DEFEND AND DETER
Asian Military Review|November/December 2020
The air defence threat-and-response equation exists increasingly in integrated layers. AMR looks at two examples of how Western navies use missiles to defend against and deter the integrated air threat.
Dr Lee Willett

The expanding levels of naval missile capabilities deployed in the maritime operating environment are both cause and effect of the increasing levels of naval operational focus on such capabilities. Indeed, such developments sit at the centre of increasing naval operational activity levels that are the atsea manifestation of the returning state-based rivalry in strategic theatres across the world.

The Asia-Pacific region was the first theatre to stage the return of state-based rivalry at sea. From around 2008, China pursued its ambition to build its regional presence at sea; various regional and extra-regional navies have since sought to respond. Today, different navies are operating national and multinational task groups across the region, as countries seek to develop presence and demonstrate power in areas of interest.

Task group operations are central to such developments, and in debates about defending such groups against missile attack. Western naval task groups, particularly those operating in the Asia-Pacific region, have for some time been focused on developing high-end surface-to-air (SAM) missile capabilities to deal with the perceived anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) threat. Increasingly in recent years, the broad anti-ship missile (ASM) threat is coming in the form of cruise missiles (ASCMs). Such missiles can be air-, ship-, or submarine-based. Western navies are focused on this threat, including the uncertainty over whether an incoming ASCM is conventional or nuclear. Adversaries’ surface ships or submarines are a primary area of focus for Western navies who, in return, are developing their own ASCM capabilities, particularly to deter surface ship-based ASCM threats.

PLAN capabilities

The primary strategic concern for Western navies is the capability developments and operational activities of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

In May 2020, the PLAN’s lead aircraft carrier Liaoning completed one of its latest deployments, operating in the South China Sea, but was also reported to have sailed close to Japanese and Taiwanese waters. According to reports in the Global Times, the carrier was accompanied by two pairs of escorts: two Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyers and two Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates. Global Times also reported in May that Liaoning’s sister carrier, Shandong, was conducting its first testing and training missions at sea.

China’s escort ship fleet, along with its submarine flotilla, carries a range of different ASCM capabilities. These include the YJ-12, YJ-18, YJ-62, and YJ-83 missiles. These and other systems bring a mix of ranges and a mix of sub- or supersonic capabilities. China is also reported to be developing hypersonic ASCMs.

Western presence

Western navies also are routinely operating task groups in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Several groups came together at the US Navy (USN)-hosted Rim of the Pacific 2020 (RIMPAC 2020) exercise, off Hawaii in August, for a scaled-back version of the annual event (due to COVID-19). Ten participating navies generated 22 surface ships and one submarine.

The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sent four ships, in a maritime task group (MTG) based around HMAS Hobart, one of the RAN’s three new guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) that bring specialist anti-air warfare capability within a wider, multi-mission role. Hobart was the first RAN DDG to deploy to RIMPAC and was joined by the ANZAC-class guided-missile frigates HMAS Arunta and Stuart. The three surface ships were supported by the tanker HMAS Sirius. According to an Australian Department of Defence (DoD) report on 27 August, the group was conducting a regional presence deployment through South-East Asia and the Pacific, including RIMPAC participation.

The RAN is developing different MTG constructs, based either around a Hobart-class DDG or one of its two Canberra-class amphibious assault ships. The RAN’s emerging task group presence is one of the most prominent maritime capability developments in the region.

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