The U.S. has the biggest, baddest Navy in the world by a wide margin. But a new and dangerous mystery weapon has America’s admirals scared.

That’s according to a recent approval for up to $65 million over three years from the Naval Research Laboratory to defense contractor ITT Exelis. The funds, according to a Navy document, are for a suite of 24 electronic warfare systems to be mounted on U.S. warships sailing near Chinese waters.

The reason? It’s “necessary to thwart an immediate threat for naval fleet operations,” the Navy stated. The sailing branch wants the new defenses in place by March 2014.

The urgent notice, first spotted by Military & Aerospace Electronics, is an unusually stark warning for the planet’s mightiest fleet. Navy officials told the magazine the undisclosed danger is a “newly discovered threat,” which caused U.S. Pacific Fleet commander Adm. Cecil Haney to fast-track the project.

The Navy isn’t saying what the threat is, which country developed it or when it was discovered by the Americans. Requests to the Navy for comment were not returned.

But it’s possible to make informed guesses. As the trade magazine notes, “shipboard electronic warfare systems typically are designed to detect and jam enemy radar threats — particularly the electronics in radar-guided anti-ship missiles.” (Our emphasis.)

And it’s reasonably safe to assume if there’s a new missile out there, it’s Chinese.

USS Mobile Bay, left, and USS Shoup on April 22, 2008. Navy photo

How to sink an American ship

To be clear, nobody outside the Navy knows for sure what’s got the sailing branch so startled. Until the Navy discloses exactly what the threat is, everyone will be guessing. Besides China, the other players in this scenario are, of course, Russia, Iran and North Korea.

“The number of possibilities here explodes very rapidly — you could construct a matrix of Russian, Chinese, Iranian and DPRK tech, and then look at original designs, tweaked and improved designs, and entirely new designs,” Carlo Kopp, an analyst for the Air Power Australia think tank, tells War is Boring. “Any or all of these could compel an upgrade in a hurry.”

“There have been no recent disclosures on new Russian or Chinese missiles, but if either performed — for instance — a seeker upgrade with new technology on an existing missile, it might not appear in media disclosures for weeks, months or years,” Kopp says.

“A change of that type might compel a rapid deployment of a new jammer,” he continues. “This happened frequently during the Cold War as we discovered systems the Soviets hid from us. Many a mad scramble to catch up.”

The speed of the new electronic warfare project and its stated pretext could be read as warning signs that the Navy is falling behind its rivals at sea. China, for one, has invested heavily in all kinds of ordnance designed to send American warships to the ocean bottom.

The Navy is increasingly on the defensive, its own weapons unable to prevent Beijing’s planes, ships and subs from getting close enough to fire missiles at U.S. ships.

A Chinese missile zooming towards an American vessel could be traveling close to the sea with a low profile, homing in on its target with multi-mode sensors such as infrared and radar. That means the missile is very hard to detect and stop.

Using a jammer — the AN/SLQ-32 is the Navy’s main model — a warship might be able to throw enough electronic interference into the missile’s path to disrupt it during the terminal guidance phase, when the missile may only be a few seconds away from hitting its target. But something has gone terribly wrong for an enemy missile to ever make it that far.

It’s why the Navy has traditionally put more emphasis on killing the shooter. It’s better, the rationale goes, to detect and destroy an enemy plane, submarine or surface ship before it ever has the chance to launch a missile. A large, noisy ship is easier to find — and a lot easier to destroy — than a missile you may only have seconds to see, if you even see it at all. But what if the U.S. can’t even do that?

Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments illustration

Here comes China’s missiles

The cause: a missile race going on in the Pacific, and one China might be winning.

The most muscular of these new Chinese weapons is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, which counts a range of over 1,700 miles. If in some future shooting war one of these missiles targets a U.S. warship, there might be no defense against it.

China has also been hard at work developing a navalized version of the DH-10 land-attack cruise missile, which can travel nearly 2,500 miles and strike ground targets such as American bases in Guam and Okinawa.

Much of China’s anti-ship cruise missile arsenal is outdated, filled with older, imported cruise missiles like the Styx, Silkworm and Saccade. Beijing’s most powerful foreign-made anti-ship missile is the Russian SS-N-22 Sunburn, a terrifying Mach-3 devastator.

Beijing also has a new indigenously-produced, short-range missile called the C-701, plus the YJ-62, which is roughly equivalent to the mainstay U.S. missile, the Harpoon. There’s a destroyer-launched version of the YJ-62 with an operational range of nearly 250 miles, compared to the standard Harpoon’s 77 miles. All things being equal, in a head-to-head fight a Chinese destroyer could get the first shot against a U.S. vessel.

And there’s a big push underway in China to build even newer and better ship-killing missiles. Beijing has been observed ramping-up use of special test-bed ships fitted with new sensors that could be satellite communications or fire control systems, or something else entirely.

All this activity on the other side of the Pacific has put the U.S. off its balance. “Don’t be too surprised if the Navy is scrambling to deploy in a hurry, as [the Americans] are chronically behind in EW system fleet upgrades across all three services, due to funding being diverted into [the global war on terrorism] or whatever label is attached these days,” Kopp says.

The Navy has for some time sensed that it’s been slipping offensively as well as defensively. In 2011 the Navy and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency — the Pentagon’s blue-sky research agency — handed $218 million to Lockheed Martin to develop a new long-range anti-ship missile, or LRASM. The precise range is unknown and the missile won’t enter service for another two years, at the earliest.

Of course, that might not enough to deal with whatever else poses a threat to U.S. ships.

Robert previously wrote about a stealth fighter’s terrible movie career and disastrous missile defense tests. Subscribe to War is Boring: medium.com/feed/war-is-boring.