President Donald Trump on Monday signed into law a $717 billion defense spending bill that puts China in the crosshairs of a host of new US Navy missiles and tactics.
Beijing heavily protested it and may have scored some small concessions, but the bill puts nearly $1 trillion behind the idea that great power strategic competition has returned and that the US seeks to win it.
The increase in spending comes as China has increasingly edged out the US Navy’s competitive advantage in open waters. The US suffers a missile gap with both Russia and China, meaning those countries have longer-range missiles designed to sink massively valuable platforms like aircraft carriers before they can get close.
The US drifted from a focus on fighting near-peer adversaries like China and Russia after the Cold War, as military planners banked on continued US supremacy to limit potential adversaries to non-state actors and rogue states.
But with the new defense bill comes a renewed focus on producing as many new missiles as possible to counter the high-end threats from those countries.
China’s YJ-18 and YJ-12 each can fly over 240 miles while meters above the surface of the ocean. When the YJ-18 gets close to the target, it jolts into supersonic speed, at about Mach 3. When the YJ-12 – also supersonic – approaches a target, it executes a corkscrew turn to evade close-in ship defenses.
Russia’s anti-ship Club missiles can reach 186 miles and boost into supersonic speeds when nearing a target.
The US Navy’s Harpoon missile is subsonic and travels just 77 miles.
Simply put, these missiles would chew up a US carrier strike group, with destroyers and cruisers protecting an aircraft carrier. Launching F/A-18s off a carrier could beat back a Russian or Chinese attack, but the missile gap remains palpable and a threat to the US Navy’s highest-value assets.
Return to ship-sinking
To regain its status as the world’s premier ship-sinking force, the US has planned a few upgrades and set aside cash for them in the defense bill. It would pay for new long-range missiles for the Air Force and some Navy planes while bringing back a missile abandoned by the Navy after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Today, Tomahawk missiles have a massive range, of about 1,000 miles, but can hit only land targets, as they have in Syria recently. At the height of the Cold War, Tomahawks could strike moving ships, and now the Navy seeks to get that power back.
A modification in the works at Raytheon seeks to deliver 32 maritime versions of the Tomahawks by 2021 that would healthily out-range any Russian or Chinese missiles.
After a successful test of the upgraded Tomahawk in 2015, the deputy secretary of defense at the time, Bob Work, said (according to USNI News): “This is a potentially a game-changing capability for not a lot of cost. It’s a 1,000-mile anti-ship cruise missile.”
“It can be used by practically our entire surface and submarine fleet,” Work added.
But not only will the Navy get increased power to fight adversaries like China – it’s scheduling in some more patrols that could lead to run-ins, as have become increasingly frequent.
With Beijing building up its military presence in the South China Sea and rolling out new warships at a dizzying rate, the US’s return to great power competition will also include training neighboring navies in India and Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, it says Beijing will remain excluded from Rimpac, the world’s largest naval exercise, until it stops its efforts to take control of the South China Sea.