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China's YJ-18 Supersonic Anti-Ship Cruise Missile: America's Nightmare?

June 1, 2015 Topic: Security Region: Asia Tags: ChinaChina's NavyYJ-18 Anti-ship Cruise Missile

China's YJ-18 Supersonic Anti-Ship Cruise Missile: America's Nightmare?

A new challenge emerges for the U.S. Navy. TNI presents one of the first in-depth looks at this deadly weapon.

Entering the Second World War, the United States dramatically underestimated the effectiveness of certain Japanese naval systems and operations.  The tendency to look askance at Japanese naval prowess during the interwar period obviously impacted the failure to anticipate the Pearl Harbor attack.  But it is less widely understood that U.S. intelligence similarly underestimated the strength of Japan’s primary naval fighter aircraft (the Zero), the dramatic effectiveness of its long-range torpedoes, as well as its dedication to mastering difficult, but essential operations such as night combat.  Remarkably, these problems in assessment occurred despite a plethora of openly available information regarding Japanese naval development during that time.

There are many reasons, of course, that contemporary China’s maritime ascendancy is starkly different from that of Imperial Japan almost a century ago.  In particular, there is hardly a shred of evidence (reef reclamation included) to suggest that Beijing is inclined to undertake a rampage of conquest similar to Japan’s effort to bring the whole of the Asia-Pacific to heel from 1931 to 1942.  Still, the complex maritime disputes in the Western Pacific require that American strategists keep a close eye on the evolving military balance.  In that spirit, this installment of the Dragon Eye series turns once again to focus a bright light on one of the newest elements of China’s missile arsenal: the YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM).

A test of the new Chinese YJ-18 supersonic ASCM from November 2014 is visible in this video clip, about one minute into this segment introducing China’s new nuclear submarine design. Even though we know that YJ-18 is part of a whole new generation of new and lethal Chinese ASCMs, it is curious that Chinese ASCMs generally go unmentioned in a recent TNI analysis of the “5 Most Deadly Anti-Ship Missiles of All Time.”  Clearly, Chinese naval analysts, who have labeled the YJ-18 in an early 2015 analysis “最完美的反舰导弹” [the most perfect ASCM] would not agree with that rendering.  A Chinese analysis of the YJ-18 appearing in the naval magazine 舰船知识 [Naval & Merchant Ships] published by the China State Shipbuilding Corporation (CSSC) in February 2015 is the main basis of this Dragon Eye discussion.

However, before turning to the insights from this recent Chinese analysis, let us return briefly to what has been revealed about this new missile from both the recent U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report, as well as the annual Pentagon report on Chinese military power.  The ONI report is generally well done, but curiously the new YJ-18 only rates a mention in two spare sentences.  This report notes that the YJ-18 can be vertically-launched (generally from a surface combatant) or alternatively submarine-launched, but there is no discussion of its supersonic sprint vehicle.  Since the U.S. Navy (USN) lacks a supersonic ASCM and will not have one in the foreseeable future, this omission is troubling. Similarly puzzling is the decision not to discuss the recent appearance of another supersonic ASCM, YJ-12, in China’s arsenal. True, such capabilities did exist earlier in other forms, namely as imported Russian systems, but the indigenization (and likely upgrade) of these capabilities is hardly insignificant and will mean they are much more widespread and employed with greater confidence and proficiency.  

The 2015 Department of Defense report does offer a bit more detail and thus draws the proper attention to the YJ-18 threat, but again does not mention its supersonic sprint vehicle.  The YJ-18 ASCM is described as a “significant step” and subsequently as a “dramatic improvement” over current missiles in China’s inventory.  Perhaps most significantly, however, the DoD report puts the range of YJ-18 at 290 nautical miles – more than double that of its likely progenitor, the Russian SS-N-27 Klub ASCM (export version).  If correct, moreover, this new range will, in the near term, more or less quadruple the range of the standard ASCM fired from most PLA Navy submarines.

