While Washington and Beijing trade barbs against the coronavirus pandemic, a longer-term struggle between the two Pacific powers is at a turning point as the United States introduces new weapons and strategies to fill a large missile gap with China.
The United States has largely conceded in recent decades when China has dramatically expanded its military firepower. After lifting the restrictions on an arms control treaty from the Cold War era, the Trump administration is now planning to use long-range, ground-launched missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Pentagon intends to arm its Marines with versions of the Tomahawk cruise missiles that are now being carried on US warships. This emerges from the White House budget proposals for 2021 and statements from Congress in March by senior U.S. military commanders. It is also accelerating the delivery of its first new long-range anti-ship missile in decades.
In a statement to Reuters about recent US moves, Beijing called on Washington to "be careful in word and deed," "to stop moving chess pieces in the region," and "to stop playing its military muscles in China."
The U.S. measures are aimed at countering China's overwhelming advantage in land-based cruises and ballistic missiles. The Pentagon also intends to regain China's leadership in what strategists call a "reach war." The People's Liberation Army (PLA), China's military, has built a huge rocket force that largely outperforms the U.S. and its regional allies, high-ranking U.S. commanders and Pentagon strategic advisors who have warned of China a clear advantage with these weapons.
And in a radical change in tactics, the Marines, along with the U.S. Navy, will attack an enemy warships. Small and mobile units of US Marines armed with anti-ship missiles are becoming ship killers.
In a conflict, these units are distributed to key points in the western Pacific and along the so-called first chain of islands, commanders said. The first island chain is a series of islands that extend from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines to Borneo and include China's coastal seas.
Top US military commanders explained the new tactic to Congress in a series of budget hearings in March. The U.S. Marine Corps commander, General David Berger, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee on March 5 that small units of Marines armed with precision missiles could help the U.S. Navy gain control of the ocean, in particular in the western Pacific. "The Tomahawk missile is one of the tools we can use to do that," he said.
The Tomahawk, first made famous when it was mass-launched during the Gulf War in 1991, has been used on U.S. warships and used to attack land targets in recent decades. The Marines would test the cruise missiles by 2022 to make them operational the following year, senior Pentagon commanders said.
Initially, a relatively small number of land-based cruise missiles will not change the balance of power. However, such a shift would send a strong political signal that Washington is preparing to compete with China's massive arsenal, senior US and other Western strategists. In the longer term, a larger number of these weapons combined with similar Japanese and Taiwanese missiles would pose a serious threat to the Chinese armed forces. The greatest immediate threat to the PLA comes from new long-range anti-ship missiles that are now being used on US Navy and Air Force strike aircraft.
"Americans are coming back strong," said Ross Babbage, a former senior Australian defense official and now a non-resident of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a security research group. "By 2024 or 2025, the PLA is at serious risk that its military developments will be out of date."
A Chinese military spokesman, Lt. Col. Wu Qian, warned last October that Beijing would "not be ready" if Washington deployed long-range land-based missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.
China's State Department has accused the United States of "maintaining its Cold War mentality" and "steadily increasing military activity in the region."
"The United States has recently deteriorated and has stepped up its pursuit of a so-called" Indo-Pacific strategy "aimed at deploying new weapons, including medium-range ground-based missiles, in the Asia-Pacific region." Ministry said in a statement to Reuters. "China is decidedly against it."
The Pentagon spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn, said he would not comment on statements by the Chinese government or the PLA.
US MILITARY UNSHACKLED
As the corona virus pandemic rages, Beijing has increased its military pressure on Taiwan and its exercises in the South China Sea. According to the Taiwan Ministry of Defense, the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning led a flotilla of five other warships through Miyako Strait northeast of Taiwan to the western Pacific on April 11. On April 12, Chinese warships exercised in waters east and south of Taiwan, the ministry said.
In the meantime, the U.S. Navy was forced to tie up the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt in Guam as it struggled to contain a coronavirus outbreak under the crew of the giant warship. However, the U.S. Navy managed to maintain a strong presence off the Chinese coast. The guided missile destroyer USS Barry crossed the Taiwan Strait twice in April. And the amphibious assault ship USS America, which was trained in the East China Sea and South China Sea last month, said the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.
In a series last year, Reuters reported that while the United States had been distracted by nearly two decades of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the U.S. had built a missile force to attack the aircraft carriers, other surface warships, and a network of bases on the backbone of American power in Asia. During this time, Chinese shipyards built the world's largest navy, which is now able to dominate the country's coastal waters and keep the U.S. armed forces at bay.
The series also showed that China's missiles in most categories are now competing with or surpassing those in the U.S. Alliance's armories.
China had benefited from the fact that it was not a party to a Cold War-era contract – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – that gave the U.S. and Russia possession of ground-launched ballistic missiles and cruise missiles with a range of 500 kilometers to prohibited 5,500 kilometers. Unrestricted by the INF Pact, China has estimated that around 2,000 of these weapons have been used by the United States and other western countries.
While building up its missile forces on land, the PLA equipped its warships and strike planes with powerful long-range anti-ship missiles.
This accumulated firepower has shifted the regional balance of power in favor of China. The United States, the dominant military force in Asia for a long time, can no longer rely on victory in a military clash in waters off the Chinese coast, according to senior US military officers.
But President Donald Trump's decision last year to withdraw from the INF treaty has given American military planners new scope. Almost immediately after resigning from the pact on August 2, the government signaled that it would respond to China's missile force. The next day, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said he would like ground missiles to be deployed in Asia within months, but he admitted it would take longer.
Later that month, the Pentagon tested a Tomahawk ground-based cruise missile. A ground-launched ballistic missile was tested in December. The INF treaty banned such ground-launched weapons, and therefore both tests would have been prohibited.
