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Hypersonic missiles could challenge U.S. naval supremacy

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By Tom Simko

In a replay of cold war rivalries, a new missile race is shaping up but this time America and Russia are joined by India and China. All of these countries are rushing to develop hypersonic anti-ship missiles that threaten to reshape naval warfare and alter global balances of power.

It’s all about who can design the fastest missiles with the latest engine technology.

American Tomahawk cruise missiles are powered by conventional turbofans, which are essentially compact versions of passenger jet engines. These propel the missiles at 880 km/h – 70% the speed of sound, or Mach 0.7.

Much faster speeds can be reached with a ramjet, which has no moving mechanical parts. Traveling at supersonic speed, air is rammed into the engine. This heats the air to ensure more powerful combustion with fuel further down the engine. However, since ramjets only work at high speeds, they must first be accelerated by another system.

The Brahmos missile, co-developed by India and Russia, is a good example of the capabilities of ramjet-powered missiles. The Brahmos starts off with a conventional rocket, which falls away when the missile gets up to speed. Then the ramjet-powered stage with the warhead takes over, cruising at Mach 2.8 (3,400 km/h) for 290 km. It can fly at an altitude of 15 km or just meters above the waves. This weapon is already in service with the Indian Navy.

The high speeds of supersonic missiles leave little time for ships to deploy defensive countermeasures. This increases the likelihood of a missile slipping past a vessel’s screen of defenses – but supersonic weapons can be stopped.

However, there is presently no reliable defense against the much faster next generation of anti-ship missiles. These weapons are designed to travel at hypersonic speeds – greater than Mach 5, or 6,100 km/h – and therefore present a much more lethal threat.

Hypersonic speeds can be attained with scramjets, which are similar to ramjets but with combustion occurring at supersonic rather than subsonic speeds. They are designed to ensure the high-speed air flow doesn’t blow out the flames. The U.S. Air Force compares running a scramjet to “lighting a match in a hurricane and keeping it burning.” Once again, the missile must first be boosted to operational speed by a conventional rocket.

India and Russia are working on the hypersonic Brahmos II, which is expected to be in service by 2013. Cruising at about Mach 6 (7,300 km/h), this scramjet-powered missile will carry six times more kinetic energy than a similar weapon at Mach 1. It will therefore pack a much larger punch if used to slam through hardened bunkers or underground nuclear or biological weapons facilities. It can also be used against ships.

China is developing its own hypersonic anti-ship missile, the Dong Feng 21D. This isn’t a cruise missile but rather a ballistic missile launched toward space and arcing back to Earth. The DF-21D is capable of hurtling down at speeds of about Mach 10 and covering a range of 1,500 km.

Dubbed the “carrier killer,” it is believed this new weapon will be used against American aircraft carriers to destroy US naval supremacy in the western Pacific. It could also block America from operating in the Sea of Japan and from coming to the defense of Taiwan.

The technology behind the DF-21D is nothing new – the weapon is a variant of a proven Chinese medium range ballistic missile. What is new – and a potential game-changer – is the possibility of precisely striking ships at long range with non-nuclear warheads. However, China has yet to prove it can accurately hit a moving vessel with a ballistic missile falling at Mach 10.

The Chief of India’s Navy is dismissive of China’s anti-ship missile program. As reported by the Indian Express, Admiral Nirmal Verma said “Targeting ships on the high seas is not an easy task … There are limitations in terms of maritime reconnaissance and long-range searches.” He added that it was a “complex problem” to use a conventional missile against a moving target on the high seas.

However, with enough time and resources China could overcome these technical challenges and threaten America’s crucial carriers with the DF-21D. The possibility of a Chinese knock out against the US Navy concerns American military experts.

“China’s ability to bypass America’s robust air-defense capability and strike ships at sea with ballistic missiles could severely limit American naval power,” according to Abraham Denmark and James Mulverson of the Center for a New American Security.

Newsweek quotes retired U.S. rear admiral and defense attache to Beijing Eric McVadon describing China’s anti-ship weapons as “pretty daunting.”

To counter these new weapons, America will need to rely on ballistic missile defense systems. The U.S. has invested heavily in such technology but it is still in its infancy and not fully reliable.

