The Buzz

The U.S. Army’s Long-Range Missiles Could Be the Perfect Tool to Neutralize China’s Artificial Islands

As another consideration, the INF treaty, by which the United States still abides—for now, at least—but to which China is not a party, prohibits the possession of ground-launched cruise or ballistic missiles with a range of between 500 and 5,500 kilometers. Similarly, the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), a voluntary regime to which the United States also subscribes, restricts the export (by the United States) of missiles and related technologies capable of carrying a payload past three hundred kilometers. As a likely result, the maximum stated range of the current fielded (and exported) version of ATACMS is three hundred kilometers, and the maximum planned range of the next-generation LRPF missile is five hundred kilometers—again, the range limit of the INF Treaty. Luckily for the United States and its allies, China has built all three of its largest artificial island bases within five hundred kilometers of the coast of the Philippines. Mischief Reef, the largest island built so far, and Scarborough Shoal, seized by China from the Philippines in 2012, are both located within three hundred kilometers (see above graphic).

In the event of U.S.-PRC conflict in the South China Sea, one could envision the employment of a low-cost and brutally effective surface-to-surface missile barrage from the Philippine Islands. This campaign would rain down difficult-to-stop mach-3 missiles from road-mobile launchers hidden in the rugged terrain of the Philippines onto China’s painstakingly constructed island bases. Stealthy ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance) platforms such as low-observable drones or submarines (or even drones launched from submarines) could essentially be used as artillery spotters, operating from within China’s anti-air/anti-ship missile umbrella to provide real-time fire direction and battle-damage assessment. The advantages of this concept would include reduced risk associated with keeping high-value, but non-stealthy, strike platforms outside of China’s anti-air and anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles’ coverage areas until after their reduction by U.S. ballistic missile fire.

Of note, ATACMS missiles were similarly used for air-defense suppression during both U.S. invasions of Iraq as a way to strike missile defenses with low risk and reduce the danger to follow-on strike aircraft, and Air Force special-operations forces still train to do so. Additionally, the relatively quick flight time (about ten minutes at the most) and potential speed of targeting (little strike package planning required) could help to negate the current ability of China’s road-mobile missile systems to pack up and move frequently or after detecting an inbound subsonic cruise-missile attack. Given the air-transportability of the latest mobile ATACMS/LRPF launchers, they could rapidly be flown in to deal with this target set.

Given recent outbursts of anti-Americanism by the Philippine head of state, the promulgation of this specific operational concept could help to clarify in the minds of Philippine leadership that a stable relationship, a financial commitment to buy the necessary weapons systems and a commitment on its part to the use of its territory both in peacetime preparation and in time of conflict, would be necessary preconditions to U.S. cooperation to support alliance commitments in the Spratly Islands and at Scarborough Shoal.