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The Electromagnetic Warship Takes Shape
In the Taiwan Strait
Electromagnetic weapons are not an easy sell for toymakers. What you see in the image is not a commercial model kit that someone built. Is is a real shipbuilder’s working model of an electronic warfare barge at a trade show. Yawn, right?
Using a tug, or under its own power, this barge can mimic the electromagnetic (EM) appearance of an aircraft carrier. China has built huge mock-up carriers on rails, probably the largest train cars on the planet, to simulate on land the EM signatures of American carriers at sea. The barge does this on the water.
Chinese pilots are preparing to fight the US Navy, but a Dongbo 22-class barge has potential to do more. Imagine, for example, a rack of drone launchers like the Iranian Shahids, or the new Taiwanese equivalent, for offensive and defensive uses.
Perhaps because my credentials are ground-based radio communications and intelligence, I confess I was caught off guard when I first spotted a similar barge being used by Russian forces in Kherson.
As I speculated on sight, it was indeed “a jamming station, and a generator on the barge is powering the ‘rigging’ on the masts, which are antennas.”
It could be intended to disrupt GPS-guided munitions as well as the control signals of Ukrainian artillery fire control drones. The reflectors might be a defensive measure to scatter signal so that its position is harder to triangulate for artillery or target with a radar-homing missile.
The shipbuilder does not seem to have bothered with rigging. As an enthusiast of model ship building, I totally get their choice to skip that tedious task, anyway.
Said antenna rigging is visible in a photograph of the actual Dongbo-22 class EW (electronic warfare) barge underway. Cube-shaped radar reflectors adorn the wires. Also, there are mesh screens that separate different radio frequency (RF) bands, rather like fish in a net, suspended from the rigging to make signal collection and analysis possible.
Although it does not look impressive as a weapon, a flotilla of Dongbo 22s can establish electromagnetic dominance on the waters of the Taiwan Strait. So far, China has built three examples, Dongbo 22, 23 and 24. That is still not enough to maintain a sustained blockade, yet, but it is a beginning.
An electronic countermeasures barge is one thing. An aircraft carrier is quite another. However, the fact that a barge can mimic a carrier is a sign of how the two might converge, and guess what, China is on that very development track.
Right next to the Dongbo-22 model on display at that China Aerospace Science and Industry Corporation (CASIC) booth in Zhuhai last year was a model of the mock American aircraft carrier mentioned above. They do not appear to be in the same scale. Seen side by side, however, the potential combination of concepts cannot be unseen.
Like a real carrier, the barge has defensive armament — interceptor missiles, chaff dispensers, etc — and is only missing drone launchers or other offensive weapons.
Again, right there on the same table, was another builder’s model. A photograph of this vessel being launched has already made its rounds on the internet. It is real, right down to the shark decorations.
Whereas the US Navy is a blue water force, Chinese naval power is increasingly focused on dominating the shallows of the Taiwan Strait. Catamaran hulls are only better than single-keeled ships if you intend to stay in littoral waters.
Equipped with two missile launchers at her bow, the yellow landing circles on her front deck are parking spots (and elevators, probably) for helicopter drones, a larger-scale model of which is visible at the right edge of the photo here. It is reportedly equipped for EW missions and I expect it will have an internal munitions bay. So imagine something like this, perhaps, only far bigger, able to launch a veritable hurricane of drones, because that is a good picture of future war at sea.
More fascinating, perhaps, are the red-and-white drone seaplanes. Again, a larger model is visible, and one of them is being recovered by a crane on the ship model. Think of them as flying sonar bouys, able to ping an area for subsurface threats, skip to another landing zone, continue to exhaustion, and get recovered from the sea at the convenience of the PLAN.
The metacentric height of those domes at the top of the mast is just about the length of the ship. Cage masts are notoriously collapsible in bad sea states, so the wise captain of this ship will not be trying to weather any storms. Nevertheless, that very tall mast enables command and control elements to see and operate out to a rather broad horizon, establish EM spectrum dominance, and shape the battlefield to the advantage of other Chinese forces, such as piloted fighters.
A new, electromagnetic aircraft carrier is taking shape. This is probably not its final form, however. This is just a testbed for the changes that are coming to naval warfare as the full potential of the electromagnetic military revolution gets realized at last. Recall that the first radio-controlled drone experiments were conducted during the First World War. Radio waves being the invisible glue that makes all naval warfare even possible anymore, dominance of the 4th dimension is essential to dominance in, on, and under the sea. China is testing out new ways to dominate the EM spectrum in the Taiwan Strait.
Just by presenting that threat to potential adversaries, however, China is changing the art of naval construction.
Concerns about the current number of US Navy hulls relative to Chinese hulls are overblown, in my estimation. Whenever a revolution is underway, it never pays to invest too much, too early, or too often in naval construction while the new ideas and technologies are being proven and discarded. Both of the US Navy’s recent experiments in littoral combat designs, the Zumwalt destroyers and the Freedom class ships, were expensive failures and cases in point. Lessons can be learned, engineering challenges overcome, and better designs constructed with the money saved from not having built more of them.
Contrarily, EMSO and EW development success has led to extended life for many otherwise-obsolete platforms, such as the B-52 bomber. A future US Navy vessel will probably look something like the Aegis cruisers and destroyers that have been dominating global sea lanes for 50 years, but with lasers. Yes, tell it to your friends: the laser beams are finally here. Drone swarms are the emerging threat which is at long last bringing directed energy weapons from science fiction to fruition.
As in a military science fiction novel, the future storm of winged missiles becomes a character in the drama. It may look pretty when it imitates fireworks, but imagine this drone swarm in the video attacking a warship from all sides, directed by a tall mast over the horizon to overwhelm the ship’s defenses. Imagine this, but with the addiiton of surface and subsurface drones, all attacking all at once, and you have a vision of the future of naval warfare.
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