Asia slides into a dangerous arms race as smaller nations that once stood on the sidelines build advanced long-range missile arsenals, following in the footsteps of Chinese and US powers, analysts say., write Josh Smith, Ben Blanchard and Yimou Lee in Taipei, Tim Kelly in Tokyo and Idrees Ali in Washington.
China mass produced sound DF-26 – a multipurpose weapon with a range of up to 4,000 kilometers – while the United States is developing new weapons aimed at countering Beijing in the Pacific.
Other countries in the region are buying or developing their own new missiles, motivated by security concerns about China and the desire to reduce their dependence on the United States.
Before the decade is out, Asia will be bristling with conventional missiles that fly farther and faster, strike harder and are more sophisticated than ever – a stark and dangerous change from recent years, analysts, diplomats say and military officials.
“The missile landscape is changing in Asia, and it is changing rapidly,” said David Santoro, president of the Pacific Forum.
Such weapons are increasingly affordable and accurate, and as some countries acquire them, their neighbors don’t want to be left behind, analysts said. Missiles offer strategic advantages such as deterring enemies and increasing leverage with allies, and can be a lucrative export.
The long-term implications are uncertain, and there is a slim chance that the new weapons could balance tensions and help keep the peace, Santoro said.
“It is more likely that the proliferation of missiles will fuel suspicion, trigger arms races, increase tensions and ultimately cause crises and even wars,” he said.
According to unpublished military briefings from 2021 reviewed by Reuters, the United States Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) plans to deploy its new long-range weapons in “highly resistant precision strike networks along the first chain of islands, “which includes Japan, and other Pacific islands bordering the eastern coasts of China and Russia.
New weapons include the Long Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), a missile that can fire a highly maneuverable warhead at more than five times the speed of sound at targets over 2,775 kilometers (1,724 miles).
A spokesperson for INDOPACOM told Reuters that no decision has been made on where to deploy these weapons. Until now, most American allies in the region have hesitated to commit to welcoming them. If it were based in Guam, an American territory, the LRHW could not strike mainland China.
Japan, home to more than 54,000 US troops, could host some of the new missile batteries on its Okinawa islands, but the US is likely to withdraw other forces, a source close to the government thought said. Japanese, speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Allowing the US missiles – which the US military will control – will most likely cause an angry backlash from China, analysts said.
Some of America’s allies are developing their own arsenals. Australia recently announced that it would spend $ 100 billion over 20 years to develop advanced missiles.
“COVID and China have shown that depending on such extensive global supply chains in times of crisis for key items – and in times of war this includes advanced missiles – is wrong, so it makes sense to have a production capacity in Australia, ”said Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Institute for Strategic Policy.
Japan has spent millions on long-range aerial launch weapons and is developing a new version of a truck-mounted anti-ship missile, type 12, with an expected range of 1,000 kilometers.
Among US allies, South Korea is deploying the most robust national ballistic missile program, which benefited from a recent deal with Washington to abandon bilateral limits on its capabilities. His Hyunmoo-4 has a range of 800 kilometers, which gives it a range well within China.
“When the conventional long-range strike capabilities of US allies increase, the chances of their employment in regional conflict also increase,” Zhao Tong, a strategic security expert in Beijing, wrote in a recent report.
Despite concerns, Washington “will continue to encourage its allies and partners to invest in defense capabilities compatible with coordinated operations,” US Representative Mike Rogers, senior member of the House Armed Services Committee, told Reuters.
Taiwan has not publicly announced a ballistic missile program, but in December the US State Department approved its request to purchase dozens of US short-range ballistic missiles. Officials say Taipei is mass production of weapons and the development of cruise missiles like the Yun Feng, which could strike as far as Beijing.
This is all aimed at “lengthening the spines of the (Taiwanese) porcupine as the capabilities of the Chinese military improve,” Wang Ting-yu, top lawmaker for the ruling Progressive Democratic Party, told Reuters. insisting that the island’s missiles were not intended to strike deep into China.
A diplomatic source in Taipei said the Taiwanese armed forces, traditionally focused on defending the island and preventing a Chinese invasion, are starting to look more offensive.
“The line between the defensive and the offensive nature of weapons is increasingly thinner,” added the diplomat.
South Korea is in a heated missile race with North Korea. The North recently tested what appeared to be an upgraded version of its tried-and-true KN-23 missile with a 2.5-ton warhead which analysts say aims to beat the 2-ton warhead on the Hyunmoo-4.
“While North Korea still appears to be the primary driver of South Korea’s missile expansion, Seoul is looking for systems with ranges beyond what is needed to counter North Korea,” said Kelsey Davenport, director of non-proliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.
As proliferation accelerates, analysts say the missiles of most concern are those that can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. China, North Korea and the United States all deploy such weapons.
“It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether a ballistic missile is armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead until it hits the target,” Davenport said. As the number of these weapons increases, “there is an increased risk of inadvertently escalating into a nuclear strike.”