Guam Needs Better Missile Defenses—Urgently
Here's a two-stage plan to harden this crucial island base against China's burgeoning missile arsenal.
The Defense Department has dithered as China builds ballistic, hypersonic, and cruise missiles to attack Guam, America’s most important military base in the western Pacific. The good news is that the Pentagon is finally requesting nearly $1 billion for the island’s missile defense in the 2023 budget. But seeing it through on time will require assertive congressional oversight and action.
It is easy to see why Guam is an appealing target to China. The island hosts the U.S. Navy’s only submarine base in the western Pacific, one of the few facilities where submarines can reload weapons in theater. Guam is home to an enormous air base that hosted bombers, fighters, and support aircraft in World War II and the Vietnam War and would likely play a similar role in any contingency with China, including in a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. Guam is also home to 170,000 U.S. citizens who expect to be defended in a conflict.
China has spent 20 years developing its ability to threaten U.S. facilities inside the first and second Pacific island chains. (Guam sits astride the second chain.) This includes a large number of short-range ballistic missiles that can hit U.S. airfields in Japan, as well as a smaller number of anti-ship ballistic missiles that can threaten U.S. aircraft carriers and other warships. The Chinese have even developed the DF-26 intermediate-range ballistic missile specifically to place Guam at risk. Complementing these ballistic missiles are ship-, submarine-, and bomber-launched cruise missiles that can strike with great precision from any direction. China is also aggressively pursuing hypersonic missile variants that could easily strike the island.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon has lost valuable time debating missile defense solutions and squabbling over the roles various commands, agencies, offices, and services should play. Too many defense leaders have permitted the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Beijing is sprinting, and Washington must now sprint faster.
For the past decade the United States has defended Guam with a land-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, system and costly patrols by Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense destroyers. This approach remains sufficient to ward off North Korean missiles but increasingly less so for dealing with Chinese missiles. Accordingly, the last three commanders of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, or INDOPACOM, have argued for more robust missile defenses on Guam. Congress, to its credit, has been asking for reports on the feasibility of such defenses since 2019.
So, what’s to be done? A good place to start is by understanding the four essential elements of effective missile-defense for Guam. They include: (1) radar that can spot any missile coming from any direction; (2) a weapons-control system that links the various radars and weapons on the island, at sea, and in the air or space; (3) enough launchers to intercept everything from ballistic missiles arriving from outer space to sea-skimming cruise missiles ; and (4) a command-and-control system that enables the safe and effective integration of fires and deconfliction of airspace.
Given the urgency of the threat from China, Congress should push the Pentagon to establish a Guam Defense System initial operational capability, or IOC, by 2024 and a full operational capability by 2027.
To achieve IOC by the end of 2024, the Missile Defense Agency will need to use proven, readily available technologies. The radar mission, for example, might be performed by distributed panels of an existing radar mounted on mobile, survivable towed vehicles instead of a building like Aegis Ashore in Poland and Romania. Thankfully, the department is already moving in this direction, reportedly selecting the SPY-7 radar for this task.
The primary launchers and interceptors should be a mix of existing Army Patriot and THAAD systems plus any newly developed mobile launchers that will be available by 2024. MDA should add a ground-based installation of the Navy’s proven Vertical Launch System, or VLS, which can launch SM-2, SM-3, SM-6, and Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles. VLS is a launcher capability available today with no additional development or testing required. To minimize construction delays and make the 2024 timeline, the Pentagon should build the Navy VLS on Guam with an above-ground installation (like with Aegis Ashore).
The Aegis, Patriot, and THAAD weapons control systems can already integrate and deconflict through existing LINK-16 systems. The Guam installation should resemble the one in Korea, which allows commanders to mix THAAD and Patriot radars and interceptors for a best-sensor, best-shooter capability. All these systems can provide regional and theater commanders with situational awareness through the Command and Control, Battle Management, and Communications system.
