Equipping Australia’s navy to meet the threat from PLA anti-ship cruise missiles
5 Apr 2022|

‘Vampire! Vampire! Vampire!’—three words that would send shivers down the spine of any ship’s captain. This is because ‘vampire’ is the US military’s brevity code for a hostile anti-ship missile.

Typically, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) have long ranges and advanced guidance systems and in some cases incorporate stealthy design features, decoys and countermeasures to assist them in penetrating sophisticated air-defence systems.

As I explain in my new ASPI report, launched today, since the 1995–96 Taiwan Strait crisis, the People’s Republic of China has heavily invested in its multibranched armed forces. For over two decades, the People’s Liberation Army has consistently acquired, developed and surreptitiously obtained new technologies and capabilities, including a prodigious array of increasingly sophisticated ASCMs, such as the supersonic sea-skimming YJ-12 ASCM, which has a range around 400–537 kilometres. YJ-12 variants can be launched from bombers, surface ships and land batteries.

The PLA has also invested in capabilities to sustain ASCM maritime strike operations even under high-intensity battle conditions against a technologically advanced power such as the US; for example, land-based C4ISR (command, control, communications, computing, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) networks, passive defences such as hardened air bases, plus active defences such as surface-to-air missiles.

In any regional war, the PLA would likely execute combat operations under its ‘counter-intervention strategy’, which aims to leverage its anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities for maximum asymmetric effect to deter, deny or defeat US and allied forces from intervening over a range of territorial disputes in the Western Pacific. ASCMs form part of the PLA’s broader A2/AD capability toolbox, which also includes naval assets such as submarines, air assets such as fighter squadrons, land assets such as theatre ballistic missiles, and cyber capabilities.

The PLA’s ASCM capability generates four serious challenges for Australian and allied naval forces. First, ASCMs are difficult to detect because of their low signatures, and sea-skimming ASCMs can be detected by a surface ship’s radar only when they pop up over the horizon. Second, countering ASCMs is difficult because of their high speeds, manoeuvrability and swarming technology, plus the possibility of decoys and countermeasures to help penetrate surface ships’ anti-air defences. Third, ASCM raids might saturate anti-air defences and either sink ships or leave them with severely depleted missile magazines. Fourth, terrorist groups are known to have accessed PLA ASCM technology; it has been sold to Iran and then on-sold to Hezbollah, which attacked an Israeli warship with ASCMs in July 2006.

The PLA’s ASCM threat is significant because existing Royal Australian Navy surface ships have small air-defence missile magazines, and even the new surface ships that will begin arriving in around 2033 won’t rectify the fleet-wide shortfall of vertical launching system (VLS) missile cells. The RAN’s eight Anzac-class frigates have eight VLS cells each, and the three Hobart-class destroyers have 48 per ship. The Anzac frigates will remain in service until around 2044 and the Hobart destroyers even longer. Even when the Hunter-class frigates begin to arrive around 2033, each ship will only pack a punch of 32 VLS cells. This means that the RAN surface fleet won’t begin to receive moderate numbers of VLS cells until after 2033, which might be too little, too late, given that there’s the very real risk of a regional war occurring between 2020 and 2030.

While the RAN waits for the Hunter-class frigates to arrive, what else can be done to radically improve the survivability of deployed RAN taskforces against the sprawling and increasingly sophisticated ASCM threat spectrum?

The answer is that any solution should consider tackling four critical issues: deeper fleet magazines; disaggregation of expensive crewed surface combatants into cheaper and expendable uncrewed assets; efforts to break the PLA’s ASCM kill chain; employment of long-range ordnance to engage in offensive air- and missile-defence operations, principally by targeting enemy ASCM launch platforms.

In the short term, the RAN could exploit proven military-off-the-shelf technology upgrades to its surface ship fleet. Options include using the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II, retrofitting ships with launchers to support the Rolling Airframe Missile Block II, using new hypervelocity projectile rounds in the existing five-inch naval guns, and potentially fitting embarked helicopters with an appropriate air search radar to detect hostile ASCMs at greater ranges.

In the medium term, the RAN could introduce a mix of crewed and uncrewed assets to deepen fleet magazines and underpin offensive and missile-defence operations. It might consider acquiring a batch of more capable guided missile destroyers from the US or Japan. The RAN could introduce a class of large unmanned surface vehicles to carry a variety of payloads, including strike-length Mk-41 VLS cells, innovative naval gun rounds to defend against ASCMs, high-power radio frequency weapons, and jammers and lasers to blind or dazzle electro-optical and infrared satellites.

The RAN could consider introducing small unmanned aerial vehicles, unmanned surface vehicles and unmanned undersea vehicles or high-altitude airships—to be fitted with sensors for detecting hostile ASCMs and enemy ASCM launch platforms. It could also consider introducing a large unmanned combat aerial vehicle with a very long range, high endurance and high payload capacity to provide deployed RAN task groups with a replenishable mobile magazine of anti-air, anti-ship and anti-submarine ordnance for neutralising enemy ASCM launch platforms.

In the longer term, the RAN could introduce long-range platforms and systems to help break an adversary’s kill chain. Options might include ‘magazine ships’ fitted with large numbers of air- and missile-defence interceptors and long-range strike missiles, a force of B-21 Raider long-range stealth bombers, antisatellite weapons and offensive cyberattack capabilities.

The problem faced by the RAN is that the current fleet is unlikely to meet the ASCM threat spectrum of today, let alone the ASCM threat spectrum of the 2030s and 2040s. Nor does the future RAN battle force appear sufficient to meet a dystopian future in which the PLA Navy will be the world’s largest navy. An even greater concern is that the ADF doesn’t possess the very long-range strike capability that would be needed to make any substantial contribution in a high-intensity regional war against a technologically advanced and sophisticated adversary.

Australia has been caught napping at the wheel. Ten years ago was the time for change, but now wholesale changes are well overdue. Decades of unchallenged US strategic primacy have arguably shielded Australia from the consequences of complacency and chronic underinvestment in Australia’s national defence. The problem is that US strategic primacy is being actively contested, if not visibly eroded.

Australia faces a bleak future, and the window for expediting effective countermeasures is rapidly closing. There’s good reason to believe that a bipartisan parliamentary inquiry might be a valuable exercise to educate the Australian public as to what a regional war against a nuclear-armed major-power adversary might look like and how it would affect the Australian way of life. The government might also consider commissioning a bipartisan and independent review of Australia’s defence capabilities to be run by a security-cleared, experienced and eminent Australian—a ‘Dibb review 2.0’.