Directed-energy beams such as lasers can be countered with reflective materials and, for a slowly-spinning ballistic missile, there would be little effect on any one spot. Furthermore, hypersonic cruise missiles and ballistic warheads are hardened with materials capable of withstanding the scorching heat from high speed flight.

The most practical defensive measure is to strike the incoming weapon with another hypersonic missile, the proverbial “hitting a bullet with another bullet.” The United States has proven it can do this, albeit in controlled tests and with inconsistent results. Further ballistic missile defense research could be applied to dealing with threats posed by the DF-21D and hypersonic cruise missiles like the Brahmos II. However, a dependable missile defense system is a long way off.

The United States has its own hypersonic missile development program. The X-51A Waverider is designed to demonstrate scramjet technology for missiles and spaceplanes. The first test took place last May and lasted only about 200 seconds. However, the U.S. Air Force notes this marked the first flight of a practical hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet (the engine runs on a special jet fuel).

.With this confirmed success, America appears to have taken the lead in the hypersonic missile race. However, the competition isn’t far behind and the stakes are high for America’s position in the global balance of power. This was clearly explained by U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in his address to an Air Force Association Convention in 2009.

“When considering the military-modernization programs of countries like China,” said Gates, “we should be concerned less with their potential ability to challenge the U.S. symmetrically – fighter to fighter or ship to ship – and more with their ability to disrupt our freedom of movement and narrow our strategic options. Their investments in … anti-ship weaponry and ballistic missiles could threaten America’s primary way to project power and help allies in the Pacific – in particular our forward air bases and carrier strike groups.”

The race is on to develop the next generation of anti-ship missiles and reshape naval warfare – and possibly dictate who will rule the waves.

The author is a professional engineer with a PhD from the University of Sydney, and has taught at universities in Canada and Australia.

© Japan Today

©2019 GPlusMedia Inc.

41 Comments
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"A missile of any speed can only hit what it can “see” so the way to go is to “hide” the carriers and I am sure that if electronics can be used to create multiple radar images from fighter aircraft they can be used to do the same for carriers."

Yes, that line of questioning will lead to sensitive facts about task forces. If you know the answers, Mushroomcloud's posts does confirm those facts through reverse logic. More is involved than multiple radar signals.

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A missile of any speed can only hit what it can “see” so the way to go is to “hide” the carriers and I am sure that if electronics can be used to create multiple radar images from fighter aircraft they can be used to do the same for carriers.

There would also seem to be another question here that presents a puzzle. These scramjets engines need oxygen to function and there isn’t a lot of that in space, so just how do they to get around this? I accept that there is a way in that they could use a conventional engine to take the missile into space AND not separate until after the turn downward. This however would defeat the whole point of the speed these missiles have in that the launch could be tracked and target predicted. Maybe the US carriers have less to worry about than we are being lead to believe. Maybe the US navy would like some extra spending money and this is just a devious way of getting the US government to part with that money.

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Time to develop good relations with Russia.

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the usa, like the british empire that preceded her, has no right to act as hegemon in east asia. the question at hand is to what extent china is able to claim territorial rights and the like over its extensive border and with respect to its long history, vis-a-vis the claims of neighboring countries. the usa's "projection of power" is simply not something that the world will recognize as proper in many places in the not too distant future. america needs to get its house in order and quickly, or it will simply become a second thought in most people's minds.

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Why should the Chinese have a need to use these weapons when they can just do Cold War 2.0? You have similar elements: arms/technology race, competing orthodoxies, MAD.. except this time, America is the one with the weaker and more fragile economy that could possibly collapse in an effort to maintain the war machine. Just keep on pushing and, when the USA does have a meltdown (an economic one), the Chinese can claim a moral victory for having the superior political/economic systems. They claim to always have a long-term view of things, so this might just be their master strategy yo.

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mushroomcloud at 11:13 PM JST - 9th January

America's 'silent service' is China's Achilles heal. 4 Ohio Class subs with up to 154 Tomahawk missiles each, no cowardice here. Not to mention all the other Trident armed submarines that the U.S. has. America still rules the ocean, it is just that she will have to adjust on how she used her massive assets.

