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US Navy warships are getting their first combat experience against the kind of threats China is banking on in the Pacific

Jake Epstein   

US Navy warships are getting their first combat experience against the kind of threats China is banking on in the Pacific
  • The US Navy in recent weeks has been shooting down Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles.
  • These weapons could emerge as a major threat to the US in a potential war with China in the Pacific.

US naval forces operating in the Middle East have been shooting down a deadly threat that China could rely heavily on were a war to break out in the Pacific: anti-ship ballistic missiles.

This kind of weapon had not been used in combat until recently. Iran-backed Houthi rebels have fired dozens of anti-ship ballistic missiles into waters off the coast of Yemen in recent weeks, often forcing the US Navy to respond.

Although Chinese and Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles vary in capability, these dangerous engagements are providing critical battle experience to crews aboard American warships and helping prepare them for potential future fights. They're learning opportunities, but they certainly aren't drills.

"Regardless of the sophistication of an anti-ship missile, if it hits you, things get damaged and people die," Archer Macy, a retired US Navy admiral, told Business Insider. "This is not a rehearsal, and it's not training. It's real combat operations."

President Joe Biden said last month that anti-ship ballistic missiles have been used "for the first time in history" as the Houthis carry out "unprecedented" attacks. Amid tensions in the region over the past few months, the Iran-backed rebels have fired these weapons into international shipping lanes in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden. Some of the missiles have hit commercial vessels, while others landed in the water.

The US Navy has shot down a handful anti-ship ballistic missiles fired by the Houthis. The Pentagon confirmed what appeared to be the first intercept in late December, and American warships have engaged — and downed — several more missiles in the weeks since. Washington has also conducted preemptive strikes in Yemen, destroying anti-ship ballistic missiles before the rebels are able to launch them.

The Houthis have maintained an arsenal of anti-ship weapons for nearly a decade, according to an analysis published in early January by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank. The rebels boast a sizable collection of both ballistic and cruise missiles; some are Iranian in origin, while some just contain parts from Tehran.

CENTCOM has not specified which anti-ship ballistic missiles have been used in the attacks on international shipping lanes.

Bryan Clark, a former US Navy officer and defense expert at the Hudson Institute, said the Houthis have a capable inventory of anti-ship weapons, although their ballistic missiles are not very maneuverable.

"They don't use elaborate like seeker systems, like a Chinese anti-ship ballistic missile might," he told Business Insider.

Anti-ship capabilities frequently appear in discussions of great power competition, particularly with China, and, for the US, they have become a growing concern as tensions rise in the Western Pacific.

In 2022, China was identified as the "pacing challenge" for the US military. War is not the objective, but it has been acknowledged as a possibility. And experts have said that the maritime domain would likely be a key battleground between the two sides if they eventually fought a war in the Indo-Pacific region. This makes anti-ship capabilities a critical factor.

China has a formidable arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles, like the DF-21D and DF-26, and is increasingly expanding it. These missile threats, sometimes described as "ship-killer" or "carrier-killer" missiles, could pose a major threat to US naval forces like warships and aircraft carriers operating in the theater during a potential conflict.

Beijing has even built mock-ups of American vessels that are thought to be intended for target practice and improving China's missiles. Efforts to strengthen the People's Liberation Army Rocket Force, particularly anti-ship ballistic missile capabilities, highlight Beijing's interest in using them for an anti-access/area-denial strategy to keep the US Navy at bay.

Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles have seekers and sophisticated guidance systems, allowing them to find a ship mid-flight and home in on it, Clark said. The Houthi ballistic missiles, on the other hand, don't appear to have these same capabilities.

"They have to be launched at a geographic point and hope that they hit it," he added.

And unlike the Houthis, the Chinese military also has a wide variety of sensors available that they can use to direct anti-ship ballistic missiles strikes, said Shaan Shaikh, a fellow with the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. These capabilities include various platforms like ground-based radar systems, ships, maritime drones, and satellites.

"There's all of these different sensors that are available to China to help complete that kill chain," Shaikh told Business Insider. In a conflict, China's anti-ship ballistic missiles also might also require US Navy ships to expend more advanced interceptors, he added.

But even though the threat environment in the Pacific may be more sophisticated and challenging than it is in the Red Sea, experts say the crews aboard American warships — relentlessly tasked with shooting down Houthi anti-ship ballistic missiles are gaining real-life combat experience that will be valuable should there be another conflict at some point in the future.

"I think a lot of times that training is something that is best done in a combat environment," Clark said. Regardless of the threats, he added, the course of action remains consistent.

"It doesn't matter what's coming at them, really," said Macy, the retired admiral who served aboard multiple US Navy warships. "Their processes, their procedures, their decisions are all the same."

The advanced Aegis Combat System aboard some US Navy vessels, for example, can take care of the differences between missiles, he said. The crew are the ones who need to address if there is an object somewhere out there, where it's going, if it represents a threat, and when it should be engaged.

"This is not a minor sideshow to the crews," Macy emphasized. "Combat is combat, and whoever is on the other end of it — what flag they're flying — is only of partial interest, if that at all."