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The Chinese Navy may soon for the first time operate with a forward-deployed, ship-integrated ballistic missile defense system designed to bring new layers of protection from the ocean.
Ballistic Missile Defense System Type-055 Destroyer
The Pentagon’s 2021 China report says the country plans to deploy a mobile, maritime ballistic missile defense system on board its new Type-055 stealthy destroyer.
Should this come to fruition, the People’s Liberation Army - Navy would take a huge step toward rivaling, challenging or maybe even matching the U.S. ship-based Aegis System for ballistic missile defense.
Ship-based BMD of course introduces new layers and new angles of protection and defensive countermeasures by being mobile at sea. Ship commanders can pick locations of great strategic import which increases the likelihood of intercepting an attacking ballistic missile.
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“The PRC is working to develop BMD systems consisting of exo-atmospheric and endoatmospheric kinetic-energy interceptors. PRC state media confirmed the PLA’s intent to move ahead with land- and sea-based midcourse missile defense capabilities,” DoD’s 2021 “Report on Military and Security Developments involving the People’s Republic of China” states.
U.S. Navy Aegis Radar System
As recently as last year, the U.S. Navy demonstrated an ability to use its Aegis Radar System to track and destroy an ICBM-target beyond the earth’s atmosphere using an advanced SM-3 Block IIA interceptor missile. U.S. Navy destroyers and cruisers are engineered with advanced variants of the well-known Aegis radar system, an integrated system of radars, sensors, fire-control technology and ship-fired interceptors.
Having a BMD system onboard a ship introduces paradigm-changing levels of mobility and defensive reach from the ocean as vessels can maneuver and stay in position relative to a given threat circumstance. Aegis-capable Navy destroyers have operated with an ability to conduct ballistic missile defense as well as air and cruise missile defense.
Navy SM-3s and SM-6s shot out of VLS have long been able to intercept ballistic missiles, some of them even being close to the boundary of the earth’s atmosphere. Now a variant called Aegis Baseline 10 radar enables BMD and air and cruise missile defense to operate from a single system. Building upon this, Aegis-capable ships are now demonstrating an ability to track and destroy enemy ICBMs traveling through space during the “midcourse” phase of flight on route to a target.
This technical possibility was something that was previously only possible with the use of land-launched Ground Based Interceptors. Now, this kind of advanced, long-range impactful missile defense is arriving at sea for the U.S. Navy. It appears this is exactly what China is attempting to match with its new destroyers reportedly being engineered with midcourse missile defense technology.
China’s New Type-055 destroyer
China’s new Type-055 destroyer looks like a hybrid blend between the stealthy Zumwalt-class destroyers and greatly up-gunned U.S. Navy DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. It has concentrated Vertical Launch Systems, a smoother, straighter hull configuration with fewer radar signature-increasing protruding structures such as guns on the side, deck masts or antennas.
Unlike the nearly completely smoothed over Zumwalt-class deck and hull structure, the Chinese Type-055 does have DDG 51-like protruding antennas on its back half, something which could reduce its stealth properties. Regardless, should the new Type 055 destroyers operate with mobile maritime, Aegis-like BMD, it could greatly erode any kind of U.S. military superiority at sea.
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.