War game: China hypersonics sink US carrier every time

War game: China hypersonics sink US carrier every time

In the first publicized simulation of its type, China has war-gamed a hypersonic missile attack on the latest US supercarrier, sinking the warship and its escorts in a computer war game.

South China Morning Post (SCMP) reported that North University of China researchers recently published the results of a war game in which China used 24 hypersonic missiles to sink the USS Gerald Ford supercarrier and its five escorts in the Chinese-language Journal of Test and Measurement Technology.

The SCMP and other local language reports describe the war game as a three-wave hypersonic missile attack that sunk the USS Gerald Ford, the USS San Jacinto Ticonderoga-class cruiser and four Arleigh Burke Flight IIA guided missile destroyers.

The war game reportedly simulated a situation where the USS Gerald Ford and its escorts continued approaching a China-held island in the South China Sea despite repeated warnings.

SCMP notes that the two types of hypersonic missiles used in the simulation had ranges of 2,000 and 4,000 kilometers, with 80% and 90% chances of hitting the target, respectively, and capability of sinking a US supercarrier with one or two hits.

SCMP says that the research team assumed satellite targeting would not be available and only a limited number of hypersonic missiles, forcing the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to rely on sea-based surveillance to track and identify the US fleet. The PLA then fired eight less-reliable hypersonic missiles from southern and central China in the simulation.

The attack reportedly depleted the US fleet’s 264 interceptor missiles, including the advanced SM-3 armed with hit-to-kill warheads, with two missiles fired at the USS San Jacinto.  

That volley was followed by eight more reliable hypersonic missiles fired from northern and western China, with four aimed at the USS Gerald Ford and the others targeting the Arleigh Burke destroyers.

The USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier would likely sink under a hypersonic attack. Photo: US Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Ruben Reed

Afterward, the PLA confirmed the status of the surviving Arleigh Burke destroyers and then sunk them with six of its remaining less-reliable hypersonic missiles fired from southern China. The destroyers survived the first two waves due to having the most soft-kill weapons in the fleet, such as electronic warfare systems, chaff and flare dispensers.

The SCMP report also mentions that the Chinese research team repeated the simulation 20 times to minimize uncertainty. In addition, they noted the importance of patrol missions and lure tactics to identify targets, conserve limited missiles and reduce the number of enemy interceptor missiles.

In a May 2021 Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI) article, Felix Chang describes some sea-based intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets that the PLA might have used in the simulation. Some of these assets he describes are high-frequency direction finding (HF/DF), land-based, coastal and sea-based radar.

He notes that HF/DF sites such as that on Mischief Reef detect electronic emissions from passing ships, with two suitably-spaced sites needed to estimate reliably a ship’s bearing. But he also mentions bad weather conditions can limit HF/DF and that massive civilian signals traffic makes it hard to identify specific electronic signatures.

Chang says land-based radar can be effective for long-range detection and identification. Still, he says they need more precision due to adverse propagation effects and sensitivity to ionosphere conditions and sea state.

Chang says that coastal radars such as those China built on the Spratly Islands may be much more reliable for detecting ships, but are only effective to around 200-250 kilometers.

In describing China’s sea-based radar, he mentions China’s “Blue Ocean Information Network,” an array of radars built on unmanned semi-submersible 250-300 square meter platforms in the South China Sea that are designed to float in deep water or be moored at shallower depths. He says that, as of 2020, there are five such platforms around Hainan and one near the Paracels.

As for the hypersonic weapons used in the North University of China simulation, these were most likely the DF-17 and DF-27 missiles, with the DF-17 being the low-end model fired from southern and central China and the DF-27 being the more advanced model fired from northern and western China.

Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance notes in a January 2023 article that the DF-17 is the PLA Rocket Force’s first missile designed to use HGVs instead of a re-entry vehicle, officially entering service in 2020. The source says that it is capable of extreme maneuvering and evasive actions to defeat current missile defenses, has a 1,800 to 2,500 kilometer range and can be used against enemy bases and warships.

A DF-17 missile is unveiled during the military parade in Tiananmen Square. Photo AFP / Greg Baker

The Washington Post reported in April 2023 that China tested the DF-27 hypersonic missile on February 25 this year, citing leaked US classified intelligence documents. The same report said that the missile flew for 12 minutes in covering 2,100 kilometer, and possessed a high capability of penetrating current US missile defense systems.

However, Zuzanna Gwadera notes in an article this month for the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) that although China has not publicly acknowledged the existence of the DF-27, the Pentagon first mentioned in its 2021 Annual Report to Congress on China. That report said the hypersonic missile has an estimated range of 5,000 to 8,000 kilometers.

Gwadera says the DF-27 may be designed to use a hypersonic glide vehicle (HGV) mated to the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) booster. This design, she says, mirrors the concept behind the DF-17, which uses the DF-16 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) booster fitted with an HGV instead of a re-entry vehicle.

China’s simulation is similar to a January 2023 report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) wargaming of a perspective 2026 Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Even in the most optimistic scenario, the CSIS report says the US and Japan lose 449 combat aircraft and 43 ships, including two carriers, with the US losing 6,960 personnel and 3,200 killed in action.

CSIS notes that with such a Pyrrhic victory being the best possible result, China may risk an invasion of Taiwan if it believes the US is unwilling to sustain such losses.