The U.S. Navy has become increasingly concerned about China’s efforts to develop a maneuvering warhead for its theater ballistic missiles. There have been at least three ground tests of the necessary technology, and if the tests lead to an operational weapon, that will increase the threat to U.S. warships in the Western Pacific. So the Navy is moving ahead with efforts to defend the fleet against attacks by ballistic missiles, including development of the SM-3 sea-based interceptor missile and upgrades to the Aegis combat system.
The growing Chinese ballistic-missile threat was undoubtedly on the mind of Joint Chiefs vice chairman Gen. James Cartwright earlier this year when he disclosed that the Missile Defense Agency would put increased emphasis on protecting U.S. forward-deployed forces. But intercepting hostile missiles is only one of several ways of dealing with the ballistic missile threat, and as Navy requirements guru Vice Adm. Barry McCullough has observed, it isn’t always the most cost-effective approach. For instance, it doesn’t really matter how accurate Chinese warheads are if commanders can’t find key targets in the first place, so a more effective defensive tactic might be to deprive them of the ability to locate U.S. warships.
That means attacking the nascent Chinese targeting network, which currently consists of ground-based over-the-horizon radars, satellites collecting imagery and electronic emissions, airborne collection systems and various undersea assets. The Western Pacific is so huge that China has little hope of tracking warships continuously from orbit: satellites close enough to the earth to generate target-quality intelligence pass over very quickly, so hundreds would be needed to seamlessly monitor the Chinese littoral. Thus, any overhead collections would have to be correlated with other kinds of intelligence, and loss of even a few sensors could render U.S. surface warships invisible to Chinese command authorities.
In terms of active measures, the Chinese sensor network can be degraded by bombing, electronic jamming, cyber attacks, or more exotic effects such as electromagnetic pulse (although that would probably hurt U.S. forces as well). In terms of passive measures, U.S. carrier strike groups could add better signature management to their current evasive tactics. The bottom line is that it will probably be a long time before U.S. warships are vulnerable to Chinese ballistic missile attacks as long as they control local air space and stay a reasonable distance from land.
Find Archived Articles: