China's Hypersonic Missiles, aka 'Carrier Killers,' Are a 'Holy S**t Moment' for US Military

Pan Yulong/Xinhua/Getty

On the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China, President Xi Jinping was categorical about his country's future. "No force can stop the Chinese nation and the Chinese people from forging ahead," he said in front of thousands of people in Beijing. It's widely recognized that China intends to supplant the United States as the world's biggest and most technologically advanced country: that's part of why Donald Trump is, for better or worse, waging a trade war with China. Less well understood, but no less true, is that China seeks to become the world's dominant military power as well—and has made significant strides toward that end. In a speech last week, retired Admiral William McRaven, the former head of U.S. special forces, called China's intensifying military build-up "a holy shit moment for the United States."

The most visible and, for U.S. defense planners, most troubling evidence of China's military advance comes in the form of hypersonic missiles, commonly known as "carrier killers." Beijing claims the weapons can hit surface vessels like aircraft carriers, and though that hasn't been proved, Pentagon planners worry. Hypersonics are much faster than cruise missiles and fly at different trajectories than ballistic missiles. They glide. That makes current U.S. missile defense systems, aimed at identifying and knocking down ballistic missiles during their parabolic flight paths, useless.

China's rapid progress on hypersonic missiles took the Pentagon by surprise. Spending last year on radar and sensor systems capable of defeating hypersonics amounted to just $157 million, "a rounding error by Pentagon standards," as Loren Thompson, defense analyst at the Lexington Institute, a defense and security think tank, put it. The budget for hypersonic defense is being ramped up significantly now, but Michael Griffin, the Pentagon's top technology planner, says any system won't be deployed before the middle of the next decade.

China DF-17 Missile hypersonic missile
Chinese leader Xi Jinping made clear that "no force" would stop the rise of Beijing's military. The parade showed off the DF-17, capable of carrying hypersonic glide missiles. GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty

For U.S. war planners, the strategic significance of China's carrier killers are huge. Beijing wants to displace the U.S. military from the Pacific. Naval forces, of course, are the main way the U.S. projects power in the region—with aircraft carrier groups the most visible component of that force. But the inability to detect hypersonics in flight makes carrier groups extremely vulnerable to them. "This really strikes at the heart of America's place in the world, of America's role in the world, in terms of power projection," says Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The closest the U.S. and China came to trading blows militarily came in 1996, when Bill Clinton dispatched two carrier groups to within 100 miles of the Taiwan Strait in response to Chinese military exercises that included bombs dropping perilously close to Taipei's coastline. Part of China's defense strategy focuses on "area and access denial": preventing U.S. forces from getting where they want to go, says Karako. Hypersonic missiles do precisely that. If Beijing so chooses, it can now prevent U.S. warships from navigating close to Chinese waters. "China can change the behavior of a carrier group and that might be good enough for them to win without fighting," he says.

Establishing a defense system against hypersonics is a complicated business. Nine defense contractors now have contracts to develop "space sensors" that can track the missiles "from birth to death," as Thompson puts it. Chinese missiles travel at a speed of two miles per second, and battlefield commanders will need accurate information—in real time—on precisely what paths the attackers are taking. Otherwise, he says, "defense will be essentially impossible."

There is debate within the defense community about whether the U.S. should spend more on its own hypersonic weapons or focus on defense. Those pushing for the development of more and faster hypersonic missiles believe doing so will impose costs on China that it is not now bearing; Beijing would have to figure out how to defend against them. As Karako of CSIS puts it, "If we have to get to a situation where our acquisition of those capabilities means they're going to have to spend a really sizable part of their budget on air defenses, well, that's great. Every bit that they spend on air defenses means they have less money to spend on strike forces."

For the moment, the U.S. defense industry is operating on the assumption that the market for defensive systems will be bigger than that for the Navy's own hypersonic missiles. As Raytheon Chief Executive Tom Kennedy has noted, defensive systems will require "innovations across the entire kill chain, from initial detection to interception." That mission, says Thompson, "is so demanding that it will require numerous projects spanning multiple decades." Admiral McRaven, in his recent speech, said the U.S. needs a "Sputnik moment" to respond to China's technological rise. For the Pentagon, at least, Beijing's carrier killers may have provided one.

Correction 10/3, 12:38 p.m.: This story has been corrected to say that hypersonic and ballistic missiles have different flight paths, that cruise missiles do not fly at subsonic speeds, and to clarify that "carrier killer" claims have not been proved.