The United States Army plans to deploy long-range precision fire systems and ship-sinking medium-range capability missiles next year to the Indo-Pacific region, boosting its defensive and offensive military capability but also likely raising temperatures in contested waters in the region.
A senior US Army official said the planned missile deployment was part of the US ground forces’ more than $1 billion military buildup under the Pacific Deterrence Initiative (PDI) to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the Taiwan Straits and in contested areas in the South China Sea.
Testifying before the Senate’s appropriations committee in May this year, US Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said the missile deployment would improve the US Army’s forward posture inside China’s first and second island chains as well as increase the conventional deterrence.
Wormuth said the US Army would also deploy its long-range hypersonic weapons systems as well as introduce new platforms for mobility and logistics to sustain warfighting operations in the region.
The big question is where the US Army will install its missiles in the region as many of its allies and partners, including Japan and the Philippines, are reluctant to host the offensive weapons systems that could potentially hit targets in mainland China.
In 2019, the then defense secretary, Mark Esper, tried to sell the same idea to US allies and partners as an additional deterrent to China’s growing capabilities to hit US bases in the region.
But the countries in the region rejected the offer because it could make the countries a big magnet for attacks coming from US adversaries in the region, including North Korea.
There were rumors swirling in Washington that the United States has been quietly consulting with its allies and partners, including the Philippines, to allow the deployment of the highly mobile missile defense systems.
It would still take a year before Washington could deploy the long-range hypersonic missile systems as well as the ship-sinking medium-range missile systems, which could enhance the anti-access and area denial (A2AD) capabilities of allies and partners in the region.
But the US military has been familiarizing its allies and partners with its sophisticated weapons systems, like the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), through bilateral exercises, like “Balikatan” in the Philippines.
The US has demonstrated the HIMARS’s capability during its deployment to the annual combined and joint “Balikatan” exercises on the main island of Luzon.
Washington said it had also supplied Ukraine with HIMARS, which has effectively hit targets deep into Russian territory, demonstrating its capability in real battles.
This year, for the first time, the US deployed two batteries of Patriot missiles in northern Luzon, sending a strong message to China.
Although the previous Duterte administration was lukewarm to Esper’s offer in 2019, there is a possibility the new administration under Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr will agree to the deployment of long-range precision fire systems and ship-sinking medium-range capability missiles in the Philippines’ west coast.
The Philippines has signed contracts to acquire batteries of the Indian-manufactured Brahmos anti-ship missiles, increasing its A2AD capabilities in the West Philippine Sea.
But the Brahmos would not be effective unless the Philippines has an integrated surveillance and detection system that could track Chinese warships in the contested areas.
The US deployment of its long-range and medium-range missile systems could actually boost the Philippines’ deterrence but at a cost.
It would be more beneficial to the United States military than the Philippines to preposition its missile systems across the region as a counter strike would bring damage to areas in the country, not on American soil.
The Philippines could also become a magnet for attack as the US further militarized the region to compete with China. It could also start an arms race in the region as countries in the region would try to upgrade their defense capabilities.
China would not be comfortable with long-range and ship-sinking medium-range missiles in the Philippines, the same way when it expressed concern over the deployment of THAAD anti-missile defense to South Korea.
Tensions would certainly rise in the region and the chances of miscalculations and accidents would also increase.
Last month, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong warned of a potential conflict after China launched live fire drills around self-ruled Taiwan after US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a brief stop in Taipei last month.
The chances of an open conflict also amid with the continued US militarization with the long-range missile system, especially when Washington wants to expand its footprint in Southeast Asia.
Both the US Air Force and Army have very limited presence in Southeast Asia but Wormuth’s testimony before the US Senate betrayed US plans to gain foothold in the region.
The US has two existing military alliances in the region–the Philippines and Thailand. But it has greater chances of convincing Manila to allow the deployment of the missile systems.
Thailand also has close relations with China, which supplies Bangkok with military hardware, like tanks and submarines. Manila gets most of its defense equipment from the US.
The US Navy has a presence in Singapore but the limited space in the island-state is a liability to the US Army and US Air Force.
Wormuth said the US Army also planned to preposition more equipment and supplies in the region, particularly in Southeast Asia where it has very little footprint compared with Japan and South Korea.
Prepositioning would include expanding the US Army exercises and training programs with allies and partners in the region through seven major exercises under its “Pacific Pathways.”
Two of its seven major activities are done in the Philippines through the annual joint and combined “Balikatan” exercises and the Army-centered “Salacnib” drills.
The exercises are aimed not only at innovating warfighting concepts and increasing the level of interoperability with allies and partners, but also expanding the complexities of the operations.
For instance, the US Army has been training with the Philippine Army on ship-to-shore operations.
The increasing drills are excellent cover for the US to preposition troops and equipment in the country.
First, there was the HIMARS. This year, the Patriot systems. Next year, it could be the long-range precision and hypersonic missiles.