China has developed a missile that would turn an aircraft carrier into a two-billion-dollar hulk of twisted metal, flame and dead sailors. Publicly, the US Navy downplays its importance. Privately, the sailors are working out several different options to kill it before it kills them.
Adm Jonathan Greenert, the Navy's top officer, explained to reporters during a Friday breakfast meeting that the Navy has ways of exploiting some of the DF-21D missile's formidable technical capabilities, even before opening fire and praying.
DF-21D missile's formidable technical capabilities, even before opening fire and praying.
As Greenert sees it, there's a menu of options. Some involve convincing the DF-21D that the carrier is in a different place. Others involve masking the electronic emissions of the carrier. Still others are more traditional — like blasting the missile out of the salty air.
"You want to spoof them, preclude detection, jam them, shoot them down if possible, get them to termination, confuse it," Greenert said. "The concept is end-to-end, and the capabilities therein [are] what we're pursuing."
First up: the missile's guidance systems. This is where Greenert wants the Navy's investment in jamming and electronic warfare generally to pay off.
"If whatever is launched has a seeker, can you jam it?" Greenert mused. "Yes, no, maybe so? What would it take to jam it?" For now, that's a job for the flying, jamming Growlers which messed with Moammar Gadhafi's anti-aircraft systems in Libya last year. Later on, the Navy will have a next-generation jammer, also built onto some of its jets, which it wants to use to infect enemy systems with malware. Alternatively or in supplement, the strike group would go radio silent, to stop the missile from homing in on its electronic emissions.
Then comes the "more popular" part, Greenert said: shooting the missile down. The Aegis missile-defense cruisers included in an aircraft carrier strike group would be tasked with that over the next decade. Afterward, the Navy wants to use giant shipboard lasers to burn through incoming missiles. But it's by no means clear the Navy really can clear all the technological obstacles to oceanic laser warfare by its mid-2020s deadline.
And shooting down this new missile isn't a guaranteed proposition. "When do you have to engage it? On the way up? Mid-course? Terminal?" Greenert said.
His answer: all of the above. "We call it links of a chain," Greenert said. "We want to break as many links as possible." Navy weapons have to be ready to disable the DF-21D — either through jamming it or shooting it — during "all" phases of its trajectory.
There's also something that Greenert didn't mention: he has time on his side.
The Navy conceded in December 2010 that the DF-21D had reached "initial operating capability". But its intelligence chief quickly added that blowing up a carrier is still past China's means. Hitting a moving object is difficult. Testing the thing at sea is too. Then China needs to integrate the missile into its general surface warfare plans. And after all that come the countermeasures Greenert outlined. Solving all that takes time.
And while China works on that, the Navy will continue its own development. If Greenert is freaked out by a weapon that can punch through one of the most potent symbols of American power, he's doing a good job of hiding it in public.
Photo: Office of Naval Intelligence.