American bases are easy targets for Chinese missiles

FOR YEARS American commanders have anxiously watched the military balance in Asia moving against them. In 2018 a commission tasked with scrutinising American defence strategy warned that in a war with China, “Americans could face a decisive military defeat.” On March 4th Admiral Philip Davidson, head of America’s Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM), said that China would achieve “overmatch” within five years.

That prospect has roused Congress. In December it authorised a $2.2bn fund, the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI), to shore up INDOPACOM. It is modelled on a similar effort to upgrade defences for American forces in Europe. Now American commanders in Asia have asked Congress to double funding for the initiative, with $4.7bn in 2021-22—more than the defence budget of the Philippines—and $22.7bn in additional funds over the five years to 2027. In a report published on March 1st they explained how they would spend such a windfall.

America has plenty of troops, planes and ships. The issue is where to put them. The heart of America’s military predicament in Asia is that in any conflict it would rely on a handful of large bases, notably in Japan and South Korea, well within range of China’s huge arsenal of conventional missiles (see map). American commanders want to use the PDI to harden their defences, spread out forces more widely and develop new ways of putting China on the back foot.

The centrepiece of these efforts is Guam, a tiny island in Micronesia that INDOPACOM describes as “our most crucial operating location in the western Pacific.” The island is close enough to China to use as a springboard for bombers and other weapons, yet distant enough—almost 5,000km from the Chinese mainland—to be out of range of China’s most numerous missiles. Conveniently, it is also American territory, so commanders could use it without haggling with allies. A new Marine Corps base on Guam that opened in October is the corps’ first in Asia since 1952.

The problem is that Guam—and its 180,000 residents—remains acutely vulnerable to low-flying cruise missiles that China could fire from ships, subs and bombers. INCOPACOM therefore wants to spend almost $4.4bn over six years to upgrade the island’s air and missile defences, in part through new radar systems on satellites, as well as a radar system on the ground in Palau, an archipelago 1,300km to the south-west. (Palau is an independent country, but America used to administer it on behalf of the United Nations, and remains in a “compact of free association” with it, whereby America can maintain a military presence and other countries cannot.)

But if American bases in Japan and South Korea are peppered with missiles, Guam may not suffice. Troops will need more places to disperse. Admiral Davidson says that America is therefore “adapting from our historic…focus on Northeast Asia and Guam” towards a “distributed” force spread out more widely. To that end, he wants to spend $9bn over six years building and upgrading runways, fuel stores and arms depots, among other infrastructure, all across the region. Potential sites include American territories, such as Tinian in the Northern Marianas; islands in countries with military compacts with America, such as Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia, and other, as-yet-unspecified countries in East Asia and the Pacific.

The point of this dispersal is not simply to hunker down and wait for an onslaught, but also to give China a taste of its own medicine. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty in 2019 means that America is free to build conventional land-based missiles with a range of over 500km. The PDI sets aside $3.3bn over six years for such missiles, which would be aimed at China’s navy.

The catch is that not many countries are enthused by the prospect of hosting American missiles in peacetime or becoming a refuge for American troops in the middle of a shooting war. Singapore, for instance, is a strategic naval hub, but would come under intense Chinese pressure to deny use of its territory to America in a conflict.

Euan Graham, an expert at the Singapore branch of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a think-tank, says that America would benefit from a return to Subic Bay in the Philippines, which it left in 1992, to “plug a gap between Singapore and Japan”. But he says that is not likely until Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ mercurial president, leaves office next year, if at all. Pentagon insiders argue that China’s aggressive behaviour will eventually persuade Asian countries to open up to American forces. Optimistic observers reckon that even Vietnam, America’s cold-war foe, may welcome back American troops in a decade or so. Others think that outlandish.

In the meantime, INDOPACOM wants to lubricate relations with cash. More than $2.6bn is earmarked for training and equipping friends in the region over six years. That is sorely needed: last year China’s defence budget grew by $12bn, more than every other Asian country combined, according to recent calculations by IISS. INDOPACOM has also requested $4bn for a grand series of joint exercises, Operation Pacific Resolve, which will “demonstrate the ability to mass forces quickly multiple times a year”.

For now, this remains a wish list. America’s defence spending is not expected to grow this year and, whereas the European Deterrence Initiative came out of a special Pentagon slush fund, the PDI must be carved out of the main budget. Admiral Davidson plaintively points out that his request is “less than seven-tenths of 1%” of defence spending. What is pocket change for the Pentagon would make a splash in the Pacific.