When Andrew Erickson is talking about Chinese ASBM development with comprehensive analysis, it is always a must read. This is from the section in the article "Making an ASBM Work."
Chinese schematic diagrams show an ASBM flight trajectory with mid-course and terminal guidance. Second stage control fins would be critical to steering the ASBM through terminal maneuvers to evade countermeasures and home in on a moving target. This makes an ASBM different from most ballistic missiles, which have a fixed trajectory.Just in this section there are all kinds of important things being said, but I want to highlight the giant blinking red light. Andrew Erickson points out the one thing that should elevate everyone's concern, particularly Congress, about the difference between the Chinese ASBM and other ballistic missiles. Think about this paragraph.
Yet how do Chinese experts envision the “kill chain”—the sequence of events that must occur for a missile to successfully engage and destroy or disable its target (e.g. an aircraft carrier)—beyond the five steps that they commonly list: 1) detection, 2) tracking, 3) penetration of target defenses, 4) hitting a moving target, and 5) causing sufficient damage? A single broken link would render an attack incomplete, and hence ineffective. What would work based on what is known about China's capabilities today, and in the future?
China has also been working on a sophisticated network of ground-and-space-based sensors, including over-the-horizon (OTH) radars and electronic signals detection equipment, which can assist ASBM detection and targeting. While locating an aircraft carrier has been likened to finding a needle in a haystack, this particular needle has a large radar cross section, emits radio waves, and is surrounded by airplanes. Active radar is the most likely ASBM sensor, since its signals can penetrate through clouds. Simply looking for the biggest reflection will tend to locate the largest ship as a target, and the largest ship will usually be an aircraft carrier (if the pre-launch targeting was good).
Second stage control fins would be critical to steering the ASBM through terminal maneuvers to evade countermeasures and home in on a moving target. This makes an ASBM different from most ballistic missiles, which have a fixed trajectory.Why does this matter? Because open source information sources describing AEGIS ballistic missile defense note that AEGIS calculates intercept based primarily due to launch trajectory, and I'd bet your paycheck that when the PLA Strategic Rocket Forces realized that, they knew that if they could make a mid-course correction during flight, they would invalidate the AEGIS BMD capability.
You see, if the launch is accurately detected, trajectory can be determined based on the launch. When we shoot our SM-3, because ballistic missiles have a fixed trajectory, our interceptor knows where the missile is going to be and can intercept it.
But if a ballistic missile changes course in flight, our AEGIS BMD interceptor finds itself in the wrong place, because it calculated the intercept based on the initial trajectory, not the new trajectory following the mid-course change.
This technical detail is why I call bullshit with the Navy's suggestion that we have a critical need for more DDG-51s specifically for ballistic missile defense. The Burke is not capable of intercepting this ballistic missile, and we are going to need a new radar that can track the mid-course change accurately, and new software to very quickly do the math for identifying a new intercept point if we are going to defeat this weapon. That is going to be enormously expensive, which is why when I say I think the Navy is going to need $6 billion nuclear cruisers if they are going to evolve ballistic missile defense towards 21st century threats, I'm not kidding. AEGIS is going to require significant investment to evolve towards a course changing ballistic missile intercept capability, assuming AEGIS is even the solution.
The way I understand the Chinese ASBM capability, the ASBM is designed to launch towards carriers known to be operating in an area of water, which can be a quite large area of water, and in flight scan that area of water for the largest target, then use some method of identification to insure this wasn't a false positive or decoy. The ASBM would then make a mid-course correction during flight to target the largest target detected .
In asking around what kind of radar the Chinese would use, several have suggested an ultra-high frequency radar like we use off our southern coast looking for drug smugglers in large swaths of water would be ideal, because it allows the ballistic missile to scan the larger area to find the target making initial detection less important for precise location, as general location would do. I welcome comments to whether that sounds realistic or not.
This Jamestown article asks a number of very important questions regarding this capability. One thing is very clear though, something I very much agree with Andrew Erickson on, the Chinese are a lot closer to this capability than skeptics give them credit for. I don't want to suggest it is panic time, but we have reached the point where it is time to ask tough questions regarding what we should do, and make those tough decisions.
Congress needs to engage, starting with serious questions of the Navy leadership regarding AEGIS BMD and this specific capability. AEGIS BMD can swat the stuff Iran and North Korea are producing from the sky, and has also shown remarkable flexibility in the form of the US 193 shoot down. With that said, mid-course adjusting ballistic missiles changes the dynamics and moves ballistic missiles outside our current capabilities, meaning not only does AEGIS need a significant investment in order to meet this emerging capability, but the radar system better be very, very good at tracking moving objects in space from the sea... and by that I mean good enough to hit a bullet with a bullet.
We have decades of experience to draw upon in finding a solution, but putting the pieces together will require a commitment.