Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Threat Requires Navy, Space Force Cooperation
American naval forces face an unprecedented threat from Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles
February 6, 2021
The U.S. Navy views China’s anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) capabilities with great concern. The United States has been able to project power all over the world with carrier strike groups (CSG)—an aircraft carrier with layered defenses. CSGs are more secure than land bases—it’s harder to destroy something that moves—and would allow aircraft to hit hundreds of targets daily for months.
China’s military considers its ASBMs “trump cards” against the U.S. Navy’s ability to deploy its ships off the Chinese coast, according to Andrew S. Erickson, a scholar of Chinese military strategy who taught at the U.S. Naval War College.
“I’m not going to get [into] much more detail of what we know and don’t know about it. But they’re pouring a lot of money into the ability to basically rim their coast in the South China Sea with anti-ship missile capability. It’s a destabilizing effort in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, all those areas. When their claims of some of these contested islands—they’re militarizing those areas,” Vice Adm. Jeffrey Trussler, deputy chief of naval operations for information warfare, said at a virtual event hosted by the Intelligence and National Security Alliance.
“It’s something that confuses the international order and concerns the allies in the region. It’s one reason we work to keep the global commons open and the free flow of traffic.”
ASBMs are a greater threat compared to conventional anti-ship missiles and can be launched from well outside the 100 nautical mile maximum range of the SPY-1 Aegis radars. These radars are mounted on fleet escorts such as the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The Chinese DF-21D missile has a range of 1,300 miles while the DF-26 has a range of 2,400 miles. This gives them the ability to launch a surprise attack that could make it harder to defend the fleet against.
These weapons can be fired from mobile launchers. Experience from the 1991 Persian Gulf War showed that finding mobile missile launchers to destroy them can be among the most challenging things to do in a combat situation, because they can move and can be a bit like finding a needle in a haystack.
The U.S. Navy currently has 48 Aegis-equipped vessels capable of fielding the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) system (pdf) that could intercept missiles and protect U.S. carriers and other warships. That number is projected to increase to 65 by 2025, and seven Japanese destroyers also have the BMD system. This system proved its worth during a November test. A Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) on the destroyer USS John Finn successfully intercepted an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that had been launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. However, serious upgrades of their capability to negate China’s ASBM advantages are needed.
Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, noted that “You can’t shoot what you don’t see.” Space Force-controlled ballistic-missile launch detection satellites provide the fastest and most accurate missile defense. Hill stressed the need for cooperation between space assets and the Aegis system last August. Space assets are crucial because they can see targets beyond the range of the ship’s radar.
A year ago, the infant Space Force played an integral role in alerting American forces in Iraq that Iranian ballistic missiles were inbound. This warning saved lives and kept casualties to a minimum. Space Force must do the same to support the Navy’s fleet activities in the Chinese theater of operations in the Western Pacific, Taiwan Strait, South China Sea, and the East China Sea.
Last August, China proved its “carrier killers” could hit moving ships when it test-fired its DF-21D and DF-26 ASBMs at targets located between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea. China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) fired the DF-26 from a base in northwestern China’s Qinghai province and the DF-21D from a base in the country’s Zhejiang province, located north of Taiwan.
The DF-26 can carry a nuclear warhead and can conduct precision strikes in the Western Pacific, Indian Ocean, and the South China Sea while remaining safely deep inside Chinese territory, the Pentagon’s 2020 report (pdf) on Chinese military power states.
Intelligence analysis suggests that the DF-21D’s warhead can maneuver like an aircraft through the atmosphere upon re-entry, which makes it harder for defenders to kill. China is believed to have approximately 94 launchers capable of firing the DF-21D missile. This necessitates the development of improved abilities to track and shoot down the hypersonic glide vehicles, capable of traveling at between Mach 5 and 10, or between 3,806 and 7,680 miles per hour, that are deployed by the DF-21D. By comparison, jetliners travel at 0.785 Mach or 583 miles per hour.
The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) awarded a contract to Aerojet Rocketdyne a year ago to develop an interceptor to negate the advantage of hypersonic weapons under its Glide Breaker program. A sea-based component of this program that can counter theater-based weapons systems like the DF-21D is a must. These improvements are crucial due to the short time between when the PLA would launch its ASBMs and when they would be in range for the Aegis system to intercept before they disable American carriers or other warships. A change in thinking is required such that the BMD can counter ICBM threats to the U.S. homeland and to the fleet.
U.S. missile defense almost exclusively focuses on strategic threats from Russian and other nuclear missiles. The way the BMD system is deployed must be entirely re-evaluated, and neutralizing China’s ASBM advantage must be the top priority. If aircraft carriers are vulnerable, America’s ability to protect itself is, and ensuring freedom of navigation for the rest of the world will be in jeopardy.
John Rossomando is a senior analyst for defense policy at the Center for Security Policy and served as senior analyst for counterterrorism at The Investigative Project on Terrorism for eight years.