The U.S. Navy’s top intelligence officer has said the service is watching closely as China expands its anti-ship missile capabilities, particularly in and around the disputed South China Sea, to include the ongoing development of long-range anti-ship ballistic missiles. At the same time, he said he “hopes” that China’s People’s Liberation Army will continue to invest significant resources into these efforts, hinting that the U.S. Navy already has extensive measures to counter these threats already in use now or in development.
Navy Vice Admiral Jeffrey Trussler, the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Information Warfare, made his remarks about China’s anti-ship missile arsenal during an online event put on by the non-profit Intelligence and National Security Alliance on Jan. 27, 2021. His comments come just over two months after a report that the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) had successfully struck a moving target ship near the Paracel Island chain in the South China Sea with at least one ballistic missile fired from the Chinese mainland during an exercise earlier last year.
Following that report, Navy Admiral Philip Davidson, head of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), speaking at the 2020 Halifax International Security Forum, another virtual event, confirmed that Chinese forces had fired a ballistic missile at a moving target during the August 2020 exercise in the South China Sea. However, he would not say whether or not the test was successful. If it was, that would mean the Chinese are the first to have actually demonstrated a long-range anti-ship ballistic missile capability, which could have significant ramifications for the U.S. military, as well as those of other countries, when it comes to maritime operations in that region and elsewhere in the Pacific.
Vice Admiral Trussler, in his remarks yesterday, made clear that the Navy is paying close attention to China’s development of the DF-21D and DF-26B anti-ship ballistic missiles, but declined, when asked, to say whether or not the U.S. Intelligence Community believes that the PLARF has “fully fielded” the DF-21D, specifically. “I’m not going to get [into] much more detail of what we know and don’t know about it.”
The DF-21D and DF-26B are variants of the DF-21 medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) and DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) that are understood to have maneuvering reentry vehicles able to hit large ships, such as aircraft carriers or amphibious assault ships. The DF-21D has a range of at least 932 miles, while DF-26-series missiles can reach targets out to 2,500 miles, according to the Pentagon. If these missiles are indeed viable anti-ship weapons, they would give the PLA a way to carry out very-long range strikes on enemy fleets from well within the relative safety of the Chinese mainland.
The PLA is also steadily growing its arsenal of ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles, as well as surface and air-launched types, to include supersonic and potentially hypersonic designs. “They’re pouring a lot of money in the ability to basically rim their coast in the South China Sea with anti-ship missile capability,” Vice Admiral Trussler said.
“It’s a destabilizing effort in the South China Sea, in the East China Sea, all those areas,” he continued. “When you see that – those are troubling developments. They’re probably aimed and specifically developed towards the United States Navy.”
It’s no secret that the U.S. Navy, among others around the world, are increasingly concerned about the vulnerability of their ships to advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. Similarly, the PLA is well aware of all of this and, as Trussler notes, has made these capabilities a cornerstone of its efforts to establish dense, layered anti-access and area denial bubbles around its territory, particularly in areas where it has expansive and widely disputed territorial claims, such as in the South China Sea.
It also seems clear the Chinese military sees the U.S. military as its chief competitor in the Pacific. Earlier this month, elements of the PLA’s Southern Theater Command held a drill in the South China Sea, subsequently releasing video footage showing members of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) telling a notional “enemy” in English that “You are surrounded. Surrender!”
“Those PLAN intentions. So opaque. So tough to read,” a subsequent Tweet from the official account of the Navy’s Office of the Chief of Information, or CHINFO, the service’s top public affairs office, read.
However, not only did Vice Admiral Trussler seem less concerned about PLA anti-ship missile capabilities than one would expect, he made clear he was happy with them continuing to pour time and resources into those efforts.
“I hope they just keep pouring money into that type of thing,” he said. “That may not be how we win the next war.”
The clear indication here is that Trussler is aware of countermeasures, whether they be certain systems or tactics, techniques, and procedures, that are either available now or in development. The Vice Admiral did not offer any specific details about what the Navy is doing to go along with these remarks.
In December, the Navy, together with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard, did release a new, overarching naval strategy, which focused heavily on future distributed concepts of operation that could make the movements of maritime forces less predictable and make it harder for opponents to spot and then effectively engage them. The document defined, in broad terms, Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) as follows:
“An operations concept that leverages the principles of distribution, integration, and maneuver to mass overwhelming combat power and effects at the time and place of our choosing. This integration of distributed platforms, weapons, systems, and sensors via low probability of intercept and detection networks, improves our battlespace awareness while complicating the enemy’s own scouting efforts. Applying combat power through maneuver within and across all domains allows our forces to exploit uncertainty and achieve surprise.”
