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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven
(Washington, D.C.)The Pentagon has shot off a developing land-fired cruise missile in a successful test of an emerging land-fired variant of a Tomahawk missile able to hit long-range targets from safer distances and potentially complement Air Force and Army medium-range weapons now under development,
“The test missile exited its ground mobile launcher and accurately impacted its target after more than 500 kilometers of flight. Data collected and lessons learned from this test will inform the Department of Defense's development of future intermediate-range capabilities,” an Aug. 19 DoD statement said. The flight test was of a conventionally-configured ground-launched cruise missile at San Nicolas Island, California, the Pentagon added.
The Pentagon’s emerging land-fired variant of a Tomahawk cruise missile could further fortify the strategic attack mission envelope introduced by new Army and Air Force weapons -- such as the Army Long Range Precision Fires and Air Force Long-Range Stand-Off weapon -- designed to enable offensive attack in well-defended areas presenting great danger in the event of close-in contact. Much like the recently shot-off Pentagon cruise missile, LRPF and LRSO give Commanders a wider range of options than most conventional weapons, such as hitting enemy air defenses, installations, command and control centers and other high-value targets. For instance, there may be instances in which enemy air defenses make it difficult for U.S. planes to operate overhead, or various combat conditions precluding maritime Tomahawks from firing from Navy ships or submarines.
Pentagon officials are discussing the success of the test and beginning to explore ways to build upon its promise.
“We will take all the data they are gathering and fold that information into any future weapons evaluations we are going to be doing,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Robert Carver, told Warrior.
Carver added that data evaluations will look at results such as precision targeting, trajectory and damage impact, among other things.
In fact, Carver said that the emerging land-fired cruise missile is an especially configured variant of the Tomahawk cruise missile, designed to bring new elements to ground attack. Block IV Tomahawks are well known for GPS targeting accuracy, long-range precision, a two-way data link and an ISR-oriented "loiter" technology enabling commanders to see video of battle damage or surveil targets in flight.
A 500km land-fired cruise missile brings a number of substantial implications, the first and foremost of which is introducing a counter weapon, or deterrent, to Russia’s well-documented testing of medium-range land-fired missiles in violation of the INF treaty. The test, therefore, marks the first time the U.S. has fired a weapon of this range since stepping back from the INF treaty. More specifically, Russian testing of medium-range land-fired cruise missiles have presented a substantial threat to NATO and U.S.-allied Eastern European countries.
This new weapon could open up offensive attack nuances, for instance, should there be a need to attack Russian force concentrations massing in Eastern Europe and launching attacks, a land-based cruise missile would offer advantageous strike possibilities.
This land-fired Tomahawk variant aligns with and complements several other weapons systems now being tested and developed, the Army’s now-in-development Long Range Precision Fires (LRPF) and the Air Force’s air-launched cruise missile called the Long-Range Stand-Off weapon. Much like the recently shot-off Pentagon cruise missile, LRPF and LRSO give Commanders a wider range of options than most conventional weapons, such as hitting enemy air defenses, installations, command and control centers and other high-value targets.
Army Long Range Precision Fires
Interestingly, the effort parallels several current air and ground weapons initiatives aimed at introducing longer-range fires for the U.S. military. The Army’s LRPF weapons development program, now being prototyped and heavily emphasized as a priority for the former Army Secretary Esper (current SecDef), will be shot off by next year. While a rocket and not a cruise missile, likely relying upon different kinds of propulsion and flight trajectory, the LRPF does seem to complement the emergence of a medium-range cruise missile. If offers what might be called an in-between possibility wherein long-range ballistic missiles might not be necessary, yet targets are sufficiently out of range for artillery or other land-fired rockets.
Similar to the emerging Pentagon cruise missile test, the LRFP is planned to fire at ranges out to 500km.
The emerging LRPF, slated to be operational by 2027, draws upon next-generation guidance technology and weapons construction as part of an effort to engineer a sleek, high-speed, first-of-its-kind long-range ground launched attack missile able to pinpoint and destroy enemy bunkers, helicopter staging areas, troop concentrations and other fixed-location targets from as much as three times the range of existing weapons, service officials said.
Long-range surface-to-surface fires, many contend, could likely be of great significance against an adversary such as Russia - a country known to possess among the most advanced air defenses in the world. Such a scenario might make it difficult for the US to quickly establish the kind of air supremacy needed to launch sufficient air attacks. As a result, it is conceivable that LRPF could provide strategically vital stand-off attack options for Commanders moving to advance on enemy terrain.
In addition, there may also be some instances where a long-range cruise missile - such as a submarine or ship-fired Tomahawk - may not be available; in this instance, LRPF could fill a potential tactical gap in attack plans.
