The Navy is expected to place an order for a new over-the-horizon anti-ship weapon in 2017, but Boeing [BA] is marketing enhancements to the AGM-84A Harpoon missile that it hopes will forestall the service’s appetite for a new weapon.

The Navy’s focus in developing precision strike weapons is on offensive anti-surface ship warfare enhancements to the Harpoon missile, CAPT Jamie Engdahl, the Navy’s program manager for precision strike weapons. Many of the efforts to improve existing weapons are upgrading the targets acquisition and identification systems and GPS integration.

A Harpoon missile is launched from the USS Shiloh in 2014 during a live-fire exercise. Photo: U.S. Navy.
A Harpoon missile is launched from the USS Shiloh in 2014 during a live-fire exercise. Photo: U.S. Navy.

“We know in the budget environment right now, it’s a tough time to start a brand-new weapon program, so we’re looking at the business cases and the affordability of what we’re going to do with the weapons we have in our inventory right now,” he said.

Harpoon IC variant remains relevant to those missions, he said. It can lock onto, track and destroy moving surface ships with an active radar-homing seeker. It is deployable in all weather and is capable of skimming close to the sea, which makes it survivable against heavily defended ships with anti-ship missile defenses.

“We have done continuous upgrades of this capability ever since it was fielded,” he said. “A lot of those are classified, but this thing is relevant in 2016. We have many of them in our inventory and a large international inventory.”

As with many legacy weapon systems, the Navy will keep the Harpoon in its arsenal for decades to come and must figure out ways to increase its effectiveness and versatility. The service is tasked with sustaining Harpoon in one form or another until 2035 on the near end, he said.

“This is kind of the story like the B-52,” he said. “We have a large inventory of Harpoon missiles. We are upgrading our Block 1C missiles to the Block II+ configuration for our air inventory and then we’re continuing to improve the missile where we can.”

Under the Navy’s new doctrine of distributed lethality, wherein every surface combatant is also capable of offensive anti-ship, anti-aircraft and ship-to-shore fire, Harpoon is being integrated on the USS Coronado, an Independence Class Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).

“If it floats, it fights,” is the operable explanation for distributed lethality, and a primary desired capability is an over-the-horizon targeting capability for anti-surface munitions. Within three months, a Harpoon launcher should be installed on the Coronado and be operational, he said. The eventual plan is for every LCS that debarks westward from the United States to have an over-the-horizon offensive capability.

The missile’s unclassified effective range is 67 nautical miles. The Navy wants to lengthen its reach to bolster its deterrent effect in the Asia-Pacific region, he said. That will be accomplished primarily by shrinking the missile’s warhead while maintaining or increasing its potency.

“What we’re seeing as we look at the threats especially in the Pacific theater, is that PACOM has been asking us for quite a few years what can you do about increasing the range of all of our SUW weapons?,” he said. “So that is a real focus here, how do we get more range.”

The Block II+ configuration – which introduced GPS/inertial navigation capability kit flew free for the first time in November and will have its final free-flight test next week, he said. Fielding of the improved variant will being in summer 2017 initially on the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and then on P-8A Poseidon sub hunters. A new radio communication capability will also allow for in-flight targeting updates.

Boeing is developing the Harpoon Block II extended range (ER) variant that will have double the range within the same housing, said Jim Brooks, the company’s cruise missile programs director.

The company is claiming it can meet that mark at half the cost of integrating a new missile, like the naval strike missile being pitched by Raytheon [RTN] and Kongsberg for the Navy’s over-the-horizon

“This is what we believe is the most capable, lowest-cost option for the U.S. Navy for LCS,” Brooks said.

The Navy has about 7,000 Harpoons in its inventory. Boeing is banking on the cost savings associated with developing a retrofit capability enhancement to those legacy weapons to sell its system versus a new-start munition, Brooks said.

There is a large existing international Harpoon market to which Boeing can pitch its upgrades. At least 30 countries currently have more than 4,000 weapons in their naval arsenals. The production line is still hot and humming and currently producing the 90th lot of missiles.

“We just had our preliminary international program review a couple weeks ago,” he said. “There is a lot of interest and a lot of drive for advanced capability, especially extended-range capability coming from our international partners.”