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‘If you think the missile defense system will shield Guam, think again’

Updated: Apr 4

Defense expert asks:  Where are the shelters?

 

Ankit Panda/Photo by Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

 

The Indo-Pacific Command is requesting $1.2 billion for the Guam defense system, the centerpiece of the service’s $10.4 billion budget proposal for fiscal 2025. The Guam missile defense project is a major component of the Indo-Pacific Command’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which is touted to provide 360-degree protection for Guam against a potential attack from China.  

 

But such a strategy might be overrated, according to Ankit Panda, a Stanton senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


“It's been interesting to see the emphasis on missile defense. There's a perception that missile defense will perhaps be something like a shield for Guam or that it will be a completely sufficient solution for the challenges that Guam might face in conflict,” said Panda, an expert in nuclear strategy, arms control, missile defense and U.S. extended deterrence. “Missile defense is never intended to play that role. It's never intended to be a perfect shield or perfectly protect Guam or the military facilities that are here.”


The proposed integrated air and missile defense architecture, which is targeted for completion by 2027, includes multiple mobile components, such as a sensor, command and control, and interceptors that will be located across Guam.


“Technology has come a long way, but there is no such thing as a credibly 100 percent effective missile defense system,” Panda said. “The classic example is the first Gulf War, where missile defense infamously didn't actually work in the way that it was designed to.”


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While military officials can overstate the effectiveness of missile defense, Panda said their claim needs a reality check. “We need to be realistic about what missile defense can and can't accomplish,” said the author of “Kim Jong Un and the Bomb: Survival and Deterrence in North Korea.”


Defense experts have been warning that at the onset of any conflict with the U.S., China will try to neutralize Guam with an overwhelming missile barrage by destroying the military infrastructure on the island. Some experts painted a Pearl Harbor scenario.


Panda agreed. “Given the fact that Guam for decades has had a significant geographic presence for the U.S. military, I ultimately think that Guam will be a target in the U.S.-China conflict, regardless of the specifics of missile defense. What missile defense does change, however, is the intensity with which Guam might be struck,” he said.


Commonly referred to as the “tip of the military spear,” Guam is considered critical to the U.S. military’s power projection in the Indo-Pacific region. The missile defense system is often referred to as deterrence. Pentagon leaders say 2024 will be a key year for the Army to have in place a foundational capability to help stave off a potential attack.


But in the absence of an actual conflict, Panda said, deterrence is clouded with abstractness. “One of the problems with assessing if deterrence is working is that it's hard to tell when deterrence is working,” he said. “Every day there isn't a war, people can make the argument that deterrence is working. But that's not necessarily true.”


Guam is a known target of potential attack but Panda said deterrence alone will not be sufficient, especially for the long- term or for changing the systemic circumstances in which Guam exists.  “One of the ways in which an adversary might cope with missile defense is simply to launch more missiles,” Panda said.


The deterrence approach will only spiral into an arms race setting, Panda warned. “Every missile defense system is going to be constrained by the number of interceptor missiles that will be available. Guam will never have an unlimited number of interceptors, there'll always be a limit,” Panda said. “China will look at Guam and see what is being done to protect Guam.”


The power competition between the U.S. and China is triggering security dilemmas. “The U.S. perceives China preparing for war, so we prepare new capabilities, which in turn causes China to perceive insecurity further, to build up more capabilities.”


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Over the past several years, China has been ramping up its missile capabilities. It owns a 4,000-km missile known as the DF-26, nicknamed “Guam Killer,” specifically built for the island. “Very quickly, that Guam-specific missile has grown quantitatively. So clearly, there is already an attempt to cope with what the United States is doing here on the ground. There might be an incentive to attack before certain capabilities can go online.”


Panda noted that the U.S. cannot fully control the situation. “We can't freeze the external environment in which Guam exists. There is going to be an adaptive response specifically designed to overcome missile defenses to accomplish the objectives that China seeks to accomplish,” he said.


Panda said he does not necessarily criticize the U.S. military’s investment in a missile defense system. However, he pointed to the gap in combat preparation, identifying the civilian population as a critical element that Washington apparently overlooks.


“There's a responsibility for the government to prepare for all eventualities. It can't just be about the defense of the U.S. military's ability to operate off of Guam,” Panda said.


He recommended more focus on increasing the resiliency of infrastructure on Guam such as the establishment of shelters for the civilian population and early warning capabilities. “So in a war, the population has time to evacuate, if necessary, if missiles are inbound for Guam. All of that needs to happen in tandem,” he said.


Guam's defense requires a more holistic approach that applies equally to the people who live on island. “Missile defense in isolation can allow the U.S. military to continue operating, but it's not going to necessarily have the perfect shield that's going to allow life, economic life, civilian life on Guam to continue uninterrupted in the course of a war,” Panda said. “So missile defense is part of the solution, but shelters, early warning, hardening the grid, electricity and a lot of stuff that might be done for typhoon resiliency can actually also help with resiliency in a war as well.”


While Washington focuses on the military approach, Panda reminded federal officials of other options including diplomacy, and economic tools that can contribute to decreasing the probability of war and arresting the spiral of a nuclear race in the Pacific.


“But ultimately as much as we would like diplomacy to be effective, the United States can't will diplomacy into practice,” Panda said. “It needs a willing counterpart in China and that's proven difficult in this broader geopolitical environment that we're in, where the U.S.-China strategic agenda just has too many issues on the table.”

 



 

 

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