Report

China’s ‘Guam Killers’ Threaten U.S. Anchor Base in Pacific

Advances in Chinese missile technology are putting the big American base, formerly a sanctuary, in range of attacks.

DF26

Long-range Chinese missiles are becoming an increasingly acute threat to U.S. military forces on Guam, the island anchor of the American strategic position in the Pacific, according to a new report.

While the weapons probably don’t represent an immediate direct threat, continued advances in range and precision could put the still-expanding U.S. bases on Guam in China’s crosshairs in the event of a big conflict in Asia.

The report, prepared by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and released Tuesday, highlighted advances Beijing’s military has made in bolstering its ability to push U.S. forces farther away from Chinese shores. Those advances include new kinds of ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as ships, subs, and bombers that can launch them. The weapons in the Chinese quiver, according to the report, can easily reach Guam, the western-most U.S. territory and home to a naval base, an air base, and regionwide fuel and ammunition depots.

“China’s commitment to continuing to modernize its strike capabilities indicates the risk will likely grow going forward,” the report noted.

Defense experts stress that rapidly improving Chinese strike capabilities pose a particular risk to the Guam garrison, which has been steadily expanded in recent years to give the U.S. military a stand-off base in the Pacific that would be less vulnerable than bases on Okinawa.

“China’s anti-access envelope is still densest over parts of the first island chain,” said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College, referring to the first line of U.S defense stretching from Okinawa to Taiwan to the Philippines. “But, as China’s reach extends to the second island chain, the fear is that Guam’s sanctuary status could erode over time.”

Granted, many of the ballistic and cruise missiles that China has developed — and the ships and planes that would launch them — are still plagued by some deficiencies that minimize the immediate risk to Guam, the report noted. At longer ranges, it’s harder for China to launch precision strikes, for example. Getting bombers close enough to Guam to launch cruise missiles would be a very tall order, and relatively noisy submarines limit Beijing’s ability to fire off salvos from the sea without being detected.

“All the pieces aren’t in place yet” for China to swamp Guam with its new family of missiles, said Eric Heginbotham, who studies Asian defense at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and who co-wrote a RAND Corp. study last year on China’s military modernization.

But, he noted, one of the weapons is the DF-26, an intermediate-range ballistic missile publicly displayed last fall by Chinese leaders, the first conventional missile in Beijing’s arsenal with the range to reach Guam. Chinese defense analysts have referred to the weapon as the “Guam killer.”

“The DF-26 is real. It’s basically purpose-built to attack Guam,” Heginbotham said. In years to come, other parts of China’s missile arsenal will also likely gain in effectiveness, he said, especially cruise missiles launched from submarines.

China has already made great strides in denying easy U.S. military access to wide swaths of the western Pacific, especially around the South China Sea. Tensions between Beijing and Washington continue to rise over China’s land reclamation of reefs and atolls and deployment of military forces to disputed islets. Overnight Monday, the U.S. Navy deliberately sailed past Fiery Cross Reef, one of China’s claimed atolls, to defend freedom of navigation in the area.

Although the move won plaudits in the Senate, especially from Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), China’s foreign ministry reacted angrily, as it has during previous U.S. freedom-of-navigation operations.

“What the U.S. warship has done threatened China’s sovereignty and security interests,” a foreign ministry representative said Tuesday, “and it jeopardized regional peace and stability.”

And tensions in the western Pacific could rise even further over the next month, when an arbitration panel in The Hague rules on a case of rival territorial claims between the Philippines and China. If, as expected, the court finds much of China’s land grab in the region to be unlawful, it could set up a showdown between the Philippines and like-minded Asian states against China, which refuses to even acknowledge the tribunal’s authority and which has pledged to ignore its ruling.

U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Montgomery, director for operations at U.S. Pacific Command in Honolulu,  told of group of journalists on May 5 that while previous rulings from The Hague’s Permanent Court of Arbitration had generally been adopted, the future of the upcoming ruling was less certain.

“We’ll see what happens in the South China Sea,” Montgomery said. “It may not be quite so consensual.”

Friction with China now seems to be spreading — at least potentially — to the waters of the central Pacific. What’s concerning about China’s apparent longer reach is that it specifically targets Guam, which has become central to the U.S. military’s ability to project power in the region — especially since the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia.

Guam is already home to a stable of nuclear submarines, a rotating host of heavy bombers, and a constantly changing group of fighters. The Pentagon also plans to move thousands of U.S. Marines who are currently on Okinawa to Guam.

The report released Tuesday stressed that Chinese military thinkers and state media see Guam as a “chess piece of the utmost importance” in U.S. military strategy. Indeed, airbases there have played a role in pushing back against recent Chinese adventurism. In 2013, after China declared an air-defense identification zone over the disputed East China Sea, two B-52 bombers from Guam immediately challenged what amounted to a no-fly region imposed by Beijing.

The United States has several options to deal with the growing threat from Chinese missiles, according to Tuesday’s report and outside experts. It can continue to “harden” defenses on Guam to minimize the potential damage from missile strikes. The island already hosts the THAAD missile-defense system, but experts say that is of more use against intercontinental ballistic missiles rather than more numerous, shorter-range missiles that could target the island.

The U.S. Navy is also investing in anti-ship missiles for the first time in decades, reflecting just how seriously Washington takes China’s growing missile arsenal.

Another option for U.S. defense planners is to disperse American forces more widely across the Pacific, rather than concentrating so much on Guam. In recent years, the Pentagon has embraced that idea and has begun to look for runways and ports that could be used by its forces — depriving an adversary of a vulnerable target. The U.S. military has experimented with force dispersal drills, such as the so-called “Rapid Raptor” exercises with F-22 fighters landing on rudimentary airstrips. And recent U.S.-Japan defense guidelines opened the door to more basing agreements, while, after years of distrust, the Philippines recently agreed to allow U.S. forces back in the archipelago.

But scattering forces to protect them from attack also makes them less effective, Heginbotham noted.

“The problem is it’s a much less efficient way to conduct operations, so you’re going to have less combat power at the outset” of any conflict, he said.

Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian contributed to this article.

Photo credit: LIN YIQUANG/Xinhua/Getty

Keith Johnson is Foreign Policy’s global geoeconomics correspondent. @KFJ_FP

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