The U.S. military plans to deploy long-range missiles in Asia capable of threatening China as part of efforts to deter a conflict with Beijing, the commander of American military forces in the Pacific said Tuesday.
Adm. Philip S. Davidson, who soon will be retiring as the four-star commander of the Indo Pacific Command, also told a congressional hearing his most pressing defense need is a ground-based missile defense system on the U.S. island of Guam to provide 360-degree defense from a potential Chinese attack.
With the Biden administration still formulating its diplomatic and security strategy for East Asia, Adm. Davidson told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the greatest long-term strategic threat to security in the 21st century [is] China.” The Pentagon is pressing for a major increase in funding for the theater.
“In stark contrast to our free and open vision, the Communist Party of China promotes a closed and an authoritarian system through internal oppression and external aggression,” he said in unusually blunt language.
“China’s pernicious approach to the region includes a whole-of-party effort to coerce, corrupt and collapse governments, businesses, organizations and the people of the Indo-Pacific.”
The greatest danger faced by the United States and its allies in Asia is “the erosion of conventional deterrence, vis-a-vis the People’s Republic of China,” he said.
Adm. Davidson, who is scheduled to appear before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, told lawmakers he is seeking $4.7 billion in next year’s defense budget to counter the growing challenge from China.
The admiral said in stark testimony that the balance of power in Asia is shifting in China’s favor as Beijing adds missiles and other advanced forces to its arsenal, while U.S. forces in the region have remained largely static.
“And with this imbalance, we are accumulating risk that may embolden China to unilaterally change the status quo before our forces may be able to deliver an effective response,” he said.
The military funding and requests for long-range missiles are contained in a Feb. 27 report to Congress known as the “1251 assessment,” after a section of the defense law passed last year mandating the report. Few details on the types of missiles sought were disclosed in the unclassified version of a report as part of a new defense plan called the Pacific Deterrence Initiative.
Adm. Davidson said offensive missiles with ranges greater than 310 miles are needed to complement existing missile defenses.
The Trump administration withdrew from the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia that banned such missiles and has said it planned to develop both conventional and nuclear-tipped INF missiles.
China also has deployed precision-guided missiles capable of hitting ships as sea, such as the DF-21, and the DF-26 intermediate-range missile that Beijing calls the “Guam killer.” Guam is a major hub for U.S. bombers, warships and submarines and would be a key target in any future conflict.
Adm. Davidson said the offensive missiles are needed to balance missile defenses like those sought for Guam, a U.S. Pacific territory.
“We have to demonstrate that any ambition that China might have and any threat it might put forth toward Guam would come at cost,” he said.
Offensive capabilities, he added, were needed to “let China know that the costs of what they seek to do are too high and to give them doubt in their success.”
Offensive missiles, in baseball terms, are like scoring runs, Adm. Davidson said. “If I can’t score some runs, I can’t win the game. We’ve got to have offensive capabilities that cause a potential adversary to think twice about any malign activities that they might take in a region militarily, and that’s where offensive fires come into play,” he said.
The long-range missiles could be deployed on Guam or closer to China on the territory of a regional ally, such as Japan.
The 1251 assessment states that Indo-Pacific Command needs ground-based “long-range precision strike” weapons — known in military jargon as “fires” — that are highly survivable and improved air and long-range naval weapons with ranges greater than 310 miles.
Among the strike missiles mentioned by Adm. Davidson for deployment in the region are the Navy SM-6 missile and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk cruise missile. The SM-6 was built as a surface-to-air missile but was converted to a land attack missile.
“These fires must be supported by electronic warfare, space, cyber, and over-the-horizon radar capabilities,” the assessment states. “They must also be operationally decentralized and geographically distributed to provide a credible, offensive, and conventional deterrent to assure U.S. freedom of action.”
U.S. adversaries are continuing to deploy advanced weapons, aircraft, ships and space and cyber forces that threaten American power projection in Asia and U.S. freedom of action in vital waterways and airspace.
In addition to long-range missiles, the command wants a new joint fires battle management network, integrated air and missile defenses, a large radar for homeland defense in Hawaii, and a tactical over-the-horizon radar to be deployed on the Pacific island of Palau.
A need for allies
Stronger and closer alliances also are needed. Adm. Davidson said the “Quad” grouping of the United States, Japan, India and Australia, created under the Trump administration, is an important step in bolstering alliances in the region. The White House announced Wednesday that President Biden will hold his first virtual leaders’ meeting with his Quad counterparts Friday, with the COVID-19 pandemic one of the prime topics of discussion.
Adm. Davidson said Tuesday that Guam is particularly vulnerable, as revealed in a Chinese military video that simulated a bomber strike on the Pacific U.S. territory. The command wants to deploy the new Aegis Ashore ground-based missile defense system and other missile defenses to better defend the island and deter China.
“The greatest danger is the erosion of conventional deterrence,” he said.
Unless the U.S. military increases its force structure in the area, “the Chinese will have much greater capacity than we have” in the coming years, the admiral said.
“Without question, China has a vast disinformation machine,” he said. “They use both regular media and social media and have nearly 1 million people in their propaganda machine to undermine U.S. interests, to capture the narrative to their own benefit, and to … corrupt the environment in a way that creates doubt amongst our allies and partners in the reliability of the United States.”
“Over the past year, Beijing has pursued a coordinated campaign of diplomatic, informational, economic, and — increasingly — military tools to isolate Taipei from the international community and, if necessary, compel unification with the PRC,” he said.
The Chinese military amplified its activities near and around Taiwan last year, sending H-6 bombers to fly around the island and conducting aircraft crossings into the island’s air defense zone.
“I worry that [the Chinese] are accelerating their ambitions,” notably toward Taiwan, he said.
“What you’re seeing China do in the region in Hong Kong, in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, some of the malign military actions they’ve taken … are indicative that China’s pace is quickening and we need to be postured to prevent that quickening from happening.”
China also is developing space warfare capabilities, and Adm. Davidson said the United States needed to build its own space weapons as deterrence for China, in addition to hardening satellites against attack.
“We are not going to be able to play defense alone in this particular regard,” he said. “If we can’t demonstrate to others that their capabilities in space might be at risk, then you know we run the risk of a deterrence failure.”
“They’ve quadrupled their nuclear capability since the turn of the century, and they will at least double it during the course of this decade,” he said.
China’s cyberwarfare capabilities also are advancing in “leaps and bounds,” as shown by recent cyberattacks, he said.
“I see them developing systems capabilities and posture that would indicate that they’re interested in aggression,” he said.
Whether the Pentagon will get all it wants in the next Defense Department budget is an open question. Key congressional Democrats, including House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith of Washington state, have questioned the budget request and whether it is realistic to outspend China militarily in its own strategic backyard.
On the threat posed by U.S. allies using telecommunications gear sold by Chinese tech companies like Huawei Technologies, Adm. Davidson said allies have been warned about the potential disruption of communications by China.
“Are we giving China the ability to be able to shut down communications pretty easily, which would impact our own ability for our military to discuss things with our allies?” he said. “I mean, that is certainly something that we have to be on the lookout for.”