After a stunning live-fire demonstration in the Gulf of Mexico, America’s new “QUICKSINK” bomb, a fast-moving Joint Capability Technology Demonstration, is ready to target China’s vast armada of aggressive civilians and lightly-armed military craft.
The “QUICKSINK” bomb fills a long-vacant niche. For years, both the US Navy and the US Coast Guard have struggled to address China’s enormous array of lightly armed government vessels and dual-use civilian craft. Often hard to control, stop, or sink, these Chinese boats are often employed, in fleets of hundreds, to achieve China’s maritime goals or to directly support military action.
To confront China’s massive civilian fleet, the Pacific had few options beyond watching China break one maritime and international norm after another. Equipped only with ships mustering small deck guns and, sometimes, a handful of anti-ship missiles, maritime forces throughout the Pacific really had no way to stop even a single determined and potentially hostile civilian surface ship beyond a heavyweight torpedo or balky laser-guided bomb.
“QUICKSINK” changes things for the China’s far-flung and badly-behaved fleets.
As it sits right now, “QUICKSINK” is a simple kinetic capability, where a low-cost Air Force Research Laboratory guidance kit is strapped onto a 2,000-pound Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM). With lots and lots of JDAMs in the world’s arsenal, and given that JDAMs can be dropped by virtually any military aircraft, “QUICKSINK” is a deadly threat to China’s Gray Zone fleet.
JDAMs come in all kinds of flavors, but, when attached to a 2,000-lb JDAM, the “QUICKSINK” mimics the catastrophic effects of a heavyweight torpedo. A live demonstration, conducted in the Gulf of Mexico on April 28, ripped a large trawler-sized “surrogate target” apart, sending it to the bottom within 40 seconds. In an actual strike on a functional and fuel-filled vessel, the crew would have no warning and would not know what had hit them.
Now that the United States has a low-cost weapon to quickly neutralize large craft “anywhere and in any weather,” the big flagships of China’s globe-spanning coercive fleets can no longer cruise through the world’s remote, virtually lawless seas “alone and unafraid ”. Once detected, China’s key enablers of maritime mischief can be sunk at any moment. And with a bunch of new, long-legged and homeland-defense oriented F-15EX fighters on the way, America will have a reliable, fast “QUICKSINK” delivery system ready to go, capable of reaching out across the vast Pacific.
With “QUICKSINK” available for service, China’s cadre of aggressive expansionists need to worry. The deep-sea logistical enablers of China’s illegal fishing fleets, smuggling cadres, and sea-grabbing militias, are widely known and easily found. And those big support ships may, one day, just disappear without a trace, swallowed up in the vast, lonely sea, leaving their charges—often smaller, cheaper and less-seaworthy—to their own devices.
Not A Tool For The High-End Fight
In a break from the US military’s apatite for new technology, “QUICKSINK” is a relatively simple, low-tech tool. It isn’t for front-line use. Sophisticated, “high-end” warships have little to fear from the new guided bomb. If prepared, rival Navy ships can target the “QUICKSINK”-carrying aircraft, and if they cannot shoot down the aircraft, their close-in self-defense systems can try to neutralize the bomb itself.
Instead of serving the needs of high-end warfare against a near-peer fleet, “QUICKSINK” is, at heart, an existential threat to China’s massive investment in low-tech, coercion-focused ships.
In the best of times, China’s gray-zone fleet, when massed, is hard to handle. China has a long and effective history of using massed small craft to rebuff stronger rivals. The Communist regime employed massed small craft to project sovereignty as early as 1966, when eleven steel-hulled Chinese trawlers joined together to chase USS people’s (AGER-2) sister ship, the surveillance-oriented USS Banner (AGER-1), out of the East China Sea. For China, swarming is a long-standing, deeply rooted military tactic.
Coast Guards and Navies throughout the Pacific have long-struggled with strategies to manage China’s preference for fielding numerous but low-tech maritime vessels. Up till now, only aircraft and surface presence, in the form of massed, highly capable gunboats, have been effective against China’s militarized gray zone fleet.
Over the past few years, minor successes in rebuffing China’s coercive fleets have sparked something of a low-tech arms race. As Pacific states slowly up-armed their defensive resources, increasing presence in both ship numbers and in individual ship tonnage, China has, in turn, quietly “super-sized” their low-tech armada, making their ships too big and fast for other countries to confront.
While low-key, the growth of China’s low-tech fleet has been dramatic. China’s Coast Guard cutter fleet is expanding in number and size, and now boasts over 130 ships of over 1,000 tons. Today, the largest Chinese cutters are able to shoulder aside anything short of an Arleigh Burke destroyer. And while still lightly-armed, China’s Coast Guard fleet has gotten better basic weapons as well. Rapid-fire guns and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles make approach by rotary wing aircraft increasingly perilous, complicating efforts to target ships with laser-guided munitions, weapons the US has used to clear the seas of lightly-armed adversaries in the past.
But now, America’s “QUICKSINK” makes even the queens of the Chinese Coast Guard, the massive 12,000-ton Zhaotou Class Coast Guard cutters, vulnerable. All the large and relatively fast-moving ships that China is fielding to support their sovereignty-eroding distant fishing fleets—the support tenders, trans-shipment craft and surveillance platforms—face a deadly threat.
But now, the cost equation is shifting out of China’s favor. Instead of just building more, albeit bigger and better-armed ships, China must either procure Coast Guard ships armed with sophisticated anti-aircraft systems, capable of detecting and downing an aircraft 15-20 miles away, or embark gray zone craft under the protection of naval combatants and friendly air cover.
Welcome To A New Era In The Pacific:
China’s reaction to “QUICKSINK” depends upon just how China may have planned to employ their vast gray zone fleet of fishing vessels, dredgers, and other attendant craft. China has put a lot into modernizing their gray zone fleet, and they may not respond well given that this new weapon directly interferes with long-standing and long-successful Chinese tactics.
The existential threat “QUICKSINK” poses to China’s coercive fleets suggests that China’s ongoing scramble for Pacific Ocean bases and advanced airfields will accelerate. In retrospect, China’s unseemly rush to exploit an initial 2019 diplomatic opening in the Solomon Islands may well have been influenced by “QUICKSINK’s” rapid progression from concept to a functional weapon.
China’s opposition to collaborative multi-national surveillance webs in the Pacific may get even more shrill, and China’s ongoing efforts to target surveillance platforms and cooperative intelligence dissemination networks may get even more overt.
“QUICKSINK” is no cure-all. With Chinese military aircraft and naval vessels operating out of a place like the Solomon Islands, China’s rogue sovereignty-eroding fishing fleets can still concentrate and operate with some modicum of safety in the deep Pacific. But with “QUICKSINK” in the field, China’s cost and risk calculation is starting to irrevocably change. For once, China has ended up on the wrong side of the equation, making China’s global maritime aggressions far more costly.