US unveils new arms strategy eying China

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DM Monitoring

HONG KONG: As Washington and Beijing trade barbs over the coronavirus pandemic, a longer-term struggle between the two Pacific powers is at a turning point, as the United States rolls out new weapons and strategy in a bid to close a wide missile gap with China.
The United States has largely stood by in recent decades as China dramatically expanded its military firepower. Now, having shed the constraints of a Cold War-era arms control treaty, the Trump administration is planning to deploy long-range, ground-launched cruise missiles in the Asia-Pacific region.
The Pentagon intends to arm its Marines with versions of the Tomahawk cruise missile now carried on U.S. warships, according to the White House budget requests for 2021 and Congressional testimony in March of senior U.S. military commanders. It is also accelerating deliveries of its first new long-range anti-ship missiles in decades.
In a statement to Reuters about the latest U.S. moves, Beijing urged Washington to “be cautious in word and deed,” to “stop moving chess pieces around” the region, and to “stop flexing its military muscles around China.”
The U.S. moves are aimed at countering China’s overwhelming advantage in land-based cruise and ballistic missiles. The Pentagon also intends to dial back China’s lead in what strategists refer to as the “range war.” The People’s Liberation Army (PLA), China’s military, has built up a huge force of missiles that mostly outrange those of the U.S. and its regional allies, according to senior U.S. commanders and strategic advisers to the Pentagon, who have been warning that China holds a clear advantage in these weapons.
And, in a radical shift in tactics, the Marines will join forces with the U.S. Navy in attacking an enemy’s warships. Small and mobile units of U.S. Marines armed with anti-ship missiles will become ship killers.
In a conflict, these units will be dispersed at key points in the Western Pacific and along the so-called first island chain, commanders said. The first island chain is the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas.
Top U.S. military commanders explained the new tactics to Congress in March in a series of budget hearings. The commandant of the U.S. Marine Corps, General David Berger, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 5 that small units of Marines armed with precision missiles could assist the U.S. Navy to gain control of the seas, particularly in the Western Pacific. “The Tomahawk missile is one of the tools that is going to allow us to do that,” he said.
The Tomahawk – which first gained fame when launched in massed strikes during the 1991 Gulf War – has been carried on U.S. warships and used to attack land targets in recent decades. The Marines would test fire the cruise missile through 2022 with the aim of making it operational the following year, top Pentagon commanders testified. At first, a relatively small number of land-based cruise missiles will not change the balance of power. But such a shift would send a strong political signal that Washington is preparing to compete with China’s massive arsenal, according to senior U.S. and other Western strategists. Longer term, bigger numbers of these weapons combined with similar Japanese and Taiwanese missiles would pose a serious threat to Chinese forces, they say. The biggest immediate threat to the PLA comes from new, long-range anti-ship missiles now entering service with U.S. Navy and Air Force strike aircraft.
“The Americans are coming back strongly,” said Ross Babbage, a former senior Australian government defense official and now a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a security research group. “By 2024 or 2025 there is a serious risk for the PLA that their military developments will be obsolete.” A Chinese military spokesman, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, warned last October that Beijing would “not stand by” if Washington deployed land-based, long-range missiles in the Asia-Pacific region. China’s foreign ministry accused the United States of sticking “to its cold war mentality” and “constantly increasing military deployment” in the region.
“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,” the ministry said in a statement to Reuters. “China firmly opposes that.”
Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Dave Eastburn said he would not comment on statements by the Chinese government or the PLA.
While the coronavirus pandemic rages, Beijing has increased its military pressure on Taiwan and exercises in the South China Sea. In a show of strength, on April 11 the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning led a flotilla of five other warships into the Western Pacific through the Miyako Strait to the northeast of Taiwan, according to Taiwan’s Defense Ministry. On April 12, the Chinese warships exercised in waters east and south of Taiwan, the ministry said.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy was forced to tie up the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt at Guam while it battles to contain a coronavirus outbreak among the crew of the giant warship. However, the U.S. Navy managed to maintain a powerful presence off the Chinese coast. The guided-missile destroyer USS Barry passed through the Taiwan Strait twice in April. And the amphibious assault ship USS America last month exercised in the East China Sea and South China Sea, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said. In a series last year, Reuters reported that while the U.S. was distracted by almost two decades of war in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the PLA had built a missile force designed to attack the aircraft carriers, other surface warships and network of bases that form the backbone of American power in Asia. Over that period, Chinese shipyards built the world’s biggest navy, which is now capable of dominating the country’s coastal waters and keeping U.S. forces at bay.
The series also revealed that in most categories, China’s missiles now rival or outperform counterparts in the armories of the U.S. alliance. China derived an advantage because it was not party to a Cold War-era treaty – the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) – that banned the United States and Russia from possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges from 500 kilometers to 5,500 kilometers. Unrestrained by the INF pact, China has deployed about 2,000 of these weapons, according to U.S. and other Western estimates. While building up its missile forces on land, the PLA also fitted powerful, long-range anti-ship missiles to its warships and strike aircraft.
This accumulated firepower has shifted the regional balance of power in China’s favor. The United States, long the dominant military power in Asia, can no longer be confident of victory in a military clash in waters off the Chinese coast, according to senior retired U.S. military officers. But the decision by President Donald Trump last year to exit the INF treaty has given American military planners new leeway. Almost immediately after withdrawing from the pact on August 2, the administration signaled it would respond to China’s missile force. The next day, U.S. Secretary for Defense Mark Esper said he would like to see ground-based missiles deployed in Asia within months, but he acknowledged it would take longer.
Later that month, the Pentagon tested a ground-launched Tomahawk cruise missile. In December, it tested a ground-launched ballistic missile. The INF treaty banned such ground-launched weapons, and thus both tests would have been forbidden.