USAF Selects Ellsworth AFB's Supersonic Bomber Fleet To Test Anti-Ship Stealth Missile

Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) authorized Ellsworth Air Force Base (AFB), a United States Air Force base located about 10 miles northeast of Rapid City, South Dakota, to test the AGM-158C Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), according to an AFGSC memo released June 12.

A Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) launches from an Air Force B-1B Lancer during flight testing in August 2013. (Source: DARPA)

The host unit at Ellsworth is the 28th Bomb Wing (28 BW), consisting of a fleet of Rockwell B-1 Lancers, a supersonic variable-sweep wing, heavy bomber, which is currently the first airframe to train and qualify on the LRASM. AFGSC said the 28 BW started training last week, as it is the first time the anti-ship cruise missile has gone from test to operational fielding.

“We are excited to be the first aircraft in the US Air Force to train on the weapon,” said Col. John Edwards, 28th Bomb Wing commander.

“This future addition to the B-1 bombers’ arsenal increases our lethality in the counter-sea mission to support combatant commanders worldwide,” Col. Edwards added.

The LRASM is an air-launched, stealthy anti-ship cruise missile developed by the USAF, Navy, and Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The missile has sophisticated autonomous targeting capabilities via sensors that can identify an enemy vessel and destroy it with a 1,000-pound penetrating warhead.

Video: LRASM Air Launched Flight Testing

It had its first successful test in August 2013, air-launched from a B-1 bomber and destroyed a mock enemy vessel. The LRASM moved at twice the speed of standard acquisition programs, according to Aviation Week. The Pentagon authorized the Navy to put the LRASM into limited production as an operational weapon in February 2016, as an urgent stop-gap solution to the aging Harpoon anti-ship missile. The fielding of the missile started in 2018 on B-1 bombers and is expected to be added to McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet in 2019.

“It gives us the edge back in offensive anti-surface warfare,” Capt. Jaime Engdahl, head of Naval Air Systems Command’s precision-strike weapons office, told Aviation Week in early 2017.

A DARPA fact sheet said, “with the growth of maritime threats in anti-access/area denial environments, this semi-autonomous, air-launched anti-ship missile promises to reduce dependence on external platforms and network links in order to penetrate sophisticated enemy air-defense systems.”

To sum up, the Pentagon failed to modernize its anti-ship missiles in the last several decades, as China and Russia have recently gained a technological edge. The LRASM’s acquisition time from development to fielding was cut in half, indicating the urgent need to field this weapon. More than likely, the missile is headed on supersonic bombers to the South China Sea to deter further Chinese expansion of its weaponized islands.