US faces uphill challenges to deploy ground-based missiles in Asia

TOKYO — None of the U.S.’s five treaty allies in Asia — the Philippines, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Thailand are reportedly unlikely to agree to host American ground-based intermediate-range missiles, a new RAND Corp. report has found.

Such missiles are considered central to Washington’s strategy to pierce Chinese defenses, should it one day have to defend Taiwan from a Chinese invasion.

“Finding an ally willing to host GBIRMs is more challenging than finding allies willing to host other types of U.S. military forces, such as air bases,” RAND senior political scientist Jeffrey Hornung wrote in the report.

It is “highly unlikely” that Thailand, the Philippines or South Korea would agree to host such missiles, and there is only a “small likelihood” that either Australia or Japan would, despite the recent eagerness of both countries to strengthen defense ties with the U.S., he said in the report for the California-based global policy think tank.

He said this likelihood may force the US military to seriously “rethink” its options and strategy.

In a six-year investment plan submitted to Congress February last year, the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific Command made it clear that ground-based weapons will be crucial in breaking through China’s defense systems.

The command needs “highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the first island chain, featuring increased quantities of ground-based weapons,” the request said, referring to the chain of islands that span the Japanese mainland, Okinawa, Taiwan and the Philippines.

“These networks must be operationally decentralized and geographically distributed along the western Pacific archipelagoes,” the document said.

Such a distribution would allow the Indo-Pacific Command to “reverse an adversary’s anti-access and aerial-denial (A2/AD) capabilities that limit U.S. freedom of action or access to vital waterways and airspace,” it said.

A2/AD refers to China’s strategy of combining ships, missiles and sensors to prevent adversaries from approaching its shores. Especially worrying for American commanders is China’s estimated arsenal of 1,250 ground-based intermediate-range missiles. The U.S. has none.

This gap is due to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the U.S. and Russia, which banned the development of ground-based missiles with ranges between 500 km and 5,500 km.

The U.S. withdrawal from the INF Treaty in August 2019, however, has created the opportunity to develop and deploy such assets in the Indo-Pacific region.

Yet, an American strategy that relies heavily on an ally saying “yes” to permanently hosting ground-based missiles during peacetime would “face serious risks of failure” due to an inability to find a willing partner, Hornung wrote.

On Thailand, it said the military-backed regime, which ousted a democratically elected government in 2014, was a stumbling block. Furthermore, the inclination of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha’s government to pursue closer ties with China prevents the U.S. from strengthening military relations with it, it noted.

In the case of the Philippine, outgoing President Rodrigo Duterte, has brought his nation closer to China, making it difficult for the U.S. to consider the country as a candidate to host ground-based missiles. The U.S. has not had a large-scale military presence in the Philippines since it was forced to shut down and leave Clark Air Force Base and Subic Bay Naval Station in the early 1990s. As of December 2021, the total number of U.S. military personnel in the Philippines was only 190.

The country’s incoming president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., has recognized the importance of Manila’s defense alliance with Washington but he has also stressed the need to be “friends with everyone” amid the U.S.-China power rivalry.

“We are a small player amongst very large giants in terms of geopolitics. So we have to ply our own way,” Marcos said after his election win this month.

“I do not subscribe to the old thinking of the Cold War, where we have these spheres of influence, where we are under the Soviet Union or we are under the United States. I think that we just find an independent foreign policy, where we are friends with everyone,” he said, raising alarm bells in Washington.

With amphibious assault ship USS Bonhomme Richard as a backdrop, sailors aboard the dock landing ship USS Germantown conducted a landing craft utility operations in the ship’s well deck in Subic Bay recently. The U.S. Navy has not had a permanent presence there since 1992

South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, put stronger ties with the U.S. at the center of his election campaign, and has signaled a desire to purchase an additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system — a major source of contention between Seoul and Beijing.

Hornung, however, wrote that ground-based intermediate-range missiles could draw an even harsher backlash from China due to the offensive nature of the weapon. “Their placement in the ROK would most likely be to target Chinese territory, particularly given their range, such placement would be certain to draw an even harsher response from Beijing” than the economic boycott that followed the THAAD decision in 2016, he said.

The recent deterioration of Australia-China ties may have increased the possibility that Canberra would give the nod to hosting US missiles. But “a historical reluctance to host permanent foreign bases, combined with the geographical distance of Australia from continental Asia, makes this possibility unlikely,” the report explained.

“This is unlikely to change in the coming decade, even as Australia agrees to an increase in U.S. rotational presence,” it added.

On Japan, the report noted that given “Japan’s willingness to strengthen its alliance with the United States and pursue efforts to bolster its own defense capabilities with regards to China, Japan is the regional ally that appears most likely” to host U.S. missiles.

“That possibility, however, remains low, heavily caveated by the challenge of accepting any increase in U.S. presence and deploying weapons that are explicitly offensive in nature.”

Hornung pointed to the decision by Tokyo to cancel the deployment of the Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile-Defense system in 2020, due to local opposition from areas that were selected as locations.

Against that backdrop, Hornung suggested four alternatives. One is for the U.S. to codevelop ground-based intermediate-range missiles with an ally for it to command and control as its own. Another is for the U.S. to deploy such missiles to an allied territory only in a crisis situation. Third is a peacetime rotational deployment; and fourth to deploy the missiles on Guam or one of the Compact of Free Association states — Micronesia, Palau, Marshall Islands — in the Pacific.

The option most likely to succeed is the first, with Japan, Hornung wrote.