Australia to buy LRASM; Unveils Strategic Plan

 - July 3, 2020, 5:36 AM
An F/A-18F Super Hornet of U.S. Navy test squadron VX-23 releases an AGM-158C LRASM during trials. (Photo: Naval Air Systems Command)

The Australian Department of Defence (DoD) is to buy an unspecified number of the Lockheed Martin AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), the country's defense minister, Linda Reynolds, confirmed on July 2. A Foreign Military Sales deal to sell 200 LRASMs to Australia was approved by the U.S. State Department in February. In Australian service, the LRASM will initially arm the Boeing F/A-18F Super Hornet, but will subsequently be integrated to other platforms. The Boeing P-8A Poseidon and Lockheed Martin F-35A are likely candidates.

LRASM is based on the AGM-158B JASSM-ER air-to-ground cruise missile but incorporates a radar seeker and other sensors to attack ships. Transiting at medium altitude before flying a sea-skimming terminal approach, the LRASM has a range of at least 200nm (370km), considerably greater than the current AGM-84 Harpoon it will supplant and providing the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) with the ability to command large areas of ocean.

The acquisition of LRASM is consistent with a new Defence Strategic Update and Force Structure Plan that were published by the DoD on July 1. While Australia’s forces have been undergoing a modernization as a result of the 2016 Defence White Paper, the new documents acknowledge that the country’s “strategic environment has deteriorated more rapidly than anticipated”, and that “our region is in the midst of the most consequential strategic realignment since the Second World War … the Indo-Pacific region is at the center of greater strategic competition.” Moreover, the papers highlight the expansion of regional “grey zone” activities. As a result, the documents set out plans to accelerate the reinforcement of Australia’s own forces, and also to strengthen its ties with the United States and regional allies.

In terms of the air domain, Australia’s plan underlines its commitment to the Lockheed Martin F-35A fighter, with efforts to procure a successor to begin sometime in the second half of the next decade. Additional combat capability through “teaming air vehicles” is also on the table for introduction later in the 2020s. A replacement for the EA-18G Growler is to be sought from around 2028 and, in the meantime, upgrades are being funded. A high-speed long-range strike capability is planned for imminent funding, including research into hypersonic weapons.

In terms of ISR (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance) the RAAF is shortly to induct the General Atomics MQ-9B Sky Guardian armed remotely piloted aircraft system, with this certifiable version being chosen in preference to the USAF-standard MQ-9A Reaper, along with four MC-55A Peregrines, the latter being based on Gulfstream G550 aircraft outfitted by L3Harris for electronic surveillance. Additional ISR capability is planned for later this decade.

Air surveillance is to be increased through the expansion of the Jindalee Operational Radar Network to provide wide-area coverage of Australia’s eastern approaches. The Boeing E-7A Wedgetail airborne early warning fleet is to receive upgrades, with a successor sought from 2028/29. Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Tritons and P-8A Poseidons will continue to provide maritime patrol capability, with the government to “keep under review the future balance [between the two] in light of emerging technological and strategic change.” Last month Australia ordered a third Triton from its currently planned total of six.

In the air mobility arena the RAAF expects to receive a new airlifter to replace the Lockheed Martin C-130J, funded from around 2029, and a replacement for the Airbus KC-30A tanker/transport from 2033. In the meantime, air mobility assets will continue to receive upgrades, including a “large aircraft countermeasures system” across the fleet.

However, Australia has decided against procuring two additional KC-30As, as originally outlined in the 2016 White Paper, preferring to allocate some of the funds to improve the readiness of the existing seven-aircraft fleet. Neither will a dedicated long-range search and rescue capability be pursued, this task to form part of the planning for the airlifter replacement instead.