The news that China is working on an anti-ship drone-missile hybrid of sorts has been bouncing around social media as of late, after a photo and details about the weapon surfaced recently. The system is centered around a wing-in-ground-effect optimized airframe—a concept made famous by the Soviet Union's enigmatic Ekranoplans, and in particular, the giant Caspian Sea Monster. Ground effect craft can efficiently skim very low over the ground at high speeds by leveraging the decreased drag and increased lift that occurs as a result of an aircraft's wings interacting with the air directly above the planet's surface.
Although some were quick to think this weapon system is some sort of an elaborate unmanned combat air vehicle, that is almost certainly not the case. It seems pretty clear that it is far more expendable missile than anything else. After being launched from a shore battery, it would likely skim out to a target area at relatively high speed and very-low altitude. Then its onboard radar seeker would search for and prosecute an end-game attack solution of its target much like a standard anti-ship cruise missile. It would then slam into a ship and detonate what would be a far larger payload of explosives than a traditional anti-ship missile would carry.
The weapon is supposedly designed to fly as low as three feet above the water's surface for an hour and a half, and deliver a whopping 2,200-pound explosive payload onto its target. Overall, the weapon weighs 6,600 lbs fully loaded. The system's seeker, engine, and possibly other components like its navigation system are likely ported over from existing, reliable anti-ship missile systems, such as the C-602/YJ-62, C-704, C-802/YJ-8 series of missiles.
So where does this type of system fit in with China's overall anti-access/area-denial strategy? First off, it offers yet another threat layer to China's multi-tiered naval defense capability, while at the same time being not too dissimilar to its existing shore-based anti-ship missile defenses. Where this system differentiates itself is likely in its range, payload—and to some degree, its detectability during its midcourse phase of flight.
The Soviet Union's Ekranoplans, and especially the Caspian Sea Monster, have elevated the once obscure technology to near mythical levels:
Because the system blends unmanned air vehicle, missile, and wing-in-ground-effect concepts, it can use lift to drastically increase its range and increase its overall size and load carrying capability compared to its traditional missile counterparts. This means more fuel and a larger explosive payload can be carried.
Most importantly, normal anti-ship missiles fly anywhere from low to high altitudes during their flight out to the target area, before dropping down to very low altitude for their terminal attack run—skimming over the horizon at their target and thus giving said target's defenses little time to react. This hybrid system would presumably stay at extremely low altitude throughout its entire flight profile following launch. Although the air is thick at low altitudes and drag is high, the wing-in-ground-effect design overcomes that drawback by providing copious amounts of lift and a "cushion" of air below the craft as it rips across the ocean's surface.
By staying so low throughout its flight, this missile-drone of sorts would remain harder to detect than higher-flying traditional missile systems, as it could consistently hide from radar among the reflective clutter of the ocean's surface. Massive leaps in radar capabilities have been realized in recent years, especially when it comes to active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar sets' "look-down/shoot-down" abilities. These technological leaps have made it much easier for fighters and airborne early warning and control aircraft to detect very-low flying targets—but depending on the situation and the combat environment, the tactic of flying low still offers a substantial added degree of survivability.
Additionally, not all combat aircraft are equipped with active electronically scanned array radar systems that excel in this unique niche. For older pulse Doppler radar sets, detecting and successfully shooting down very low-flying targets with small radar signatures can be extremely challenging. So for this new weapon system, staying not just low but a mere handful of feet above the waves at any given time throughout its flight profile means it stands a better chance of remaining undetected—or at the very least, unengaged—than normal anti-ship missile systems.
Range is probably the biggest benefit of such a system. Where a normal shore defense system's cruise missile could fly out 100 or 200 miles, this thing could potentially reach distances of double or even triple that. With a 1.5-hour endurance, even if the system is only capable of say 300 miles per hour, that would give it a range of 450 miles. If the craft can reach higher speeds, say 500 miles per hour, that range increases drastically to 750 miles. That gives China a fairly potent( although lower-end) anti-access weapon system for contending navies to deal with during a time of conflict.
There is also the swarm factor. Although a sea-skimming threat that flies at subsonic speeds is not a high-end capability for well-defended surface combatants to deal with, if used as part of a larger anti-access strategy, it could be deadly. These missile-drones are not super high-tech craft and are likely comparatively cheap to manufacture, so China could potentially sling dozens or even hundreds of them in a large volley at a known area where enemy naval assets are lurking. Combined with aircraft, ship and submarine launched anti-ship weaponry, as well as China's budding anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities, even the most well armed naval armadas—like a US carrier strike group—would likely be overwhelmed with targets to engage. Considering how low this system stays throughout its flight profile, it would be challenging to engage many of them at standoff ranges. As a result, "leakers" could get through....and with 2,200 lbs of explosives onboard, just one of these things could do a huge amount of damage to a targeted combat vessel.
China's far more traditional C-602 anti-ship missile in action:
At shorter ranges, say less than 200 miles from a coastline, traditional shore-based anti-ship missiles would be added to this threat cocktail. For instance, this weapon system may be very hard to deal with in the Taiwan Strait combat environment, and it may be able to be modified to attack fixed coastal targets as well as ships at sea. Depending on its performance capabilities, it may even be able to climb out of ground effect and bombard targets located inland, although it would be far more vulnerable during that type of end-game flight profile.
So yes, even this fairly basic, lower-performance hybrid anti-ship drone-missile system could prove to be a credible threat if paired with the right tactics. Above all else, it is yet another reminder of China's quest to build an impenetrable anti-access/area-denial fortress within the naval domain that reaches out far from its shores. This system would help make up the lower end of this overall strategy; traditional anti-ship missiles, both subsonic and supersonic, would make up the middle end, while anti-ship ballistic missiles and continued heavy investments in hypersonic technologies would make up up its high end.
China is not alone in a revived interest in wing-in-ground-effect capabilities. Iran has actually designed a far lower-end anti-ship system that leverages a similar concept, and it won't likely be their last. And Russia, historically the biggest believers in wing-in-ground-effect concepts, is also showing renewed interest in the technology. Who knows, maybe Moscow will follow China's lead and make a blended wing-in-ground-effect unmanned aircraft and missile concept of their own in the not-so-distant future.