A senior Marines commander, Lieutenant General Eric Smith, informed the Senate Armed Forces Committee on March 11 that the Pentagon leadership had instructed the Marines to "very quickly" deploy a ground-launched cruise missile.
The budget documents show that the Marines have requested $ 125 million to purchase 48 Tomahawk rockets from next year. According to the manufacturer Raytheon Company, the Tomahawk has a range of 1,600 km.
Smith said the cruise missiles may not ultimately prove to be the most suitable weapon for the Marines. "It may be a little too difficult for us," he told the Senate Armed Forces Committee, but the experience from the tests could be transferred to the army.
Smith also said the Marines had successfully tested a new short-range anti-ship weapon, the Naval Strike Missile, from a ground cannon and would conduct another test in June. He said if the test was successful, the Marines would order 36 of these missiles by 2022. The U.S. Army is also testing a new land-based long-range missile that can target warships. This rocket would have been banned under the INF treaty.
The Marine Corps said in a statement it was evaluating the Naval Strike Missile to attack ships and the Tomahawk to attack targets on land. After all, the Marines wanted to set up a system "that could attack long-range targets on land or at sea," the statement said.
The Department of Defense is also researching new long-range strike weapons, with a $ 3.2 billion budget for hypersonic technology, mainly for missiles.
China's State Department made a distinction between the PLA's missile arsenal and the planned U.S. deployment. China's missiles are "on its territory, particularly short-range and medium-range missiles, which cannot reach the mainland of the United States. This is fundamentally different from the United States, which are vigorously advancing its deployment."
FILL CHINA'S NAVY
Military strategists James Holmes and Toshi Yoshihara suggested almost a decade ago that the first island chain was a natural barrier that could be used by the American military to help build the Chinese Navy. Ground-based anti-ship missiles could command important passages through the chain of islands in the western Pacific to keep the fast-growing Chinese navy in bottles, they suggested.
With this strategy, Washington is trying to bring Chinese tactics back to the PLA. Senior U.S. commanders have warned that China's land-based cruises and ballistic missiles would make it difficult for U.S. and Allied navies to operate near Chinese coastal waters.
However, the use of ground-based US and Allied missiles in the island chain would pose a similar threat to Chinese warships – ships in the South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea, or ships attempting to break out in the western Pacific. Japan and Taiwan have already used ground-based anti-ship missiles for this purpose.
"We need to be able to close the straits," said Holmes, a professor at US Naval War College. "We can actually ask them if they want Taiwan or the sinkers so much that their economy and armed forces are cut off from the western Pacific and the Indian Ocean. Most likely, the answer is no."
Holmes referred to the uninhabited archipelago in the East China Sea – known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China – that are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.
The United States faces challenges in plugging in the first island chain. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's decision to distance himself from the United States and build closer ties with China is a potential obstacle to American plans. US forces may face obstacles to the operation of strategically important islands in the Philippine archipelago after Duterte abolished an important security agreement with Washington in February.
And if U.S. forces are deployed in the first island chain with anti-ship missiles, some U.S. strategists believe that this will not be critical since the Marines would be prone to Chinese military strikes.
The United States has other counterweights. The firepower of U.S. Air Force long-range bombers could pose a greater threat to Chinese forces than the Marines, strategists said. The secret B-21 bomber, which is said to be put into service in the middle of this decade armed with long-range missiles, could be particularly effective.
The Pentagon is already increasing the firepower of its existing strike planes in Asia. US Navy Super Hornet jets and Air Force B-1 bombers are now armed with early deliveries of Lockheed Martin's new long-range anti-ship missile. The new missile will be used in response to an "urgent operational need" from the US Pacific Command, the documents say.
The new missile carries a 450-kilogram warhead and is capable of "semi-autonomous" aiming, which means that it can control itself depending on the budget requirements. Details of the range of the camouflaged cruise missiles are classified. But U.S. and other Western military officials estimate that they can hit targets over 800 kilometers away.
The budget documents show that the Pentagon is targeting $ 224 million to order another 53 of these missiles in 2021. The U.S. Navy and Air Force expect more than 400 of them to be deployed by 2025, as projected in the documents.
This new anti-ship missile is based on an existing Lockheed long-range land attack weapon, the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile. The Pentagon is asking for $ 577 million next year to order another 400 of these land attack missiles.
"The U.S. and Allied focus on long-range land attack and anti-ship cruise missiles was the fastest way to rebuild conventional long-range firepower in the western Pacific," said Robert Haddick, former U.S. Marine Corps officer and now a visitor a senior fellow at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia.
For the U.S. Navy in Asia, Super Hornet jets operating from aircraft carriers and armed with the new anti-ship missile would significantly increase firepower and allow expensive warships to operate further from potential threats, say US and other western military officials.
Current and retired U.S. Navy officers have urged the Pentagon to equip American warships with long-range anti-ship missiles that would allow them to compete with the latest heavily armed Chinese cruisers, destroyers, and frigates. Lockheed has said that it has successfully launched one of the new long-range anti-ship launch vehicle-type missiles used on U.S. and Allied warships.
Haddick, one of the first to draw attention to China's firepower advantage in his 2014 book, Fire on the Water, said the Chinese missile threat had given the Pentagon new strategic considerations and budgets that are now aimed at preparing for high-tech conflicts with powerful nations like China.
Haddick said the new missiles are critical to America's and its allies' defense plans in the western Pacific. The gap will not close immediately, but firepower would gradually improve, said Haddick. "This is especially true for the next half a decade or more as successor hypersonic and other classified ammunition designs complete their long development, test, production, and deployment periods," he said.
(This story was not edited by NDTV staff and is generated automatically from a syndicated feed.)