Construction of China’s massive artificial island bases appears to be progressing rapidly , and is likely to transform the military balance of power in the South China Sea. In an unclassified letter , Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed that the cluster of island bases will provide China with the ability to “deploy a range of offensive and defensive military capabilities,” as well as “significant capacity to quickly project substantial offensive military power to the region.” He also stated that the facilities would likely be “completed by the end of 2016 or early 2017,” a time frame that is now upon us.
In order to maintain the ability to intervene in defense of U.S. national interests in the South China Sea at a reasonable level of risk and cost, the United States needs to rapidly develop innovative plans and tools to deal with these island bases, with timelines measured in months rather than years.
Fortunately, military history has shown that the most effective military innovation usually takes place with just this sort of specific adversary and operational challenge in mind. As the scholars MacGregor Knox and Williamson Murray demonstrate in The Dynamics of Military Revolution, 1300–2050 , the major clusters of innovations that were developed during the interwar period—combined-arms ground warfare, carrier warfare and amphibious warfare—were inspired by the existence of concrete adversaries. Likewise, the Cold War–era first and second offset strategies were intended to exploit U.S. advantages in nuclear weapons and precision-strike, respectively, against the specific challenge of the Soviet army in the European theater. As the U.S. Army and Marine Corps move ahead with their new multi-domain battle concept , the rapid development of China’s artificial island bases presents itself as a looming real-world problem that requires a specific military solution, and soon.
Enter the surface-to-surface missiles that either are or will be in the arsenals of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps: the Army Tactical Missile System ( ATACMS, in service) and Long Range Precision Fires missile ( LRPF, under development with a planned deployment date of 2027). While China has, over the last decade or two, deployed large numbers of precision-strike long-range surface-to-surface ballistic and cruise missiles, the United States has been slower to do so, limited in part by the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty but also by qualms about the employment of non-nuclear ballistic missiles—concerns that the Chinese leadership clearly does not share. As a result, U.S. maritime power projection and large-volume precision-strike concepts have focused mostly on traditional (and relatively expensive) strike platforms such as fighters, long-range bombers and aircraft carriers. The proximity of China’s artificial islands to allied territory, along with the planned greater reach of the LRPF missile, could provide an opportunity for an alternative approach.
Some accounting is in order: first, based on recent export sales figures, individual ATACMS missiles appear to cost approximately $1.1 million each; their associated air-transportable mobile launchers cost approximately $3.5 million apiece. While these missiles would not be appropriate for truly long-range, penetrating-strike or air-sea-control applications, for the particular problem set of “kicking down the door” of China’s artificial island bases, this appears to be a relatively inexpensive solution. This is especially the case when compared to risking other far-more-expensive strike platforms such as $100-million-or-so Joint Strike Fighters or billion-dollar-plus warships, thereby freeing up those assets for deeper strikes or other high-priority operations.
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.