American military superiority compared to China has eroded in recent years. The frequent inability of Congress and the Pentagon to provide timely capabilities for combatant commanders represents an important reason. The current debate surrounding the defense of Guam will demonstrate whether anything has changed in Washington.
In a report to Congress earlier this year, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command warned that the military balance of power in the region continues to become “more unfavorable,” potentially inviting aggression from Beijing. To address this dangerous situation, INDOPACOM says the “most important action we can take” is establishing a “360-degree persistent and integrated air defense capability in Guam.”
Some Americans not following this debate closely may wonder what is so special about Guam. Yet, America’s military command, which understands best the threat from Beijing, believes Guam is the U.S. military’s “most important operating location in the Western Pacific” — one the United States “must fight from” and “must also fight for.”
It is easy to see why. Guam houses Andersen Air Force Base and Naval Base Guam, and is home to nearly 169,000 Americans. In a potential conflict with China, the United States would need Guam to support forward-positioned blocking forces engaged in combat along the first island chain, while also using Guam to facilitate the flow of reinforcements from Hawaii and the continental United States.
In other words, Guam is close enough to likely conflict areas with China to provide essential support to forward-positioned American and allied troops, but far enough away to be out of the range of many Chinese weapons. For that reason, Beijing has been sprinting to field an increasingly formidable missile arsenal to target the island.
In fact, Beijing has already fielded a number of ballistic and cruise missiles that can target Guam. That includes the land-based DF-26, a road-mobile intermediate-range ballistic missile sometimes called the “Guam Killer.” The arsenal also includes cruise missiles that could be launched at Guam from any direction using H-6 bombers or naval vessels. And Beijing is also developing hypersonic missiles, such as the DF-17, that can target Guam.
In response, the Pentagon has deployed the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system to Guam. And as a stopgap measure, anti-missile-capable Aegis destroyers ply nearby waters to provide protection.
The THAAD system, however, is designed to defend against high-altitude terminal threats and cannot be expected to address cruise missiles. And parking multimission Aegis destroyers off of Guam’s coast to provide protection against missiles is hardly the best use of finite U.S. Navy vessels desperately needed elsewhere to deter an increasingly aggressive Chinese Navy that is growing in both size and capability.
And this current missile defense configuration will become increasingly inadequate as Beijing’s missile arsenal grows in quality and quantity.
So what’s to be done? INDOPACOM has an answer.
By 2026, Adm. Phil Davidson, the commander of INDOPACOM, wants an Aegis Ashore system on Guam — calling it the command’s “No. 1 priority.” Aegis Ashore is an existing land-based version of the Navy’s system. Aegis Ashore provides a capable and persistent 360-degree initial solution that is cost-efficient compared to the cost of keeping three ballistic missile destroyers nearby indefinitely.
In a substantive Defense News op-ed last month, however, the Hudson Institute’s Timothy Walton and Bryan Clark suggested there might be a better path forward for Guam than Aegis Ashore. Instead, they recommend a solution that would “combine the latest version of the Aegis Combat System with a disaggregated system of existing sensors, effectors, and command-and-control nodes.”
The primary problem with their approach is that it cannot be fielded before Beijing potentially achieves regional overmatch. Walton and Clark admit their proposal “may require slightly more time to develop or funds to field.” Given the threat timeline and Washington’s recent track record in fielding new capabilities, the risk is not worth it. Congress should support a program of record that has a better chance of delivering on time.
Walton and Clark are right to emphasize the importance of dispersed sensors, shooters and command nodes, making them harder to target. But it is important to note that Aegis Ashore’s radars and magazines could be dispersed if desired — and even integrated with other remote launchers.
And in terms of capacity, the Pentagon could add as many Aegis Ashore interceptor modules as desired.
Walton and Clark also note Japan’s concerns on Aegis Ashore, but Tokyo’s decision relates more to politics there than to any major shortcomings with Aegis Ashore relevant to the challenge in Guam.
Guam, in fact, offers unique advantages with regard to improving missile defense capabilities. As an isolated U.S. territory in the Pacific with THAAD already installed, Guam is an ideal location to test Aegis Ashore’s ability to integrate with existing systems. The remote location of Guam and its live-fire weapons’ ranges provide an unprecedented opportunity for rapid testing and improvements, particularly because the Aegis Ashore system is adaptable.
Aegis Ashore represents the best first step to meet the threat timeline, and it could and should be adapted and augmented over time. This augmentation process alone — supported by sufficient funding and accompanied by robust testing — would provide critical insights regarding missile defense. Due to Aegis Ashore’s open architecture, many of the capabilities Walton and Clark suggest could be added as they become available.
Aegis Ashore is not a perfect solution, but it provides the best hope for addressing urgent threats and creating the space for the additional capabilities that will undoubtedly be necessary.
In light of these realities, Washington should support INDOPACOM’s request on Aegis Ashore, encouraging the siting and survey work to start without delay. After all, the burden of proof should rest with anyone suggesting the combatant command closest to the threat doesn’t know best what it needs.
Bradley Bowman is senior director for the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Maj. Shane Praiswater is a visiting military analyst. Views expressed or implied in this commentary are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Department or any other government agency.