The U.S. Navy is working to counter China in the Pacific, but it could be the Air Force’s B-21 Raider that really shakes things up.

In recent years, the United States Navy has dramatically increased the frequency of Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in the South China Sea. This increase in Pacific activity can be directly attributed to China’s aggressive behavior throughout the region in enforcing its illegal claims of sovereignty over the heavily trafficked portion of the ocean.

Power competition in the South China Sea

The South China Sea, a stretch of ocean that lies between Vietnam and the Philippines, is subject to numerous overlapping claims of ownership, many of which are backed by international law and commonly accepted norms. That is, except for China’s claims, which extends thousands of miles beyond the traditionally recognized Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) each nation can claim within 200 miles of its coast. Chinese actions are bolstered by both capturing and creating new islands in the region.

b-21 raider
(Wikimedia Commons)

China’s claims over this region, it claims, are backed by historical precedent. But international courts have ruled those claims to be unlawful. China has since responded by rapidly expanding its navy and bolstering the number of ships in both its Coast Guard and even its maritime militia. Combined, these forces offer China hundreds of vessels in the region, many of which are used to physically deter other nations from access to large swaths of ocean. This behavior has forced Vietnamese workers off of oil rigs in their own territorial waters, pushed fishing firms out of their nations’ EEZs, and have created a significant amount of tension among Pacific powers and even with nations as far away as Europe.

That’s where Freedom of Navigation Operations come in. South China Sea FONOPs are voyages of military vessels through stretches of ocean that China considers its property, but that the rest of the world recognizes as international waters. The United States and a number of other nations conduct these operations specifically to reinforce international norms and to physically represent a dismissal of China’s illegal claims. However, as tensions between China and other global powers continue to mount, emerging hypersonic technologies promise to give China a seemingly indefensible advantage.

(U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Michael A. Colemanberry/Released)

China’s hypersonic anti-ship missiles pose a serious threat

China has a massive stockpile of ballistic and cruise missiles at its disposal, including more than one hypersonic missile platform. Hypersonic missiles have become the source of the latest arms race. China, Russia, the United States, and recently, Japan have all been rushing to field missiles that are capable of achieving hypersonic speeds. In order to be considered hypersonic, a missile must be able to sustain flight at speeds in excess of Mach 5.

The incredible speed that Chinese missiles like the DF-17 and CM-401 can achieve makes them nearly impossible to intercept and offers a massive amount of kinetic energy transfer upon impact. In other words, these missiles could likely take down many navy vessels through sheer power alone, without the need for an explosive warhead. Of course, the addition of a warhead makes these platforms all the more dangerous.

(Screenshot taken from China Central Television)

While the CM-401 is considered a short-range, anti-ship cruise missile, the DF-17 boasts hypersonic speeds and a range that could extend out to 1,000 miles from the Chinese shores. At that distance, reliable targeting becomes a significant hurdle. This led China to develop a supersonic drone built specifically to offer up-to-the-minute targetting data of enemy ships as the DF-17 closes with its target.