US military base in Guam has emerged as one of the most vulnerable targets for China as the communist nation develops powerful weapons to thwart possible American intervention in its potential confrontation with Taiwan, Japan, and other neighbors.
The advancement in Beijing’s long-range and hypersonic weapons threatens American military assets on the island. Therefore, the focus of the 2023 US Defense budget is a revamp of Guam’s defenses.
According to a plan proposed in the Missile Defense Agency’s fiscal 2023 budget request, the strategically important US territory of Guam would gain 360-degree sensor coverage, missile defenses, and a command center, Air Force Magazine reported.
During a May 23 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, Missile Defense Agency Director Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill made the case for the variety of new defensive systems, stressing all of the capabilities that would be located on the island if Congress accepts the proposal.
“Location does matter. If you just go look at where Guam is on the map, it is inside a tactically relevant area,” Hill said. Guam is 2,500 nautical miles from mainland China and home to US military bases such as Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam with its Polaris Point Submarine Base.
China’s long-range missiles like the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile, which has a range of 3,400 miles, could threaten important US military locations like those in Guam, in the Pacific Rim. This new missile, called the “Guam Killer” by defense analysts, was unveiled by China a few years ago, as previously noted by EurAsian Times.
“You’ve got repair facilities there. We’ve got the Marine Corps there. We’re going to be stationing long-range fires there. It needs to be defended,” Hill said.
Guam, he claimed, is still vulnerable to ballistic, cruise, and hypersonic weapons. The budget request for the fiscal year 2023, which is currently before Congress, aims to close that gap and position Guam as the most forward Pacific station in protecting the US homeland.
“If you were to pluck out the most important thing about what we’re going to do on Guam, it is going to be that command center,” Hill said. Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, has defined the demands for Guam in his planning and budget, he noted.
A Second-Most Important Priority Of MDA
A US congressional group produced a report in 2016 warning of the threat posed by Chinese long-range ballistic missiles. According to the report, the Chinese missiles would allow the PLA to unleash unrivaled firepower on Guam.
Furthermore, China released a propaganda video in 2020 depicting a simulated attack on Guam, making no effort to mask its intention.
The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China released a video showing nuclear-capable H-6 bombers hitting what seemed to be the United States’ Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
Furthermore, the US has already acknowledged that the People’s Liberation Army Navy is officially the world’s largest navy by size. Even though the US has more than double the tonnage of the PLAN and outperforms it in quality, the threat of numbers cannot be overlooked, said the Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. David Berger in 2020.
While the US has already taken some steps to strengthen the security of Guam, like setting up a new Marine Corps base in 2020 and the highly secretive, nuclear ballistic missile submarine making a port call in Guam in January this year, the Command and Control Centre in Guam largely remains exposed.
The protection of Guam, according to Hill, is the MDA’s second-most-important priority, after homeland security against ballistic missiles from rogue nations.
MDA’s budget calls for $539 million in architecture work and the design and development of several land-based radar systems and weapon system component acquisition.
“If you look at how you fight the battle in the INDOPACOM region today, it’s fairly dispersed in terms of command and control,” Hill explained. “So, you need to have an area that brings in all the space and land-based and sea-based assets from a sensor perspective and fuses that data and then selects the appropriate way to go after it.”
Aquilino and his staff will be involved in the development process, ensuring that the command-and-control center is properly configured for both mature and future technology. Giving the INDOPACOM commander a single integrated air picture is part of MDA’s vision, reported Air Force Magazine.
According to him, the Air Force already has the data streams, and the command-and-control center will bring them together in a way that is useful to warfighters.
“Yes, it is a challenge. I think it is the hardest thing we’re going to do, and that is the most important aspect about Guam,” Hill said. “You could talk about radars and launchers and weapons all day long, but if we don’t get command-and-control right, none of that will matter.”
Guam Not Secure Against Hypersonic Missiles
The Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense systems and a Navy ship at sea provide forward defense for Guam at the moment.
In November last year, the US Army announced that the missile defense system purchased from Israel, the ‘magnificent’ Iron Dome, was being deployed in Guam for two months to study the Iron Dome’s viability in this strategic US territory.
Building on Guam’s layered defenses, Patriot missile defenses would be added to the THAAD battery, relieving the three to four Navy ships on rotation for island protection, according to the proposed MDA plan.
“What MDA will do from a mission space perspective is leverage the Aegis fire control for a ballistic missile attack and hypersonics,” said Hill, referencing the SM-3 and SM-6 sea-based missiles now used for ballistic and hypersonic missile defense, respectively.
However, it has already been known that hypersonic missiles are very difficult to intercept due to their incredible speed, unpredictable trajectory, and their ability to enter space and then re-enter the atmosphere using Hypersonic Glide Vehicle (HGV). The US is still far from fielding an anti-hypersonic missile defense system.
The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has entered the second phase of its ‘Glide Breaker’ counter-hypersonic program, which is aimed at enabling technology to fight against hypersonic weapons. The goal of Glide Breaker is to take down a hypersonic weapon in flight by guiding a kill vehicle straight into it.
The US MDA is also in the process of developing a layered missile defense that would shield its assets from hypersonic missiles. MDA, in collaboration with the US Space Force and the Space Development Agency, expects to launch two interoperable prototype satellites in March 2023, noted the Department of Defense.
Those satellites would collect sensor tracking data to ensure that faint targets, such as cruise missiles, can be tracked from space, that if successful, it will be a new and crucial capacity in hypersonic defense.
Raytheon Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., and Northrop Grumman Corp. have each been given $20 million contracts by the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to develop prototypes of a hypersonic missile designed to intercept and destroy an adversary’s hypersonic projectile in the unpowered glide phase, according to Arms Control Association.
So, even though Sentinel radars and Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment (IFPC) missile interceptors, Patriots, and THAAD would be part of an Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System (IBCS) in Guam, there is some time before the US military assets at Guam could get full-proof protection from a Chinese hypersonic missile.
Hill further said that even an opponent can target static systems, so the missile defense systems will be modified versions of today’s mobile offensive types. Similarly, research is underway to see if the command-and-control center can be made mobile.
MDA is in the latter phases of selecting 19 locations for equipment deployment, according to Hill, but the defense of Guam can be made fully operational under the fiscal 2023 budget request.
The Chinese belligerence in the region and its determination to take back Taiwan, by force if necessary, has led to the US President announcing that his country would intervene militarily if China launched an invasion of Taiwan.
With stakes so high in this great power game, Guam’s security would potentially dictate how the US fights a conflict with China due to its strategic location in the Pacific.
It is also well known that a significant support facility for Navy submarines operating in the Pacific, an airbase capable of supporting Air Force strategic bombers, and a Coast Guard headquarters and several cutters are all located on US territory.
In case of a conflict in the region, Guam could serve as a launchpad for US fighter jets and bombers taking off from this territory for resupplying. It could then be inferred that keeping the base safe from attack at the time of the conflict is of paramount importance for the US combat capability.