Tomahawks are cruise missile for attack land targets, they can't sink a fleet, they only can sink warships if they are in port with their engines and weapons shut down, but the US Navy SSGNs can't control the sea. Trident can destroy cities but they also can't control the sea either. Resort to escalate to use nuclear weapons without being attacked with nuclear weapons first, is a recognition that a country as already being defeated in conventional warfare.

Furthermore, I mention that Japan is 'shaking in her boots', not America.

Of course Sir! You never say that the US is "shaking in her boots". I only pointed out what a chinese warmonger can say if the US do what you say about park US carriers beyond the range of chinese missiles. I just used a line that you repeated lately so you can easily understand the kind of feeling that the ultra-nationalists chinese most likely want to transmit to the readers. Like you already know, no ally of the US dare to even suggest that your proposal sounds like cowardice. I believe that american are brave men a women that don't are afraid of fight for what is right and just even if the odds are bad. People that talk big only when they think that they can't lose but run away when things look bad are a minority. God bless the United States of America.

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While Russia and CHina are developing hypersonic missile to kill aircraft carrier group, the US is developing hypersonic missile for deep target penetration anywhere in the world. As story mentioned, the US is one or several step ahead in hypersonic missile testing. Test with X-51 with Mach 5 was successful from B-52. Sooner or later X-51 will be tested in Trident-II-D5 ICBM with a range of 6,500 miles. Perhaps the US might revive the star-war program when Russia and CHina have perfected this hypersonic missile.... for there is a an assertion that "He who control the space will rule the world".

But as shown in the past world wars, the greatest weapon in the ocean is the intelligence. Naval Intelligence of inferior battle carrier group of the USN lead to the defeat of the mighty IJN in midway.

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muhroomcloud;

Have a better plan, genius?

Yes - don't be afraid of paper weapons, and/or develop a defence if the threat turns out to be credible. Definitely don't abandon your ability to forward-project naval power because something bad might happen.

Doesn't have to be an active defence, can be something as simple (though not necessarily easy) as locating the launchers and attacking those, maybe even with a US paper weapon like the Prompt Global Strike.There are already several conventional ways to kill a carrier (subs, for example) without invoking untested threats. You are way too quick to buy any and all PRC military capabilities as show-stoppers and far too willing to cede ground to the PRC.

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Mareo2,

"With all due respect sir, I think there are some facts you have not considered. Ultra-nationalists chinese can interpret that as "americans are retreating" or like you like to say "shaking in her boots", emboldening them to take more aggressive actions. Of course only pretty shallow minded people can "interpret caution as cowardice", but it seems to be quite common in pro-china comments."

America's 'silent service' is China's Achilles heal. 4 Ohio Class subs with up to 154 Tomahawk missiles each, no cowardice here. Not to mention all the other Trident armed submarines that the U.S. has. America still rules the ocean, it is just that she will have to adjust on how she used her massive assets.

Furthermore, I mention that Japan is 'shaking in her boots', not America.

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unagidon,

"Bravo, such a brainstorm of insight from such an expert on things military. So basically, the US should just "park" it's carriers outside the 1700 km range of such missiles, i.e. give up the entire Western Pacific, Taiwan Strait, Sea of Japan, to China? I believe that would be the primary goal of China fielding these weapons?"

Unless you want to be a nice target within the 1700 km range. Have a better plan, genius?

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unagidon,

So basically, the US should just "park" it's carriers outside the 1700 km range of such missiles, i.e. give up the entire Western Pacific, Taiwan Strait, Sea of Japan, to China? I believe that would be the primary goal of China fielding these weapons?

Yep, out of their backyard and into our own hemisphere. How would we like it if they were lurking around our waters and we didn't have the means to blow them away? We'd develop some good missles and "carrier killers", sounds like we should have predicted this. cause and effect keeps the military industrial complex thriving and everyone else without health care.

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To UnagiDon,

I stand corrected - usually try to use formal titles to countries, officials. Also, probably do the same w/ the PRC Army - it does get involved using all formal designations.

You know, don't you?

