establishing the Airbus A330-based European Tanker Force; and DARPA, MIT Lincoln Labs and L3 Technologies for the Space Surveillance Telescope.