The Buzz

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

Ideally, the quiet but relentless pursuit of a disproportionately cost-imposing operational plan to neutralize China’s island bases might have a much-needed deterrent effect on plans to continue to militarize them. While the United States has already demonstrated the ability to deploy ATACMS to the Philippines, Manila has shown interest in buying the system and development of the LRPF missile has been quite public, the resulting potential peril to China’s island bases could be made more explicit. For example, additional deterrent value could be gained by the demonstration of rapid and large-scale joint deployment (via U.S. Air Force heavy lift) of Marine and Army ATACMS units, with large numbers of missile reloads brought in by Navy high-speed logistics ships into austere port facilities—as they might have to be in the face of China’s own land-attack ballistic and cruise missiles.

Just as important, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps should radically accelerate the development and large-scale purchase of the LRPF missile, which, at current pace, is years from operational deployment. The United States should also demonstrate, to both our allies and to China, that in the case of a unilateral U.S. intervention from offshore to uphold maritime rule of law or freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, these missiles could even be fired from logistics vessels or any other platform with an open deck that can carry a truck-mounted launcher. Perhaps the United States should also consider a specific waiver to the current U.S. policy on submunitions to support their use against China’s artificial islands, which, after all, were built from scratch as isolated facilities with no native civilian population. In any case, the timeline for action is short.

For quite a while now, U.S. policymakers and planners have spent much time and effort—and, as stated by Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John M. Richardson, sometimes too much—fretting about the range arcs representing China’s various counterintervention systems. In this case, China may have erred by putting massive resources and political capital into building island bases that could happen to reside within range of near-future U.S. surface-to-surface missile systems. The accelerated development and employment of the Army and Marine Corps’ ballistic missiles for this problem set could provide an opportunity to force China’s planners and policymakers to start drawing some unsettling range arcs of their own.

Thomas Shugart is a senior military fellow at the Center for a New American Security and a submarine warfare officer in the U.S. Navy. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and do not represent the official position of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Image Credit: 300 km (limit of Missile Technology Control Regime) and 500 km (INF Treaty limit) range arcs from main Philippine islands. Google Earth.

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