Expanding Missile Defenses In The Indo-Pacific Will Help Counter Chinese Missile Threat: The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is rapidly building a world-class military that could dominate the Western Pacific. As part of its near-meteoric rise, the PLA is rapidly becoming a missile superpower, capable of threatening the U.S. homeland as well as U.S. forces and allies in the Indo-Pacific region. In order to deter China and ensure that the People’s Liberation Army cannot use its missile power to conduct a disarming first strike against U.S. forces and facilities in the Pacific region, the U.S. military is investing in forces and infrastructure designed to support a more robust forward-deployed posture.
In light of the growing threat from China, the key to the U.S. military’s ability to operate forward and maintain key facilities in the region is a robust missile defense capability. Above all, the U.S. and its allies need to create a distributed radar sensor grid that will support long-range, agile, and highly lethal defenses.
The PLA’s decades-long “slow and steady” approach to building up its military forces has been replaced by what can only be characterized as a sprint to superpower status. This is particularly the case with respect to intercontinental and theater missiles. The growth in the PLA’s missile force has been both quantitative and qualitative. The PLA has deployed thousands of short-, medium-, and intermediate-range ballistic and cruise missiles, many of which are dual-capable.
This gives the PLA the ability to launch massed strikes on U.S. and allied targets in the region. Beijing is constructing hundreds of new silos for ICBMs. The Chinese military has already deployed a hypersonic theater ballistic missile, the DF-17, with more to follow. In what the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley called “very close” to a “Sputnik moment,” the PLA recently tested a hypersonic system with global reach.
Compounding the danger is the vulnerability of U.S. and allied facilities and forward-positioned forces in the Indo-Pacific. The U.S. military is highly concentrated on a handful of large facilities such as Guam and Okinawa. In the event of a conflict with China, these locations will be prime targets for PLA ballistic and cruise missiles. In addition, the U.S. military expects to operate forces within range of our prospective adversary’s offensive systems, necessitating improved air and missile defenses.
In light of the growing PLA missile forces and North Korean missile arsenal, the U.S. military needs more robust defensive capabilities to counter these threats. It especially needs measures to deny Beijing the ability to use its missile arsenal to execute disarming first strike. As Major General Joel Vowell recently declared: “So I don’t think we have enough right now. I think we need more. As the commander of U.S. Army Japan, I think that would be something I would champion for is more integrated air and missile defense protection in the first island chain, for certain.”
A robust air and missile defense of the Indo-Pacific will also create a challenge to Chinese and North Korean forces. In essence, it would establish a U.S and allied anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capability to deter or defeat an attack on South Korea, Taiwan, or islands in the region.
The key to a robust defense capability is better sensing. The U.S. needs more and better radars across the Indo-Pacific. It also needs to integrate land, sea, and air sensors with those of its allies, creating a distributed sensor net that can deal with large, complex attacks, and leverage the availability of multiple shooters.
Distributed sensing will close gaps that currently exist in the network of radars that cover the Indo-Pacific. It will address the priority of defending key infrastructure such as Guam. In an era of fast-flying cruise missiles and hypersonic weapons, distributed sensing is needed to provide adequate target detection and tracking. A sensor network based on the proliferation of radars will also degrade more gracefully when attacked.
In creating a robust missile defense architecture to address threats of all ranges, the U.S. military can take advantage of the revolution in radar technologies. In the words of Tom Karako, a U.S. missile defense expert: “Digital, solid-state, and modular radars are already redefining the emerging radar renaissance. From Patriot to Aegis to GMD, the spectrum of air and missile threats is going to require a new generation of sensors, both radars and other types.”
The U.S. military has a strong basis in deployed systems and advanced technologies with which to create an Indo-Pacific distributed sensor network. The U.S. homeland has long relied on a set of very large radars to provide long-range detection of ICBM launches. In addition, the new Long Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska will soon become operational.
In addition, there are some 90 Aegis BMDS-capable ships currently in operation. Sea-based missile defense capabilities will improve in coming years with the deployment of new Arleigh Burke destroyers equipped with the advanced SPY-6 radar, a smaller version of which will be on Constellation-class frigates. Future deployments of Patriot and THAAD land-based air and missile defenses to forward bases, or to allied nations for operation, will benefit from the addition of the new Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense Sensor (LTAMDS) radar.
The defense of key infrastructure in places such as Guam, Hawaii, and Okinawa will require the deployment of multiple missile defense systems with an array of radars. In fact, the defense of Guam could be the model for expanding air and missile defenses to the region. Guam is looking at a layered defense concept involving multiple land-based radars in support of an array of defensive systems that could include, in addition to currently deployed Patriot and THAAD batteries, possibly the Iron Dome system and Aegis Ashore with Standard Missiles 2, 3 and 6.
One key to enhanced air and missile defenses of the Indo-Pacific and the homeland is the deployment of additional land-based radars to complete coverage of the region and close existing gaps. It will also complete an adversary’s offensive missile operations. Adding a set of smaller, less costly radars to existing networks in the Pacific, the homeland, and even in Europe could create an effective distributed sensor architecture. This investment would be a crucial step along the path to creating a robust air and missile defense capability.
Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Gouré has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team.