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Australian navy faces threat from Chinese anti-ship missiles: Think tank report

Sea skimming tactics help missiles sneak over horizon undetected

A jet stream trails a missile performing a sea-skimming maneuver. (Quora, Alexandre Johann photo) 

A jet stream trails a missile performing a sea-skimming maneuver. (Quora, Alexandre Johann photo) 

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A new report published by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), a Canberra-based think tank, highlights the unique threat China’s anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) pose to the navies of Australia and other U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific.

Author Sam Goldsmith views Chinese anti-ship weapons as a key part of its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities. They will likely serve as part of China’s "counter-intervention strategy" that aims to deter or deny allied forces from entering into contested waters in the Western Pacific — for instance, to assist Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

The strategic doctrine of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) calls for heavy use of deception, surprise attacks, and the use of assets known in Chinese as an "assasin's mace" (“殺手鐧”), a term originating in ancient folklore that refers to weapons used to defeat a stronger opponent. China’s sophisticated new ASCMs, such as the bomber-launched YJ-12 and the submarine-launched YJ-18B, are examples of assassin's mace weapons.

Sea-skimming, whereby missiles hug the water’s surface and cruise as low as possible, makes detecting Chinese missiles more difficult. They use the curvature of the Earth’s surface to their advantage and only appear on the target surface ship’s radar after becoming visible on the horizon, per the report.

This is a particular concern for Australian navy ships such as the Hobart-class destroyer and Anzac-class frigate since their phased-array radars detect incoming missiles on a line-of-sight basis. Swarming technology and low signatures plus the potential deployment of decoys could all add to the complexity of identifying and intercepting China’s ASCMs.

The report notes current Australian ships could be outgunned by a squadron of Chinese bombers each carrying half a dozen YJ-12 ASCMs.

There is a detailed section covering a series of short-term solutions for retrofitting Australian vessels with a range of medium-range anti-air capabilities. The report also recommends the ships beef up their firepower by deepening fleet magazines and further developing technologies such as lasers, rail guns, and radio weapons.

The analysis comes as Canberra and Washington grow increasingly concerned about advances in Chinese missile technology. In March, senior U.S. officials reviewed a hypersonic scramjet engine produced by Australian 3D printing firm Hypersonix which analysts believe could help the U.S. overcome several enduring obstacles it has faced in developing and testing hypersonic missiles.

On Tuesday (April 5), Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. announced they would enlarge the scope of their trilateral security alliance — AUKUS — to include hypersonic missiles.

The AUKUS expansion follows recent Financial Times interviews with three high-ranking U.S. officers who met with their Australian counterparts last week at Pine Gap — a top-secret joint intel base located deep in the southern continent’s desert interior. The U.S. officers said they are working to increase digital convergence with Australia to secure communications between space commanders in both countries and that Australia is essential to overcoming the “tyranny of distance” and helping the U.S. monitor China’s movements in space.