The future survivability of U.S. Navy carrier strike groups operating in the Western Pacific has been called into question by the discovery that the People’s Liberation Army is conducting tests of technology for a maneuvering ballistic-missile warhead. Maneuvering in the terminal stage of a ballistic trajectory is necessary if Chinese warheads are to hit moving surface vessels. The May 2009 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute’s magazine Proceedings described the emerging threat, including the many uncertainties as to how it might evolve.
The U.S. Navy is taking the threat seriously. The service has reorganized and accelerated efforts to field Aegis warships capable of intercepting fast-moving ballistic warheads. The prospect that those warheads will maneuver rather than falling in a predictable arc greatly complicates the challenge of stopping them with hit-to-kill interceptor missiles. But as Proceedings authors Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang correctly pointed out, a maneuvering warhead doesn’t do the Chinese much good if they don’t know where U.S. warships are. So the larger question is whether China is developing the sensor network needed to exploit maneuvering warhead technology.
The authors noted that there is much discussion of ballistic missiles in Chinese military literature, but almost no mention of how to accurately aim them at moving sea-based targets. Our own Navy is mum on what it knows about Chinese capabilities. But here is the bottom line. The Chinese are beginning to orbit both imaging and electronic eavesdropping satellites that could cue other sensors as to the general location of U.S. surface vessels. They also have over-the-horizon radar technology that could provide wide-area surveillance of littoral oceans from relatively secure sites in the Chinese interior. If collections from these and other sources are fused together in a timely fashion — timeliness being essential to success when targets are moving — then Chinese weapons might be able to home in on the handful of U.S. carriers operating nearby.
China is progressing so quickly that we shouldn’t under-estimate its ability to achieve significant antiship targeting capability in the next decade. There are many intricacies to the kill-chain that the Chinese must master, but eventually they will. However, our own joint force will not be standing still while this is happening. First, there is much room for the U.S. Navy to improve management of its own “signatures,” so carrier strike groups are harder to track. Second, ship defenses centered on the Aegis combat system and Standard family of surface-to-air missiles are likely to become much more capable . Third, plans exist to disable the fragile Chinese targeting complex in the event of conflict, using both kinetic and non-kinetic means. And fourth, new systems such as the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System (N-UCAS) will become available enabling carriers to operate farther from Chinese shores while still hitting key targets. So while naval planners are right to worry about China’s ballistic missiles, they know how to counter the threat if Congress provides the money.
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