US and China push to modernise and expand weapons in race for naval dominance in the Pacific

Kristin Huang
·4-min read

The race between China and the United States to develop a more capable navy is expected to further intensify, with Washington planning to equip its destroyers with hypersonic missiles, outpacing China’s supersonic anti-ship missiles, analysts said.

The move to install the highly advanced weapons came after US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper said in early October that the US Navy would need more than 500 ships in its fleet to ensure maritime superiority over China in coming decades.

According to military news website Defense News, which quoted US President Donald Trump’s national security adviser Robert O’Brien, the US will equip its attack submarines and its destroyers with hypersonic missiles in a bid to stave off the mounting threat posed by China in the Pacific.

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More than 60 destroyers will be outfitted with the weapons that are capable of travelling at more than five times the speed of sound, the report said.

“The Navy’s Conventional Prompt Strike programme will provide hypersonic missile capability to hold targets at risk from longer ranges,” O’Brien said at an event at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire.

In the meantime, China is modernising its navy, which has acquired a wide array of platforms and weapons such as anti-ship ballistic missiles and cruise missiles.

A report from the US Congressional Research Service released last month said the Chinese navy had already turned into “a formidable military force within China’s near-seas region” and was a “the first such challenge the US Navy has faced since the end of the Cold War”.

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Timothy Heath, a security expert from US think tank Rand, said the fielding of hypersonic missiles on US navy ships would significantly increase their capacity to survive and lethally attack other ships and land targets.

“Current anti-ship missiles launched from US Navy destroyers can reach perhaps 300km to 560km. The hypersonic missile would dramatically increase the range to hundreds or perhaps thousands of miles. It would also be extremely difficult to shoot down with anti-missile systems, due to the speed of the warhead,” Heath said.

“The main benefit for the US navy in a conflict with China is that the US ships would be able to target Chinese ships that operate close to China’s coast under the protection of its counter-intervention capabilities,” said Heath, adding that US ships that tried to get close enough to China now could be sunk by Chinese land-based anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles.

Song Zhongping, a Hong Kong-based military expert, said the Chinese navy would face a big threat once the US navy deployed hypersonic weapons on its destroyers and that would certainly push China to follow up.

“China has already taken measures like equipping the Type 730 close-in weapon systems and supersonic variants of YJ-18 cruise missiles to various naval vessels, improving surface-to-air missiles to intercept incoming targets,” he said.

China also has a hypersonic missile, the DF-17, a type of ballistic missile designed to carry a hypersonic glide vehicle that was unveiled at China‘s National Day military parade on October 1, 2019. It is China’s first operational hypersonic weapon system and one of the world’s first to be put into full initial operation. But it cannot be launched from warships.

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Michael Fabey, the Americas naval writer for Jane’s and the US editor of Jane’s Fighting Ships, said the US plan to equip its destroyers with hypersonic missiles looked too premature and there was a lot of work to be done to make it feasible.

“There are no navy hypersonics to put on ships, not even for testing. They have not even figured out what kinds of modifications would be needed for the destroyers, let alone priced them out or done the real feasibility analysis on doing that work,” he said.

“And if they were to decide to do this, where is the money going to come from for the missiles, testing, ship modifications and so on?”

Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst in defence strategy and capability at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said the US plan reflected a realisation that the US was behind China and Russia regarding hypersonic weapons and it appeared to be scrambling to catch up.

“If they could, then it will potentially counter China and Russia‘s advantage, but it will need advanced intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities – probably space based – to be fully effective and the Russians and Chinese would accelerate their programmes,” Davis said.

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