The U.S. Army’s new long-range attack missile recently completed its longest test-launch yet, flying around 400 kilometers. The Precision Strike Missile will replace another aging truck-mounted missile. Since the United States left the Cold War-era Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty in 2019, it is no longer prohibited from deploying ground-launched missiles with ranges greater than 500 kilometers, and the Army’s new strike missile is expected to be tested beyond that range later this summer.
The U.S. Army is intent on carving out an expanded role for itself in the Pacific and posturing itself to effectively deter a potential conflict with China, despite the largely maritime region’s traditional dominance by the U.S. Navy and Air Force.
To that end, early versions of the Precision Strike Missile will be able to target ships when it is deployed in 2023. To support the U.S Navy in establishing control over the seas by threatening adversary warships is something of a reversal of roles for the army, which traditionally has been supported by the navy against targets ashore. The multitude of islands, archipelagos and peninsulas in east and southeast Asia, however, means that the army might credibly help defend allied shores, or close narrow straits against Chinese fleets attempting to pass through the first island chain and break out into the wider Pacific Ocean.
This mission may find more ready partners willing to host U.S. Army units armed with mobile batteries of anti-ship missiles since it is more inherently defensive. While the range of extended-range variants of the Precision Strike Missile are not public, from most points along the first island chain, it would need to reach well beyond 500 kilometers to effectively strike targets on China’s mainland. This means that while the missile might credibly be used to threaten Chinese ships, its limited threat to China’s territory similarly limits the weapon’s provocativeness. Therefore, the missile’s deployment could become more politically palatable for allies and partners in the region who are not eager to encourage potential preemptive attacks by China’s military on their territory, even if against American military targets.
But the U.S. Army’s operational ambitions are greater than as a supporting player to the navy and air force.
Senior U.S. Army leaders, including the new commander of army forces in the Pacific, penned a recent essay outlining the contribution they believe the army can make in the region, and its centrality to both successful deterrence and any potential combat campaign in the region. They concluded that despite the Pacific’s predominantly maritime geography, “war is won, and peace is preserved, on land.”
To that end, the army envisions deploying even longer-ranged weapons to the Pacific that are capable of threatening and striking Chinese targets on land, at-sea, and in the air, “at strategic distances,” as the two generals put it, using land-based weapon systems. These weapons, such as the army’s ground-launched hypersonic missile, are much more politically fraught. The likelihood of finding a geographically relevant host-country willing to invite Chinese strikes on those weapons in a crisis with the United States is uncertain at best.
But despite the U.S. Navy’s long parochial dominance in the Pacific, the centrality of land is not an entirely new observation about the nature of war, or even the maritime contribution to it. British strategist Julian Corbett, considered one of the foundational sea power theorists along with Alfred Thayer Mahan, was unambiguous about the proper object of a conflict and what proper role of navies was in them. “Since men live upon the land and not upon the sea,” he wrote, wars would always be decided by armies on land or the threat of what an army might do on land. The crucial role of navies, he believed, was to enable and support land forces to achieve their missions ashore.
The difference now is that the two competing Pacific powers are also nuclear powers, a dynamic that makes the prospect of U.S. and Chinese troops facing each other much more dangerous and raises the question of where in Asia Corbett’s strategic advice remains relevant at politically acceptable costs.