Asia-Pacific bases are US Achilles’ heel in war with China

The single greatest advantage the United States holds in its increasingly dangerous competition with the People’s Republic of China is the sheer amount of allies Washington has within the region. With those allies come access to military bases — bases that could be useful in the event of a crisis with Beijing. While some bases are only used on a rotational basis, many house important forward deployed assets Washington would need in a crisis over the East or South China Seas, Taiwan and even North Korea–especially air power.

Chinese DH-10 cruise missile

Chinese DH-10 cruise missile

However, thanks to advances in Chinese ballistic and cruise missile technology, China has the capability to hold such bases at risk — potentially rendering many almost useless in a clash between the two rivals.

Indeed, such news should not serve as a shock to those who have been watching the increasing size and scope of Beijing’s vast military modernization over the last twenty years. China has focused on technologies that are hard to counter, or what most scholars have dubbed “asymmetric” technologies. Missile systems have been a big focus in this effort. From short to medium-range missiles aimed at Taiwan, to longer-range missiles that can rain down volley after volley of deadly ordinance on US bases located as far away as Guam and beyond, China has been developing and deploying what is clearly the world’s largest and possibly most sophisticated missile program on the planet.

US bases not ‘hardened’

So what have the United States and its allies done to protect — specifically “harden”– such bases from Chinese missile attacks? Not much according to multiple senior US Department of Defense officials I have spoken with over the years as well as many defense analysts who have studied the problem in depth.

US F-15s at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa

US F-15s at Kadena Air Base, Okinawa

“Hardening can consist of active defenses such as surface-to-air missiles and passive defenses such as stronger shelters,” explained Roger Cliff, a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, in an interview I conducted with him in 2012.

“It’s possible to make buildings, including aircraft shelters, strong enough to resist an attack by a cruise missile … The problem is, there are hardly any shelters at all at most bases in the Asia-Pacific. Kadena Air Base (on Okinawa), for example, has a grand total of 15 shelters, enough for at most 30 fighter aircraft if you squeeze two into each. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, also on Okinawa, has no aircraft shelters. There are also no shelters at MCAS Iwakuni and Yokota Air Base on Honshu, or Andersen Air Force Base.”

Cliff’s mention of Kadena is quite telling and a frightening example of the challenge Washington faces thanks to Chinese missiles. A 2008 RAND’s war game showed that just a small amount of missiles, just 34, could do tremendous damage to Kadena and “damage, destroy or strand 75% of aircraft.”

There is also the challenge of managing the cost of base hardening — especially against the most advanced missiles that China could use in an attack.

“In general, bases within range of enemy fighter-bombers’ attacks would likely be subject to barrage attacks using ballistic missiles armed with sub-munitions,” noted John Stillion, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, in an interview conducted back in late-2014.

“These would destroy any unsheltered aircraft and spread millions of sharp metal fragments across the runways and taxiways. This would also prevent any aircraft inside shelters from leaving until a path was cleared through the debris (known as FOD—Foreign Object Damage). This could be a time-consuming and laborious process. In the meantime, the enemy might conduct follow-on attacks using cruise missiles and manned aircraft with precision-guided weapons to target fuel storage, runways and aircraft in their shelters, rendering the base unusable until extensive repairs were undertaken.”

Rotational strategy

North Airfield at Tinian Island, site of WWII B-29 base.

North Airfield at Tinian Island, site of WWII B-29 base.

While things certainly seem bleak, Washington has at least begun to address the problem but a greater focus is certainly needed to address what is clearly a tremendous challenge.

The US military is working to spread forces on a rotational basis throughout Asia, further away from the range of Chinese missile strikes. For example, a report by WarIsBoring noted that Tinian Island, located near Guam “is emerging as one of the Air Force’s backup landing bases.”

Combining this with possible rotational deployments of advanced missile defense systems like Thaad if a crisis occurred — as has been done in the past when North Korea threatened the region — could make China think twice in launching a missile strike in a crisis. If these two measures could be combined with at least some additional physical hardening, such as protective hangers for fighter aircraft in range of Beijing’s missile assets, this three-step solution could give Washington its best chance of negating a powerful military advantage that is growing by the day.

Harry Kazianis (@grecianformula) is a non-resident Senior Fellow for Defense Policy at the Center for the National Interest , a non-resident Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute as well as a fellow for National Security affairs at the Potomac Foundation.  He is the former Executive Editor of The National Interest and former Editor-In-Chief of The Diplomat. The views expressed are his own.

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