U.S. Aircraft Basing Options in Competition and Conflict with China

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.


Captain Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer. He is currently serving as an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. He is also pursuing an MA in international relations and contemporary war from King’s College London.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.


National Security Situation:  The U.S. and China are competing below the threshold of armed conflict and trying to best position themselves should conflict occur.  One area of competition focuses on Chinese rockets and missiles, and their potential use against U.S. aviation facilities.

Date Originally Written:  March 3, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  May 27, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an active-duty military member with a stake in potential future competition and conflict with China in the Pacific. The options are presented from the point of view of the United States.

Background:  In recent decades, the People’s Liberation Army within the People’s Republic of China has invested heavily in conventional cruise and ballistic missiles of several types. Today the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has thousands of missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 kilometers[1]. Their rocket force is among the premier in the world – U.S. and Russian militaries have not kept pace with Chinese missile development and deployment because, until recently, they were constrained by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

Chinese missiles are more than capable of targeting fixed U.S. bases and ships. A recent Center for New American Security report noted that “…a preemptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility” and named it “the greatest military threat” to U.S. interests in Asia[2]. Analysis of images from missile ranges in the Gobi Desert indicates that the primary targets for these missiles are U.S. aircraft carriers and fixed aviation facilities like airplane hangers and runways[3]. The missiles have repeatedly been highlighted in military parades and are the cornerstone of the PLA’s capability to defeat and deter U.S. military action in the South and East China Seas and their anti-access, area-denial network[4].

Significance:  The increasing threat from Chinese missiles will prevent U.S. forces from being able to credibly threaten the use of force in the seas around China and the First Island Chain because of the extreme risk to U.S. bases and large ships. Without the credible ability to employ force in support of foreign policy objectives in the region, the U.S. may be unable to fulfill treaty obligations to allies in the region and will cede one of its primary tools for competition and foreign policy. The capability to credibly threaten the use of force is the cornerstone of U.S. deterrence in the region.

Option #1:  The United States can embark on a multi-national, multi-agency effort to build dual-use aviation facilities across the First Island Chain. Because the most of the First Island Chain is comprised of U.S. treaty allies, the U.S. can work with allies and partners to rapidly construct a large number of runways and aviation facilities for civilian and military use by foreign partners, which would become available for U.S. military use in the event of a conflict. There are also dozens if not hundreds of derelict runways from the Second World War across the First Island Chain that could be renovated at lower cost than new construction.

Risk:  Such a building program would be expensive, and would have to significantly increase the number of available airfields to achieve the desired effect. This option is also contingent up U.S. partners and allies accepting the U.S. construction programs and the proliferation of airfields on their sovereign territory which may face local political resistance. There is also a risk that this option could spur an arms race with China or spur increased missile development.

Gain:  A significant proliferation of dual-use runways in the First Island Chain would complicate Chinese targeting and force the PLA to spread out their missiles across many more targets, limiting their effectiveness. This building plan would also serve as a type of foreign aid – is it a non-confrontational approach to competition with China and would be a gift to our partners because the airfields and support facilities would be intended for partner use and civilian use in times short of armed conflict.

Option #2:  The U.S. can invest in amphibious aircraft that do not need to operate from runways. Legacy U.S. amphibious aircraft like the PBY-Catalina, also call the ‘Flying Boat’ and the Grumman Albatross were highly effective as utility transports, search and rescue, and maritime patrol craft during the Second World War into the 1980s in the case of the Albatross. These aircraft are capable of operating from conventional runways or directly from the sea – which makes strikes on runways and traditional aviation facilities ineffective towards preventing their operation. These planes are able to operate from any coastal area or inland waterway. Other militaries in the region including the Chinese, Russian and Japanese are already modernizing and upgrading their respective fleets of amphibious aircraft.

Risk:  The risk to this option is that reinvestment in amphibious aircraft could be expensive for the U.S. military or too much of a burden for a niche capability. The risk is also that amphibious aircraft are not capable of performing the necessary roles or do not posses the necessary capabilities for operations in against a peer-adversary like China. There is also a risk that this option could spur an arms race with China or spur increased missile development.

Gain:  The advantage of this option is that it mitigates the risk to U.S. aircraft in the First Island Chain by creating a reserve of aircraft not tied to easily targeted, fixed-bases. Also, amphibious aircraft can be deployed worldwide – and are relevant beyond East Asia. This option does not depend on allies or partners and the capability to operate from the water can be employed in any theater, against any threat, not just in the Pacific.

Other Comments:  Other types of unconventional aircraft may also be considered for development and acquisition. Wing-in-Ground-Effect vehicles can function like aircraft and operate completely from the water and aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capability can also be employed without traditional runways though struggle with logistics and maintenance in austere environments.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] RAND Corporation. (2017). The U.S. – China Military Scorecard. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR300/RR392/RAND_RR392.pdf.

[2] Shugart, Thomas. (2017). First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to US Bases in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/first-strike-chinas-missile-threat-to-u-s-bases-to-asia.

