A recent weapons test carried out by the United States' largest defence firm Lockheed Martin saw B-1B Lancer heavy bombers deploy advanced new anti ship cruise missiles for the first time. The weapons test comes following a successful program by China's People's Liberation Army Navy to modify much of its H-6 heavy bomber fleet into heavily armed long range ship hunters. The B-1B, arguably America's most capable bomber today, was much like the H-6 initially designed as a strategic platform for nuclear delivery. A declining need for nuclear delivery aircraft, combined with the upcoming commissioning of the new B-21 strategic bomber, are key factors which very likely influenced the U.S. to seek other uses for its vast fleet of heavy combat aircraft.
The U.S. military today remains one of only four operators of heavy bomber aircraft, and with an intercontinental range and formidable speed and payload the B-1B is capable of serving as a considerable asset to U.S. forces, particularly in the Pacific theatre, as a long range ship hunter. A statement by Lockheed Martin elaborated regarding the testing of anti ship missiles deployed by the B-1B: “the missiles navigated through all planned waypoints, transitioned to mid-course guidance and flew toward the moving maritime target using inputs from the onboard sensors... the missiles then positively identified the intended target and impacted successfully.” The missile platform has been designated AGM-158C, and three consecutive tests have been carried out in the last six months. The weapon is expected to enter service with the United States Navy in 2019, and though it retains a long range its subsonic impact speed leave much to be desired compared to recently developed Chinese analogues for the H-6 which can travel at speeds over four times as fast.
The AGM-158C was designed with standoff capabilities and is capable of carrying out precision strikes on high value naval surface targets within a naval strike group. Alongside its long range, the missile's other noteworthy attribute is its ability to withstand electronic interference, and thus function against near peer naval powers with advanced EW capabilities - a particularly valuable capabilities considering the rapidly advancing electronic warfare capabilities of potential U.S. adversaries. The missile's relatively low speed however leaves it somewhat vulnerable to advanced air defence platforms installed on modern warships such as the Russian S-300F and Chinese HQ-10, while limiting damage done upon impact due to the relatively low kinetic energy imparted.
The origins of the AGM-158C lie in a joint research project carried out by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the U.S. Navy which began in 2009. The project's purpose was to provide the Navy with advanced anti ship missiles capable of targeting adversaries from extreme ranges without exposing launch platforms such as the B-1B to enemy fire. This would theoretically allow American assets to launch missiles and eliminate enemy naval assets with impunity at extreme ranges. The missile carries a 450 kilogram penetrator and blast fragmentation warhead - capable of disabling a medium sized frigate with a single strike despite its low impact speed. Another launch platform, the F-18E Super Hornet, is also expected to deploy the missile from the U.S. Navy's carriers.
Long range air launched anti ship missiles have assumed a renewed importance in recent years, a phenomenon which has accompanied the growing strategic importance of the Pacific theatre and rising regional tensions following the United States' announcement of its military 'Pivot to Asia' in the early 2010s. With the B-1B set to retire from service as a bomber in the near future, other purposes for the advanced aircraft including service as a gunship or a long range are benign considered to avoid scrapping the reliable airframes. China for its part has developed a number of long range ship hunting missiles, the majority being supersonic platforms capable of threatening hostile warships at extreme ranges. This has been key to its anti access area denial capabilities, and advanced missiles such as the YJ-12 have been deployed to island outposts in the South China Sea while heavy bombers capable of long range ship hunting have performed regular overflights of the area.
Another unique weapons system, the Dongfeng-21D 'carrier killer' ballistic missile, has previously been deployed from ground based installations only, but retains a strike range of approximately 1,500km. Recent efforts to modify H-6 bombers to carry ballistic missiles could well be facilitate deployment of these carrier killer ballistic missiles by bombers far out at sea, significantly enhancing their range further still. Russia for its part, another major potential U.S. adversary in the Western Pacific region, in 2018 inducted what is very likely the most capable long range anti ship missile in service anywhere not the world today, the Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic platform which can be deployed by Russian heavy interceptors, has a 2000km range, and is estimated to impact at speeds of Mach 10 or higher. The United States military for will need to induct its AGM-158C into service as soon as possible to retain at least some limited form of parity in the field against the rapidly growing capabilities of its near peer competitors, which put the U.S. Navy's entire Pacific surface fleet at serious risk in the event of war.