Buried on page 40 of the Pentagon’s latest annual report on China’s military power is a brief mention of the YJ-12, a recent addition to China’s portfolio of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM). The report notes that, “The new missile provides an increased threat to naval assets, due to its long range and supersonic speeds.” True, but in an understated way. In fact, the YJ-12 is the most dangerous anti-ship missile China has produced thus far, posing an even greater risk to the U.S. Navy’s surface forces in the Western Pacific than the much-discussed DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. The arrival of the YJ-12 is one more indication of how the U.S. Navy is falling further behind in the missile competition against China, exposing flaws in operating concepts that U.S. and allied commanders and policymakers have relied on for years.
According to a 2011 study that appeared in Naval War College Review, the YJ-12 ASCM has a range of 400 kilometers, making it one of the longest-ranged ASCMs ever fielded (and much longer than the 124 kilometer limit of the U.S. Navy Harpoon). Crucially, at 400 kilometers, Chinese attack aircraft will be able to launch the YJ-12 beyond the engagement range of the Navy’s Aegis Combat System and the SM-2 surface-to-air missiles that protect U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups. In the past, when adversary ASCMs were limited to 100 kilometers or less, a carrier strike group had more time to react with its own aircraft and defensive missiles. It also had the option of engaging enemy aircraft before they launched their ASCMs, and more redundancy to cope with such attacks. With its 400 kilometer range, the YJ-12 will greatly erode these previous advantages.
A realistic future scenario is an attack on two or more axes by two Chinese Flanker regiments (totaling 48 Su-30 MKK or J-11B Flanker fighter-bomber variants). These Flankers (roughly corresponding to U.S. Air Force F-15E fighter-bombers, capable of supersonic speeds, and possessing a combat radius of 1,500 kilometers) could each be armed with two to four YJ-12 ASCMs. Although the carrier strike group’s combat air patrol could shoot down a few of the Flankers before they launched their missiles, the strike group would still face the prospect of defending against over a hundred supersonic ASCMs approaching from several directions at a wave-top height. The group’s close-in air defenses would have less than 45 seconds to engage the missiles after they appeared on the horizon. The YJ-12s would employ a variety of sensor types to find their targets and execute dramatic cork-screw turns to evade final defenses. A study from the Naval Postgraduate School concluded that in past engagements of anti-ship missiles against alerted surface warships, 32 percent of the attacking missiles scored hits. If only five percent of such a saturation YJ-12 attack impacted targets, it would still be a bad day for the carrier strike group.
The prospective Flanker/YJ-12 combination, eventually capable of reaching targets up to 1,900 kilometers from China, is an even more serious problem for the U.S. Pacific Fleet than is China’s DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile. That missile, still apparently not tested against a moving target at sea, relies on a fragile network of space-based observation and communication links that will be prime targets for the U.S. during a potential conflict. By contrast, an attack by China’s land-based Flanker regiments would be comparatively straightforward and would rely on overwhelming mass and brute force rather than an exquisite and likely fragile networked communication architecture for success.
Officials in the U.S. Navy are well aware of the missile threat their surface forces face. The Navy plans to win the future “outer air” battle well over the horizon from the carrier strike group by introducing new long-range air and missile defense capabilities to its surface forces. It also plans to network these sensors and weapons into a shared, cooperative “common engagement capability.” Components of this longer-range capability will include the new carrier-based E-2D early warning and control aircraft, the long-range SM-6 surface-to-air missile, the F-35C aircraft, and software that will share information among the various platforms. The Navy’s intent is to restore the status quo prior to the arrival of missiles like the YJ-12, namely the ability to shoot down enemy missile-carrying aircraft at longer ranges and well before they can launch their ASCMs.
We should hope that the Navy’s long-range network engagement plans succeed. But they seem susceptible to the same fragilities the Navy is counting on to thwart the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile and its required network architecture. Meanwhile, the simple brute force approach employing saturation ASCM attacks will benefit in the future from even longer-ranged ASCMs equipped with even better target seekers, a trend that has been in place for many years. In this competition, China’s land-based aircraft and missiles seem to possess the competitive cost and technology advantages.