Guam’s initial operational capability by 2024 should also include the deployment of additional Army Sentinel air defense radars; Lower Tier Air Missile Defense Sensors, when available; and Army short-range air defense systems such as the Indirect Fire Protection System Increment 2, when available. Finally, there should be ample use of decoys and deception systems to complicate counter-targeting.
The lion’s share of the $192 million in the 2022 budget and the $872 million in the proposed 2023 budget should be spent on procuring and integrating systems to meet the 2024 initial-operational capability goals.
To reach full capability by 2027, when at least some U.S. leaders expect a step up in Chinese aggression, MDA should add the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System; promising non-kinetic programs, such as directed-energy or high-power microwave systems; and any emerging hypersonic missile defense capabilities. Congress should demand that MDA expedite fielding plans for the Glide Phase Interceptor, and provide the necessary funding.
The capability by 2027 should also include the expansion of radars, missile launchers, fire-control networks, and deception systems that started with the IOC. There should be a significant resilience-and-redundancy effort, to include some below-ground construction, to protect against inevitable battle damage. The command-and-control system could even include offensive strike capabilities. As the United States develops strike systems that can attack targets from the second island chain, placing them under the Guam defense umbrella may be advantageous.
Doing all this will require a few things. First, other elements of the Defense Department should let the professionals do their jobs. MDA, the nation’s missile-defense architect, is the only defense organization that might be able to develop, test, and turn over an initial system in 2024 and a full system in 2027. No other organization in the Pentagon, the Joint Staff, or the military services is optimized for this work, and no other organization can develop, field, and integrate the necessary capabilities to make either date work.
Even MDA will need help. The defense secretary should restore the rapid acquisition authorities that the agency held from 2002 to 2019, including its status as a Component Acquisition Executive. This will allow MDA to develop systems—particularly ones to counter hypersonic weapons—without time-consuming secondary approvals or strict adherence to the Defense Department’s burdensome 5000-series acquisition regulations.
Second, INDOPACOM should be directed to establish the command-and-control solution. The missile defense of Guam is just one element in a complex war plan for a potential conflict with China, and the INDOPACOM commander needs to develop and assign a robust command-and-control network to manage the defense of Guam. The current command structure in Guam is geared toward facilities management and is not appropriate for conducting missile defense operations. There are a number of options available to the INDOPACOM commander, including making this command an element of a larger Joint Task Force China construct.
Third, the U.S. Army needs a cost-effective short-range air defense system to counter a potentially massive Chinese attack. While Patriot can shoot down some cruise missiles, it is also tasked as a counter-SRBM system, and its interceptors are expensive. After many years of challenges, Indirect Fire Protection System Increment 2 has been contracted to Dynetics, and the first units could be available by 2024. If that is successful, it could introduce a low-cost interceptor (basically a Sidewinder missile) with a proven Sentinel radar.
If the Army can’t field IFPC by 2024, perhaps U.S. allies and partners could contribute existing short-range fixed-site defense systems. Australia could contribute its new National Advanced Surface to Air Missile System air defense batteries to Guam as part of a “defensive deployment,” eliminating any political issues. Additionally, as risk reduction, the Pentagon could analyze shore-basing options for the Navy’s Rolling Air Frame Missile system. Both these systems can be queued by the larger radars to provide point defense of high-value targets.
Finally, experimental solutions should be examined as well. The Pentagon could consider procuring and deploying radar-equipped aerostats. The Israelis are using them for their high-altitude “look down” advantage. Alternatively, or as a complement, the Navy could provide shore-based E-2D “Advanced Hawkeye” early warning plane detachments. The E-2D’s sensors have proven their worth in detecting cruise missiles. Finally, the United States should continue to press for non-kinetic solutions developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency as well as with key tech-savvy allies such as Israel.
For too long, Washington has made peace with Pentagon programs that take forever to get started and then run years past their intended delivery date. Given the rapidly growing missile threat to Guam and the vital American national security interests there, Congress must demand better than business as usual when it comes to developing and fielding missile defenses for the island. Implementing these recommendations without delay can help ensure the United States has the missile defenses on Guam necessary to deter and defeat Chinese aggression.