The Precision Strike Missile’s rocket booster is so powerful that short-range shots actually put more stress on the weapon than letting it loose to fly its full distance, Lockheed told us.
By SYDNEY J. FREEDBERG JR.on March 19, 2020 at 4:52 PM
WASHINGTON: Lockheed Martin’s Precision Strike Missile – competing against Raytheon to replace the Reagan-era ATACMS – flew about 150 miles (240 km) in its first flight test last December. It hit 112 miles (180 km) in its second test March 10th. It’ll go just 53 miles (85 km) in its third test and final shot of the year this May, the company’s VP for precision fires told me.
An Army HIMARS launcher fires Lockheed’s prototype Precision Strike Missile for the first time in December, 2019.
Waiut a second, aren’t you going backwards? Especially now that the INF Treaty’s decades-old ban on tactical missiles going more than 310 miles (500 km) is over, don’t you want to keep going at longer and longer distances?
Not at all, Lockheed VP Gaylia Campbell told me in an interview. (We spoke by phone this week in lieu of the company’s planned press briefing at the cancelled AUSA Global conference in Huntsville).
On the 10th, “we had a great shot, right in line with our simulations and predictions,” Campbell said. The May show, she went on, will “be an exciting flight as well, because the short range puts a lot of stress on the missile. You have the same rocket motor, but you’re going up and down much more quickly.”
“The shorter you pull in the range, you’re putting more stress on the missile,” she explained. “We were able to see the effects of that going from 240 to 180 on the second flight, and then we’ll see even more effect of that going to 85 km on the next.”
In other words, the rocket booster for Lockheed’s PrSM prototype is so powerful that it’s easier to let it rip for a hundred miles or more than to it is to make it hit a target at shorter ranges. You don’t want to slow the missile down, because that makes it easier for the enemy to intercept. So, instead you send it up at the normal speed only to snap it back down again. It’s the missile equivalent of a stuntman driving a Ferrari at 180 mph, not on the Autobahn, but around a suburban parking lot.
That’s counterintuitive, but it speaks to the sheer power and speed the Army is getting in its next-generation Long-Range Precision Fires, the service’s No. 1 modernization priority. LRPF is a portfolio combining three major programs, all three of which are scheduled to enter service, albeit in small numbers, in 2023:
- For tactical shots, there’s Extended Range Cannon Artillery (ERCA), entering service in an upgrade that so far doubles the range of Army howitzers to over 40 miles (65 km). Future upgrades like ramjet-boosted shells – still cheaper than PrSM – may take howitzer range even farther, but for now, PrSM needs to be able to hit those 50-mile targets so there isn’t a gap in the Army’s artillery coverage.
- On the operational scale, there’s the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), the all-new replacement for the Reagan-era Army Tactical Missile System. While ATACMS has a 186-mile maximum range (300 km), PrSM will fly over 300 miles (500+ km), with subsequent upgrades adding the capability to hit warships and other moving targets. PrSM will also be smaller than ATACMS, allowing twice as many to fit on existing Army and Marine Corps launcher vehicles. (Both models, the wheeled HIMARS and the tracked MLRS, are built by Lockheed).
- For strategic fires, there’s the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), being developed in concert with the Navy, that will use a conventional rocket booster to launch a “glide body” to the edge of space, where it will coast for over a thousand miles, at more than five times the speed of sound, before coming down to strike. Hypersonics aren’t replacing any existing system. They represent an entirely new form of weapon.
Lockheed Martin graphic
Long-Range Precision Fires, in turn, is intimately connected with the No. 3 modernization priority, Future Vertical Lift aircraft, for which its precision strikes are expected to carve a path through enemy air defenses, and with No. 4, the network, which will have to pass vast amounts of targeting data – much of it via Space Force satellites – to the long-range weapons in near-real time.
With Russia, China, North Korea, and even Iran accumulating their own arsenals of increasingly precise ballistic and cruise missiles, LRPF is an urgent priority for the Army. That shows in how Lockheed has conducted its test program.
Normally with a new missile, you’d first do an “egress” test – without any actual explosive – just to make sure it properly cleared the launcher. Then you’d do a separate test to check the guidance system. Only then, no earlier than the third flight test, would you install a live warhead and see if the fully assembled weapon could actually destroy a simulated target.
Explosion from the “arena” test of Lockheed’s Precision Strike Missile (PrSM) warhead.
With PrSM, “we did it all on the very first flight,” Campbell told me. “The speed that we’re moving is really almost unprecedented.”
Campbell would know. As VP of precision fires in Lockheed Martin’s Missiles & Fire Control division, she’s been with the company for 33 years in the company, much of it working on software for ATACMS, HIMARS, and other Army missile systems. She started with Lockheed part-time as a college freshman.
This year’s three flight tests constitute the program’s Technical Maturation and Risk Reduction (TMRR) phase. There’ll be three more flight tests next year at various ranges – including one in which two missiles are fired from a single pod – as part of Enhanced Technical Maturation Risk Reduction. But why wait?
“That is really just to order the parts for the missiles…and integrate the parts,” Campbell said. After the first successful flight test, the Army swiftly awarded Lockheed Martin a contract a Long Lead Items contract to start work on the most time-consuming parts, but it’ll be months yet before the next batch of prototypes is ready for testing.
The missiles that fly in 2021 will be built to the same plans as the ones fired in 2020. “Right now, these flight tests have been very successful,” Campbell said, “so we are taking the same design that we have today into these future flights.”
Click below to watch an earlier interview we did with Campbell on the Lockheed PrSM program, from the pre-coronavirus days of AUSA’s 2019 annual conference: