The Japanese navy has one major mission in wartime: To bottle up the Chinese fleet, preventing Beijing’s warships from reaching the open Pacific Ocean.
Which is why Japanese planners take anti-ship missiles very, very seriously. And why, last year, the Japanese defense ministry took a hard look at its newest anti-ship missile design … and decided to go back to the drawing board.
The ASM-3 lacked range, the ministry decided. Rather than field the missile in its current, 100-mile incarnation, officials sent the weapon back to Mitsubishi Heavy Industries with one major note.
Make the missile fly twice as far without making it much bigger.
A year later, the ASM-3 has reappeared. In mid-July, Japan’s state minister for national defense, Tomohiro Yamamoto, posted a photo on social media depicting an F-2 with the redesigned ASM-3 under its wing.
It’s apparent from the photo that the new version of the missile is fatter than the original version was, implying engineers packed a bigger rocket motor into its roughly 17-foot length.
The ASM-3 flies at a top speed of Mach 3, making it very difficult to intercept. But reaching that speed requires a novel propulsion system. A solid-fuel rocket booster fires first, accelerating the missile to high supersonic speed.
That’s when an air-breathing ramjet takes over, feeding off the same solid fuel but adding compressed air for sustained, powerful thrust. The ASM-3’s combined-cycle propulsion explains why it looks like a tiny spaceship.
The missile follows GPS coordinates to the target zone then switches on a radar for terminal guidance. Its warhead-size is classified, but could be hundreds of pounds—enough to sink or disable many warships with a single hit.
For all this capability, the ASM-3 still fits under the wing of an F-2 fighter, its primary carrier. It’s too big to fit in the weapons bay of an F-35 stealth fighter, which is why Tokyo is buying subsonic Joint Strike Missiles for its F-35s.
Presumably, compatibility with the ASM-3 will be a requirement for Japan’s new F-3 stealth fighter. The defense ministry has already test-flown the old version of the ASM-3. The new version soon could begin trials.
Now boasting a 200-mile range—twice its original specification—the ASM-3 could become Japan’s most powerful anti-ship missile. If the unthinkable occurs and the United States and Japan ever go to war with China, the ASM-3 could be among the most decisive munitions in the bloody battle for control of the China Seas.
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