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Naval Strike Missile: The U.S. Navy’s Secret Weapon Against China?

The Naval Strike Missile flies fast, far, is hard to defend against — and the Chinese Navy has noticed.

The Challenge 

Much ink has been spilled recently about the People’s Liberation Army Navy, the Chinese military’s naval branch, and the recent milestones they’ve achieved. In addition to possessing the world’s largest navy in terms of ships numbers, the PLAN has also made several advances aside from sheer surface vessel numbers, including a new, potentially stealthy submarine, and increasingly sophisticated, domestically-built aircraft carriers.

Despite these qualitative and quantitative advances, the PLAN has its own qualms about the United States Navy, long the world’s premier naval force. One of the Chinese Navy’s biggest concerns? The United States’ Naval Strike Missile. 

Naval Strike Missile, Explained 

The Norwegian-designed Naval Strike Missile (NSM)is a potent anti-ship platform. Flying at high-subsonic speed, the missile can engage targets on land and sea and evade radar detection by skimming over the ocean surface or maneuvering around terrain features when flying over land. Moreover, the NSM initiates random flight maneuvers during its terminal flight phase that help the missile evade enemy countermeasures.

Thanks to the use of advanced composite materials in the NSM missile body, the missile is thought to be significantly harder to detect than comparable missiles. Paired with a long, 115+ mile range, the NSM gives the United States Navy a significant bump in firepower range and effectiveness.

The Naval Strike Missile’s advanced characteristics are precisely why the People’s Liberation Army Navy has noticed — and the PLAN doesn’t like what it sees.

Alarm Bells Ringing

The Marine Design & Research Institute of China, the Chinese shipbuilding industry’s foremost research and development body, singled out the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship as a significant threat to the PLAN in a recent research paper, and in particular when paired with the Naval Strike Missile.

“Modular weapons [like the NSM] can reduce ship construction costs while weapons manufactured with the same interface standard can be easily installed on ships that meet this standard,” the paper, first reported on by USNI News, explained. “This is extremely conducive to boosting the ship’s overall capabilities, while ease of maintenance and ability for rapid retrofitting are greatly enhanced.”

According to U.S. Navy officials, three PLAN ships tailed an NSM-armed Littoral Combat Ship during recent American naval exercises in the South China Sea. By comparison, an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer is typically monitored by just a single PLAN vessel, underscoring the level of Chinese Navy interest — or concern — in the Naval Strike Missile-Littoral Combat Ship pairing.

Though not explicitly mentioned but perhaps more worthy of note is the United States Marine Corp’s innovative NSM deployment not at sea but on land.

By Air, Land, and Sea

In Marine Corps hands, the NSM has paired well with an entirely different platform: the Joint Light Tactical Vehicle, the Army, and Marine Corps HMMWV-replacement. Extensively modified to fire a pair of containerized NSMs — without cab space, cargo area, or doors — driverless, remotely-controlled JLTVs, dubbed Navy/Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System or NMESIS, could pull guard duty in the future, stationed on remote specks of land throughout the Pacific, lying in wait for enemy surface ships and denying them the use of land.

Most recently, the Marine Corps conducted an NMESIS live-fire test that validated the JLTV-NSM mating. The test also demonstrated a rapid roll-on, roll-off deployment capability facilitated via the Corps’ KC-130J, a flexible long-range tanker-transport aircraft capable of landing on austere, primitive runways in remote locations — like on the kinds of islands that dot the Pacific.


Currently, Naval Strike Missiles arm the U.S. Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships and the Marine Corps’ NMESIS system. In the future, however, the missile’s compatibility with other platforms is on track to expand: the still-in-development Constellation-class of frigates are likely to receive NSMs, which, if accepted, would form one of the class’ primarily anti-ship weapons.

A similar, air-launched variant of the NSM is also in development. Though the modified missile has only been validated on the F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter, the Navy would like to arm their F-35 stealth fighters with the missile. If realized, the Navy could bring a formidable anti-ship capability to bear from air, land, and sea, all via essentially the same munition. 

The People’s Liberation Army Navy is right to take note of the Naval Strike Missile. It is fast, extremely agile, difficult to detect, and hard to shoot down — and if a conflict in the Pacific were to erupt, the NSM would play a decisive role for the United States Navy and Marine Corps as their ship-killer of choice.

Caleb Larson is a Defense Writer based in Europe. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.

Written By

Caleb Larson is a multiformat journalist and defense writer based in Berlin but has spent most of 2022 reporting from Ukraine. He covers the intersection of conflict, security, and technology, with a focus on American foreign policy and European security. Follow him on Twitter @calebmlarson.



  1. CoffeeJoe

    August 25, 2021 at 9:43 am

    Yep, makes sense…devote all your time to anti-ship (itself a worthy reason) but ignore anti-air or anti-sub.

  2. Bidentraitor

    August 25, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    Worse than that…. expose all your secrets to the enemy.

  3. Jerome

    August 25, 2021 at 10:07 pm

    Neither the 19fortyfive site, nor it’s journalist contributors, expose U.S. or NATO secrets to the enemy. Nope. The enemy gets those designs, we can’t really call them ‘secret’, from engineers employed at the defense contractors who create them.

  4. Michael

    August 26, 2021 at 9:00 am

    Finally an author who knows the power of the USN. It’s not the numbers it’s the quality that matters. I’ve read articles on here where a defeatists LT Col wanted to not intervene in Taiwan. Sometimes officers go to military school but they just learn the basics. They do not always have a historical knowledge of history. In many cases they really do not understand how powerful the USA because they never read about the industrial power of this nation in WW2.
    As far as divulging secrets our new weapons systems are knows to us and the enemy. There are systems that are kept secret. This site is not committing a breach of national security.
    The USN will sink the whole Chinese navy in a month of war. You can have 1000 destroyers but it’s the strike carriers that count. And the one China has has serious issues. The model jet they use has a bad engine and can’t take off a carrier with a full bomb load. There are many other flaws. Once a total war starts the chicoms will not be allowed to build new ships in their docks bec they will be bombed. Taiwan and Jason will be massive aircraft carriers like England was in ww 2.

  5. Mike

    August 26, 2021 at 9:07 am

    Anti air is not being ignored nor anti sub warfare. Their subs are noisy and obsolete. They will easily be hunted down by our attack subs bec of their loud engines. Our anti air defense is already way ahead too mostly due to the stealth planes that can fly in and take out those capable anti air systems for the more exposed fighters. There’s only one anti air system that the Chinese purchased from Russia that may be an issue but this will be defeated by stealth.
    I hate to say it but we would be much better off to fight the war soon than 10 plus years from now bec we can def still win. It will be an air and naval war. Once the war has a cease fire the major world economies will cut off trade with China and in order to stop them from ever rising again to threaten the free world.

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