Key Point: The missiles could sink a carrier, but the U.S. Navy has some good countermeasures.
The Chinese military appears to be threatening U.S. carriers now operating in the Pacific by firing off a DF-26 so-called “carrier-killer” missile reportedly capable of hitting moving targets at sea.
A Chinese government-backed newspaper called the test-firing a “fast-reaction” capability of the Rocket Force troops,” adding that these kinds of exercises will continue for the next several months.
“The latest drills demonstrated that the DF-26 has gained a stronger capability in real combat scenarios, including cross-regional maneuvering,” according to the report in the Global Times.
Significantly, the report also added that the missile is not “dependent upon a pre-launch site.”
The report, and the test firing, raise several pertinent questions regarding the threat presented by the DF-26.
First, the report claims the missile has a range of 4,500 km, a possibly unprecedented distance for a land-launched anti-ship missile. There may not, at least as of yet, be a way to fully verify that this is in fact the case, however the prospect presents a threat likely being taken quite seriously by Navy commanders and war planners.
Many of the actual capabilities of the weapon may still remain somewhat mysterious and invite several questions. Is this range accurate? Is it true that it can hit moving targets, as claimed by the report? What kind of sensors and targeting technologies does it have? Is there a precision guidance mechanism?
One claim that is likely accurate is its reported ability to fire from mobile launchers. For instance, Congressional studies and various reports have for many years maintained that China has mobile launchers capable of firing from various locations. This could, of course, make the launchers themselves more difficult to target.
However, the test firing is taking place within a broader strategic and tactical context not addressed by the Chinese report, such as the U.S. Navy’s fast-emerging work of an improved layered defense system. These systems are intended to safeguard carriers and other surface ships from any incoming threats. The Navy is making progress with another level of ship defenses, potentially significant to the point that it may explain why Navy leaders consistently say that carriers can operate wherever they need to.
So, what are the reasons why this might be the case? The first and most obvious explanation is simply that carriers often travel in Carrier Strike Groups where they are surrounded and defended by heavily-armed cruisers and destroyers. Navy destroyers are armed with interceptor missiles and advanced Aegis radars designed to find and take out approaching threats. Destroyers are even armed with a weapon called the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II which has a “sea-skimming” interceptor mode wherein it can track and take out approaching missiles traveling at lower altitudes parallel to the surface.
The layers are also by design, with weapons such as SM-3s and SM-6s, able to hit threats at longer and medium range distances. SM-6s are now built with a dual-mode seeker enabling them to make adjustments in flight to intercept moving targets. A dual mode seeker has radar response technology built into the missile itself such that it can quickly adjust to changing threat trajectories. It is not solely reliant upon guidance from a ship-based illuminator.
Destroyers also have closer-in defenses as well, such as a Rolling Air Frame missiles and guided SeaRAM interceptors. While many of these weapons have been in existence for many years, virtually all of them have been massively upgraded as part of the Navy’s distributed lethality strategy which better arms the entire surface fleet for a major power war.
What this amounts to is that ship defenses now have better guidance and longer ranges able to discriminate incoming attacks. For instance, the Navy’s now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air, provides ships with system which uses an aerial surveillance node such as an F-35 to find approaching threats from beyond the horizon and cue a guided SM-6 missile to destroy enemy missiles at much longer ranges. In addition, longer-range detection affords commander much-needed time to defend their ships.
Finally, an entire chapter could be written about new, yet to be fully integrated ship defenses such as laser weapons, electronic warfare and various kinds of cyber hardening or anti-jamming technologies for ships. After all, lasers are no longer something for the future. They are here already arming destroyers, giving surface ships entirely new tactical defensive options. Lasers travel at the speed of light, bring optics and tactical precision, and are scalable to achieve the desired effect needed.
Therefore, despite many unknowns, several things are self-evident. The Navy is taking the threat very seriously and concerns about a “carrier-killer” attack continue to lead to the possibility of America building smaller, more mobile and agile carriers platforms. Perhaps of greatest significance, the anti-ship threat has at least in part driven the Navy effort to engineer carrier-launched drones such as the emerging MQ-25 Stingray. These kinds of drones greatly extend the attack range of carrier-launched attack aircraft, therefore enabling carriers to project power at much safer operating distances. One can expect much more drone development in the future.
At the same time, not only are carriers and carrier groups better armed, there may be a large sphere of yet-unknown technical details informing the prevailing consensus that carriers are here to stay.
Kris Osborn is 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.
This article first appeared earlier this year and is reprinted due to reader interest.