China's relentless cyber espionage campaign against the Pentagon has been one of the central reasons why that country's technological warfighting capabilities have aggressively matured over a relatively short period of time. In fact, we now see the fruits of their hacking operations on a daily basis via advanced 'indigenous' weapon systems, some which are now entering into operational service. But a previously unreported intrusion into a Navy contractor's computer network has provided the Chinese military with information on the service's electronic warfare and threat library, cryptographic radio systems used on submarines, specific sensor data, and detailed information on a previously undisclosed and fast-paced initiative to field a supersonic anti-ship missile onto American nuclear submarines dubbed Sea Dragon.
Over half a terabyte of information was stolen electronically from the contractor's computer systems at Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Rhode Island. The installation is a focal point for development and testing of new systems related to sub-surface combat. The contractor's network was not deemed classified but the information on it in its totality was of a highly classified nature according to the Washington Post, which broke the story.
The loss of the Navy's current electronic warfare library is especially troubling as that type of information is considered among the most sensitive data the Pentagon gathers and is critical to countering enemy defensive networks and allowing U.S. assets to survive in contested territory. This theft paired with information on sensor data that potentially collects that information is especially damning as the enemy can figure out not just what the Navy knows, but exactly how they have come to know it.
Yet the news that the Navy is rapidly looking to field a submarine-launched anti-ship missile capable of supersonic speeds is the biggest revelation from this report. Not only that but it is supposedly a weapon already in existence that is being adapted for submarine use. Quite honestly, in a vacuum, it's good news that the Navy is working on such a capability. Giving U.S. nuclear submarines long-range anti-ship capabilities that they can use while operating where no ship can is a critical ability that should be obtained, but what weapon could this be?
A shadowy cutting-edge weapons program
Little is known about the Sea Dragon program, as the Washington Post points out:
Pentagon budget documents show that Sea Dragon, which began in the 2015 fiscal year, was one of many programs that the secretive Strategic Capabilities Office has managed and is listed in a specific line item covering "Advanced Innovative Technologies." By the following fiscal cycle, this same set of funding also paid for work on land-based railguns, advanced conventional guns and ammo, advanced navigation systems, unspecified enhanced munitions and unmanned aerial vehicle payloads, and a naval drone swarm project called Sea Mob.
In the 2016 fiscal year, the Sea Dragon program completed designs for an in-water test apparatus and the ejection body and its associated hardware, as well as successfully completed a test of the weapon system on land. Unfortunately, subsequent budget requests do not list further accomplishments for the program.
We do know that the Pentagon expected to start underwater static testing of some portion of the system, as well as begin planning for a "sea-based tactical demonstration," by the end of the 2018 fiscal year, which runs through Sept. 30, but its latest budget request for the 2019 fiscal year said that the new funds would go to continued planning for that live-fire test.
The Pentagon asked for nearly $150 million in total to support that work, as well finishing underwater static testing, building a sea-based launch support test site, and continued analysis of the conceptual kill chain associated with the weapon system. This is less than half of the money the U.S. military requested for Sea Dragon for the 2018 fiscal year, but the budget documents note that this was a product of cost savings they had achieved by buying extra long-lead time components in advance.
We have talked regularly and at great lengths about China's increasing naval capabilities on virtually every level. We have also talked for years about America's lack of investment in anti-ship missile systems, which the Pentagon is now working hard to counteract. But there is no existing supersonic anti-ship cruise missile in America's inventory. Few close U.S. allies possess similar weapons either, with the focus being on low-observability, networking, advanced targeting capabilities and so on, not high-speed.
Russia, on the other hand, has focused for decades on developing supersonic and now even hypersonic anti-ship cruise missiles, which are seen as a major threat to American warships. China has also worked hard to independently perfect the anti-ship ballistic missile, with the medium-range DF-21D and a version of the intermediate-range DF-26 becoming one of some of the most potent anti-access threats to American Carrier Strike Groups operating in the Indo-Pacific Theater.
