WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is pushing ahead with fielding more anti-ship cruise missiles on submarines in the Pacific, the head of U.S. Navy Submarine Forces said Monday.

As the U.S. fleet grapples with the rising threat of China’s expanding Navy, which now has more ships than the U.S. Navy’s fleet on both coasts combined, the service is packing its submarines with longer-range weapons, including the forthcoming Maritime Strike Tomahawk, Vice Adm. Daryl Caudle said.

“We’re increasing our range and how we deliver kinetic effects,” Caudle said. "Long-range torpedoes, of course, because that’s our clandestine weapon, but also bringing back Harpoon in the Pacific. We’ve tested that capability — we know it works. The weapon, as everyone knows, has limitations, but still gives us some stand-off capability. And we’re also pressing hard to get the Maritime Strike Tomahawk building as well.”

Adding the Maritime Strike Tomahawk, with a range of about 1,000 miles, will greatly extend the reach of its submarines in the Pacific.

The Maritime Strike Tomahawk is one of three Block V variants of the Navy’s stalwart cruise missile currently in development. The anti-ship missile, which incorporates a new seeker, is slated to start coming online in 2023.

A Navy brief says the Maritime Strike Tomahawk’s new seeker “enables the capability to hit moving maritime targets through mid-course guidance via third party or seeker mode, to a terminal seeker area of uncertainty.”

U.S. Navy and senior defense leaders have long pointed to submarines as the ace up its sleeve in a potential conflict with China, though the numbers of submarines in the fleet is declining as the Los Angeles-class attack submarines are decommissioning. The Navy expects to drop from around 50 today to 42 attack boats by the late 2020s. The service is exploring extending the service life of up to five of its LA class to blunt the worst effects.

There is a growing consensus among military leaders that holding off the Chinese fleet is an imperative in any potential conflict, with the Air Force, Marine Corps and even the Army investing in anti-ship missiles.

Michèle Flournoy, who many believe could be the incoming secretary of defense in the Biden administration, in a June editorial in Foreign Affairs said the military should be able to “credibly threaten to sink all of China’s military vessels, submarines, and merchant ships in the South China Sea within 72 hours.”

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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