The US Navy today faces a devastating missile gap between
its two biggest potential rivals, Russia and China, but a new
upgrade could quite literally blow the two competitors out of the
The US Navy’s destroyers and cruisers field advanced missile
defenses and far-reaching land attack cruise missiles, but the
Harpoon, the current anti-ship missile first fielded in 1977, has
been thoroughly out ranged by more advanced Chinese and Russian
China’s YJ-18 and YJ-12 both can fly over 240 miles just
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
Russia’s anti-ship Club missiles can reach 186 miles out, and
also boosts 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 out range and
beat back some of a Russian or Chinese attack, but the missile
gap remains palpable and a threat to the US Navy’s highest-value
Recognizing this serious shortfall, the US Navy will sign a deal
with Raytheon to upgrade the Block IV Tomahawk Land Attack
Missiles aboard destroyers and cruisers to hit moving targets at
sea, the US Naval Institute
“This is potentially a game changing capability for not a lot of
cost. It’s a 1000 mile anti-ship cruise missile,” former
Secretary of Defense Bob Work said after a successful test of the
upgraded TLAM in 2015, the Naval Institute
notes. “It can be used by practically our entire surface and
With missiles out ranging China and Russia’s fleets many times
over, the US can engage with targets and hold them at risk far
beyond the horizon. Similarly, this could help break down
anti-access/area-denial zones established by Russia in the
Baltics and Black Sea, and China in the South China Sea.
While China and Russia have the US beat on offensive range, don’t
expect their ship-based missile defenses hold a candle to the
US’s Aegis system in the face of a Tomahawk attack.
But don’t expect the upgrade to change the balance of power soon.
“We’re signing the contract now, there will be a couple of year
development effort to determine the configuration of the seeker
to go into the missile and a couple of years to take it out and
test it to accurately know what the performance is so the fleet
will have confidence in the system,” Capt. Mark Johnson of
Naval Air Systems Command told the Institute.
Overall, the Institute estimates the game-changing missiles could
be in service by the early 2020s.