By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
The U.S. military is testing Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system in Guam, which is part of the Pentagon’s operational buildup in the Indo- Pacific region aimed at countering China's threats.
One of the two Iron Dome air-and-missile defense batteries recently purchased by the U.S. Army has been deployed to Guam where it stays until this month as part of “Operation Iron Island.”
The operation is testing the system’s capabilities and refining the air defenders’ deployment proficiency, the 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command said in a statement last month.
Army officials said the test battery from Israel, which arrived on Guam in mid-October, has been installed in a jungle at Andersen Air Force Base, sitting near the existing Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD. Iron Dome is designed to protect ground troops by destroying short-range missiles and drones, complementing THAAD, which intercepts short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles in their final descending stage.
“There is currently no plan to conduct a live-fire of the system while it is on Guam,” Capt. Nicholas Chopp, spokesman for the Army said in a statement.
Dubbed the “tip of the military spear,” Guam is becoming even more crucial to the Pentagon’s operations in the Pacific amid a growing threat from China, which is reportedly collaborating with Russia to develop hypersonic weapons.
Adm. Phil Davidson, former commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, described Guam as “a critical nexus” for the regional command and control, and the U.S. military’s power projection.
While being an open target for the enemies’ missile tests, military pundits have noted that Guam is also becoming a living laboratory for the Pentagon’s own experiments, making it more vulnerable to adversarial action.
Operation Iron Island fulfills the requirement in the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that an Iron Dome battery be deployed to an operational theater by the end of 2021. The U.S. Army, however, said the "experimental deployment” will be “temporary."
Army officials said the Iron Dome systems are intended to fill the cruise missile gap while it develops a long-term solution to counter air and missile threats.
While Guam is the centerpiece of the U.S. military’s Indo-Pacific strategy to defend the region, the island’s own defense must be equally a priority for the Biden administration, according to missile defense experts.
Guam needs “heavy protection” with “mature technologies” to confront China’s new hypersonic and updated cruise missiles, defense experts said during an online forum held Oct. 6 by the Heritage Foundation.
“Make the main thing the main thing,” said Thomas Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Why Guam? Well, it’s because, for various reasons, we have made Guam kind of the centerpiece of our power projection in the region,” Karako said.
Guam provides major support for Navy submarines operating in the Pacific, hosts an airbase capable of sustaining Air Force strategic bombers, and a Coast Guard headquarters that operates several cutters. The Air Force also has been carrying out rotational deployments of bombers.
“There are going to be some things like an island you cannot hide,” Karako said. “Those things will require a robust defense. We can’t do our job effectively without protecting these forces and having adequate force protection.”
Brad Roberts, director of the Center for Global Security Research at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said the U.S. military does not need Astrodome missile defense for the whole United States because an all-out attack is unlikely.
However, he emphasized the urgent need to protect assets in the Indo-Pacific region against China’s “blackmail, brinkmanship and coercion strategy with missiles. "
This is likely to require light protection in some places but heavy protection in Guam,” Roberts said.
In the U.S. Congress, lawmakers are catching up. Last month, Senate appropriators proposed $10.3 billion for the Missile Defense Agency in fiscal year 2022, which would cover the funding for the construction of an Aegis Ashore missile defense system on Guam. This project was advocated by former INDOPACOM Commander Adm. Phil Davidson for three years before retiring this spring.
According to Inside Defense’s report, the Senate appropriations panel added $100 million above MDA’s request for work on a new Guam missile defense capability, which INDOPACOM officials hope to see built by 2026.
Additional appropriations include $60 million more for research and development and $40 million books for procurement.
“The total recommended sum for research and development in FY-22 for the project is $138.3 million and for procurement, $80 million,” Inside Defense reported. “The Senate panel recommended this increase ‘to accelerate the development of such key enablers pending selection of a specific material solution for the defense of Guam.’”
Besides China, the region is also facing threats from North Korea, which is accelerating its advances in weapons and missile technology. Guam’s vulnerability was highlighted by tension in 2017 at the height of Pyongyang’s threat to launch a missile strike on the island.
Karako said the U.S. has "to honor the threat” by providing reliable and mature integrated air and missile defense systems for Guam that have interoperability with other forces and ground-based fires in the region.
"Guam is going to need a lot of defense and we look forward to having that architecture proceed," he said.