Hypersonic missile technology has quickly become the basis for an arms race between China, Russia, and the United States. Although the U.S. is now moving buckets of money into this new field, both the Chinese and Russians have maintained a steady lead in the competition thanks to an earlier start. Now, with the U.S. programs still close to two years away from flight testing, the Chinese have introduced a new short-range hypersonic missile meant to complement its existing arsenal of long-range platforms.
The new CM-401 short-range anti-ship missile isn’t a behemoth like their near-thousand mile DF-21D that was purpose-built to take out American carriers before they could move into striking distance. Instead, this new ballistic missile engages targets from only about 180 miles away and packs a significantly smaller punch. It does, however, have one significant advantage over its much larger sibling: the CM-401 can be launched from ship-based canisters.
Unlike China’s previous hypersonic anti-ship missiles, the CM-401 is meant to serve as a means to engage American destroyers and similarly sized vessels. Launching anti-ship missiles from a ship isn’t at all unusual, but what makes the CM-401 such a formidable threat is its sheer speed. With a suggested maximum speed of somewhere between Mach 4 and Mach 6, and an unpredictable flight path by design, the CM-401 would be nearly impossible to intercept using the missile countermeasures found aboard modern Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers.
Take a close look at CM-401, the anti-ship ballistic missile mock-up. pic.twitter.com/LIBvGDQC03
— dafeng cao (@dafengcao) November 4, 2018
And while the new platform doesn’t quite pack the power it would need to sink a Ford or Nimitz class aircraft carrier in one shot (unless it was a particularly lucky or accurate one), it would likely be more than enough to sink a destroyer. According to what Chinese media outlets have reported, however, the missile was designed to be fired in groups or volleys — meaning this new platform does pose a significant threat to carriers as well, it just may take more than a single shot to sink the massive vessels.
“The system is intended for rapid and precision strikes against medium-size ships, naval task forces, and offshore facilities,” said a spokesman for the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC).
China has quickly become the world’s leading missile developer and stockpiler, with most experts agreeing that China now possesses the largest stockpile of missile platforms assembled anywhere on earth. For the most part, these weapons are meant to serve as “defensive” systems, as China’s emphasis has been on coastal defense and naval warfare in the South China Sea. That defensive posture is misleading, however, as China has asserted their sovereignty over the majority of the South China Sea, despite competing claims over the territory and global norms pertaining to international waters. As a result, China has been fielding missiles and other “defensive” assets on manufactured or captured islands to better defend their claims.
“The country will possess greater deterrence against hostile sea attacks, especially from large vessels like aircraft carriers,” an unnamed Defense official told the Chinese media.