Flashpoints | Security | East Asia

US Intermediate-Range Missiles in East Asia: Critical Deterrent or Needless Provocation?

It isn’t clear that the United States necessarily needs land-based intermediate missiles to achieve the missions they are envisioned for.

Steven Stashwick
US Intermediate-Range Missiles in East Asia: Critical Deterrent or Needless Provocation?
Credit: U.S. Department of Defense

Following the United States’ official withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) in August, the Pentagon announced plans to test conventionally armed INF-range cruise and ballistic missiles this fall. The Cold War pact prohibiting land-based missiles with ranges between five hundred and five thousand kilometers, and it was long speculated that the Trump administration’s primary motivation for quitting the treaty had less to do with Russia’s non-compliance than a desire to develop new longer-ranged weapons to counter China’s arsenal of intermediate-range missiles.

This was more or less confirmed when the U.S. Secretary of Defense, Mark Esper, told reporters that he “would like to” deploy intermediate range weapons to the Western Pacific as quickly as possible – in “months” he said, but recognized that was an optimistic timeframe.

Two of the most likely partner countries to host the new weapons, Australia and South Korea, were quick to announce they had no plans or intention of accepting a notional missile deployment. Such a deployment may not be out of the question in the future if they perceive China becoming sufficiently threatening to their security, but for now the United States is developing weapons but may have nowhere in the region to put them.

Missiles like China’s DF-21 and DF-26 caught early notice for their anti-ship variants. These were nicknamed “carrier killers” for the notional ability to target ships from hundreds of miles away or more. But they can also target U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea, and even Guam. In a conflict, the United States fears these missiles could keep its planes on the ground, prevent the repair and resupply of ships and aircraft, and hold warships coming from Hawaii or the west coast far offshore.

Some U.S. analysts say these weapons are key to a “counter-intervention” strategy, that would allow China a free hand to conduct military operations against its neighbors without having to worry about being counterattacked by U.S. forces. Advocates of the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy say that having a robust ring of U.S. intermediate-range missiles to threaten China’s own missile networks are needed to deter it from aggression in the region, such as attempting to seize Taiwan.

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But as threatening as China’s intermediate-range missiles are to U.S. bases in East Asia, those weapons are based on its own territory and do not threaten U.S. sovereign territory, with the exception of the highly-militarized island of Guam. From China’s perspective, it is far more provocative for the United States to base weapons on partner or ally territory in the region that explicitly threaten the Chinese mainland. It is also more challenging for the United States to explain why such weapons are primarily for defense, and to counter persistent Chinese accusations that the United States is trying to contain it.

After Secretary Esper’s remarks, China’s top arms control official, Mr. Fu Cong, excoriated the United States and warned that the decision would have “direct negative impact on global strategic stability.” He said that “China will not stand idly by and will be forced to take counter measures if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range ground-based missiles in this part of the world,” and issued a warning to other countries in the region not to consider hosting any U.S. INF-range missiles “because that will not serve the national security interests of these countries.”

Though conventionally armed, these missiles invoke the same sort of dangerous nuclear “first mover” and “use it or lose it” logic and incentives that terrified Cold War strategists and helped motivate the INF Treaty in the first place. If either the United States or China was concerned that a crisis might escalate into a major clash, each would be incentivized to use their intermediate missiles to destroy the other’s critical sensors, missile batteries, and bases before the other could do the same to them and leave them critically disadvantaged in the conventional fight that followed. Other Cold War strategists worried that high-intensity clashes like this carried a high risk of sparking unintended nuclear escalation if the disadvantaged side felt desperate enough following broad conventional strikes.

This is likely why other countries in the region would be hesitant to permit the U.S. missiles on their territory. Unlike various missile defense systems deployed to places like Japan and South Korea, the proposed intermediate weapons would directly threaten China’s mainland and therefore make any country hosting them targets for Chinese pre-emptive or retaliatory strikes, but not the United States itself. This inequity complicates alliance relations for the United States, because it places much higher risk and cost burdens on the host country than it does on the United States or its forces.

For all these risks, it isn’t clear that the United States necessarily needs land-based intermediate missiles to achieve the missions they are envisioned for. Sea-based and air-launched missiles were not affected by the INF treaty and U.S. warships already patrol the Western Pacific with intermediate-range strike weapons every day, the Tomahawk cruise missile. The United States is already developing other improved long-range strike weapons, including hypersonic weapons with speeds exceeding five times the speed of sound, for its warships, submarines, and aircraft, with some projected to be ready to deploy by the mid-2020s or sooner. There are even land-based systems under development that do not violate the INF Treaty terms. Because artillery systems weren’t affected by the treaty, the U.S. Army began developing a “strategic” cannon envisioned to fire a guided, rocket-assisted shell at targets thousand miles away or more.

China certainly isn’t pleased by the U.S. weapons systems, but none have generated the strident official response that the INF announcement has, implying that the United States could achieve its operational and deterrent objectives with other, less provocative systems with less apparent risk of inadvertent escalation in a crisis. If the United States does proceed with developing land-based intermediate range systems, which is not a given, due to resistance in some parts of the U.S. Congress to authorize the necessary funding, it could always keep them in reserve outside the region, deploying them only in response to an evolving crisis, when U.S. allies might be more amenable to host them.