So if no supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles exist in the Pentagon's inventory, or are even deep in development, what is this 'existing' weapon?
Identifying the mystery weapon
This weapon could be one of a number of concepts we identify below. But to start, a submarine-launched version of the SM-6 multi-role missile seems like the most conventional possibility. This is not a cruise missile, but the designation stated in the Washington Post's article could be just a due to the writer's lack of knowledge of existing weapon systems and their capabilities or just a misinterpretation of what is clearly a fairly opaque program.
The SM-6, which you can read all about in this recent profile we published on it, can be launched from the Mark 41 Vertical Launch Systems found on American destroyers and cruisers. In its latest form, it is fully networked, allowing it to receive targeting data from a variety of platforms, including airborne, ground-based, or surface-based sensor nodes. This concept is called Cooperative Engagement Capability/Naval Integrated Fire Control CEC/NIFC and it is one of the most important concepts the sea-going force is trying to implement at this time.
Although it was designed primarily as a surface-to-air weapon to be used against air-breathing threats and ballistic missiles during their terminal stage of flight, the SM-6 has an increasingly potent long-range anti-ship and a land-attack capability able to promptly strike targets over long distances. The fact that it flies at very high speeds on a ballistic-like track instead of a flat cruise missile like flight profile makes it especially hard for enemies to defend against.
Most of America's nuclear fast attack submarines and all its guided missile submarines have 'strike length' vertical launch cells similar to the Mark 41 VLS, that are used to house BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles.
A new arrangement, with two large hatches that cover a number of launch tubes and can be more easily adapted to different weaponry, is now being fielded on latest Virginia class submarines. Soon boats equipped with the Virginia Payload Module, which carries four of these large modular missile bays, will be under construction.
These same cells currently used for Tomahawk cruise missiles could be configured to house an altered SM-6-booster combination capable of launching the missile submerged without destroying the launch cell. If such an arrangement were developed and implemented, the variety and flexibility of firepower that America's submarine force would possess would greatly increase.
Because the SM-6 is networked and doesn't rely on organic sensors installed on its firing platform for targeting, submarines could even act as clandestine launch platforms for anti-aircraft attacks. This would allow for more vulnerable assets, like E-2D Hawkeyes, MQ-4C Tritons, P-8 Poseidons, and powerful radar-packing surface combatants to stand off at long ranges, using their sensor's great reach—outside the range of their own or nearby weapons—to their advantage and remotely ordering up attacks on enemy ships and aircraft by surprise.
The unique list of information Chinese hackers stole from the Navy contractor also points to such a system, which would rely on electromagnetic threat libraries, crypto-communications, and a wide variety of sensors for detecting and engaging threats.
Raytheon, the company who makes the SM-6, has a long history of providing tailored weapons for American submarines, and some non-traditional programs have recently seemed to disappear into the realm of deep classification. For instance, the initiative to arm Navy subs with AIM-9X air-to-air missiles as a short-range last-line of defense against prowling anti-submarine warfare aircraft. That program went as far as being successfully tested before going dark, which you can read all about it in this past feature of ours.
It is also possible that the Washington Post article's author was wrong about the missile's supersonic capability, which would point to fielding an advanced anti-ship cruise missile like Lockheed's very stealthy and smart Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) aboard submarines. Yet this would probably be a less covert affair developmentally speaking. But such a weapon would be especially useful when combined with the SM-6—or another high-speed anti-ship weapon—allowing for long-range, multi-layer attacks on enemy flotillas. Also, the Navy, and its submarines will be getting a long-range, subsonic, anti-ship capability via the Block IV Tactical Tomahawk.
It's more likely that his weapon could actually be LRASM-B, or at least an evolutionary relative of it. LRASM-B was being developed alongside the subsonic LRASM-A around the turn of the decade and would have performance nearing Mach 3, operating in a similar fashion as the Russian-Indian developed BrahMos anti-ship missile.
