Risk and resiliency: China’s emerging air base strike threat

Introduction

The Asia-Pacific region is the center of gravity for US strategic interests. Home to major and rising powers such as Japan and China, the region increasingly represents the primary hub of human activity by any measure. Some of the regional developments that occupy American strategic planners and decision makers include China’s rapid military modernization, weapons proliferation, arms racing, and lack of military transparency. These issues promote insecurity among regional actors that rely on the United States for strategic assurance, and that count on its uncontested military strength to foster peace and stability.

In particular, China’s investments in anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems are undermining the United States’ ability to live up to regional expectations. Given the centrality of air power for U.S. power projection in the Western Pacific, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has focused on prioritizing the development of asymmetric capabilities to target American air superiority where it is weakest―on the ground. China’s military modernization program is closely associated with a number of maturing precision strike capabilities designed for attacking air bases. Referred to as “airfield runway blockades” by the PLA, such operations intend to overcome traditional Chinese weaknesses in the air by negating enemy air power on the surface. This strategy benefits from both the limited number and the relative fragility of America’s forward deployed air bases. For example, the US Air Force’s principal front-line facility in Asia, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, is remarkably vulnerable to missile attack due to its lack of active and passive defenses, which includes hardening. Other US and allied air bases are similarly unprepared for surviving, defending, mitigating, or recovering from missile attacks. China’s strategy further benefits from the technical sophistication of the PLA’s strategic missile forces.

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