The U.S. Navy has begun testing a new, radar-evading, air-launched anti-ship missile — a big step forward in the sailing branch's march toward a more lethal fleet. In the next few years, the Navy could add three new ship-killing weapons to its warplanes and surface ships, augmenting existing Harpoon missiles that began entering service in 1977 and today are badly outclassed by Chinese- and Russian-made designs.

On Aug. 12, Navy testers at Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland began experimenting with an inert missile body modeled on Lockheed Martin's Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM. The testers fitted the mock munition to an F/A-18E Super Hornet fighter belonging to Air Test and Evaluation Squadron 23.

LRASM compatability test | (Navy/Courtesy

"The program's flight test team conducted missile load and fit checks using a mass simulator vehicle, designed to emulate LRASM, in preparation for the first phase of airworthiness testing with the F/A-18E/F scheduled to begin later this month," the Navy reported.

"These initial fit checks will familiarize the test team with the proper loading, unloading and handling of the LRASM on the F/A-18E/F," said Greg Oliver, LRASM Deployment Office assistant program manager for test and evaluation.

LRASM, a modified version of a U.S. Air Force cruise missile, began development in 2009 as a research project under the auspices of the fringe-science Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Fourteen feet long and weighing around one ton, the subsonic, sea-skimming LRASM can fly farther than 200 miles, two or three times the range of a Harpoon. With GPS-aided inertial guidance, an infrared seeker and a 1,000-pound warhead, LRASM — which costs around $2 million per missile — is designed to be launched from outside the range of the target ship's own weapons and avoid detection during flight.

LRASM | (Lockheed/Courtesy

In 2014, the Navy decided LRASM was good enough for limited use and ordered it into small-scale production as an urgent replacement for Harpoon missiles. The fleet should receive its first copies for operational use in 2019.

But in the meantime, the Navy is considering other options for future ship-killing munitions. In January 2015, the Navy modified one of its Tomahawk Block IV land-attack cruise missiles with new communications and targeting systems and struck a moving barge target in a test.

The January trial proved that, with some rework, the Raytheon-built Tomahawk — the Navy's standard land-attack missile, with a range of no less than a thousand miles — can also function as a far-reaching anti-ship weapon.

The Navy already has thousands of Tomahawk in its inventory. The cruise missiles can be launched by submarines, surface ships, and Air Force heavy bombers.

Defense Department deputy secretary Robert Work called the January trial a "game-changer." The Tomahawk is less stealthy than the LRASM but is half as expensive per munition and apparently can fly farther.

Vice Adm. Joseph Aucoin, the deputy chief of naval operations, told Breaking Defense that the Navy should consider competing the LRASM against the modified Tomahawk in a competition for a follow-on anti-ship missile after the sailing branch finishes buying its initial batch of LRASMs.

At the same time, according to Breaking Defense the Navy has hinted that it is tweaking its SM-6 ship-launched surface-to-air missiles with additional guidance gear, making it possible for the high-tech missile-interceptors to also strike enemy vessels — albeit at great cost. Each SM-6 costs $4 million.

From a geriatric and limited anti-ship missile arsenal just a few years ago, today the Navy is well on its way toward rearming with potentially three new ship-killing munitions — each more lethal than the old Harpoon.

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