The US is closer to deploying long-range land-based missiles to deter a potential Chinese invasion of Taiwan, a provocative move that could spark a destabilizing conventional missile arms race in the Pacific.
General Charles Flynn, Commander of US Army Forces Pacific, stated at the Halifax International Security Forum in Nova Scotia, that the US will deploy new intermediate-range missiles including Tomahawks and SM-6s to the Pacific region in 2024, Defense One reported.
The deployment was made possible by the US’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 due to Russia’s alleged non-compliance. The Defense One report says the US Army’s Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), which can hit targets over 500 kilometers away, may also be deployed to the region.
In his address, Flynn emphasized the rapid advancement of China’s military capabilities, which he said was endangering regional and global stability. While the general avoided speculation about a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, he outlined several factors believed to be influencing Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s strategic decisions.
Those include the impact of economic sanctions, efforts to weaken US alliances in the region, assessing the readiness of China’s military for a potential invasion and the effectiveness of China’s information and influence operations.
Defense One notes that the US Army’s deployment of new missiles signifies a strategic shift in the Pacific, reflecting growing concerns over China’s military expansion and assertive behavior in the region. It also indicates a broader geopolitical strategy to maintain stability and deter potential conflicts in the Indo-Pacific region.
US long-range missile projects in the Pacific are part of a strategy to create a “missile wall” in the First Island Chain, spanning Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines, to deter China.
In July 2023, Asia Times reported that the US Marine Corps (USMC) had unveiled its Long-Range Fires Launcher, an uncrewed 4×4 launch vehicle based on the Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary-Fires (ROGUE-Fires) vehicle for the land-based Tomahawk cruise missile.
The Long-Range Fires Launcher may address a mobility gap associated with the truck-towed OpFires and Typhon, which cannot fit in a C-130 cargo plane.
In December 2022, Asia Times reported on the US Army’s acquisition of the first Typhon land-based missile launcher, which is designed to fill a gap between the US Army’s PrSM and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW) by firing Standard SM-6 or Tomahawk missiles between 500 and 1,800 kilometers.
Furthermore, Asia Times reported in July 2022 that the USMC is acquiring land-based Tomahawk missiles as part of its Long-Range Fires program, which aims to provide integrated ground-based anti-ship and land-attack weapon systems. The acquisition is part of the USMC’s dispersed operations doctrine, which employs small, dispersed land and sea detachments to threaten adversary forces’ concentration.
However, Asia Times has previously noted that US allies such as Thailand, the Philippines, South Korea, Australia and Japan may be reluctant to participate in America’s “missile wall” strategy.
Thailand’s political elites are trying to establish stronger ties with China and are famously reluctant to strategically peeve Beijing. The Philippines is vulnerable to a Chinese naval blockade cutting off US resupply and reinforcement from Guam and has minimal air and missile defense capabilities.
South Korea is susceptible to Chinese pressure, as it needs China’s markets and influence at the negotiating table with North Korea. Australia’s distance from China and reluctance to get involved in a US-China conflict over Taiwan may preclude it as a basing option for US land-based missiles.
That makes Japan the most viable partner for hosting US land-based missiles, as it lacks the vulnerabilities and weaknesses of other US partners, apart from a longstanding reluctance to host offensive weapons systems as part of its pacifist post-World War II policy.
Despite accelerated efforts to establish such capabilities, Japan faces significant challenges such as limited long-range targeting capabilities, high production costs, aging technology and a poor record of storing munitions. Japan may thus seek to address these capability gaps with US-supplied land-based missiles while it gets its indigenous arsenal up to speed.
At the same time, China is building its conventional missile arsenal to counter perceived US containment. China Power notes that since 2000 the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has transformed its missile forces from short-range, modestly accurate systems to the world’s most extensive and diverse array of ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles.
China Power says that this arsenal includes intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) like the Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) with ranges of up to 4,000 kilometers, capable of striking crucial US military bases in Guam and ships at sea, and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) like the DF-21D, known as the “carrier killer” with a range of 1,550 kilometers.
The China Power report notes that China’s strategy has shifted toward using these missiles for deterrence and warfighting with a focus on precision strikes and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities along its maritime periphery.
It mentions that these deployments include anti-ship missiles to prevent US military interventions and conventional missiles for targeting key enemy installations.