China continues its audacious effort to annex the South China Sea piecemeal by building artificial islands atop the reefs and shoals dotting this vital international waterway. To date, Beijing has built up some 3,200 acres of instant islands in areas hundreds of miles from its territorial waters. Some of these islands now include surface-to-air missile batteries, anti-ship missile batteries and sophisticated radar systems. One of the instant islands features a 10,000-foot airstrip—long enough for bombers and fighter-interceptors. As PACOM commander Adm. Harry Harris concludes, these man-made islands “are clearly military in nature.”
This is all part of China’s anti-access/area-denial strategy—“A2AD” in Pentagon parlance. A2AD is an asymmetric way China can minimize and perhaps even erase America’s maritime edge. As the Pentagon explains, the deployment of missiles and other weapons systems in strategically located spots gives Beijing “the ability to hold large surface ships, including aircraft carriers, at risk” and to “deny use of shore-based airfields, secure bastions and regional logistics hubs.” Indeed, a National Defense University report notes that Beijing could use its growing arsenal of anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) to launch swarm or “saturation” strikes against U.S. assets.
Beijing believes such deployments will “deter or counter third-party intervention, including by the United States,” and, in the event of conflict, “achieve a military solution before outside powers could intervene militarily,” the Pentagon concludes. Indeed, a 2007 study conducted by RAND on behalf of the U.S. Air Force raises the frightening possibility that the People’s Republic of China could effectively defeat the United States in a future conflict by employing anti-access strategies—“actions that would impede the deployment of U.S. forces into the combat theater, limit the locations from which those forces could effectively operate, or force them to operate from locations farther from the locus of conflict than they would normally prefer.”
The bad news is that these made-in-China islands are dramatically expanding Beijing’s A2AD capabilities. The good news is that asymmetric warfare can cut both ways, and American military planners are exploring ways to make A2AD work against Beijing.
Back to the 1800s
Some will argue that Beijing is not trying to lop off part of Venezuela (like Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1902), annexing the Sudeten in the heart of Europe (like Adolf Hitler in 1938) or declaring a sovereign Kuwait “Province 19” (like Saddam Hussein in 1990). But the principle is the same. As they bully weaker neighbors and dot international seaspace with man-made islands, China’s leaders are trying to take what’s not theirs. Munich reminds us it’s better to confront such aggression than to appease it.
Toward that end, Harris revealed in February that he wants to harness Army assets to target threats normally reserved for the Navy. “All the services,” he argues, “will have to exert influence in non-traditional and sometimes unfamiliar domains.”
Specifically, he wants to knit together the Army’s land-based missile defense network and the Navy’s Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air architecture (which defends aircraft carriers) in order to communicate seamlessly and “deliver a missile on target…interchangeably.”
As James Hasík of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security observes, the Army’s High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Paladin mobile howitzers also could play a role in countering Beijing’s A2AD strategy.
Ultimately, Harris wants Navy, Army, Marine and Air Force unit commanders to “be able to create effects from any single domain to targets in every other domain.”
Harris isn’t the first to raise the prospect of using Army assets in the Pacific theater to answer the China challenge. In 2014, speaking in the context of “our ongoing rebalance to the Asia-Pacific,” then-Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called on the Army to “broaden its role by leveraging its current suite of long-range precision-guided missiles, rockets, artillery and air defense systems.” Hagel argued that these capabilities would help harden U.S. installations in the region, enable “greater mobility of Navy Aegis destroyers and other joint force assets,” and ensure the free flow of commerce.
“Such a mission,” he noted, “is not as foreign to the Army as it might seem. After the War of 1812, the Army was tasked with America’s coastal defense for more than 100 years.”
The kernel of this idea comes from a study conducted by researchers at RAND, who proposed in 2013 “using ground-based anti-ship missiles (ASM) as part of a U.S. A2AD strategy” to “challenge Chinese maritime freedom of action should China choose to use force against its island neighbors.”
Importantly, the RAND study points out that the U.S. military would not have to supply all of the weapons systems or military units needed for such an effort. Instead, the U.S. could link several strategically located partner nations—Indonesia, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines—in a regional ASM coalition, with U.S. assets playing a direct role where needed and invited.
“Indonesia and Malaysia have robust arsenals of medium-range ASMs,” according to RAND, and could put at risk Chinese warships transiting the Strait of Malacca. Related, Singapore and the U.S. have a deepening security partnership, and the city-state sits strategically at the entrance of the strait.
ASMs deployed in Taiwan, the Philippines (Luzon) and Japan (Okinawa) “could effectively cover all naval traffic south of Okinawa” as well as the Luzon Strait.
ASMs deployed on the southern tip of South Korea and on Japan’s southernmost home island (Kyushu) could deny Chinese warships freedom of movement further north.
In those instances where U.S. assets are directly deployed, it’s not difficult to imagine a mix of Army artillery, rocket systems, air-defense systems and THAAD batteries; Navy Aegis Ashore batteries; and surface-to-surface ASMs manned by rapid-deployment Marine units standing guard—and reminding Beijing that two can play the A2AD game.
Indeed, such a strategy would have “a significant effect on China’s ability to project power” and “vastly expand the set of military problems that the People’s Liberation Army would face should it consider initiating a conflict with its neighbors or U.S. partner nations,” RAND concludes.
The purpose of a U.S. A2AD strategy would not be to wage war, but quite the opposite: to prevent war. As Washington observed, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace, as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”