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Tuesday, April 16, 2024

To deter China, the US should build rings of fire


That’s how Adm. John Aquilino, commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, answered when asked if the United States has the capabilities to match China’s arsenal of theater-range missiles (between 500 and 5500 km).

Asked if the United States has any missiles under development at the upper end of that range (3000-5000 km), the answer was the same: no.

Chinese military

New recruits of Chinese Peoples Liberation Army (PLA) attend a sendoff ceremony in Ganzhou, Jiangxi province, March 16, 2023. (China Daily via Reuters)

This shocking missile gap calls into question America’s ability to deter war – or win if deterrence fails.  

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Recent war games demonstrate the logic of China’s counter-intervention strategy. In a battle for Taiwan, China’s precision salvos striking U.S. military bases and Navy ships as far out as Guam would deal devastating losses to U.S. air and seapower. A CSIS scenario showed that in four weeks of fighting, the U.S. lost hundreds of aircraft, and bases on Guam were devastated, which would force commanders to only rely on expensive, high-end air and naval forces to counterattack – dangerously limiting the lethality of their forces. 

This deadly gap has been decades in the making.

For years, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty hamstrung our ability to develop these theater-range ground-launched missiles. It prohibited the United States and Russia – but not China – from deploying those kinds of capabilities anywhere in the world.

The Pentagon would develop concepts for operating these fires, and identify key allies and basing locations to put them to use. The goal is to field credible and affordable combat power across the Pacific, reducing China’s homefield advantage.

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An Indo-Pacific missile strategy should take advantage of geography. While China fields missiles on the mainland, the United States can deploy them across the region with the support of partners and allies. Japan and the Philippines could host shorter-range systems while longer-range systems could be deployed to northern Australia, the Pacific Islands and Alaska. This would establish “rings of fire” that constitute a defense-in-depth across the Pacific.

The United States has some shorter-range capabilities in its arsenal, such as Precision Strike Missiles. But the Biden administration failed to budget for them – with $1 billion of unfunded missile requirements for the Indo-Pacific. This negligence demonstrates a lack of urgency and seriousness in implementing the National Defense Strategy that classifies China as our biggest challenge. 


But it should not only be the United States building and fielding such systems. An Indo-Pacific missile strategy must leverage allies and partners to join in development and production of these systems, reducing the cost to the taxpayer while bolstering interoperability for the warfighter. 

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The Australians have already indicated a willingness to modernize their guided weapons programs and manufacture long-range weapons in-country. Under Pillar II of AUKUS, we can get more bang for our buck by sharing the costs and mutually accelerating our development and production timelines of next-generation missile technologies with our closest allies in the region where they are needed. 

Given the growing risks of great power conflict in the Indo-Pacific, we cannot waste any more time.



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