The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) transits the eastern Pacific Ocean. Gabrielle Giffords is deployed to the U.S. 4th Fleet area of operations to support Joint Interagency Task Force South’s mission. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Allen Michael Amani)

The ship-mounted, over-the-horizon Naval Strike Missile (NSM) is a four-metre long, 880-pound weapon that features a launch phase solid-propellant rocket motor booster and a sustained flight JP-10 fuelled turbo-jet engine that enable speeds between 537 and 690 mph. 

NSM has a programmable fuze and a 276-pound fragmentation warhead, which includes an ability to penetrate prior to detonation for maximum destructive effect.

It is also specifically engineered with a low radar signature and an ability to operate close to the surface in sea-skimming mode to elude enemy radar. 

A weapon that would be very effective, if it was ever needed in the Taiwan Strait, or in the South China Sea — or anywhere that floats a boat, in fact.

According to Naval Recognition, “it climbs and descends with the terrain and performs evasive maneuvers to counter the world’s most capable defense systems.

“NSM possesses the capability to identify targets down to ship class — a feature that is vitally important to warfighters who must strike only specific, selected targets in congested, contested and denied environments.”

Take all that into account, and it’s no wonder the US Navy is maximizing its multi-domain capabilities by arming its Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) with the NSM, Defense Editor Kris Osborn of National Interest reported.

Navy officials are hoping to achieve the new attack levels by improving its connections with other weapons systems, command and control technologies, and “nodes” operating within a broader maritime warfare network.  

“We have proven NSM and are increasing the ability to interface with more missiles than what is on LCS. We are integrating it within the combat system,” Capt. Jason Kipp, program manager, PEO Integrated Warfare Systems, told an audience at the Navy’s Sea Air Space Symposium.  

The Independence-variant littoral combat ship USS Gabrielle Giffords (LCS 10) conducts routine operations in the South China Sea. Gabrielle Giffords, part of Destroyer Squadron Seven, is on a rotational deployment, operating in the U.S. 7th Fleet area of operations. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brenton Poyser/Released)

The NSM, the result of a Raytheon-Kongsberg partnership, can fire as far as one hundred nautical miles and is being integrated onto the Navy’s entire fleet of Independence-variant LCS, Osborn writes.  

And it is no coincidence, none, that the Navy’s is to better arm the entire surface fleet with offensive and defensive weapons intended to improve the ship’s attack reach, blue-water combat capability, and, of course “island hopping” land-attacks — a development that will no doubt cause concern in Beijing.

“Over the last years, we have accelerated that install,” Kipp said. “We are working with PACFLEET to arm every Independent variant with NSM before she goes (deploys).”

Kipp also noted that the promise of the NSM weapon is inspiring a current Marine Corps effort to fire off a land-based, transportable variant of the missile called the Ground-Based Anti-Ship Missile (GBASM), Osborn writes.  

The Marine Corps GBASM will be a disaggregated, multi-domain mix of combat tactics and variables to include advanced maritime, air and land-based operations, including an ability for newer kinds of land-sea island-hopping amphibious attack wherein Marines and even heavy weapons transport and transition quickly from sea to shore and back.

This kind of tactical dynamic, which would of course apply to littoral land-sea island strips such as those in the South China Sea, is likely emerging due to the decided recognition that adversaries operate with advanced weapons and platforms capable of threatening amphibious forces in new ways, Osborn writes.  

Additionally, these kinds of threat scenarios are also likely formed the conceptual foundation for the Marine Corps’ emerging Light Amphibious Warship, a now-in-development platform intended to pick up and transport Marines and weapons in an agile, fast, multi-domain and expeditionary way.

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Currently, even surface warfare variants of the LCS rely on relatively small-caliber 57-millimeter guns and Hellfire missiles only capable of engaging enemies a few miles away.

That’s a big shortcoming considering even much smaller corvettes and missile boats operated by China, Iran and Russia can carry powerful anti-ship missiles with ranges measured in the dozens or even hundreds of miles.

Sébastien Roblin at National Interest says despite the good stealth and speed characteristics of littoral combat ships, the LCSs would have been reduced to bringing the proverbial knife to a swordfight (or literally, guns to a missile fight) even when confronting much smaller and/or less sophisticated surface adversaries.

NSMs are also deployed on ten Royal Norwegian Navy frigates and missile boats, and will be deployed on fifteen forthcoming Canadian Type 26 frigates, all but one of the German Navy’s twelve frigates, and eight Royal Malaysian Navy Maharaja Lela-class frigates.

The UK is also offering to sell eight NSM-equipped missile boats to Ukraine for US$1.6 billion for deployment in the mid-2020s, while India is expected to procure helicopter-launched NSMs for its new fleet of MH-60R Sea Hawk helicopters.

At  US$2.2 million per missile, the NSM costs over 57% more than a US$1.4 million Harpoon Block II missile but has a proportionately greater range. The NSM’s sensors and stealth characteristics theoretically make it more likely to hit a designated target.

The missile’s IR seeker also has the advantage of being far more discrete than the active radar-seeker on a Harpoon and is unaffected by jamming. The sensor’s classification ability also in theory allows the missile to discriminate against hitting civilian ships, decoys, or low-priority adversaries.

“That’s a game-changer for LCS,” Navy Rear Admiral Casey Moton, the Program Executive Officer for Unmanned and Small Combatants, said in an interview with USNI News in September 2019 regarding the addition of Naval Strike Missiles. “Now, every LCS that’s out there can’t be ignored.”

Sources: National Interest, Breaking Defense, Canadian National Defence, USNI News, The War Zone