Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Breaking the Kill Chain

China's DF-21 is, in theory, a potent threat to our big surface ships operating in the western Pacific. Strategypage discusses the missiles:

The Chinese Second Artillery Corps, spread over several provinces, has been expanding over the last few years. This includes adding two brigades apparently armed with the long rumored Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile, the DF-21D. This gives the Second Artillery Corps ten DF-21 brigades, plus brigades with several other types of missiles. Each of the DF-21 missile brigades has six missile battalions (with two mobile launchers each), two maintenance and repair battalions, a site management battalion, a signal battalion and an electronic countermeasures (ECM) battalion. The DF-21D is mainly intended for use against the USN (U.S. Navy), particularly the aircraft carriers.

The system isn't fully tested, and requires the Chinese to find a carrier's general location and then have the missile home in on the carrier for final course guidance. But they have only 24 missile launchers (and I don't know how many reloads) in this role.

So how would it work?

First, the carrier has to be identified far out to sea with satellites, ships or submarines, or patrol aircraft.

Second, the location must be quickly (because the carrier moves constantly) sent to the DF-21 brigade so that the missile brigade can shoot.

Third, I assume multiple missiles would be fired in a pattern around the carrier's initial location to put one on target regardless of which direction the carrier goes.

Fourth, the missile approaching the carrier has to acquire the carrier and correct its course to plunge into the deck and explode inside the ship (although just the mass of the missile coming in at high speed would do a lot of damage, I assume).

That's the basic kill chain, as far as I can figure. So how do we break it?

Let's start from missile impact. Assuming a DF-21 hits the carrier, we'd need passive defenses to contain damage from a direct hit and fire as much as possible. We'd need to have damage control able to repair a carrier and keep a damaged carrier in the fight. Having a portion of the carrier air wing consist of the Marine vertical takeoff version of the F-35 would allow limited sorties even if the deck is damaged. Redundancy of strike platforms would help if the carrier is sunk or even temporarily out of action. With our existing forces, this means making sure that we don't rely on the few big decks we have and that we are prepared to fall back on offensive use of submarines, missile-armed surface ships, land-based aircraft in the anti-ship role, other big deck carriers that aren't hit, Marine amphibious warfare ships used in a secondary light carrier role, and even escort carriers quickly adapted during wartime from container ships to carry 2-4 Marine version F-35s and some helicopters. Over time, redundancy may mean we reduce our reliance on big deck carriers for fighting China in the western Pacific as long as the DF-21 kill chain is intact.

Going back in the kill chain, can missile defenses nail any DF-21s locked on to the target? This is the most obvious defense. Can Aegis knock these down? If they can, we need to have more ships capable of using these missiles and make sure we have enough missiles. Could shore-based missiles in Alaska meant for strategic threats against our homeland fire in time to hit a missile heading for a carrier at sea far away? If not, should we place these "strategic" missiles on Guam for carrier defense? Could we mount anti-missile weapons on the carrier's aircraft to add another layer of defense? Is it possible for point defenses to be adapted to cope with the speed of the DF-21 approaching the target?

Taking another step back in the kill chain, we could try to disrupt the warhead's final target acquisition of the carrier by the approaching DF-21 warhead. First, just being aware that we are spotted will allow the Navy to react by changing course and getting as far from the target point as possible. Second, we could deploy decoy platforms to confuse the warhead targeting sensors. In the Iran-Iraq War, the Iranians deployed huge radar reflectors to convince Iraqi pilots that they spotted an Iranian tanker. Iraq wasted many missiles this way. Could a carrier and escorts drop inflatable rafts towed behind them that give off signatures in the infrared or radar reflections or whatever the warhead uses to home in on the target in order to misdirect the DF-21? Could we complement these decoys by minimizing the emissions of the carrier itself to go stealth (at least in regard to the warhead sensors)? Third, could we blind the missile sensors themselves with electronic warfare or even clouds of chaff-like material that keeps the missile from achieving more than a near miss? Could a small EMP weapon be fired high enough into the path of a warhead to scramble the sensor or controls to course correct to make the DF-21 unguided, but without also harming the carrier task force's electronics?

Before this, the DF-21 has to be launched. First of all, as noted earlier, simply being aware that we are being targeted will allow us to turn and go to flank speed to get away from the target point. This will force the Chinese DF-21 brigades to fire multiple missiles to make sure one reaches the area where the carrier ends up. To fire, the missile brigade must be emplaced and capable of receiving target data. Can we identify these missile launchers? If so, we can use stealth fighters or bombers to attack the missile launchers or communications systems that receive the target location data. We can use long-range air-, surface-, submarine-, or land-based-missiles to strike these same targets. There aren't that many DF-21 anti-ship brigades. China will surely build more, but they will always be limited in number. Destroying them before they fire is the best missile defense. Just waging a campaign against the missile brigades will compel them to move and hide, decreasing the number of missiles available to shoot at any one time should the Chinese detect a carrier. Or that campaign can prevent the Chinese from firing a barrage that increases the chance that our carrier will be in a location where incoming DF-21s aren't, leading to the waste of DF-21s without achieving anything. Further, if we can knock out or compel the movement of DF-21 brigade communications systems that receive the target location data, we stop the launch of DF-21s or delay the launch long enough to make the circle of how far our carrier moved since being spotted increase tremendously, requiring even more DF-21s to cover the larger circle where the carrier can be within since being spotted. Could we move assets close enough to the DF-21 brigade communications systems to jam them? Could this be done with airborne jammers or from low orbit satellites? Could small, stealthy unmanned surface vehicles equipped with jamming devices be deployed just off the Chinese coast by our attack submarines? Or could even agents or special forces on the ground near the Chinese DF-21 brigades jam or destroy communications systems?

Stepping back further, whatever asset the Chinese use to detect the general area of our carrier must transmit that initial target data to the DF-21 brigade. What can we do to stop the transmission of that targeting data? Can aircraft flying around the carrier jam Chinese aircraft, ship, or submarine transmissions? Could we stop a satellite from transmitting or degrade the transmission enough to make the data worthless?

Finally, in the first step of the kill chain, Chinese assets have to first detect our carrier far out to sea. Can we blind, degrade, or knock out the satellites, aircraft, surface ships (possibly "civilian"), and submarines that might make the first acquisition? Can we reduce carrier task force emissions to make it harder for Chinese assets to detect our ships? Could we use large container ships with decoy emitters to simulate a carrier, surrounded by smaller container ships like escorts, to spoof the initial detection and make the Chinese waste DF-21s on these targets?

I'm sure I'm missing a lot we could do. I just figured what the notional kill chain would be and worked my way back, thinking about what could be done to break any link in the chain. My basic point is that the DF-21 is not invincible. We must learn to cope with it, but it can be defeated.

But remember, too, that the DF-21 anti-ship missile is just one of many anti-ship weapons that can target our super carriers. My more fundamental point despite this essay on defeating the DF-21 is that I still believe the proliferation of surveillance systems and precision, long-range missiles make the end of the reign of big-deck super carrier within sight. We can cope to protect our big carriers in the short run, but in the long run our best bet is to reduce our reliance on big-deck carriers by distributing our offensive power on a larger number of smaller and cheaper (and more expendable) hulls, which would include smaller aviation-capable ships.

The DF-21 is no reason for America to retreat from the western Pacific. But it is another reason for adapting what we use to fight in the western Pacific.

UPDATE: Oh, I do worry that the Chinese might manage to build a much shorter kill chain for the DF-21.

UPDATE: Here's a new post a couple years after this one that is useful.