When it comes to ships, the Navy is increasingly looking at a future fleet with larger numbers of smaller ships, including both manned, as well as and unmanned types capable of performing a variety of different missions, to further support distributed operations concepts. These developments are being driven, in part, by a dramatic reorganization of the Marine Corps’ force structure that is also ongoing and that places a significant emphasis on getting away from a reliance on relatively large, traditional amphibious warfare ships.
We also know that, by 2019, warships assigned to the Navy’s 7th Fleet, which is based in Japan, were fitted with the AN/SLQ-59 Transportable Electronic Warfare Modules (TEWM). TEWM is described as a “counter-terminal threat defensive system,” indicating that it is designed to help defeat incoming anti-ship missiles, or other threats, such as swarms of small drones, in the final phase of their attack on a ship. Based on the information available, The War Zone previously assessed that the AN/SLQ-59 was most likely acquired in response to growing cruise missile threats, and Chinese developments, in particular, given its fielding first on ships forward-deployed in Japan.
The Navy has also been hard at work developing an entire networked electronic warfare “ecosystem,” as part of its shadowy Netted Emulation of Multi-Element Signature against Integrated Sensors program, or NEMESIS. The goal here has been to craft a ‘system of systems’ comprising of various manned and unmanned ships, as well as submarines and aircraft, equipped with electronic warfare systems that can work together cooperatively. One of the key uses of these capabilities would be to generate signals that mimic real fleets of ships and aircraft to distract and confuse opponents, making it difficult for them to effectively spot and target real Navy assets. These networked electronic warfare platforms could also employ other kinds of electronic warfare tactics across a broad area to protect against various kinds of threats. You can read more about NEMSIS in detail in this past War Zone feature.
A highly adaptive and deeply networked electronic warfare ecosystem could be particularly useful against long-range anti-ship missile strikes, especially using ballistic missiles, which would require targeting information from offboard platforms and the ability to send updated information to the weapon during the mid-course stage of flight. It remains unclear how the Chinese are cueing missiles, such as the DF-21D and DF-26B, against maritime targets. However, China’s own warships and maritime patrol and surveillance aircraft, as well as increasingly capable high-altitude, long-endurance drones, tethered aerostats, ground-based radars and other sensors, and space-based systems could all help in spotting and tracking enemy fleets.
It’s worth noting that the Navy employs a number of anti-missile decoy systems already to protect ships from cruise missile attacks, too. This is all in addition to kinetic close-in defenses, such as the 20mm Vulcan cannon-armed Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) and the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), as well as more traditional surface-to-air missiles, all of which can help knock down incoming cruise missiles.
When it comes to ballistic missiles, as well as emerging hypersonics weapons, another area of great interest to the Chinese military, these present significantly different challenges from cruise missiles for defenders at sea, as well as on land, as you can read more about in detail in this past War Zone piece. The Navy does have Arleigh Burke class destroyers outfitted specifically for ballistic missile defense, including the ability to launch the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor, which is designed to knock down ballistic missiles during the mid-course portion of their flight. Those ships are also slated to get interceptors designed to bring down hypersonic weapons in the future as part of the Regional Glide Phase Weapon System (RGPWS) program.
Right now, though, there’s no guarantee that ships tasked with missile defense will be in an optimal position relative to an incoming strike involving ballistic missiles with maneuvering reentry vehicles, let alone ones tipped with hypersonic boost-glide vehicles. Even if they are, they may well be overwhelmed by the total number of incoming threats. A barrage of low-flying high-supersonic or hypersonic cruise missiles could similarly threaten to overwhelm close-in defenses on individual ships.
The Navy, which has been looking to stop deploying Arleigh Burkes
on dedicated missile defense missions, could seek to make more widespread use of the SM-3 Block IIA in the future. Those destroyers and other ships could gain additional missile defense capabilities as the improved Block IB variant of the SM-6 missile begins to enter service. Existing Block I and IA versions of the SM-6 already have the ability to intercept ballistic missiles during the terminal phase of their flight, as well as engage various other aerial and surface threats. The SM-6, in particular, potentially provides a potent defense against anti-ship ballistic missiles, especially those that break through mid-course traditional ballistic missile defenses, if mid-course ballistic missile defense assets are available at all.
There’s the possibility that Vice Admiral Trussler is aware of other developments in the classified realm that could further mitigate some or all of these threats, as well. Beyond that, there’s no discounting that his public comments, which are certain to be scrutinized by the PLA itself, are a form of misinformation designed to prompt concerns within the Chinese military that its priorities may be, in some way, seriously off base.
Whatever the case, the threat posed by China’s anti-ship missile arsenal, which continues to grow in capability, including with the development of new anti-ship ballistic missiles, is real. At the same time, while the Navy obviously knows this, the service seems to be strongly hinting that it feels it making very good progress on getting around these challenges, or at least wants to make the Chinese think so.
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