The sky is calm, but the tension is palpable below the surface. Deep within the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force, a secret weapon – the DF-26D missile – has been tested and improved. Nicknamed the “carrier killer,” this missile can track and destroy warships at ranges of between 2,000 and 3,100 miles.
DF-26: An energy projection weapon
The implications are huge. The DF-26D’s ability to keep Guam in danger from mainland China is a constant reminder of this missile’s threat. With an arsenal of short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles already in its possession, China is preparing to make use of its latest secret weapon.
But can the DF-26D really live up to the hype? Will it be able to destroy aircraft carriers thousands of miles away?
DF-26: A Danger to the US Navy?
US Navy leaders are confident in their ability to project their sea power sufficiently. But the threat is real, and layered naval defense systems are more important than ever.
Guam’s ground-based sensors, radars, and interceptors are a start, but the US Navy on the high seas has been given a new generation of naval defense technologies. Lasers, long-range precision interceptors, and networked and over-the-horizon radar detection using satellites, drones, and manned airbridge systems are just some of the advances that are changing the game.
But the crown jewel of naval defense above the horizon is the SM-6, designed with key software updates and a “dual-mode” seeker that allows it to adapt to moving targets during flight. With its ability to “ping” from the missile and adapt to changing targets during flight, the SM-6 is a critical part of the defense system.
NIFC-CA is an integrated system that integrates ship-based command and controls with an air gateway node, such as a Hawkeye, F-35, or zooming drone. The radar aperture beyond the horizon would be detectable by ship-based systems.
How to destroy the DF-26?
Once an air gateway platform establishes a trail that functions as a sensor above the horizon, ship-based fire control launches a guided SM-6 interceptor that can be adjusted in flight to find and destroy the incoming missile. It approaches miles before it comes within the “field of view” of a Navy ship’s radar.
The system is based on exchanging information between aircraft sensors and ship weapons systems, allowing for a coordinated and rapid response to incoming threats.
NIFC-CA is just one of many advanced technologies the US Navy is using to protect its aircraft carriers and other maritime assets. Electronic warfare, for example, is also a critical area of innovation, as new types of long-range EW weapons could jam or disable an incoming DF-26.
In addition, advanced interceptors fired from destroyers’ Vertical Launch Systems are being upgraded with new guidance systems that improve their ability to track and destroy or “knock out” an incoming anti-ship missile.
America is worried
But despite all these defensive measures, the threat from the DF-26 missile remains a major concern for the US Navy. Ultimately, Navy leaders will have a difficult decision to make: continue deploying carriers to the western Pacific and risk a Chinese missile attack, or withdraw them and give up their ability to project power in the region.
Meanwhile, China continues to improve its ability to project power in the western Pacific. The country is investing in new weapons and technologies, including advanced submarines, state-of-the-art fighter jets, and long-range anti-aircraft missile systems. The arms race in the region appears to be far from over, and military experts warn that the situation could get worse before it gets better.