[3] DeFraia, Daniel. (2013). China tests DF-21D missile on mock US aircraft carrier in Gobi Desert. Agence France-Presse. Retrived from https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-01-30/china-tests-df-21d-missile-mock-us-aircraft-carrier-gobi-desert.

[4] RT. (2015, September 3). China’s V-Day military parade in Beijing 2015 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoC0Xcjko0A&sns=em.

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest A2AD (Anti Access and Area Denial) Air Forces Artillery / Rockets/ Missiles China (People's Republic of China) Competition Option Papers United States Walker D. Mills

An Assessment of the Iranian Ballistic Missile Arsenal and Regional Preparedness

Miguel Miranda is the founder of 21st Century Asian Arms Race.  He frequently writes about modern weapons and the different conflicts being fought across the world today.  He also runs the Twitter account @21aar_show to scrutinize arms fairs and military/security conferences.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of the Iranian Ballistic Missile Arsenal and Regional Preparedness

Date Originally Written:  September 17, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 8, 2018.

Summary:  As battle lines are drawn across the Middle East, the U.S. is sinking deeper into a protracted struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  But any plans to confront the neighbourhood’s penultimate rogue actor don’t acknowledge its single greatest capability—an enormous ballistic missile stockpile that can strike the capital cities and military bases of its enemies.

Text:  In August 2018, Iran’s defence ministry unveiled two new weapons.  One was a long-range air-to-air missile called the Fakour[1].  The other is the latest addition to the Fateh-series of short-range tactical ballistic missiles called the “Fateh Mobin[2].”

Then in September 2018, a barrage of Fateh-110B missiles launched from northwestern Iran struck a target 200 kilometres away in Iraqi Kurdistan[3].  Although condemned by press statements, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) attack on a Kurdish militant base had zero repercussions from a docile Iraq.  The Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) countries struggling to defeat the Houthis in Yemen are in the same pickle.  Try as they might, continuous Iranian support for the Houthis means regular launches of guided and unguided munitions aimed at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Iran’s missile activity is reason enough for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to start thinking about anti-ballistic missile defences in the region.  After all, DoD outposts in Eastern Syria are very close to local Iranian proxies.  Meanwhile, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs controlled by Tehran have quietly acquired large diameter battlefield rockets and perhaps a few missiles[4].  Keep in mind, DoD air defences are legacy “platforms” such as the Avenger ADS and the MIM-104 Patriot.  Neither legacy platform is suited for intercepting large diameter rockets, much less current generation ballistic missiles.  Then consider the almost two dozen DoD bases in the Gulf and the Levant.  What protection do they have from Iranian missiles?

Since 2000 at least two new large diameter rockets or ballistic missiles are unveiled each year by the Iranian media, who are complicit in spinning these as homegrown “innovations.”  While it’s true some Iranian weapons are blatant fakes[6], there are two niches where Iran’s state-owned military industries excel: drones and missiles.

Iran’s obsession with missiles dates to the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1980-1988.  Towards the end of the bitter conflict an exhausted Iraq launched its Scud A rockets at Iranian cities[8].  With its air force crippled by attrition and a lack of spare parts, Iran’s war planners concocted an elaborate scheme to acquire the same capability as Iraq.  In an arrangement whose details remain muddled, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Hafez Assad, and North Korea’s Kim il Sung all agreed to supply Iran with hand-me-down Scud B’s after years of selling conventional weapons to Tehran.

As both Iraq and Iran endured economic sanctions in the 1990s, Tehran kept spending vast sums on its missiles because its airpower and naval fleet had atrophied.  Since the advent of the first domestically produced Shahab missile, which was modelled after a North Korean Scud C variant called the Nodong/No Dong[8], Iran persisted in improving its conventional missiles on top of an immense rocket artillery arsenal.  Imitating Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean doctrine, both the Artesh (regular army) and the IRGC have a multitude of short, medium, and long-range rockets whose quantity now surpasses those of neighbouring countries.  In recent years, only Azerbaijan’s bloated defence expenditures has produced an inventory to rival Iran’s battlefield rocket stockpile[9].  When it comes to missiles, however, there are no specifics on how many Iran has, but a total above four digits is the lowest estimate[10].

For the reader’s benefit, below is an easy guide to Iranian ballistic missiles:

Fateh-100 “family” – Comparable to the Soviet SS-21 Scarab and even the SS-26 Stone (Iskander) surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.  Fatehs are made in eight variants, with the Fateh Mobin and the Zolfaqar being the deadliest with ranges of 700 kilometres[10].

Scud C – North Korean Hwasong 6 or “Scud C” missiles with a range of several hundred kilometres.  It’s assumed Pyongyang also helped build a production facility somewhere in Iran.

Shahab “family” – Introduced in the 2000s, the Shahabs resemble the Scud C 6 but have varying capabilities.  The Shahab-3 is considered a nuclear capable medium-range ballistic missile that can reach targets more than a thousand kilometres away. 

