From modified Tomahawks that can be launched by Marines to HIMARS-deployed anti-ship missiles, the U.S. is making up for lost time by quickly building an arsenal that can cripple a Chinese invasion fleet from far away
A recent set of combat simulations performed by the U.S.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) confirmed one daunting problem but also found a possible solution for it. The simulations used statistics based on the current arsenals and weapons-acquisition trends of the U.S., Taiwan, Japan and China to see how a Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan would go down if the U.S. and Japan intervened militarily.
This simulation becomes more urgent when one takes into account the ominous fact that the recent trip to China by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken did not result in the primary aim of the visit — the resumption of direct communication between the militaries of the U.S. and China. The fact that China rejected this request to resume communications hints at the possibility that Xi has set the country irrevocably on a course toward forcibly taking Taiwan.
The CSIS says its simulation found that, if the U.S. and Japan did choose to intervene in a theoretical invasion of Taiwan, the defending forces would win, but at a high price. The report states: “The U.S. and its allies lost dozens of ships, hundreds of aircraft and tens of thousands of service members.” The report also found something else — that many of the U.S. losses were inflicted because the U.S. quickly ran out of its stockpile of long-range anti-ship missiles. The report concluded that the U.S. should therefore focus on increasing its stockpile of these weapons.
In the “Conditions for Success” portion of the report, the CSIS states that one of the four major conditions for success is that the U.S. “must be able to strike the Chinese fleet rapidly and en masse from outside the Chinese defensive zone.” The problem with this is that the “Chinese defensive zone” has widened a lot over the past decade, as China invested in the modernization and expansion of its military. With a large arsenal of warships, submarines, attack jets, anti-ship missiles, ground-attack missiles, anti-air missiles, and hypersonic missiles, the PLA can now cause a lot of damage to U.S. warships and warplanes in a strike zone stretching hundreds of kilometers beyond Taiwan.
So, for the U.S. to achieve the ability to strike the Chinese fleet from outside this zone, the CSIS report recommends that the U.S. increase its arsenal of long-range anti-ship cruise missiles. While the report cautions against the deployment of large warships because of their vulnerability to anti-ship missiles, it sees bomber aircraft capable of firing long-range anti-ship missiles as a very valuable asset: “Bombers capable of launching stand-off, anti-ship ordnance offer the fastest way to defeat the invasion with the least amount of U.S. losses. Procuring such missiles and upgrading existing missiles with this anti-ship capability needs to be the top procurement priority.”
The report went on to call the U.S.’s AGM 158C LRASM (Long Range Anti-Ship Missile) a “critical variable,” saying it “was particularly useful because of its ability to strike Chinese naval forces and directly reduce Chinese invasion capabilities. In every iteration [of the simulation], the U.S. expended its entire global inventory of LRASMs (about 450 missiles) within the first week of the conflict.”
First deployed in 2019, the LRASM has a range of 600 kilometers, giving it a much longer reach than the 250 kilometers of the U.S.’s much older Harpoon anti-ship missile. The missile is designed to detect and destroy specific ships within groups of ships while employing advanced technologies that reduce its dependence on external guidance platforms like satellites — in modern warfare situations where electronic jammers and anti-satellite weapons can reduce the effectiveness of such external guidance systems. The LRASM’s angular shape makes it relatively stealthy and it can sink large warships with its 454-kilogram penetrating blast fragmentation warhead.
The missile can be launched from the ground, from ships and from aircraft. Currently the primary airplane types that are equipped to launch it are the B1 Lancer bomber and the U.S. Navy’s carrier-based F-18 Super Hornet. The Pentagon is also currently looking at ways to adapt its other bombers and its P-8A Poseidon reconnaissance jet — which is a heavily modified Boeing 737 airliner — to carry and launch the missile.
Heeding the CSIS’s call, the Pentagon has increased its orders for long-range anti-ship missiles. Lockheed Martin announced in April that it has opened up a second production line to build the LRASM and its ground-attack version, the JASSM-ER (Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile-Extended Range). The increased production capacity would boost the number of missiles produced from 500 to 1,000 per year, but Lockheed Martin did not say how many of these would be LRASMs. Both the JASSM-ER and LRASM are designed to be dropped from planes and cruise for hundreds of kilometers to hit targets with high precision, but the LRASM’s ability to find and destroy moving ships puts it in a special category.
In a theoretical conflict over Taiwan, the U.S. plans to use these long-range ship-killers in tandem with medium-range ship-killers like the Norwegian-designed Naval Strike Missile (NSM). The U.S. Marine Corps is currently building a number of Marine Littoral Regiments that would eschew heavy weapons like tanks and artillery in favor of light defensive missiles and off-road robot trucks that are each fitted with two launchers of the NSM missile.
The NSM is a highly effective and smart weapon, but its big drawback is that it has a range of only 185 kilometers. The idea is that the new Marine units would be deployed to small islands around Taiwan when a Chinese invasion of Taiwan seems imminent. They would then be able to bolster the defenses of these islands while using their powerful ship-killer missiles to strike at Chinese ships far out at sea. However, even from the closest of these islands — Japan’s Yonaguni island, which lies only 110 kilometers east of Taiwan — the NSM would not be able to strike Chinese ships as they maneuver in the Taiwan Strait.
That’s why the U.S. Navy is currently adapting the Tomahawk cruise missile to create the Marine Strike Tomahawk, which would be able to strike moving ships over a distance of 1,000 kilometers. Once completed, this missile would be able to be deployed on similar robotic trucks by Marines dug in on islands within the Chinese strike zone. These would also be deployed alongside Harpoons and LRASMs on U.S. warships that could use them to strike invading warships while maneuvering outside the strike zone.
Another option that the U.S. is looking at is the possibility of tailoring a surface-launched version of the LRASM — the AGM-184C LRASM-SL — to fit into the launch pod of the HIMARS truck-based system that’s designed for launching multiple rockets quickly. The HIMARS system is designed to “shoot and scoot,” meaning it can fire one or more missiles quickly before quickly retracting its launcher and racing to another firing coordinate before enemy radar can pinpoint its position and launch retaliatory missile strikes. The HIMARS can already fire a variety of different-sized missiles packed into tailor-made launch pods, so creating a special HIMARS launch pod for the LRASM-SL should be relatively easy.
As the U.S. increases the number of its missiles that can hit moving warships over distances of 600 kilometers and beyond, it increases its ability to cripple a Chinese invasion fleet while reducing the enemy’s ability to inflict losses on U.S. warships and warplanes. Of course, only a real war would tell how many of these missiles would be able to penetrate the PLA Navy’s anti-missile defenses. The U.S. would try to launch the missiles in waves and from as many different locations as possible, thereby overwhelming the enemy’s defenses and increasing the chances of more missiles hitting their targets.
Image: DARPA, Public Domain