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