Updated: Jul 18
By Mar-Vic Cagurangan
With the likelihood of China striking out against Taiwan on a whim, Guam could find itself in the crosshairs as well long before the integrated air missile defense architecture is built, hence the need for the Pentagon to find an interim solution to defend the island, a military expert said.
"What’s needed is a phased approach that bolsters the island’s defenses today, using capabilities already available, and upgrades them as new capabilities come online," said Brent D. Sadler, a senior fellow for naval warfare and advanced technology in The Heritage Foundation’s Center for National Defense, a conservative think tank.
"Repurposing aging cruisers for its defense can assist in this while accelerating the development of future, more capable defenses being proposed by the Missile Defense Agency," Sadler wrote in an op-ed piece, titled "Guam Needs an Effective Missile Now, Not in 2028," published on July 15 in Breaking Defense.
The Indo-Pacific Command's proposed air defense missile, which is touted to provide 360-degree protection to deter any potential threats to Guam, consists of multiple mobile components, such as a sensor, command and control, and interceptors that will be located across the island.
The $1 billion undertaking is targeted to be completed by 2026 or 2028.
"While the decision represents progress, there’s a problem: the defenses may arrive too late to protect the island from China. Experts have repeatedly warned that, in a war over Taiwan, Beijing would almost certainly attack this strategically important U.S. territory, and China could make its move within the next five years," Sadler said.
The Heritage Foundation fellow criticized the Pentagon for pinning all hopes on a single company’s ability to deliver new defense capabilities by 2028 when China's threats are just around the corner.
"Judging by its design requirements, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency plans to rely heavily on the Aegis weapons system. This narrows the potential providers of the system to Lockheed Martin as the only firm with technical experience with that particular system," Sadler said.
He also noted the complex process and several factors involved in planning a land-based missile defense system for Guam.
The project, Sadler said, will have to go through a lengthy environmental impact study on how the island’s roads and dense population centers impact the system’s employment.
The 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week, would mandate a comprehensive assessment of the proposed missile defense system for Guam.
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"With a major war raging in Europe and looming prospects of great power conflict in Asia, the time for action is now. The defense of Guam — home to 168,000 Americans and the hub of American military efforts in the Pacific — must be a priority today," Sadler said.
Sadler said the Pentagon needs to boost Guam’s current missile defenses, including a decentralized combination of the Army's Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD and deployed Navy ballistic missile defense-capable cruisers and destroyers.
"Given the Navy’s limited number of ships, it has long been a priority to free those ships for anti-submarine patrols and air defense of carrier strike groups — a growing mission for destroyers as the aging Ticonderoga-class cruisers retire," he said.
Sadler said the cruisers have a proven capacity for command and control of complex area air and missile defense.
"The ships have little remaining life, yet they offer an opportunity to quickly serve as the Guam missile defense command and control node that Indo-Pacific commanders have been seeking. They can also serve as a mobile sea-based testbed for proving the new systems," Sadler said.
In a press conference on May 10, Rear Adm. Ben Nicholson, commander of the Joint Region Marianas, announced plans to relocate the THAAD battery from its current site at Andersen Air Force Base to an old Navy housing area in South Finegayen,
Nicholson said optimizing the THAAD's capacity will beef up the military’s defense of Guam pending the installation of the proposed 360-degree missile defense system.
“We've determined that if we move it to a different location we can actually increase the capacity that the system provides for the defense of Guam,” he said.