The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has for many years been testing and reporting on its famous DF-26 “carrier killer” missile, reportedly able to track and destroy aircraft carriers reportedly from distances as far as 2,000-3,100 miles away (depending on sourcing).
DF-26: A Power Projection Weapon
Can the DF-26 truly do this?
If so, there are many variables and concerning implications to consider, such as its ability to hold the U.S. territory of Guam at risk from mainland China. Clearly this threat is quite significant, as China is already known to operate a large arsenal of short, medium, and long-range ballistic missiles.
As a cruise-missile-like anti-ship weapon flying parallel to the surface, the DF-26D could prove more difficult to track than a standard ballistic missile which flies a parabola-like curve up in the sky before descending. This presents significant threats to vital U.S. assets, buildings, and technologies now in Guam and also of course holds carriers at risk of destruction from unprecedented distances.
Is the U.S. Navy Concerned?
Certainly the force is likely to take this threat very seriously, as China has repeatedly advertised the ability of the missile to track and destroy targets at this range. Yet, U.S. Navy leaders have also been clear that U.S. Navy carriers will operate wherever they need to in order to sufficiently project power.
What are the reasons for this apparent confidence? There are likely many variables to consider, such as the rapid maturation of advanced U.S. layered ship-defense systems enabling carriers to find, track, and destroy or disable incoming anti-ship missiles from paradigm-changing stand-off ranges.
Guam is likely armed with many ground-based sensors, radar systems, and interceptors. Yet, U.S. Navy ships at sea have in recent years received new generations of ship defense technologies such as lasers, long-range precision interceptors, and networked, over-the-horizon radar detection using satellites, drones, and manned aerial gateway systems.
Another critical area of innovation when it comes to ship defenses is in the realm of electronic warfare, as newer kinds of long-range EW weapons could potentially find a “line of bearing” and jam or disable an incoming DF-26. Carrier Strike Groups are also increasingly becoming armed with laser weapons potentially able to incinerate, intercept or destroy fast-approaching DF-26 missiles, and advanced interceptors fired from Vertical Launch Systems on destroyers are being upgraded with new guidance systems improving their ability to track and destroy or “knock out” an incoming anti-ship missile.
The SM-6, for example, has been engineered with key software upgrades and a “dual-mode” seeker enabling it to adapt to moving targets while in flight. Instead of needing to rely upon a ship-based illuminator to find or “light up” a target for the interceptor missile, the SM-6 now has its own ability to send a forward “ping” from the missile itself and adapt to changing targets while in flight.
This is why the SM-6 is so critical to a now-operational Navy over-the-horizon ship defenses system called Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air. NIFC-CA, as its called, consists of an integrated system connecting ship-based command and control with an “aerial gateway” node such as a Hawkeye, F-35 or drone in position to expand the radar aperture beyond the horizon of what ship-based systems would be able to detect.
Once a track is established by an aerial gateway platform functioning as an over-the-horizon sensor, ship-based fire control launched a guided SM-6 interceptor which can adjust in flight to find and destroy the approaching missile miles before it approaches the radar “field of regard” for a Navy ship.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.