The result is increasing doubts about the U.S. military’s long-standing operating concepts in the Western Pacific. And from those doubts could come increasing confidence by China’s military commanders and policymakers that they and not the U.S. will benefit from escalation during a potential future crisis. If that becomes the case, comparisons between 2014 and 1914 would be right on target.
Robert Haddick is an independent contractor at U.S. Special Operations Command. He writes here in a personal capacity. In September 2014, Naval Institute Press will publish “Fire on the Water: China, America, and the Future of the Pacific,” Haddick’s book on the rise of China’s military power and U.S. strategy in East Asia.
Entering the Second World War, the United States dramatically underestimated the effectiveness of certain Japanese naval systems and operations. The tendency to look askance at Japanese naval prowess during the interwar period obviously impacted the failure to anticipate the Pearl Harbor attack. But it is less widely understood that U.S. intelligence similarly underestimated the strength of Japan’s primary naval fighter aircraft (the Zero), the dramatic effectiveness of its long-range torpedoes, as well as its dedication to mastering difficult, but essential operations such as night combat. Remarkably, these problems in assessment occurred despite a plethora of openly available information regarding Japanese naval development during that time.
There are many reasons, of course, that contemporary China’s maritime ascendancy is starkly different from that of Imperial Japan almost a century ago. In particular, there is hardly a shred of evidence (reef reclamation included) to suggest that Beijing is inclined to undertake a rampage of conquest similar to Japan’s effort to bring the whole of the Asia-Pacific to heel from 1931 to 1942. Still, the complex maritime disputes in the Western Pacific require that American strategists keep a close eye on the evolving military balance. In that spirit, this installment of the Dragon Eyeseries turns once again to focus a bright light on one of the newest elements of China’s missile arsenal: the YJ-18 anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM).
However, before turning to the insights from this recent Chinese analysis, let us return briefly to what has been revealed about this new missile from both the recent U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) report, as well as the annual Pentagon report on Chinese military power. The ONI report is generally well done, but curiously the new YJ-18 only rates a mention in two spare sentences. This report notes that the YJ-18 can be vertically-launched (generally from a surface combatant) or alternatively submarine-launched, but there is no discussion of its supersonic sprint vehicle. Since the U.S. Navy (USN) lacks a supersonic ASCM and will not have one in the foreseeable future, this omission is troubling. Similarly puzzling is the decision not to discuss the recent appearance of another supersonic ASCM, YJ-12, in China’s arsenal. True, such capabilities did exist earlier in other forms, namely as imported Russian systems, but the indigenization (and likely upgrade) of these capabilities is hardly insignificant and will mean they are much more widespread and employed with greater confidence and proficiency.
The 2015 Department of Defense report does offer a bit more detail and thus draws the proper attention to the YJ-18 threat, but again does not mention its supersonic sprint vehicle. The YJ-18 ASCM is described as a “significant step” and subsequently as a “dramatic improvement” over current missiles in China’s inventory. Perhaps most significantly, however, the DoD report puts the range of YJ-18 at 290 nautical miles – more than double that of its likely progenitor, the Russian SS-N-27 Klub ASCM (export version). If correct, moreover, this new range will, in the near term, more or less quadruple the range of the standard ASCM fired from most PLA Navy submarines.
The February 2015 Chinese analysis of YJ-18 is somewhat cautious in tone and hardly purports to be a comprehensive analysis. Perhaps fitting for an initial piece on a cutting edge system, the article’s introduction sports the rare caveat “…并不代表本刊观点” [does not represent the viewpoint of this magazine]. However, the title “‘鹰击’18 -- ‘俱乐部’导弹中国版?” [Is the Yingji-18 Simply a Chinese Version of the Klub?] asks the precise question that will be on the minds of many defense analysts examining the YJ-18. A decent amount of the article just reviews the development of the Russian Klub system and its different variants. It is noted, moreover, that China has had ready access to the Klub missile system since it imported the Type 636 Kilo-class conventional subs about a decade ago. Indeed, some had remarked that Beijing imported the submarine for the sole purpose of actually acquiring its superior missile system. Interestingly, the article does not report the much extended range outlined in the new Pentagon report.
