Over the year, serious speculation about a resurgence in American coastal defenses has somewhat flipped the angst over precision-guided anti-ship missiles. Rather than endless stress over what Chinese DF-21Ds could do to aircraft carriers, the discussion now is at least as much about how to cost-effectively defend the Ryuku Islands and Taiwan from Chinese invasion, and keep the Chinese fleet bottled up along the Chinese coast. In reviewing the discourse, I find four ideas particularly salutary:
- that the US Army stand up a force of land-based cruise missiles with an off-the-shelf purchase,
- that the US Navy invest further in developing long-range underwater weaponry
- that the US Navy hold to its plan to arm its P-8A Poseidon aircraft with LRASMs, and
- that the Japanese Army develop a really long-range, land-based cruise missile to field on Kyushu and in the Ryukus.
First, let’s note that the Japanese Army is already doing some of this with truck-mounted Type 88 anti-ship missiles in the Ryukus. As RAND concludes, coastal defenses like those should indeed constitute a powerful arm: land-based cruise missiles are "mobile and relatively easy to conceal,” even on the relatively small islands of the Ryukus, easily "enabling blockades of critical waterways.” Anchoring the middle of the Chinese coast, the Taiwanese are similarly well-equipped, and their force should be counted in the balance. And as Chris Rawley wrote last year (“Whither Coastal Artillery”) on Information Dissemination, “the exchange ratio between a relatively low-cost mobile ASCM and a multi-billion dollar combatant is just too economically favorable to ignore.”
In considering the question on The Defense Industrialist, I argued that the Army really should start by buying off-the-shelf, perhaps from Japan or a NATO ally. In Proceedings this past April, James Holmes considered (“Defend the First Island Chain") maritime fences around the China Seas with a Clausewitzian lens, and concludes that electronic surveillance and minefields are important parts of the equation. (I also agree with his view, aired this month on The Diplomat, that "Land-Based Coastal Defense Is No Joke”.) The US knows drones like no one else, and probably can find a contractor or two to devise standoff sensors that can find big ships on the East China Sea while keeping the aircraft some ways from advancing Chinese fighter aircraft. Improvements in autonomous weaponry might also make possible mobile mines smart enough to phone home when they think they’ve found a target. With that kind of technology, the Chinese coast could be turned into a killing zone for hundreds of kilometers with just an admiral’s nod. So much for as much as another Channel Dash.
That would almost certainly be cheaper than writing a requirement for a few more multi-billion dollar Virginia-class submarines. But on the allied side at least, today’s land-based missiles can’t cover the entire East China Sea, as Shanghai is just over 800 kilometers from Okinawa. That’s a long way for an accurate missile shot on a moving target, and that INF Treaty wouldn’t have it anyway. There are, however, two ways around that problem.
My third point holds that if land-based missiles can backstop the fleet, so can aircraft-launched missiles. On CIMSEC’s blog last week, Michael Glynn argued that the Navy really should stay the course with its plan to equip its new P-8A patrol aircraft with the LRASM (the forthcoming Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile), and not just the current Harpoon 1C. The LRASM is projected to fly almost a thousand kilometers, which would allow the aircraft to launch from behind the air defenses of the Ryukus, and with accurate in-flight updates, still kill targets all the way to the Chinese coast.
And four all the hand-wringing about the INF Treaty, my fourth point is that it simply doesn’t apply to the Japanese Army. So there’s nothing keeping the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom from encouraging the Japanese Defense Ministry to develop longer-ranged weapons that the US itself can’t possess. Willingness to spend on defenses is still much lower in Japan than the US, but that rather argues in favor of the plan. The JDM can spend a lot more on more Atago-class destroyers, or rather fewer dollars more on a longer-ranged successor to the Type 88.
So, mobile missiles and mines. Or to flip Doctor Evil’s line, to defend the Ryukus and Taiwan, why spend billions if you can spend millions?