There’s an increasing security risk to Guam that eclipses failure-prone North Korea missile launches, a new report warns.
The United States’ military expansions in the Asia-Pacific region have prompted Beijing to develop missile capabilities to target U.S. military facilities, Guam in particular, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission states in a recent report.
The May 10 report mentions that in September last year, China pulled off a surprise by parading, for the first time, a new road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile, the DF-26, which could be fitted with a nuclear warhead.
This missile’s range “would cover U.S. military installations on Guam, roughly … 1,800 miles from the Chinese mainland, prompting some analysts and netizens to refer to the missile as the ‘Guam Express,’ or ‘Guam Killer,’” the report states.
Sixteen “Guam Killer” launchers were seen in last year’s Beijing parade, but the missile likely has serious accuracy limitations, according to the report, quoting numerous sources and experts.
The report recommends fortifying military facilities in Guam, which is home to about 160,000 Americans, U.S. residents and migrants.
As an example, Guam’s Andersen Air Force Base can hold more aircrafts than Kadena Air Base or Misawa Air Base in Japan, and would contribute vitally to overall U.S. regional basing capacity in a contingency, according to the report, quoting RAND, a nonprofit U.S.-based global policy think tank that focuses on defense issues. Global Hawk surveillance planes and rotational bomber aircraft operate out of Andersen.
Guam also hosts a Navy base that homeports several fast-attack submarines.
And the island is expected to host almost 5,000 U.S. Marines in a Marine Corps base that’s expected to be built four years from now.
To help reduce the Guam risk, the U.S. military could also spread out the presence of U.S. personnel and resources to more countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region, or access to an increased number of alternative regional ports and airfields.
The U.S. and the Philippine governments recently signed an agreement that allows U.S. troops to operate out of Philippine military bases on a temporary, rotational basis.
The downside, the report acknowledges, is China could respond with further missile deployments, which would make Asia-Pacific countries reluctant to host U.S. military presence.
“The United States has nonetheless been able to take steps towards this objective, recently securing access to facilities in the Philippines and entering discussions regarding access to airfields in Australia,” the report states.
The report also discusses the need for the United States to invest in “next-generation” missile defense initiatives.
Guam Delegate Madeleine Bordallo, who is seeking re-election, said “while recent actions by China in the East and South China Seas continue to undermine regional stability, I am confident that our current defensive capabilities, partnerships with our Asian and Pacific allies, and diplomatic engagement with China will continue to keep Guam safe.”
“However, we must remain vigilant and ensure that we have the resources to respond to any acts of aggression, not only from China but from countries like North Korea that continue to act irresponsibly,” she said in a press release issued Thursday, May 12.
Current defense system may fall short
The commission’s report states official Chinese commentary at the September 2015 military parade stated the “Guam killer” also has a variety “that can target U.S. aircraft carriers and other vessels as far as Guam,” but its precise range hasn’t been confirmed.
The DF-26 is China’s first conventionally armed ballistic missile capable of reaching Guam, according to the report.
“Its inclusion in the September 2015 parade indicates it has likely been deployed as an operational weapon,” the report states.
Current missile defense systems stationed in Guam, such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, and the upgraded Patriot missile system “may help to an extent, they are intended to stop North Korean missiles,” the report states, quoting experts. The commission report adds these systems “would likely not provide complete protection against a Chinese attack.”
The commission’s report examines the challenges posed to the United States by a crucial aspect of China’s military modernization: its investments in “offensive” missile forces to hold an expanding range of regional targets at risk.
“Several new conventional platforms and weapons systems developed by China in recent years have increased its ability to hold U.S. forces stationed on Guam at risk in a potential conflict,” the report states.
Risk is growing
At this time, the risk is relatively low because of accuracy limitations and platform vulnerabilities, the commission report states, but added “China’s commitment to continuing to modernize its strike capabilities indicates the risk will likely grow going forward.”
“To evaluate China’s ability to strike Guam going forward, the areas that should be monitored most closely are increased deployments of DF-26 ballistic missiles,” the report states.
China’s precision-strike capabilities, including its bomber fleet, mid-air refueling capability and submarine stealth technology also should be watched, the report states.
As Guam gains growing importance to U.S. strategic interests and U.S. war-fighting operations in the Asia-Pacific region, the report states, “China’s ability to strike the island is increasing.”
“Such attacks could hold key U.S. assets stationed on Guam at risk and also disrupt their region-wide response effort, slowing deployment timetables and reducing the effectiveness of U.S. forces in the theater,” the commission’s report states.
“China’s leaders could also be more willing to resort to military force in an existing crisis if they believed they could successfully hold Guam at risk, diminishing the United States’ ability to deter an escalation, although it is difficult to determine the extent to which better operational capabilities influence strategic thinking in Beijing,” the report adds.