For months now, the U.S. Navy has been scrambling to find ways to increase the operational range of the aircraft employed on American Ford and Nimitz class supercarriers. Despite the variety of programs underway, the catalyst for each has been the same: the threat posed by advanced anti-ship ballistic missiles being fielded by national level competitors like China.

The problem presented by these anti-ship platforms is simple: with an operational range that exceeds that of our aircraft, they hypersonic platforms could sink even America’s massive carriers with a single strike, making it impossible to put the nation’s most potent means of force projection anywhere near the fight in the event a conflict were ever to break out between U.S. and Chinese forces.

Now, Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, has taken his concerns about this capability gap directly to lawmakers, delivering a series of statements that have been characterized as “troubling admissions” in some outlets. Of course, Griffin’s observations are indeed troubling, but the Navy has made little effort to keep these concerns a secret. It’s more appropriate, perhaps, to call Griffin’s Congressional testimony a call to action after the American people and its lawmakers have failed to recognize how serious a threat these anti-ship missiles pose to U.S. foreign policy.

“China has fielded or can field … hypersonic delivery systems for conventional prompt strike than can reach out thousands of kilometers from the Chinese shore, and hold our carrier battle groups or our forward deployed forces … at risk,” he said.

In another round of testimonies Griffin delivered to the House Armed Services Committee this week, Griffin once again brought up the threat presented by Chinese anti-ship missile platforms, this time, dispelling a prevailing myth that America’s suite of missile defense systems could intercept an inbound hypersonic missile. China currently employs more than one type of anti-ship missile, some that use a near vertical approach and others that travel on a near horizontal flight path. Both are difficult to track and intercept with American defensive systems, and both travel much too quickly for American satellites to identify a launch and coordinate a response before reaching their target.

Worse still, evidence suggests China is already working to arm heavy bombers with these same massive anti-ship platforms, making it even more dangerous to approach Chinese shores, even outside the range of land-based platforms.

Griffin did not mince words regarding how significant these weapons systems are, referring to them as “the most significant advance” made by the US’ adversaries. “We will, with today’s defensive systems, not see these things coming,” he said.

“We, today, do not have systems which can hold them at risk in a corresponding manner, and we don’t have defenses against those systems,” Griffin said, adding that “should they choose to deploy them we would be, today, at a disadvantage.

Artist’s rendering of Lockheed Martin’s proposed MQ-25 carrier-based drone refueler. | Lockheed Martin

Griffin’s proposed solution to these threats was simple: invest as much as possible into the development of new systems that could help offset the capability gap presented by these platforms. Currently, the Navy is moving forward with plans to hot-load F-35s on field expedient air strips inside carrier-denied areas, adding conformal fuel tanks to their workhorse Super Hornets in their forthcoming Block III upgrades, and adding carrier-capable drone refuelers to the nation’s fleet.

“Our adversaries have taken advantage of what I have referred to as a holiday for the United States,” Griffin said Wednesday about America’s victory in the Cold War and subsequent stagnation in defense technologies.

“China has understood fully how to be a superpower,” Griffin said. “We gave them the playbook and they are executing.”

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons