China has a potentially powerful new anti-ship missile. And if the Chinese navy deploys it in large numbers, it could complicate the U.S. Navy’s efforts to defend its ships at sea while also maintaining a protective missile shield around overseas U.S. bases, remote U.S. territories and America’s allies in the Pacific region.
The China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation displayed the CM-401 anti-ship ballistic missile at the annual air show in the southern Chinese city of Zhuhai on Nov. 6, 2018.
Company press materials described the CM-401 as a hypersonic ballistic anti-ship missile that’s capable of maneuverable flight, according to Global Times, a government-controlled newspaper.
The CM-401 reportedly can reach a velocity of six times the speed of sound and has a maximum range of 180 miles. “It has the potential of destroying a hostile vessel with one hit,” Global Times reported.
The new missile, which likely relies on initial targeting data provided by a ship, plane or satellite but apparently includes its own small radar for last-second course corrections, is compatible with ground launchers and launch-canisters for shipboard installation.
The Chinese navy’s new Type 055 destroyer, a rough analogue to the U.S. Navy’s own Ticonderoga-class cruisers, can carry CM-401s, CASIC press materials indicated. Other ship types presumably also are compatible with the new munition.
The CM-401 is a semi-ballistic missile, The War Zone reporter Joseph Trevithick reported. It climbs and dives en route to its target, finally performing a steep climb and equally steep dive during the final moments of flight.
The missile’s erratic flight path and high speed could help to throw off enemy defenses. “Once it begins to dive, it is very difficult to intercept because of its hypersonic velocity,” Global Times claimed, citing an unnamed military expert.
It’s unclear whether, when and in what numbers China intends to deploy the CM-401. CASIC might intend exclusively to sell the weapon on the export market.
If the Chinese military does acquire CM-401s, the new weapon will only enhance an already-formidable missile arsenal that increasingly threatens the U.S. Navy’s access to the western Pacific Ocean.
China possesses DF-21 and DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missiles and YJ-18 supersonic anti-ship missiles. With is apparent semi-ballistic flight profile, the CM-401 could fill a conceptual niche somewhere between the older missile types.
And the new munition could complicate the U.S. Navy’s planning.
The U.S. fleet operates ninety-two destroyers and cruisers whose main role is fleet air-defense. With their Aegis radars and Standard missiles, the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class cruisers could detect and shoot down incoming anti-ship missiles.
As Chinese anti-ship missiles have grown more numerous and sophisticated, so too have the American warships grown in numbers and capability. In the early 2000s, the Navy began partnering with the U.S. Missile Defense Agency to add sensors, software and missiles specifically for shooting down ballistic missiles.
Today the Navy possesses thirty-eight destroyers and cruisers with ballistic-missile-defense enhancements, together sharing around three hundred BMD-capable SM-2, SM-3 and SM-6 missiles. The Navy plans to expand, by 2023, its BMD force to fifty-seven ships and around six hundred missiles. The missile-defense vessels undertake two missions.
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One, they patrol European and Asian waters in order to detect and shoot down potentially nuclear-armed rockets launched by, say, Iran or North Korea. Two, they protect the rest of the U.S. fleet against attack by conventional anti-ship missiles.
To that end, not all BMD ships are the same. In 2018, just a dozen of the thirty-eight BMD ships have the latest, most-advanced “Baseline 9” and “Baseline 10” software, which the Navy claimed can “defeat” short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles in the terminal phase of their flight.
In 2023, thirty-one of fifty-seven planned BMD ships should feature the latest software. As of 2015, the Navy said it ultimately would need forty ships with advanced missile-defense systems. The remaining vessels could remain at a lower level of sophistication for less-demanding missions.
“The advanced capability ships are primarily used to defend Navy assets in a high-end fight at sea against a near-peer competitor with advanced capabilities,” Rear Adm. Peter Fanta, then a depute chief of naval operations, told Congress in 2015. “BMD ships that I spoke of earlier that we have in the low thirties right now and continue to build more, are primarily for [regional commanders'] requests to defend other assets such as defended asset lists in various parts of the world.”
“So they are perfectly capable of handling advanced threats, but just in that one BMD capability,” Fanta said of the lower-capability vessels. “What we don't want to do is mix the peacetime presence requirement of those—I won’t call them lesser capable, but baseline capability ballistic-missile ships with the advanced ones. I need to beat a high-end competitor at sea in the middle of a fight in the middle of the ocean.”
Three years after Fanta’s testimony, the Chinese have a new, semi-ballistic anti-ship missile and the demand for the Navy’s best missile-defense ships clearly has increased. It’s not for no reason that the Navy is chafing at the Pentagon’s requirement that the sea service protect against rogue nuke launches.
“Right now, as we speak, I have six multi-mission, very sophisticated, dynamic cruisers and destroyers―six of them are on ballistic-missile-defense duty at sea,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said in June 2018.
Richardson said he’d prefer the Defense Department build more shore-based missile-defenses, like it operates in Alaska, California, Poland and Romania, in order to free up BMD vessels. The more anti-ship missiles the Chinese deploy, the more missile-defense ships the Navy needs.
David Axe edits War Is Boring . He is the author of the new graphic novels MACHETE SQUAD and THE STAN.