The U.S. Navy is working intensely to defend against fast-evolving Chinese ballistic missiles, which are not only growing in number but also improving their guidance systems, maneuverability, and attack ranges.
At a recent House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense meeting over the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps’ fiscal year 2023 budget request, Rep. Hal Rogers (R-TX) questioned Navy leaders on the pace of Chinese missile developments as well as how the Navy plans to strengthen ballistic missile defenses in light of the Chinese threat in the Pacific. Rogers also raised concerns about the advancing missile threat in the region.
“...[T]he range of Chinese cruise missiles [is] also projected to vastly increase, with their range projected to reach as far as Guam by 2025. This expanded range of area access, area denial, poses great challenges for our posture in the Indo-Pacific theater. Should the Navy not be able to defend against such potential attacks, they would have to withdraw troops from the region, weakening our posture again,” Rogers said to Navy leaders.
Chinese missiles pose both near and long-term challenges for the Navy. For example, China’s existing DF-26 “carrier killer” intermediate-range missiles can reportedly reach distances of 2,000 miles. While details concerning its guidance system are not known, the weapons’ potential ability to track and hit moving targets is of great significance for the Navy’s survivability. Also, as Rogers cited, various projections anticipate an aggressive pace of Chinese weapons modernization, something highlighted in both Pentagon and Congressional reports on China.
Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro told Rogers and other subcommittee members that the service is taking specific steps to address this challenge, citing progress arming the now emerging DDG Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. These ships are engineered with a paradigm-changing AN/SPY-1 radar system that is thirty-five times more sensitive and powerful than existing radars. The radar, now being integrated onto Navy ships, can detect threat objects half the size at twice the distance, greatly enhancing the equation for ship commanders hoping to find and intercept or destroy incoming enemy attacks.
Chinese “carrier-killer” missiles have generated much attention, yet there is much to be said for how the Navy has progressed in strengthening its layered ship defenses in recent years. For instance, some analysts have projected that these Chinese weapons will force the U.S. Navy to operate its carriers from as far as 2,000 miles offshore, making it difficult to project power ashore without substantial aerial tanker support. However, Navy leaders have also been clear that the service is prepared to project power and operate its carriers from wherever it needs to.
Ship defense is a high priority for the Navy, and is described in terms of “tiers” or “layers,” meaning certain sensors, radar systems, and interceptors are designed to detect and destroy long-range incoming threats such as ballistic missiles. For other short, intermediate, and long-range ballistic missile threats, the Navy operates its Aegis Combat System in coordination with its RIM-161 Standard Missile 3 interceptor to develop a radar track on an incoming weapon and blast it out of the sky with a guided interceptor. Mid-tier defenses involve weapons such as the RIM-174 Standard Missile 6, which can use dual-mode seekers to send a forward-ping from the missile itself and adjust to destroy an incoming moving target from closer range.
On the kinetic side, there is also a wide range of additional interceptors developed for mid-to-short range defenses to destroy enemy drones, helicopters, and even fast-approaching swarming small attack boats. These weapons include the SeaRAM, also known as the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile, and the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II which has a sea-skimming intercept mode to track and destroy approaching cruise missiles. For the closest in threats, the Navy operates its now-upgraded Close in Weapons System (CWIS), which uses an area weapon called a Phalanx to fire out hundreds of projectiles per second to destroy approaching surface threats (such as small boats) as well as incoming air threats (such as drones or missiles). All of these kinds of ship defenses are increasingly being networked by the Navy, in part through its Block 10 Aegis Combat System which integrates ballistic missile defenses and air and cruise missile defenses on a single system.
Most recently, the Navy is fast-adding a comprehensive, elaborate, and scaled “laser” weapons system to its fleet, less expensive weapons which not only travel quietly at the speed of light, but cost less money and can be scaled to either disrupt, damage, or fully incinerate an incoming target.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.