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mushrooncloud;

Just park the aircaft carriers out of the range of these anti-ship rascals and the Big Kahuna, the DF-21D

Bravo, such a brainstorm of insight from such an expert on things military. So basically, the US should just "park" it's carriers outside the 1700 km range of such missiles, i.e. give up the entire Western Pacific, Taiwan Strait, Sea of Japan, to China? I believe that would be the primary goal of China fielding these weapons?

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apecNetworks;

the PRC Navy

More correctly known as the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN), which I'm assuming those in the know following such discussions "on the net" would be aware of.

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In 19th and mid 20th century, the outcome of war was determined by naval supremacy. For 21st century, the larger the navy, the higher the risks of casualties and losses.

Even the air craft carrier which is powered by nuclear power can not match the lightening speed of hypersonic missiles from space. If the missiles from space can penetrate the air faster and swifter. The reason is lacking the gravity in the space. Super quiet Sub Marines may be more efficient than carriers because lacking traffic and visibility underneath of Ocean.

Now a days, missiles or ship navigation were controlled by GPS. Who can orbit invisibly in the space or hiding underneath of ocean will control the rival fate.

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Well, this is our fault like everything else. Why do I say this? Because the fks that designed the missle probably went to engineering school in American universities! What can we do about it? Stop teaching engineering to foreigners.. sure they'd learn it in some other white country like Britian or France but so what. Next we can match their technology and third, we can change our diplomacy and stop forcing others to feel the need to produce these weapons systems. How? By stepping back our footprint in Asia.

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I don't know if people have read numerous sources on this, but a high ranking PRC Admiral recently stated that IF a naval confrontation materialized w/ the US, the PRC Navy would be HIGHLY motivated to stop a carrier task force like the USS Washington - they don't know if they can, so they are implying that they will "unload" everything on that task force if push comes to shove. There is very serious discussions on the net on this.

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apecNetworks at 04:36 PM JST - 8th January

Are you in the SDF? If you are, please look into the development towards the end of the Cold War. Both were moving into "signals intelligence" in R and D. Speed is secondary to targeting - example would be the Sunburn. I'm talking first tier equipment, and nothing exemplifies my analysis more than the F22. F15s can't even target the F22 - signal jamming. This is prime territory for the SDF to delve into in R and D.

No I'm not, I have problems with authority figures. The fact is that the japanese ASM-3 have some stealth technology for minimize the chance of the chinese defenses of intercept the missile.

mushroomcloud at 12:12 PM JST - 9th January

Just park the aircaft carriers out of the range of these anti-ship rascals and the Big Kahuna, the DF-21D, and problem solved. Of course, some of China's anti-ship cruise missiles have incredible range, due to her increasing satellite capacity.

With all due respect sir, I think there are some facts you have not considered. Ultra-nationalists chinese can interpret that as "americans are retreating" or like you like to say "shaking in her boots", emboldening them to take more aggressive actions. Of course only pretty shallow minded people can "interpret caution as cowardice", but it seems to be quite common in pro-china comments.

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Well, actually, the US seeks a "proxy" in order to avoid a direct confrontation w/ the PRC. In modern warfare, no single item will be used in naval confrontations on either side - waves of differing missiles combined w/ shock waves. Those in the know will know what I am alluding to.

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Looks like Japan may need to be a little nicer to the U.S....

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“China’s ability to bypass America’s robust air-defense capability and strike ships at sea with ballistic missiles could severely limit American naval power,” according to Abraham Denmark and James Mulverson of the Center for a New American Security.

Newsweek quotes retired U.S. rear admiral and defense attache to Beijing Eric McVadon describing China’s anti-ship weapons as “pretty daunting.”

Just park the aircaft carriers out of the range of these anti-ship rascals and the Big Kahuna, the DF-21D, and problem solved. Of course, some of China's anti-ship cruise missiles have incredible range, due to her increasing satellite capacity.

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As mentioned by some posters, it's only effective if it's effective. It might look great on paper, maybe even initially test well, but then be totally useless in action. A lot of this is theory and more difficult than it's described in the article.