Development work continued on LRASM-B until around 2013 when it was officially passed over. It is very possible that this design was brought back to life under the shadowy Sea Dragon program, with a focus on submarines as a launch platform, not ships. The budgetary dates and what was mentioned in the Washington Post article would certainly support this possibility as well.
Maybe even more promising is the possibility that this is actually the product of a supposedly defunct 2000s initiative to create a high-speed cruise missile dubbed Revolutionary Approach To Time-critical Long Range Strike, or RATTLRS for short. This weapon was all about hitting time-sensitive targets very quickly with little preparation, being able to fly at high altitudes and at speeds approaching Mach 4, obliterating its target with submunitions, a high-explosive warhead, or a penetrating warhead within about 30 minutes time at its maximum range.
This Lockheed-led initiative built on the Skunk Works' experience with the D-21 drone and was supported by the Office of Naval Research and NASA. It was funded throughout the 2000s, had successful payload delivery tests on the jet sled, its engine was built by Rolls Royce, and was approaching a complex flight demonstration phase when it disappeared. This could have been due to budget cuts that happened around the turn of the decade, but maybe it was revived in 2013, adapted for the anti-ship mission, and deep in development in updated form by 2015. It's also worth noting that a submarine-launched capability was part of the program's initial vision.
Adding to the case that RATTLRS may have been reborn in secret is this tidbit of information brought to us by our good friend Stephen Trimble's twitter feed. Apparently, the Navy has been showing off a model of this exact concept just months ago without any real explanation as to why:
Finally, the mystery missile could be a hypersonic missile, not a supersonic missile, for the Ohio class submarine, which the Navy is quietly developing and has test flown fairly recently. Still, the Pentagon has openly discussed these and other hypersonic tests recently, so it's not exactly top secret. Also, this wouldn't be a variation of an existing system as described in the Washington Post article. Fielding such a system operational by 2020 also seems remarkably ambitious, but it may be possible and certainly, China has an extreme interest in hypersonic technologies.
These are just the clearest possibilities for what this weapon could be. It's also possible that it is another weapon system clandestinely developed to a certain degree in the past, and brought back into development due to the changing nature of the world by the middle of this decade. During the mid-2000s, time-sensitive strike was such a big deal due to the Global War on Terror that numerous programs existed that never seemed to go anywhere—at least publically.
Loose bits sink ships
Regardless of the exact identity of this weapon system, the idea that the Navy—or at least one of its contractors—lost so much detailed information on what could be one of its most promising and critical weapon systems, as well as the infrastructure that supports it, couldn't have come at a worse time. China is pumping huge sums of money into its maritime warfare programs and fortifying its "fortress" like anti-access/area-denial strategy that will make it harder and harder for America's surface fleet to operate anywhere near striking distance of the Chinese mainland. With this in mind, submarines remain among the most important tools for breaking down this anti-access bubble so that more vulnerable assets can move closer to potential targets and strategic areas. What's worse is that with detailed info in hand, China is likely going to work hard to replicate this capability, not devise a defense against it.
Above all else, this is another terrible reminder about how the Defense Department and the industrial complex that feeds it remains its own worst enemy when it comes to securing highly detailed information about its most critical and costly weapon systems. At some point, the decision has to be made that networks that are not air-gapped and are connected to the outside world in some fashion are not secure enough to gamble such sensitive information on. Physical espionage is a big enough threat to deal with as it is, and the U.S. has failed miserably at defending against electronic espionage using convenient network architecture.
Coming to terms with this reality will mean it will become more time consuming, expensive, and tougher overall to develop new weapon systems. Distributing programs to sites located across the U.S. will instantly become a major issue. But what's the point in the U.S. developing any of these systems if in the end it is just developing them for its number one technological competitor as well?
And the fact that China doesn't have to pay billions upon billions of dollars for this intellectual property—they can steal for virtually nothing—isn't only a loss to American national security, but it actually provides the enemy with a major fiscal edge. And that edge is already being exploited in front of our very eyes on an increasingly unprecedented scale.
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