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How deploying hypersonic weapons to counter China creates a collision course to war

Biden officials’ claims that the US doesn’t ‘seek conflict’ is belied by pushes to continually one-up Beijing’s defenses.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

One purpose of Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman’s meetings in China on Monday was to place “guardrails” on the deteriorating relationship. She told her counterparts that the United States welcomes “stiff competition” but “we do not seek conflict.” During a tour across Southeast Asia the next day, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin reiterated that point: “We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation.”

But this is all easy talk. No two countries in history have ever had deeper pockets, and both are digging deep to wire up Asia with the most powerful and sophisticated weaponry to ever exist. Only deliberate and decisive political leadership from both sides — not platitudes — can bring this death spiral to a halt.

Last week, Reuters reported that “before the decade is out, Asia will be bristling with conventional missiles that fly farther and faster, hit harder, and are more sophisticated than before.” Instead of maintaining peace, “missile proliferation will fuel suspicions, trigger arms races, increase tensions, and ultimately cause crises and even wars,” David Santoro, president of the Pacific Forum, told Reuters.

The report was based in part on an unreleased Indo-Pacom defense briefing detailing U.S. plans to deploy new long-range weapons systems in “highly survivable, precision-strike networks along the First Island Chain,” a geographic area stretching from the South China Sea up to the Philippines, before looping around to Taiwan and Japan.

Among these systems are Long-range Hypersonic Weapons, conventionally-armed surface-to-surface missiles capable of traveling at over five times the speed of sound, with added maneuverability and precision to help them overcome air and missile defense systems. 

With an effective range of at least 1,725 miles, land-based LRHW deployed along the First Island Chain would be able to strike assets, facilities, and infrastructure located around and deep within the Chinese mainland.

The Army faces a political problem figuring out where to put the $40 million missiles — but even if  no one were to accept them, the Navy and Air Force will soon deploy some of their own as well.

For decades, China has deliberately invested in the capabilities to prevent the U.S. military from waltzing up to its front door and raining down this type of hellfire upon it — referred to by some as an “anti-access/area denial” or A2/AD strategy.

It acquired anti-ship and “carrier-killer” missiles (and many, many submarines) to sink U.S. vessels encircling China’s coast, and an integrated air-defense system to shoot down U.S. planes and missiles on the attack. It deployed a radar and satellite network to give itself eyes and range, and anti-satellite, space-based, electronic and cyber weapons to blind U.S. forces. And it marshaled an extensive tactical ballistic missile force capable of attacking the foundation of U.S. power projection: its air bases and facilities forming a ring around China’s periphery.

Much of this was to counter a U.S. intervention in the event of a crisis over Taiwan, which Beijing sees as critical to “deterring” Taipei from declaring formal independence.

And China’s strategy worked, at least according to the Pentagon. A Defense One report on Monday revealed a classified wargame held last October, simulating a battle over Taiwan between a “blue team” and “red team.”

The blue team “failed miserably,” said General John Hyten, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, in a Monday speech. Meanwhile, “an aggressive red team that had been studying the United States for the last 20 years just rang rings around us.” Hyten claims this led him to to scrap America’s joint warfighting concept, in search of another.

But there is a single, glaring issue here, which goes well beyond Taiwan.

No superpower — and especially not a rising, authoritarian, nationalist one with a long history of being colonized by outside powers — would ever accept living under the constant, looming threat of U.S. intervention in its backyard. Its only protection would be hope, that the same country which invaded Iraq and elected Donald Trump won’t wake up one day and threaten to pull the trigger.

Were the shoe on the other foot, the United States would certainly never live with such a vulnerability, and would likely adopt the exact same strategy as China, or die trying.

Robert O. Work, former deputy secretary of defense in the Obama administration, sees China’s strategy in these broader terms: it “put a serious dent in the ability of the United States to do what it had always done since the end of the Cold War: project military power around the globe without interference from an adversary.”

Work is well-known for promoting the “Third Offset Strategy” during his time at the Defense Department, which “aimed to restore U.S. conventional overmatch over its strategic rivals and adversaries.” That is to say, the thing to be “offset” by this strategy is China’s own decades-long effort to “offset” the United States.

The deployment of hypersonics is one part of this play. One Congressional Research Service report noted: “As potential adversaries, such as Russia and China, have improved and expanded their defensive capabilities in ways that would complicate U.S. efforts to bring forces to bear during a conflict, the United States has sought to counter with prompt, accurate systems that could suppress those defenses by attacking them early in a conflict.”

“Hypersonic weapons, with their speed, precision, and maneuverability, could contribute to this mission,” it continued. 

In March, the Army called for a “bold transformation” of its warfighting role, to include deploying new hypersonics and other long-range platforms. Army Chief of Staff James C. McConville said “such missiles would enable the Army to counter ‘what some of our competitors have done with anti-access/area denial (A2/AD)’ strategies, by holding rival air and missile defenses at risk.”

By suppressing China’s air defense systems, McConville said this could “open a gap if we needed to put aerial maneuver into place.”

The Air Force is undergoing its own transformation as well. Its 2022 budget request slashed funding for standard, limited-range munitions, shifting these resources to long-range strike and hypersonic capabilities. China is often directly cited as the reason: Major General James D. Peccia III, deputy assistant secretary for budget, said the shift was necessary “for a high-end conflict in 2030 and beyond.”

Not to be left behind, the Navy is rolling out some of its own over the next five years for use on submarines and surface vessels.

“The Americans are coming back strongly,” said Ross Babbage, a former Australian defense official and fellow at the hawkish Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “By 2024 or 2025 there is a serious risk for [China’s People’s Liberation Army] that their military developments will be obsolete.”

And what exactly do we think China will do once its ability to counter U.S. intervention in its own backyard is made “obsolete,” by not only a barrage of high-tech missiles coming at it from all angles, but also whatever other weapons and systems are cooked up in domains such as cyber?

It will, of course, move to offset the offset. And what will the United States do then?

None of this should be taken to mean that China is a completely blameless victim in this high-stakes game: it built up an advantage in long-range missiles while the United States was hampered by the now-dead Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, and its broader military buildup looks awfully threatening to others.

That is one reason that Japan is developing long-range strike capabilities of its own. But the possibility that these could be launched at Chinese bases early in a conflict — rather than just Chinese ships encroaching on Japanese shores — has raised concerns among Japan’s opposition that the move violates the constitution’s requirement for a defense-only force.

As one unnamed Taiwanese diplomat told Reuters, referring to Taiwan’s own missile program, “the line between defensive and offensive nature of the weapons is getting thinner and thinner.”

This death spiral will never stop, and will become all but impossible to control as time passes and force structures and worst-case assumptions harden. President Biden at least seems aware of this security dilemma. Speaking to the intelligence community on Tuesday, referencing China’s military advancements and hypersonic missiles, he said: “We better figure out how we’re going to keep pace without exacerbating and moving us in a position where we increase the hostilities unnecessarily.”

There are no military solutions to this problem, only political solutions based on diplomacy, crisis management, and some form of arms control. Absent that, the United States and China will continue to press better and better guns deeper and deeper into each other’s temples with no end in sight. The only thing holding this house of cards together will be a hope and a prayer, and any accident, crisis, or misperception could easily bring it all tumbling down.

The Navy and Army jointly executed the launch of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, part of the LRHW, in a flight experiment from the Pacific Missile Range Facility in Kauai, Hawaii in March. The Army RCCTO is charged with delivering the prototype LRHW to a battery no later than Fiscal Year 2023. (U.S. Navy photo)
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