The US Navy is starting to deploy new anti-ship missiles and is improving its missile defenses in response to the challenge from China after a number of US Department of Defense-sponsored simulations showed the US would lose in a naval battle with China.
While it is still a few years before full operational capability is reached, the renewed US naval force offers a serious challenge to China’s growing naval power and offers a response to the dire predictions of wargame simulations.
Until recently, the US Navy was increasingly under pressure from the rapid growth and increasing sophistication of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). The rise in China’s intermediate-range “carrier killer” missiles was seen by many analysts as a way to block the use of American aircraft carriers in projecting power near China.
Keeping US carriers away is all-important to China in its ability to threaten Taiwan. While US carriers are far from the only threat to curtailing China’s freedom of action, especially against Taiwan, US carriers can bring hundreds of tactical aircraft to the fight that are more capable and modern than what exists in the Chinese air fleet.
For many years, the US Navy was slow to make changes in its surface force and relied on old systems for offense and defense. The navy also wasted huge resources on failed programs such as the Littoral Combat Ship.
One of the most common anti-ship systems in the US Navy is the Harpoon missile. The Harpoon, which has been in service since 1977, is a sea-skimming missile that flies at Mach 0.71.
It can be launched from ships, large aircraft and submarines. There are more than 7,500 Harpoon missiles in service and many of these have been exported. Harpoons are used by South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, Malaysia, South Korea and Australia.
The Harpoon has undergone numerous upgrades over the years. But the upgrades still the missile with slow flight speed and vulnerability to jamming and deception, making it less than optimal in today’s naval war-fighting environment.
An even greater problem is that the Harpoon does not have a big enough warhead – 488 pounds, or 221 kilograms – to stop large Chinese ships.
That is why the US Navy has hurried the manufacture of the new Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), known as the AGM-158C. But the LRASM now entering service is considered a gap filler.
AGM-158C is manufactured by Lockheed Martin but is based on a design from the Defense Advanced Projects Agency (DARPA). Lockheed was selected without competition due to the navy’s need for an effective stand-off anti-ship missile to meet the China challenge.
While there were protests from competitors such as Northrop and Raytheon, the initial production has gone forward. The navy plans an open competition for the follow-up LRASM (LRASM-2), officially called the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW)/Increment 2 anti-ship missile.
The navy has said it was planning to put the missile on the F-35 – most likely the F-35C, which is the carrier version of the F-35. However, because of the size of the AGM-158C, it would probably need to be carried under the wing of the F-35 and not internally, significantly reducing both the F-35C’s range and defeating its stealth value.
The AGM-158C is a very sophisticated anti-ship missile. It does not require communications in the last segment of its flight profile, uses artificial intelligence, can pinpoint a target through a system of surface vessel recognition – a kind of scene matching – and is capable of picking out a sensitive location on a moving ship such as the flight deck of a carrier or the missile launch system on a corvette.
The system has a warhead of about 450kg, or 1,000lbs, designed to penetrate a ship’s skin and then fragment. the AGM-158C is not supersonic. It flies in what the designers say is high subsonic, which makes it vulnerable to air defense missiles if the AGM-158C is detected.
But the AGM-158C is hard to find on radar, thanks to its semi-stealthy design, and it flies a pattern where it will be difficult to separate the missile from radar clutter as it skims the surface in the terminal phase of its attack.
The navy has other systems in the works including an updated version of the Tomahawk cruise missile. The advantage of the Tomahawk is its strategic range that would put the missile in a position to knock out DF-21D and DF-26B launch sites.
While Chinese missiles are mobile, they are not mobile enough to avoid being hit. With or without the AGM-158C, one big problem facing the navy is how to defend against the DF-21D and the longer-range DF-26B.
Just how much of a problem the DF-21D and DF-26B pose depends on two main factors: the first, whether either missile can really hit a moving target on the high seas; the second, whether China would dare launch the missile from its own territory.
In regard to the first, China has never demonstrated that either of its carrier-killer missiles can hit a moving naval surface target. In itself, this is rather remarkable since China has conducted a number of exercises with these missiles, the most recent being at the end of August.
The DF-21D, and most probably the DF-26B, are partly based on the old US Pershing II, especially the re-entry vehicle. The Russians have said that the best way to intercept the DF missiles is by electronic countermeasures instead of missile intercept.
This may derive from Russian preparation to deal with American deployments of Pershing II missiles in Europe during the Cold War.
In addition, the navy has a terminal interceptor, the SM-6, which can also catch incoming DF-21s and DF-26s. US systems are backed up with very high-quality radars and by satellite observation.
If a DF-21 or DF-26 missile is launched, it should be tracked immediately after launch, making it far easier to defeat. The use of either missile would not be a surprise attack where no response was possible.
Even with the countermeasures, there are reports that the Pentagon has proposed cutting the size of the US carrier fleet, partly in response to China’s missile threat and partly due to questions on whether the carrier fleet is the most cost-effective way to respond to China’s naval expansion.
The Pentagon is also proposing to redefine the US Marine’s mission with significant changes, making the Marines an adjunct to the navy and turning them into long-range missile and gun operators. Both proposals are highly controversial and will have to get US Congress support.
The second issue facing China is whether it can risk a launch of missiles from its territory. If China launched either the DF-21D or DF-26B from the mainland, it would immediately make China’s military, intelligence and critical infrastructure open to attack by US forces, including heavy bombers, cruise missiles and other long-range strike assets.
If an incident occurred on the high seas, the best case scenario for both sides would be to contain the incident and resist escalation. While wargamers may prefer a broad and general conflict, most wars don’t start off either as big or global in scope.
Consequently, if China really wanted to use its carrier killers, it would make sense not to launch them from its own territory so as to avoid retaliation against mainland assets.
China’s air defenses, even augmented with the S-400, are not a match against stealthy B-2s, F-22s or F-35s. One presumes that China knows its limitations and will seek to minimize any outbreak of hostilities and take the possibility of short-term gains without risking a winner-takes-all fight where China is at a disadvantage.
Likewise, there is also the chance the US will misinterpret a Chinese move and strike first. A lot depends on the political level on the balance inside China between its civilian leadership and its military.
On any one day no one can be sure how political-military decisions are made or even who makes them.
In any case, the US Navy’s latest steps in upgrading its offensive and defensive capabilities present a serious challenge to China’s ambitions. That challenge will multiply as hypersonic missiles and glide vehicles enter the inventory.