This Chinese description relates that the missile’s great strength is its “亚超结合的独特动力” [subsonic and supersonic combined unique propulsion]. Another term applied to this design is “双速制反舰导弹” [dual speed control ASCM]. As explained in the article, it is projected that YJ-18 would have an initial subsonic phase estimated at .8 Mach similar to the Klub of about 180km, but 20km from the target would unleash the supersonic sprint vehicle at speed of Mach 2.5 to 3. The “dual speed” function allows the system to realize certain advantages of subsonic cruise missiles, such as their “relatively long range, light weight and universality …” but also takes the chief advantage of supersonic ASCMs as well, namely the ability to “大幅压缩敌方的反应时间” [radically compress the enemy’s reaction time].
The Chinese article relates another advantage of the “dual speed” approach. Just as the missile comes into contact with the ship’s defenses, it “sheds the medium stage …,” thus simultaneously and dramatically altering both its speed and also its radar reflection, “which would impact the fire control calculation.” The likelihood that YJ-18 improves upon the Klub missile’s “digitization, automation, as well as providing more intelligent flight control and navigation technology” is attributed in the Chinese article to a recent Jane’s report. A final interesting issue raised in the Chinese article concerns the “hot launch” technique suggested in the test video clip mentioned at the outset of this article (and illustrated in photos accompanying the Chinese article). Indeed, a new vertical launch system for the new 052D destroyer is confirmed as a “共架混装” [common rack for mixed arms] system with a citation in the article to PLA Admiral Qiu Zhiming, director of the Naval Armaments Research Academy. But it is not clear from the article that YJ-18 will rely on the hot launch versus the cold launch method--the latter being much more common for submarine launched missiles.
The article interestingly discusses recent Russian placement of additional Kilo-class submarines equipped with the Klub-missile systems into the Black Sea. These new submarines “based on the Crimean Peninsula, operating in harmony with air and land-based missile forces [can] … limit the deployment of NATO fleets into the Black Sea …” I have noted before in this column the seductive possibilities of the “Russian model” for Chinese strategists. This Chinese author concludes the piece, explaining that, “The YJ-18 will gradually replace the YJ-82 across the PLA Navy submarine fleet. That development combined with surface ship and air-launched missiles will create a comprehensive attack system of even greater combat power.” The implication seems to be that for China, in its various maritime disputes, the YJ-18 can play a role similar to the one that nearly identical Russian weapons have played in creating decisive local military superiority in the Black Sea area.
On the other hand, Beijing has been making noteworthy strides in military transparency of late, for example with the most recent white paper or the somewhat unusual discussion of the new Type 093G nuclear attack submarine in China Daily. Nevertheless, the gap in transparency continues to be quite wide when it comes to some of the most lethal weapons in China’s arsenal, such as the new YJ-18. Allowing the rumor mill to churn, spreading anxieties regarding Chinese capabilities hither and thither is really not in China’s interest and greater transparency, of course, is necessary.
For Washington, some additional attention seems warranted in future intelligence community studies with respect to Chinese ASCM development. The 2015 ONI study gave some attention to YJ-18, but omitted discussion of the supersonic YJ-12, the long-range subsonic YJ-100 or the CX-1 supersonic ASCM that are apparently now in development, according to Chinese sources. Renewed attention will help muster the necessary focus for the U.S. going forward to prepare its forces adequately. For all the ink spilled and Washington seminars convened to discuss China’s expanding coast guard fleet, it is obviously the ever-growing sophistication of the Chinese ASCM arsenal that poses the “clear and present danger” to American sailors.
Editor’s Note: The following is part of a unique series we call Dragon Eye, which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. You can find all previous articles in the series here.