The February 2015 Chinese analysis of YJ-18 is somewhat cautious in tone and hardly purports to be a comprehensive analysis.  Perhaps fitting for an initial piece on a cutting edge system, the article’s introduction sports the rare caveat “…并不代表本刊观点” [does not represent the viewpoint of this magazine].  However, the title “‘鹰击’18 -- ‘俱乐部’导弹中国版?” [Is the Yingji-18 Simply a Chinese Version of the Klub?] asks the precise question that will be on the minds of many defense analysts examining the YJ-18.  A decent amount of the article just reviews the development of the Russian Klub system and its different variants. It is noted, moreover, that China has had ready access to the Klub missile system since it imported the Type 636 Kilo-class conventional subs about a decade ago.  Indeed, some had remarked that Beijing imported the submarine for the sole purpose of actually acquiring its superior missile system.  Interestingly, the article does not report the much extended range outlined in the new Pentagon report.

This Chinese description relates that the missile’s great strength is its “亚超结合的独特动力” [subsonic and supersonic combined unique propulsion].  Another term applied to this design is “双速制反舰导弹” [dual speed control ASCM].  As explained in the article, it is projected that YJ-18 would have an initial subsonic phase estimated at .8 Mach similar to the Klub of about 180km, but 20km from the target would unleash the supersonic sprint vehicle at speed of Mach 2.5 to 3.  The “dual speed” function allows the system to realize certain advantages of subsonic cruise missiles, such as their “relatively long range, light weight and universality …” but also takes the chief advantage of supersonic ASCMs as well, namely the ability to “大幅压缩敌方的反应时间” [radically compress the enemy’s reaction time].  

The Chinese article relates another advantage of the “dual speed” approach.  Just as the missile comes into contact with the ship’s defenses, it “sheds the medium stage …,” thus simultaneously and dramatically altering both its speed and also its radar reflection, “which would impact the fire control calculation.”  The likelihood that YJ-18 improves upon the Klub missile’s “digitization, automation, as well as providing more intelligent flight control and navigation technology” is attributed in the Chinese article to a recent Jane’s report. A final interesting issue raised in the Chinese article concerns the “hot launch” technique suggested in the test video clip mentioned at the outset of this article (and illustrated in photos accompanying the Chinese article). Indeed, a new vertical launch system for the new 052D destroyer is confirmed as a “共架混装” [common rack for mixed arms] system with a citation in the article to PLA Admiral Qiu Zhiming, director of the Naval Armaments Research Academy.  But it is not clear from the article that YJ-18 will rely on the hot launch versus the cold launch method--the latter being much more common for submarine launched missiles.

The article interestingly discusses recent Russian placement of additional Kilo-class submarines equipped with the Klub-missile systems into the Black Sea.  These new submarines “based on the Crimean Peninsula, operating in harmony with air and land-based missile forces [can] … limit the deployment of NATO fleets into the Black Sea …”  I have noted before in this column the seductive possibilities of the “Russian model” for Chinese strategists. This Chinese author concludes the piece, explaining that, “The YJ-18 will gradually replace the YJ-82 across the PLA Navy submarine fleet.  That development combined with surface ship and air-launched missiles will create a comprehensive attack system of even greater combat power.”  The implication seems to be that for China, in its various maritime disputes, the YJ-18 can play a role similar to the one that nearly identical Russian weapons have played in creating decisive local military superiority in the Black Sea area.

On the other hand, Beijing has been making noteworthy strides in military transparency of late, for example with the most recent white paper or the somewhat unusual discussion of the new Type 093G nuclear attack submarine in China Daily.  Nevertheless, the gap in transparency continues to be quite wide when it comes to some of the most lethal weapons in China’s arsenal, such as the new YJ-18.  Allowing the rumor mill to churn, spreading anxieties regarding Chinese capabilities hither and thither is really not in China’s interest and greater transparency, of course, is necessary.

For Washington, some additional attention seems warranted in future intelligence community studies with respect to Chinese ASCM development. The 2015 ONI study gave some attention to YJ-18, but omitted discussion of the supersonic YJ-12, the long-range subsonic YJ-100 or the CX-1 supersonic ASCM that are apparently now in development, according to Chinese sources.  Renewed attention will help muster the necessary focus for the U.S. going forward to prepare its forces adequately.  For all the ink spilled and Washington seminars convened to discuss China’s expanding coast guard fleet, it is obviously the ever-growing sophistication of the Chinese ASCM arsenal that poses the “clear and present danger” to American sailors.

Lyle J. Goldstein is Associate Professor in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the U.S. Naval War College in Newport, RI. The opinions expressed in this analysis are his own and do not represent the official assessments of the U.S. Navy or any other agency of the U.S. Government.