Amid ongoing efforts by China to alter the status quo in the Indo-Pacific, Washington is preparing to introduce a new series of land-based, long-range cruise missiles in the region to address the growing missile gap with China. Other security partners of the United States, including Taiwan and possibly Japan, have also initiated programs to deploy their own missiles or are considering new opportunities to do so.
According to a special report by Reuters, the White House budget request for 2021 includes provisions to equip US Marines with a land-based version of the Tomahawk long-range cruise missile. Besides land-attack cruise missiles (LACM), the request—which was supported by military commanders during Congressional testimonies in March—also calls for speeding up the delivery of long-range anti-ship missiles (“Naval Strike Missile”) to the region.
Over the past two decades, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has dramatically expanded and modernized its capabilities in the region, with the acquisition, development, and deployment of various naval, aerial, and missile platforms. In the East and South China Sea, the PLA Navy (PLAN) has sought to establish a new status quo through the frequent presence of large displacement vessels equipped with a variety of anti-ship missiles, as well as the introduction of an aircraft carrier. During that period, China’s land-based missile force has greatly improved, both in terms of range and accuracy of delivery, through a combination of short-, medium-, and long-range ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, and artillery. It is estimated that Taiwan alone—a key target of the PLA—faces a missile threat that includes anywhere between 1,500 and 2,000 short- and medium-range ground-to-ground ballistic missiles from the Dong Feng category—including the medium-range DF-16—as well as hundreds of LACMs.
The PLA has also refined its anti-access/area denial (A2AD) capabilities, which are believed to be principally aimed at deterring or countering the US military in the early phases of a regional conflict. China has an estimated three-to-one advantage in cruise missiles over the US within the region.
Changing the Equation
Until recently, the regional response to growing PLA capabilities and assertiveness in the region has been largely passive, allowing China to create new facts on the ground, as it has done to great effect in the South China Sea, over whose expanse of water it claims full sovereignty. At the same time, China has limited itself to improving missile-defense outlays, hardening C4ISR (Command, Control, Communication, Computer, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) architecture and expanding systems redundancy. However, continued Chinese assertiveness and escalating tensions between the United States and China have compelled a reassessment of the allied defensive posture in the Asia-Pacific region. If the above-mentioned White House budget is any indication, there will be a growing focus on counterforce—that is, the ability to strike military targets along coastal areas and deep in the mainland of China. Given the formidable air defenses deployed by China in recent years—thanks in large part to the acquisition of advanced air defense systems from Russia such as the S-400—China’s adversaries have recognized the inherent difficulties in safely penetrating China’s airspace to deliver air-to-ground ordnance and are instead putting a premium on LACMs.
Within the region, Taiwan has taken the lead in developing a counterforce missile capability. Notably, this includes the development by the National Chung-shan Institute of Science and Technology (NCSIST, 國家中山科學研究院) of the Hsiung Feng (“Brave Wind”) 2E LACM, which was mass-produced and deployed beginning in 2011. The missile—which comes in the form of both fixed- and road-mobile launch systems—has an estimated range of 650 km and a payload of 225 kg. Over the years, US opposition to Taiwan’s acquisition or development of purely offensive defense technology has weakened in the face of a growing threat—both in quantitative and qualitative terms—from the PLA. This may explain why Taiwan was able to get away with producing the HF-2E. More recently, Taiwan announced it had test-fired a new variant of the missile, the Yun Feng (“Cloud Peak”) LACM, with a reported range of 1,500 km. The new missile will give Taiwan the ability to strike airports, harbors, and command centers throughout China.
Although the new missiles technically provide Taiwan with the ability to deliver payloads deeper inside China, the US State Department does not appear to have opposed the move—at least not publicly—and, if so, would represent a meaningful shift from its longstanding focus on the transfer of only “defensive” technology. Such an adjustment is arguably defensible on the grounds that, while Taiwan adhered to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) regulations (which restricted Taipei from acquiring the technology necessary to extend the range of its missiles or increase the size of its warheads), China’s missile development and acquisitions were continuing apace and the corrosion in quantitative and qualitative terms of Taiwan’s defense capability relative to that of the PRC necessitated an adjustment in that policy.
In August 2019, US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said that following the US withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that same month, the United States was hoping that conventional, ground-launched, intermediate-range missiles would be deployed in Asia and Europe. As the landmark Cold War treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union prohibited all land-based ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km with both nuclear or conventional warheads, this represented a major development.
Although Japanese Defense Minister Taro Kono downplayed the prospect that Japan could “host” intermediate-range conventional missiles in its territory at the time, new reports in April suggested that Tokyo and Washington were holding discussions on the subject. While government officials in Japan are aware of the potential for domestic opposition to the use of Japanese territory to launch attacks on military bases in a foreign country, the threat perception of China may have mitigated such attitudes over time and made it more feasible for Japan to adopt such a policy. While no such opposition has emerged in Taiwan, some opposition lawmakers within the Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang, KMT) have expressed fears over Taiwan getting “too close” to the Americans or unduly alienating Beijing with a more defiant military posture.
The Post-INF World
The US’ withdrawal from the INF has permitted the testing, in August 2019, of a ground-launched variant of the Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile (the missile has traditionally been ship-launched) using a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System. The Tomahawk missile has a range of approximately 1,600 km. In December 2019, the US Air Force, in conjunction with the Strategic Capabilities Office, also tested a ground-launched ballistic missile.
While the introduction of a few medium-range cruise missiles in the region would not immediately alter the balance of power, a triumvirate of countries—the US, Japan, and Taiwan—equipped with such technology and working in concert could pose a serious challenge to the PLA in the long term. In particular, the three vectors of attack would make it more difficult for China to counter or defend against the threat. A truly optimal, concerted counterforce effort involving US security partners in the region would also factor in the need for intelligence-sharing, using unmanned and satellite imagery, target acquisition, and tracking.
Unsurprisingly, Beijing has reacted angrily to the possibility of a new US missile strategy for the region. In early May, China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that, “recently, the United States has gotten worse, stepping up its pursuit of a so-called ‘Indo-Pacific strategy’ that seeks to deploy new weapons, including ground-launched intermediate-range missiles, in the Asia-Pacific region … China firmly opposes that.”
Critics of the US withdrawal from the INF Treaty and new missile strategy for the Indo-Pacific have argued that this move could spark a new arms race in the region. Lost in this narrative, however, is the fact that a more lax defensive posture over the past decade has allowed China—with tech transfers from Russia—to substantially alter the balance of power in Asia. There is no indication that continuing this strategy would in any way compel decisionmakers in Beijing and within the PLA to shift course. Rather than accede to China’s territorial ambitions regarding Taiwan, the East and South China Sea, the new ground-based LACM strategy represents a necessary—albeit undeniably escalatory—adjustment. Washington’s allowing Taiwan to embark on a medium-range LACM program also suggests that the US Department of Defense is considering a role for Taiwan as part of that new strategy.
The main point: Following its withdrawal from the INF Treaty, the US is testing and considering the deployment of medium-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region to counter China’s growing military. Taiwan and Japan could also join forces in this initiative.