Over the past few weeks, images of China’s new supersonic-capable, unarmed reconnaissance drone have begun making their way online, and SOFREP was among the first to notice that the design bears a striking resemblance to a similar platform employed over China by the United States in the 1960s. However, China’s propensity for stealing aircraft designs doesn’t make the threat posed by this new carrier-based drone any less significant — in a very real way, this high-speed drone could be among the most potent threats to American aircraft carriers fielded by any nation’s military.
For nearly two years now, the United States Navy has worked to develop multiple new technologies and methodologies all aimed at the singular goal of beating back the area-denial capabilities represented by China’s growing stockpile of anti-ship ballistic missiles and long-range hypersonic anti-ship missiles. The latter, in particular, represent a threat to American naval assets unlike anything seen before, as the sheer velocity of hypersonic platforms (or missiles that travel in excess of Mach 5) make them both extremely powerful and currently, impossible to defend against. The latest missile defense systems employed by any nation, including the United States, simply lacks the high speed capabilities required to locate, target, and effectively engage such fast moving projectiles, which means that once a hypersonic anti-ship missile has been launched, there’s nothing the target can do but wait for impact.
With an oft-touted range of nearly 1,000 nautical miles, hypersonic anti-ship platforms like China’s forthcoming DF-17 create a sort of area-denial bubble around China’s coastlines that extend well beyond the reach of America’s carrier based aircraft. That means American carriers would have to sail well within range of China’s ship-hunting missiles in order to launch sorties against Chinese assets. In other words, these missile platforms make it all but impossible for America to use its most potent form of force projection in the early days of a hypothetical conflict in the Pacific.
In order to counter this capability, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been adopted a number of concepts meant to extend the range of carrier based aircraft — from purchasing new carrier based drone refuelers (the MQ-25 Stingray) to practicing “hot loading” F-35s on austere runways inside China’s area denial bubble. To date, the Navy has yet to find the right combination of tools and approaches to grant them the extended range they’d need to engage the Chinese military without placing American carriers at risk — but until recently, the risks posed by these anti-ship missiles still had one large question mark associated with them: just how effective is their targeting apparatus?
Massive as a Nimitz of Ford class aircraft carriers may be, against the backdrop of the even more massive Pacific Ocean, they’re tiny. Because of their short runways, carriers actually need to be moving at near-full speed in order to launch aircraft, and in order to make targeting these massive vessels more difficult, they tend to make erratic turns during combat operations. As a result, an anti-ship missile would need to traverse hundreds of miles toward the target and then make rapid course corrections during its final approach in order to ensure it hits the ship, rather than splashing down where it was just moments earlier. Hitting a fast moving and erratic target awash in thousands of square miles of open ocean is tall order for any missile and many have wondered if China’s DF-17 and similar hypersonic platforms could possibly acquire sufficient targeting data from satellites flying overhead to do so. The consensus has long been no — and that the Chinese would likely need to rely on a fusion of data feeds from ships at sea, satellites in space, and drones flying overhead. And that’s precisely what China’s new supersonic, carrier-based drone has to offer.
Although unarmed, this fast-moving drone would scour the ocean’s surface in advance of a hypersonic missile’s arrival, spotting the carrier at sea and relaying up-to-the-second targeting information to the inbound ship-hunting missile. By using this supersonic drone to guide the final approach of a DF-17 or similar missile, China’s carrier-killer defenses will finally have the missing piece of their targeting apparatus in place — making the chances of a successful hit against U.S. carriers that much more likely.
For the Navy, this changes nothing, as they have clearly been operating under the assumption that China’s missiles have a complimentary targeting system with enough juice to make their missiles as deadly as they could be — which is an appropriate way to manage and mitigate such threats, but the addition of this new drone in the PLA-N’s stable can truly be seen as nothing but bad news — that is, assuming they do the job they were designed to do effectively.
For the U.S. military in the Pacific, this supersonic drone/hypersonic missile team up poses the most pressing and legitimate threat to American carriers in decades. The only question now is: how do you counter a threat posed by an indefensible missile that has a robust and accurate targeting system? Likely, by engaging them using long-range stealth platforms like the forthcoming B-21 Raider, but with each new carrier ringing in at around $13 billion and carrying more than 4,500 sailors — missing just one anti-ship missile could have massive repercussions for America’s force projection capabilities.