China made news by releasing footage of their new missile the DF26 with an intermediate range of about 3000 km (about 2000 miles). Significantly, this missile has the range to reach US territories in the Pacific like Guam, and it’s a hypersonic missile which makes it more difficult to track and destroy. Some analysts say there are currently no counters for missiles like this which makes it increasingly important to consider what this missile means for the US, potential US counter defenses and to how it fits in larger contexts like Chinese and US strategy.
The missiles can be armed with conventional or nuclear missiles, have solid fuel, and can be stored in underground bunkers and launched from wheeled launch vehicles. All of which make it harder to hit in a first strike (if armed with nuclear warheads) or harder to counter conventional missiles. This helps form some of the most dangerous parts of China’s proposed strategy. While claiming they are simply defensive weapons, China has fought preemptive, offensive wars with every one of its neighbors so it’s a real concern.
In a standoff over disputed islands or in seeking to seize territory in the South China Sea China’s strategy calls for immense number of missiles from multiple weapon systems to deny access and deny American abilities to operate in the area. (This is often called Anti Access Area Denial or A2AD by analysts.) The Chinese wouldn’t seek to necessarily win in a firefight but display enough danger to prevent American forces from operating in the region while they completed their seizure of islands.
The DF26 would be a nuclear deterrent in peacetime, but in the above scenario it would be part of the conventional strikes that could hit American air and naval bases across the region or strike important communications and logistical support like refuelling or intelligence gathering planes. American forces would be overwhelmed with missiles within minutes, knocking out ships, planes, and infrastructure in a Pearl Harbor style attack.
Adding a fast and deadly missile to that strategy sounds scary but America hasn’t been sitting on its hands. Even though hypersonic missiles take a different course than conventional ballistic missiles and travel faster the US can try to detect and destroy launch sites before the missiles are launched. This would be especially difficult if China launches as a preemptive strike since the US would either be reacting to missiles thousands of miles from Chinese territory, or they would end up having to essentially launch their own preemptive attack on Chinese territory.
Adding to the difficulty, US doctrine calls for destroying anti-aircraft (AA) batteries and radar stations first so they can achieve air superiority, so the strikes would either be more dangerous or delayed depending if they target the missile launchers or AA defenses first. But if hostilities had already started the mobile nature of the launch sites means that warplanes would have to be very close. Analysts say the F35 and drones don’t have the range to do this. But the F35 can network with a variety of versatile fighters including the F15E which is an exceptional ground attack aircraft.
The same weapon systems, the F35 or networked fighters, can also target the missile in their boost phase. This is the slowest phase of the launch and the F35 has specialized sensors that can detect hypersonic missiles. In addition to using traditional counter missile technology, the F15 (sooner) and F35 (later) are being tested with portable mounted lasers to destroy them. Traditionally lasers have required large amounts of power to produce and sustain a beam significant enough to destroy missiles, and a long cool-down period which made it difficult to use in the expected missile storms in combat but advances in technology have reduced both of those technologies. Even then, the technology still has limitations. The effective range of these laser weapons is relatively short. It can only engage one target, most likely a missile, at a time. And it must sustain the laser on the target for a certain amount of time in order to damage, destroy, or confuse its sensors. But it would have unlimited ammunition and can be used in conjunction with other American defenses.
That leads to the final point that puts this in a larger picture. Even though lasers are limited, they are part of a multi-layered defense against missiles. This system has been developed, tested, and upgraded since World War II. Even as potential adversaries like Russia and China promise new, faster, and deadlier missiles the US also fields new upgrades to its defenses that offer better ways to destroy them. This includes every layer of defense from the combat air patrol of the F35 to lasers to the rail guns and close-in weapon systems of ships.
Every new weapon system should be assessed and accounted for in military planning. But we shouldn’t give in to fear-mongering. Especially when the weapon system in question is simply a newer version of technology that has existed since Hitler launched V rockets against London. It has concerning specifications but remains to be seen if it will be a game-changer.