Not long after the U.S. formally withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper announced plans to develop ground-based relevant-range missiles and deploy them to Asia as early as possible. As a matter of fact, the U.S. Army has been planning for short-range (500-999 km), medium-range (1,000-2,999 km) and intermediate-range (3,000-5,500 km) missiles since 2013 and already has several options to work with.
For example, the technology of ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missiles is relatively sophisticated and may be used in the field within 18 months. The US Army’s ongoing project to develop the Precision Strike Missile, a missile with a maximum range that is claimed to be 499 km, would be an easy foundation to build off of, increasing the rocket’s range and energy. These missiles are scheduled to replace the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) between 2023 to 2025. Other ballistic and cruise missiles with an extended range will take longer time to develop and deploy (estimated at around 10 years), and hypersonic boost-glide missiles are more complex and will require a longer period to be developed.
Where could the U.S. place those missiles? If we use distance as our measure, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines could serve as the first line; the Marianas, Guam, Palau, and Australia would constitute the second line; and Alaska and Hawaii would be the third line. Due to the right of access, U.S. owned territory will be the most convenient, as most U.S. allies are reluctant to have such dangerous weapons placed on their soil. It can be expected that the U.S. will try to win these countries over. Indeed, Esper’s first international trip as the 27th U.S. Secretary of Defense was a visit to Asia-Pacific allies and partners.
U.S. deployment of intermediate-range missiles in Asia will have a negative impact on regional security.
In peacetime, such deployments will enhance U.S. military presence and induce an arms race. The deepened “footprint” of the U.S. armed forces in Asia would not only elevate their capabilities of forward operations, but also demonstrate that the U.S. has fulfilled its security commitments to its allies, thus emboldening anti-China forces. Although China objects to arms race, the existence of those offensive missiles at its doorsteps is analogous to a dagger at the throat. China will be forced to build expensive missile defense systems in response. According to estimates, the ratio of the costs between interceptors and incoming missiles is 3:1, excluding the price of the investment in radars and launchers.
During crises, the presence of U.S. intermediate-range missiles will not only enhance America’s deterrence posture but it will also facilitate its interference in the internal affairs of others, imposing its will on others. Compared to sea-based and air-based missiles of similar ranges, the response time and lethality of ground-based ones yields no significant difference; however, the price of land-based missiles is much cheaper. Therefore, ground-based intermediate-range missiles are expendable. At the time of a crisis, even if U.S. ships and aircraft withdraw away from the so-called “anti-access/area denial” challenges, the presence of land-based missiles can still bolster the effect of U.S. coercion.
In wartime, ground-based intermediate-range missiles will add cheap and handy instruments to the U.S. military toolbox, tipping the balance in American favor.
First, the U.S. side might tend to launch a pre-emptive attack. Though many U.S. official documents have required its armed forces to resist initiating the first round of strikes, in the post-INF era such a military doctrine might be changed. According to a Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) report, solid-fueled, road-mobile ballistic and boost-glide missiles are ideal first-strike weapons because not only are they difficult to identify and track but also because they can be launched with little warning time, hitting targets within 10 to 15 minutes.
Second, the U.S. military — along with its allies and partners — might tend to block international sea lines of communication (SLOCs). Compared to naval fleets — especially aircraft carrier battle groups — land-based anti-ship intermediate-range missiles enjoy high operational flexibility and cost effectiveness. The missiles can reduce the ability of adversaries to make use of offshore waters to conduct operations. In particular, when coordinated with sea-based and air-based platforms, ground-based intermediate-range strike forces can take firm control of international waterways and enhance U.S. capabilities for maritime denial and sea control.
Third, a conventional armed conflict has the chance to escalate into a nuclear war. The international community might still be concerned about U.S. Department of Defense’s decision to develop low-yield nuclear warheads in the Nuclear Posture Review released in February 2018, which inevitably lowers the nuclear threshold. Even worse, an intermediate-range missile is perfectly suitable for a low-yield nuclear warhead. Under the duress of war, the defending nation may find it difficult to distinguish a missile carrying a conventional warhead from that carrying a nuclear payload, and could mistake an incoming missile salvo for a nuclear attack and respond with its own nuclear arsenal. Thus, conventional strikes could potentially trigger nuclear escalation.
Fourth, the region might be dragged into a protracted war. The new edition of National Defense Strategy demands the U.S. armed forces to be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable with a dynamic force posture. The ground-based mobile missiles, together with prepositioned forward stocks and munitions in a network of hidden or heavily fortified depots, might be able to sustain a campaign for an extended period of time. For defense, maneuverable missile batteries could evade hostile strikes; for offense, rapidly replenished missile units could be lethal.
Against the backdrop that the U.S. armed forces still enjoy absolute superiority in many areas, ground-based intermediate-range missiles — conventional or nuclear — are hazardous toys. Remember: if you play with fire, you will get burned.