Khorramshahr – This road mobile medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is suspected to have been developed with North Korean assistance and its range covers much of South Asia and the Middle East.  Analysts acknowledge its resemblance to the Musudan MRBM that Pyongyang showed off in its annual parades until early 2018[11].

Soumar – A land-based variant of the Soviet Kh-35 naval cruise missile.  In December 2017 Houthi fighters launched a cruise missile resembling the Soumar at a nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi.  Although the result of the attack is unknown, it proves how Iran can strike its enemies anywhere[12].

Although the U.S.-developed Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries are in service with Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, these don’t count as serious anti-ballistic missile defenses as a layered network is best.  So far, only the UAE  is close to achieving this layered network with its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries complemented by short-range SAMs.  Of course, Israel is in a better position to stop Iranian missiles since it built a network for the PAC-3 together with its own Arrow 2/3 long-range SAM, the David’s Sling, and the Iron Dome[13].

Remarkably, Saudi Arabia is the most vulnerable to an Iranian missile barrage.  Since 2016 not a month has gone by without the Houthis in Yemen sending either large diameter rockets or ballistic missiles into the Kingdom, with successful intercepts by Saudi air defences up for debate[14].  Even with a defence budget considered the third largest in the world, Saudi Arabia’s collection of Patriot’s won’t be able to thwart multiple launches at its major cities and energy infrastructure[15].  Worse, Riyadh’s orders for either the S-400 Triumf or the THAAD have yet to arrive[16].

If the Trump Administration is serious about confronting Iran in the region, it’s doing an abysmal job preparing for the small and big fights where the IRGC and its proxies can bring asymmetric weapons to bear.  Whether or not Gulf allies agree to host a top of the line DoD ballistic missile defense capabilities like AEGIS Ashore[17], genuine layered anti-ballistic missile defences[18] are needed to protect U.S. bases against hundreds of potential missile and rocket attacks by Iran in a future war.  Thousands of American servicemen and women are at grave risk without one.


Endnotes:

[1] Miranda, M. (2018, July 29). Iran made a big deal about a copycat missile. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/07/29/iran-made-a-big-deal-about-a-copycat-missile/

[2] Miranda, M. (2018, August 14). Iran unveiled a juiced up ballistic missile this week. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/08/14/iran-unveiled-a-juiced-up-ballistic-missile-this-week/

[3] Miranda, M. (2018, September 11) Iran just bombarded kurdish rebels with missiles. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/09/11/iran-just-bombarded-kurdish-rebels-with-missiles/

[4]  Karako, T. (2015, August 10). Getting the GCC to Cooperate on Missile Defense. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://warontherocks.com/2015/05/getting-the-gcc-to-cooperate-on-missile-defense/ 

[5] Irish, J. (2018, August 31). Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-iraq-missiles-exclusive/exclusive-iran-moves-missiles-to-iraq-in-warning-to-enemies-idUSKCN1LG0WB?il=0

[6] Miranda, M. (2018, August 26). Iran military industries are promoting fake modernization. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/08/26/iranian-military-industries-are-promoting-fake-modernization/

[7] Press, A. (1988, March 14). ‘War of Cities’ Truce Ends as Iraqi Missile Hits Tehran. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1988-03-14/news/mn-734_1_iraqi-news-agency

[8] No-dong. September 17, 2018, from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/musudan/

[9] Miranda, M. (2018, July 12). Azerbaijan is showing off new weapons again. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/06/12/azerbaijan-is-showing-off-new-weapons-again/

[10] Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. (2017, September 21). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/06/iran-ballistic-missile-capabilities-170621125051403.html

[11] Iran Inaugurates Production Line Of New Missile. (2016, September 26). September 17, 2018, from http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/iran-inaugurates-production-line-new-missile

[12] Musudan (BM-25). September 17, 2018, from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/musudan/

[13] Yemen’s Houthis claim to fire missile toward unfinished Abu Dhabi nuclear reactor. (2017, December 3). September 17, 2018, from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/12/03/world/yemens-houthis-claim-fire-missile-toward-unfinished-abu-dhabi-nuclear-reactor/#.W56g0_ZoTIU

[14] Defense, I. (2018, February 19). Israel Successfully Test Fires Arrow 3 Missile System. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/33120

[15] Gambrell, J. (2018, March 26). Videos raise questions over Saudi missile intercept claims. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2018/03/26/videos-raise-questions-over-saudi-missile-intercept-claims/

[16] Riedel, B. (2018, March 27). What you need to know about the latest Houthi attack on Riyadh. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/03/27/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-latest-houthi-attack-on-riyadh/

[17] Saudi Arabia wants Russian help for its arms industry. (2017, October 7). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2017/10/07/saudi-arabia-wants-russian-help-for-its-arms-industry/

[18] Larter, D. (2018, June 20). The US Navy is fed up with ballistic missile defense patrols. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/06/16/the-us-navy-is-fed-up-with-ballistic-missile-defense-patrols/

Artillery / Rockets/ Missiles Assessment Papers Iran Middle East Miguel Miranda United States