Key Point: Conflict in the Western Pacific cannot and will not be a long-range missile duel.
China is building a formidable conventional military with a heavy reliance on a mix of air and missile defenses and long-range conventional and nuclear missiles. There are growing concerns that large U.S. naval platforms, particularly aircraft carriers, will be excessively vulnerable if they attempt to enter the range rings of Chinese anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles. This so-called Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) threat has senior U.S. defense officials looking to fight Chinese threats to American friends and allies in the Western Pacific from stand-off distances, 1,000 miles or more from the contested territory. Adopting such a strategy would be a profound political and operational mistake.
U.S. competitors, particularly Russia and China, are building large-scale networks of anti-access and area denial capabilities intended to deny U.S. air and naval forces access to Eastern Europe and the islands of the Western Pacific. As a result, according to many experts, U.S. military capabilities—particularly major platforms and fixed installations—will be vulnerable to long-range missiles strikes. Hence, U.S. power projection forces would be required to operate at great distances from the actual theaters of war, forced to conduct a “rollback” campaign to degrade the adversary’s A2/AD network, prior to seeking to move forward to liberate territories the adversary has occupied. Because of their advantages in proximity to their targets and local military superiority, Russia and China could realize their operational objectives before the U.S. could even implement a strategy of employing long-range fires to degrade opposing A2/AD networks.
So convinced are the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps that long-range missiles will dominate future conflict that they are prepared to cede the Western Pacific to China at the start of a conflict. The Navy has a new surface warfare strategy called Distributed Lethality to fight from afar based on dispersed formations across a wide expanse of geography. The Marine Corps is pursuing a new approach to amphibious warfare based on the belief that the proliferation of A2/AD threats makes large-scale forcible entry operations a thing of the past.
There are five reasons why a great-power conflict in the Western Pacific cannot and will not be a long-range missile duel. Instead, it will be an in-close knife fight.
1. The territories both sides value are on or along the Eurasian landmass:
Major U.S. allies and friends in the region, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines and Taiwan, lie close to the Asian mainland. The so-called First Island Chain, the basic line of defense against any attempt by Beijing to dominate the region, includes territory belonging to several of these countries. If it can control this island chain, China will be able to intimidate, coerce and even dominate these countries. If the U.S. wants allies and friends in the Western Pacific to stand up to Chinese threats, it must be clear that this country will stand with them. This means sharing in their defense from forward positions.
If China wishes to dominate the Western Pacific, it must control the First Island Chain. If the U.S. wants to deter China and protect its allies in the region, it must defend those same islands.
2. U.S. great power adversaries are poised for quick successes at short range:
Time and distance favor U.S. adversaries. Their strategy is to conduct a rapid assault on key terrain and then consolidate those gains while employing their A2/AD assets to hold the U.S. at bay. If successful, such an offensive will fracture U.S. alliances and pressure friendly nations in the Western Pacific, at a minimum, to align themselves with Beijing.
The realities of time and distance will work against any U.S. effort to defend its friends and allies or retake lost terrain when operating across the vast space of the Pacific. Simply put, China can reinforce faster than the U.S. can move forces and supplies across the Pacific.
3. The U.S. military lacks the resource base to win a protracted campaign to retake lost terrain:
Beyond the difficulty of trying to deter China from attempting a “smash and grab” assault on a U.S. ally from a distance, the U.S. lacks the forces and weapons inventory to support a protracted campaign to roll-back Chinese A2/AD capabilities and mount a counter-offensive to liberate seized territory. Deterring Chinese aggression means denying it any options for a quick, “bloodless” victory.
4. Reports of the effectiveness of the A2/AD threat have been greatly exaggerated:
Simply put, reports on the effectiveness of the Chinese A2/AD threat have been greatly exaggerated. As my colleague, Dr. Loren Thompson, recently argued, U.S. aircraft carriers are not nearly as vulnerable to Chinese anti-ship missies as some reports have suggested. The People’s Liberation Army lacks the robust intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities and command-and-control (C2) systems necessary to conduct an effective strike campaign against mobile forces. Long-range sensors and C2 nodes are vulnerable to attack particularly by fifth-generation platforms armed with advanced air-to-ground weapons. Without its eyes and ears, China’s A2/AD systems would be severely compromised.
5. The U.S. and its Allies can win the close-in fight:
A forward-positioned defense based on the First Island Chain and supported by U.S. and allied forces operating across the Pacific is best suited to deter Beijing’s aggression and, should deterrence fail, defeat Chinese power projection forces. As a number of studies have shown, a mix of land-based long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and fifth-generation aircraft operating from an array of expedient bases on the First Island Chain, can significantly complicate Chinese offensive targeting while conducting a lethal campaign against high-value Chinese platforms and fixed installations. Fixed installations can be rendered more resilient as well as defended against missile attacks.
Countering great power A2/AD threats, whether in Europe or the Western Pacific, will require an array of assets. But deterring or defeating Russian and Chinese threats to U.S. friends, allies and interests must be based, first and foremost, on a robust, highly lethal and survivable forward deployment of U.S. forces.
Dan Gouré, Ph.D., is a vice president at the public-policy research think tank Lexington Institute. Goure has a background in the public sector and U.S. federal government, most recently serving as a member of the 2001 Department of Defense Transition Team. You can follow him on Twitter at @dgoure and the Lexington Institute @LexNextDC. Read his full bio here.
This article first appeared in 2019 and is reprinted due to reader interest.