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Well jinjapan, at least they are trying to be nice by making it quick instead of slow and painful :p.

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what a sad world we live in :-( who can kill the other quicker .

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"No worries, by the end of President Obama's second term, the U.S. military will no longer have supremacy over all other countries' militaries."

Ahh... This must be the tired old yarn where Conservatives contradictorily bleat that Democratic presidents are soft on defense and gutting our military, while simultaneously being warmongers, having presided over so many military actions over the years. Yawn.

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I wouldn't worry of these "carrier killers". The U.S. has probably developed or finalizing devlopment of a solution to them.

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Missiles are last century, this century is all about railguns and gauss canons that can shoot projectiles at 5,368 miles an hour without having to speed up and it can't be shot down.

Google "Railgun Wikipedia"

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I hope someone comes up a system that pinpoints military mindsets only. The sooner we get those people out of the way the better.

I think that maybe there is a secret group of conspiracy theorists working on it right now as we speak.

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It would be nice if you backed that claim up Sarge. The U.S. still spends more on the military each year than any three nations on Earth combined, like say China, Russia and GB rolled into one. Even if Obama cut all funding for the Navy tomorrow, they could feed off their own fat until Obama leaves office and still be more supplied than anyone, maybe even if he gets a second term. So where does your melodrama come from?

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"U.S. naval supremacy"

No worries, by the end of President Obama's second term, the U.S. military will no longer have supremacy over all other countries' militaries.

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Cruising at about Mach 6 (7,300 km/h), this scramjet-powered missile will carry six times more kinetic energy than a similar weapon at Mach 1.

The formula for kinetic energy K is K = m V V / 2, therefore, if the speed V increases 6 times, the energy K will increase 6 6 = 36 times (if the mass m* is the same in both cases), rather than 6 times, as the author claims.

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Doesn't mean a whole lot if you are the fastest gunslinger in town but your aim is bad. Your name will be on a tombstone soon enough. Hypersonic missile technology is just one aspect of war, anyway. SSBNs and attack submarines (and other stealth platforms) are the aces in the hole. They are much more of a deterrent (and threat) than a carrier force due to their stealth, missiles and warheads. What is China and India doing to counter that American advantage?... I thought so. America's demise has been greatly exaggerated.

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I hope someone comes up a system that pinpoints military mindsets only. The sooner we get those people out of the way the better.

Sadly I just know these things will be made to target civilian cities too, because military types just cannot be satisfied only killing eachother. Too much challenge for their coward hearts.

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Talk about destabilizing. Such speed leaves little time for launch confirmation, trajectory tracking or anything else. That is the point, of course, but is notching up the tension really what the world needs now?

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I like her.

huh?

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To Shinhiyata,

What do you have against Jane's Defense Weekly - I like her.

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To Mareo2,

Are you in the SDF? If you are, please look into the development towards the end of the Cold War. Both were moving into "signals intelligence" in R&D. Speed is secondary to targeting - example would be the Sunburn. I'm talking first tier equipment, and nothing exemplifies my analysis more than the F22. F15s can't even target the F22 - signal jamming. This is prime territory for the SDF to delve into in R&D.

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I can not find any reference to Japan in this article whatsoever (China calls it the East Sea). Why is this article even being being featured? Japan has no offensive posture navy, just a 'coast guard.' Since one can only make references to other countries besides Japan, shouldn't the moderators delete every comment? This is not Jane's Defence Weekly. 和平

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The BrahMos is the most well know, but the fact is that Russia and India are not the only neighbors of China deploying supersonic missiles. Taiwan is discreetly arming their warships with Mach 2 Hsiung-feng 3 anti-ship missiles, even Japan is developing a Mach 3 anti-ship missile called ASM-3. The old american Harpoon is obsolete, short-range and slow, so we are forced to build our own stuff for have a decent chance of kill the coming chinese carrier. Now hypersonic missiles is quite a technical challenge that require a lot more money.

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You don't understand, we need these for when the aliens attack the planet! No point talking to each other since no Earthling can speak Martian.

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Just what the world needs. Another missle system to let us sleep snug as a bug at night. I would have hoped by now, people would know the best security is to talk to each other.

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