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A New Chinese Cruise Missile Threatens The Entire US Navy

May 9, 2020

The YJ-18A in the October 1 parade last year. Via Chinese Media.

The full extent of China’s historic military build up hasn’t reverberated across the world even when the evidence is unmistakable. To mark 70 years since the Communist Party seized power a military parade in Beijing last October 1 featured the PLA’s newest and most advanced equipment. Included were a selection of missiles designed to challenge US supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, the immense theater where the rivalry between Beijing and Washington, DC is taking place, and a specific missile type stands above the rest. In fact, a new report from the Congressional Research Service singles it out as a dire threat.

The epic military parade in Beijing on October 1 had a segment where anti-ship missiles were driven past the large pavilion occupied by the national leadership. These included shore-based AShMs on their mobile launchers and single missiles propped on the beds of trucks. The latter category meant AShMs like the YJ-18 and YJ-18A (pictured above) are intended for destroyers, frigates, and possibly submarines. In the Congressional report published on April 24 titled China Naval Modernization: Implications for US Naval Capabilities the author takes stock of the PLAN’s growing numerical strength and its leading capabilities. The cruise missile known as YJ-18 is cited as an example of an advanced weapon system that threatens US Navy surface vessels. But an accompanying photo on page 6 marked “Figure 3” depicts the wrong missile–a Russian Kh-35 instead of a YJ-18.

The same report explains how the unrestricted growth of Chinese anti-access/area denial or A2/AD weapons negates the US Navy’s powerful carrier strike groups: “…the current operating range of Navy carrier air wings will force Navy carriers to operate well within the ranges of Chinese ASBMs or other A2/AD systems, which could put the carriers survivability at substantial risk.”

The ASBMs the report cites are so far limited to three road mobile weapon systems. These are the intermediate-range DF-26 and the DF-21 and then there’s the DF-17; all operated by the PLA’s rocket force. The DF-17, being the newest and smallest among the three, is the world’s first operational surface to surface hypersonic missile. Both Russia and the US have hypersonic weapons in development but these are years away from entering service. The DF-17 made its first appearance during the October 1 parade in Beijing where a formation of them drove ahead of the PLA’s larger ballistic missiles. The DF-17 won’t be the PLA’s only hypersonic missile and the Chinese military-industrial sector is capable of mass-producing other types.

The YJ-18 cruise missile falls under A2/AD weapons and on October 1 it turned out it had an “A” variant although the differences between them haven’t been determined. The US military and its researchers have monitored the YJ-18 for the past several years. The best description of its performance is a hybrid cruise missile powered by a turbojet engine that accelerates once it enters terminal flight. It’s claimed the YJ-18 reaches supersonic speeds of Mach 3 when closing the last 40 kilometers to the target. As far back as 2015 the YJ-18 was profiled by the US Economic and Security Review Commission for its superb performance characteristics and their implications. At the time the YJ-18 was described as a sea-skimming cruise missile that switched to a high angle of attack before its impact. The author warned simultaneous launches had the potential to saturate the US Navy’s anti-missile countermeasures and result substantial losses.

The YJ-18 is mentioned a lot in Department of Defense (DoD) literature. For their 2019 China Military Power Report the YJ-18 is singled out for its broad usage in at least a handful of vessels. The enormous Type 055 cruiser and the Type 052D destroyer are expected to be armed with YJ-18’s and YJ-18A’s. All three classes of PLAN attack submarines (Yuan, Song, and Shang I/II) have the infrastructure to launch these cruise missiles. The Shang I/II-class in particular is extremely dangerous since it’s a nuclear-powered model or SSN that’s in production with six now operated by the PLAN. The US Navy’s knowledge of the Shang-class, as with newer Chinese weapon systems, is superficial at best and limited to obvious characteristics.

Over the years no amount of scrutiny has proven the true operational range of the YJ-18 and the figures vary from less than 500 km to almost 600 km. It may not seem impressive but the YJ-18 and YJ-18A can dominate whole bodies of water like the South China Sea and discourage free transit by regional navies. No wonder the US Navy, with its strengths in aviation, logistics, and operational range, is piling on comparable weapon systems as fast as it can. Two of the largest US defense contractors have multi-platform AShM’s ready for use. There’s Lockheed Martin’s LRASM and Raytheon’s Naval Strike Missile. It’s Raytheon’s product that shares a closer resembles to the YJ-18.

The PLA’s growing collection of missiles and their potential lethal effects buries the notion a technological gap remains between it and the US military. The 2010s saw China’s military-industrial sector eclipse North America’s and the few advantages left for the US military are disappearing.

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