Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg Business News reported on Monday that China is “close to fielding the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile.” Citing sources in U.S. naval intelligence, Capaccio stated that the missile would have a range of 1,500 kilometers (900 miles) and be transported on mobile, land-based launchers that are difficult to target in a preemptive or retaliatory strike. The sources believe the missiles were designed to defeat U.S. carrier strike groups. Bloomberg previously reported that the maneuvering warhead for the new missile has been tested three times on the ground since 2006, although it has not yet been flight-tested.
What makes this new missile so worrisome for U.S. naval forces operating in the Western Pacific is that it would combine a long-range, maneuvering warhead with China’s expanding network of surface-based and overhead sensors to precisely target warships in China’s littoral seas. Maneuvering warheads are much harder to intercept than warheads traveling on a simple ballistic trajectory, because their paths cannot be precisely plotted in advance. The Navy is investing billions of dollars in Lockheed Martin’s Aegis combat system and the Raytheon SM-3 missile with an eye toward deploying more capable ship defenses against ballistic missiles.
However, Vice Admiral Barry McCullough, the new head of the Navy’s Tenth Fleet cyber command at Fort Meade, MD, recently warned that the cost-exchange ratio for naval missile defenses is not favorable, with a potential enemy like China able to add offensive warheads far more cheaply that the U.S. Navy can add defensive interceptors. The U.S. disadvantage is presumably most pronounced in the Western Pacific, where our Navy must operate at the far end of an extended supply line, whereas China is operating from its home territory. Unless the U.S. Navy devises cost-effective counters to this anti-access challenge, it could gradually lose its ability to operate freely around Taiwan, Korea, Japan and Indochina.
The most effective complement to the Aegis-Standard Missile combination would to be develop ways of disabling the Chinese targeting complex so that it cannot direct maneuvering warheads to their targets. This can either be achieved kinetically — by bombing over-the-horizon radars, satellite downlinks and command centers — or non-kinetically using various network-attack mechanisms. The Chinese command and communications system is highly vulnerable to both kinds of attack, so it probably isn’t a coincidence that McCullough gave up his job as Navy requirements czar to head for Fort Meade — the center of U.S. cyber-attack efforts.
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