By Debalina Ghoshal, Non Resident Fellow, Council on International Policy, Asia Pacific Fellow, EastWest Institute
In February 2020, reports came in that the United States State Department has approved the possible sale of two hundred Lockheed Martin developed AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles (LR-ASM). There has also been an approval of related equipment with estimated cost of $990 million. Australia had also requested for support and test equipment, technical publication and documentation, personnel training, training equipment, technical assistance from the United States and engineering and logistical support- all these facilities without which Australia would find it difficult to acquire the LRASM. Reportedly, Australia desires for eleven ATM-158C LRASM Telemetry Variant, DATM variant- 158C LRASM, Captive Air Training Missile (CATS-158C LRASM).
Australia’s threat environment in the present circumstances requires the country to beef up its missile capabilities to ensure it has credible and long range capabilities along with survivable deterrent and combat capabilities. It is a known fact that China’s assertive behaviour has continued in the Asia/ Indo Pacific region with China flexing its muscles in a way that most countries have been uncomfortable and concerned. The Chinese threat with its intermediate range missile capabilities are of grave concern for Australia’s national security and hence, there was a need to beef up its offensive arms capabilities. Australia lacks cruise missile capabilities at the moment as well it also does not have ballistic missile systems.
As the world struggles to cope with the pandemic, global order is apprehensive of China’s intentions and motives. In May, 2020, Australia was seen flex its military might into the South China Sea along with the United States for conducting of an exercise. This maneuvering of its military might came just after China was seen flexing its muscles in the South China Sea by setting up two administrative bodies in the disputed Sea. However, if Australia has to impose a tough challenge to China’s military might, it would need more efficient offensive capabilities. Moreover, the United States is working on capabilities that will enhance its ability to fight ‘Air Sea Battle’- a strategy developed by the United States to counter enemy’s ‘anti access area denial’ (A2/AD) methods, and hence, if Australia has to play a relevant role along with US alliance, it too would need to develop credible ‘Air Sea Battle’ capabilities to deny adversaries of gaining advantage in A2/AD capabilities.
The LRASM is capable of detecting and destroying specific targets within groups of ships and this is done with the help of advanced technologies that minimises the dependence on intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms. These advanced technologies also minimises the reliance of the missile system on network links and GPS navigation in electronic warfare, thereby making them more hassle-free to operate and less complexities to deal with and at the same time ensuring that the credibility of the missile system should adversaries manage jamming of related systems. Less complexities in weapon systems in manoeuvre warfare and blitzkrieg kind of warfare means the weapon can reach its targets with precision and speed.
These are great weapons against time sensitive and mobile targets including maritime targets. The missile is reported to be used for F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft that would provide greater capability to Australia to protect its sea lanes of communication. In addition, since the missile is air launched, it would provide the aircraft with stand-off capability, hence, the aircraft and cause destruction to its target from a considerable range thereby, preventing the aircraft from a possible enemy attack. The missile’s stealth features and its ability to discriminate between friend and foe are praise worthy. The missile along with BAE Systems’ long-range sensor and targeting technology that provides the LRASM better scope of detection and engagement of protected ships in all weather conditions and also during the day and night time and does not rely on external intelligence and navigation data making it a much less complex missile system as a whole to operate.
Detection and destruction of targeted ships from between other ships is done with the help of advanced anti-jam Global Positioning System (GPS). There are also passive RF sensors that allow the missiles evade enemy defence systems and also track and pick the accurate target for attacking. The missile is a low cost and low risk as well as low complexity oriented missile system. Advanced multi-sensor seekers would enable the missiles from differentiating between decoyed targets and also reduce the scope of missing of hitting of target by fusing information from on-board sensors along with data-linked targeting updates. Imaging Infra-Red Seekers (IIR) ensures that the missile is capable of not just hitting a target but the particular location where the target is to be hit. The missile also contains an altimeter and an uprated power system. The missile is capable of flying at medium altitude and then drop to low altitude “for a sea skimming approach” in order to “counter ship-board anti-missile defences.”
The missile is also equipped with a penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead that would enhance the missile’s combat capability by leaps and bounds and also is equipped with precision routing and guidance, multi-modal sensor suite and weapon data link. The missile is also compatible with Vertical Launch Systems (VLS) Mk.41 canisters and hence, in future, the sea-launched version can be launched from Royal Australian Navy’s Air Warfare Destroyers. Should the missiles be canister launched in the near future, their maintenance and ruggedness would be better even after some years of its operation. Moreover, such missiles will offer the destroyers safety against direct counter fires from adversaries.
Though the missile at the moment travels sub sonic speeds, in future they could travel hypersonic speeds. Hence, if Australia wants to become a contender in the hypersonic arms race, it could be interested in the future hypersonic version of the missile system too in case they are developed.
There is little doubt that the new cruise missile would provide Australian air power stronger conventional deterrence and in future if navy acquired sea- launched versions, it would increase the deterrence capability of Australia’s navy too to pose a tough challenge against China’s growing military power in its neighbourhood.