In the latest bit of tit-for-tat aggression between China and the United States pertaining to China’s contested claims of sovereignty over the entire South China Sea, Chinese government-owned outlets have released a flurry of stories positing that China could sink America’s supercarriers by firing at them with a flurry of hypersonic DF-17 anti-ship missiles. Although these statements are a clear sign of posturing rather than a direct threat, what makes China’s assertions concerning is that they’re probably right.
The Dongfeng-17, or DF-17, is a medium-range missile equipped with a hypersonic glider warhead that both American and Chinese experts agree is all but impossible to defend against using existing missile defense systems employed by the United States—or any other nation for that matter. The incredible velocities attained by these sorts of weapons, which must exceed Mach 5 to be considered hypersonic but can potentially go as fast as Mach 20 or more, make them a threat unlike any faced by warships before. The U.S. Navy has already been hard at work attempting to mitigate the threat posed by these new weapons, but to date, no real solution has been found. Worse, the United States is potentially years behind Chinese and even Russian hypersonic missile development already.
How big a threat is the DF-17?
With an estimated range of between 1,100 and 1,500 miles, the hypersonic DF-17 helps to establish what can be considered an “anti-ship bubble” in the waters off the coast of China. Any American vessel encroaching on that bubble could potentially be targeted. If China opts to place these missile platforms on recently built or claimed islands in the middle of the South China Sea, traveling through what the international community considers international waters could be exceedingly dangerous. China claims that those waters, and nearly the entirety of the South China Sea, belong to them, despite those claims reaching thousands of miles from Chinese shores and abutting areas claimed by multiple other nations.
This anti-ship bubble is of particular import because it extends to the full range of the platform, meaning American carriers may not be able to sail closer than 1,500 miles away from Chinese shores without being at risk. This would effectively neuter America’s carrier-based force-projection capabilities, as even with multiple efforts underway to extend the fuel range of carrier-based aircraft, even best-case (future) scenarios still place carrier sorties at a maximum range of a bit over 700 miles. In other words, American carrier-based aircraft would not have the range to conduct air strikes against China.
By launching eight of these missiles simultaneously, as China suggested, it would be all but impossible to intercept all of the inbound weapons, even if they weren’t traveling at hypersonic speeds. It may also mitigate Chinese concerns about their targeting apparatus, as the chances of a successful hit increase with each additional missile. One hit would likely not be enough to sink the ship, but could certainly compromise its ability to function fully. A half dozen hits may leave the carrier floating, but it’s doubtful it would be launching many sorties.
What is America doing to mitigate the threat?
There is an ongoing, multi-faceted initiative to find creative solutions to the hypersonic anti-ship missile threat. The Marine Corps, for instance, has experimented with establishing hasty, austere airstrips inside the anti-ship bubble that could be supplied by heavy-load helicopters. These airstrips would allow F-35Bs (capable of vertical landings and short takeoffs) to land, refuel, and re-arm, then take off again within combat range of Chinese targets. Boeing’s forthcoming Block III upgrades to the Super Hornet include the addition of conformal fuel tanks that will extend the range of the fighters, though still not enough to offset the aforementioned bubble. By adding the MQ-29 drone refueling program, that range may be extended, but it still won’t be enough quite yet.
That doesn’t mean the U.S. is down and out. There are a number of other strategies American forces could employ to reduce the threat posed by these platforms. Flying long-distance bombing runs in a stealth aircraft like the B-2 Spirit or forthcoming B-21 Raider could allow the U.S. Air Force to knock out the majority of China’s shore-based anti-ship arsenal ahead of a carrier’s arrival, for instance.
Further, despite the massive proportions of America’s Nimitz- and Ford-class carriers, they still amount to awfully small targets when compared to the vast expanse of the open ocean. Because carriers need to be moving at around 30 knots to launch aircraft, China would be faced with the incredible challenge of hitting a relatively fast-moving target from a significant distance away, at extremely high speeds. Such a feat may not be impossible, but it would require an advanced and fully matured targeting apparatus. A missile fired would not guarantee a hit, even if American defenses can’t intercept it.