Raytheon and Lockheed are both working on prototypes of the weapons; the new weapon is designed to replace the Army’s current aging 1980’s era MGM-140 Army Tactical Missile System, a ground-launched missile able to fire at least 160km.
LRPF missile will have a newer explosive warhead and guidance technology aimed at providing an all-weather, 24/7, precision surface-to-surface deep-strike capability, an Army weapons developer told Warrior in a previous discussion.
“The LRPF will replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) capability, which is impacted by the age of the ATACMS inventory and the cluster munition policy that removes all M39 and M39A1 ATACMS from the inventory after 2018,” the official added.
In addition, the LRPF will fire from two existing Army launchers, the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System and the M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System, among other emerging possibilities Army weapons developers say.
As of last year, Lockheed statements on their weapons stated that their emerging prototype missile system includes a Launch Pod Missile Container and a fully-integrated surface-to-surface guided missile that will be compatible with the Multiple Launch Rocket System MLRS M270A1 and M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System HIMARS launchers.
Longer-term, the Army is beginning to explore the use of a "dual-pulse" motor for the LRPF; one motor brings the weapon along a certain trajectory to then be replaced by another motor better suited to propel the missile through higher altitudes with lighter air.
As part of a concurrent effort, the Army is also now upgrading ATACMs with new guidance technology and a proximity fuse to fill the near term weapons gap until LRPF arrives.
The U.S. Army was among the first ever to deploy land-fired precision weaponry such as the GPS-guided Excalibur precision 155m artillery round and the longer-range Guided Multiple Launch Rocket System, or GMLRS. These weapons, which were first used in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 2006 through 2009 timeframe, ushered in the advent of a new kind of weapon engineered to give Commanders more attack options and pinpoint enemy targets with great precision from long distances. In fact, among other things, GMLRS successfully destroyed Taliban targets in Afghanistan.
While Excalibur and GMLRS are engineered to hit 30 km and 70 km respectively, they did bring a substantially new precision land attack option to Army Commanders who previously relied upon “dumber” artillery and rockets principally used as “area-fire” weapons enabling troops to maneuver.
While precision fires of this kind would, quite naturally, be useful in full-scale mechanized force-on-force combat – they proved particularly useful in counterinsurgency attacks as Taliban and Iraqi insurgents deliberately blended-in with innocent civilians among local populations. As a result, precision attacks became necessary, even vital, to U.S. combat success.
Long-Range Stand-Off Weapon
As an air-launched equivalent, the Air Force has been working with industry on prototyping and design work on the emerging Long Range Stand-Off weapon nuclear-armed cruise missile, set to enter into a new phase of construction by 2022, service officials said. While this weapon will be armed with nuclear weapons for large-scale strategic deterrence purposes, it is also being built with a conventional attack possibility.
Interestingly, while the LRSO is listed as having the technical capacity to hit ranges out to 1,500 miles, it also of course can function as a medium-range weapon in the vicinity of 500 km as well.
Raytheon and Lockheed, are now working on a $900 million Technology Maturation and Risk Reduction deal for the LRSO.
Due to emerging nuclear and conventional weapons threats, the Air Force now envisions an operational LRSO by the end of the 2020s - as opposed to prior thoughts that it may not be ready until the 2030s.
Air Force officials tell Warrior Maven that plans to move into the Engineering and Manufacturing Development phase are on track for 2022.
US Air Force weapons developers believe the emerging Long-Range Stand-Off weapon will enable strike forces to attack deep within enemy territory and help overcome high-tech challenges posed by emerging adversary air defenses.
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A cruise missile armed with conventional weapons could, among many things, potentially hold targets at risk which might be inaccessible to certain stealth aircraft, given the growing pace at which modern air defenses are able to detect a wider range of aircraft - to include the possibility of detecting some stealth bombers.
As a result, senior Air Force leaders continue to argue that engineering a new, modern Long-Range Standoff weapon may be one of a very few assets, weapons or platforms able to penetrate emerging high-tech air defenses.
The LRSO will be developed to replace the aging AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile or ALCM, currently able to fire from a B-52. The AGM-86B has far exceeded its intended life span, having emerged in the early 1980s with a 10-year design life, Air Force statements said.
Unlike the ALCM which fires from the B-52, the LRSO will be configured to fire from B-52 and B-21 bombers as well, service officials said; both the ALCM and LRSO are designed to fire both conventional and nuclear weapons.
While Air Force officials say that the current ALCM remains safe, secure and effective, it is facing sustainment and operational challenges against evolving threats, service officials also acknowledge.
-- Some background portions of this story first appeared last year --
Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army - Acquisition, Logistics& Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.