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The Navy is working intensely to better prepare itself for fast-evolving Chinese ballistic missiles which are not only growing in number but improving in their guidance systems, maneuverability and attack ranges.
The concern was raised by Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Texas, at a House Appropriations Committee, Defense, who questioned Navy leaders about current plans to strengthen ballistic missile defenses in light of the Chinese threat in the Pacific.
Chinese Cruise Missile Threat
“The range of Chinese cruise missiles are projected to vastly increase to reach as far as Guam in 2025. This expanded range poses great challenges for our posture in the Pacific. Should the Navy not be able to defend against potential attacks, we would have to withdraw troops from the area,” Rogers said to Navy leaders.
When it comes to the Chinese threats, there are both near and long term concerns, given that the already in existence Chinese DF-26 “carrier killer” missile can reportedly reach ranges of 2,000 miles. The precise guidance systems of these weapons may not be known, and their potential ability to track and hit moving targets is likely to be of great significance to the threat equation posed to the Navy. Also, as Rogers cited, various projections anticipate an aggressive pace of Chinese weapons modernization, something highlighted in both Pentagon and Congressional reports on China.
Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro told Rogers and other subcommittee members that the service is taking specific steps to address this, 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 35-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, a technology which greatly changes the equation for ship commanders hoping to find and intercept or destroy incoming enemy attacks.
“Flight III can do ballistic missile and air defense at the same time. We continue to invest in Flight III as we move to DDGX,” Del Toro said.
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The Chinese Carrier-Killer missiles have generated much attention, yet there is much to be said for the substantial progress the navy has been making in recent years to strengthen its layered ship defenses infrastructure. Some have projected that these Chinese weapons will force the US Navy to operate its carriers from as far as 2,000 miles off shore, making it difficult to project power ashore without substantial aerial tanker support.
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However, in recent years Navy leaders have also been clear that the service will project power and operate its carriers from wherever it needs to in the coming years. While many specifics are likely not available due to security reasons, Navy weapons developers and industry partners have spoken at length about the massively improving layered ship defense infrastructure and technological capacity. Ship defense is thought of 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 these short, intermediate and long-range ballistic missile threats, the Navy operates its Aegis Combat System in coordination with its SM-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 SM-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 in range. On the kinetic side, there are 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, 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 approach 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 missiles defense and air and cruise missile defense 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.
Ship defenses such as this, however, while increasingly layered, robust and networked, are now quickly being reinforced by a growing range of what are called non-kinetic ship defenses of equal or even greater defensive value. For example, electronic warfare technologies such as the Navy’s upgraded SEWIP Block III (Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program) technology can sense and “jam” the electronic guidance systems of incoming precision weapons to throw them off course or disable them.
Northrop Grumman’s Block III SEWIP, for example, merges IO - or information operations - with EW applications so as to identify and deconflict relevant areas of the spectrum and synthesize threat data and information about a recognized enemy “line of bearing” with actual EW emissions which can attack or disable enemy threats.
Given this, there is also reason to recognize that the Navy’s sophisticated and improving ship-defenses may well be evolving at an alarming pace as well, a phenomenon which bears prominently on the concerning Chinese threat equation. There are many variables when it comes to these kinds of threats, as well as many unknowns, and ship-based defenses are of particular relevance and value in the Pacific because there are fewer land-locations from which to operate or fire interceptors.
For this reason, there will likely be continued debate and ongoing deliberation when it comes to improving ship defenses, a key part of which can simply be described as networking. The more multi-domain connectivity that is enabled, the greater the ability to see, track and destroy approaching enemy attacks. For instance, the Navy’s now deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air program was a breakthrough innovation some years ago. NIFC-CA now arms Navy destroyers with a greatly expanded capacity to see and destroy approaching enemy weapons such as anti-ship cruise missiles from beyond the horizon.
The concept is one of networking, as NIFC-CA connects ship-based radar and communication systems with an “aerial sensor” node strategically positioned to sense “beyond the horizon.” The aerial “node” platform began as an E2D Hawkeye but has since been proven with an F-35 and may incorporate additional systems in the future such as drones. The aerial node, detecting approaching threats, sends data to ship-based command and control in position to launch an SM-6 interceptor to destroy the threat at much greater standoff distances.
This means ship-commanders have much more time with which to decide how to counterattack or choose the optimal ship defense system. NIFC-CA has been deployed on ships since as far back as 2015, and likely continues to be refined. The ability to hit incoming maneuvering threats is a key element of this, given that the SM-6 operates with a “dual mode” seeker capable of sending a forward radar “ping” from the ship itself, without need to rely on a ship-based illuminator. This enables the SM-6 to maneuver in flight to adjust to moving targets and greatly increase the operational envelope for ship defenses.
Kris Osborn is the President of Warrior Maven - Center for Military Modernization and 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 Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.