What About Base Hardening?
Another great (and expensive) idea with its own unique set of challenges.
Could U.S. and Allied bases be turned into massive bunkers that have the capability to absorb a Chinese missile barrage and attacks by other means and fire back? Is it practical?
In an interview with John Stillion, a Senior Fellow at CSBA, I asked “How expensive is it to effectively harden a base?” Sources have told me in the past that if the U.S. Department of Defense properly hardened just one large base in the Pacific it would cost "billions and billions of dollars." Stillion replied that:
“It depends on how effective and extensive you want the hardening to be. In general, bases within range of enemy fighter-bombers’ attacks would likely be subject to barrage attacks using ballistic missiles armed with submunitions. These would destroy any unsheltered aircraft and spread millions of sharp metal fragments across the runways and taxiways. This would also prevent any aircraft inside shelters from leaving until a path was cleared through the debris (known as FOD—Foreign Object Damage). This could be a time-consuming and laborious process. In the meantime, the enemy might conduct follow-on attacks using cruise missiles and manned aircraft with precision-guided weapons to target fuel storage, runways and aircraft in their shelters, rendering the base unusable until extensive repairs were undertaken.”
Due to limitations of time and space, this is just one of many possible scenarios when it comes to Chinese calculations of war and peace and what types of strikes Chinese planners would consider if they decided to make the ultimate choice.
While the above description does sound bleak, there is cause for optimism for the U.S. First, one must consider that America is a global superpower with powerful forces spread out all over the planet and not just in Asia. Simply put, the U.S. could quickly begin to amass large amounts of forces around the world after China has used large amounts of ballistic and cruise missiles and begin the counterattack. And keep this mind: if China struck first don’t discount global public opinion and allied contributions to aid America’s counter blow.
Also, as Stillion explained, there are a few ways to blunt such Chinese tactics, but with a caveat:
“The key to operating effectively in the face of a credible precision-strike threat is to find a combination of hardening, dispersal, rapid repair capability, active defenses (like Patriot and THAAD) and distance from the threat that allows sustained, efficient operation of the “sortie factory.” Range is key, because the closer one is to the threat, the greater the weight of fire the adversary can deliver and the harder and more heavily defended the base must be. At some point, if an adversary is capable and competent enough, and the base is close enough, it may not be possible to operate efficiently no matter how hard and heavily defended the base may be.”
No one— including myself— wants to ever see a great power war between the United States and China. The ramifications are too horrific to imagine. Yet, the possibility is there for all of us to see. Walking through an exercise like the above— thinking through what such a calamity would be like — makes the risks all too clear. All the more reason for the Washington and Beijing to find any all mechanisms to lessen the pressure points between them.
Harry J. Kazianis is Executive Editor for The National Interest. This first appeared in 2015.