US Lack of Basing in Attacking China

Guam (far right edge of map) and the Pacific Pivot. Navy Matters' map

Guam (far right edge of map) and the Pacific Pivot. Navy Matters’ map

In a blog “Naval analysis provided by ComNavOps, Commander – Naval Opinions” on Wednesday, February 1, 2017, US media Navy Matters questions US ability to defend its base in Guam in attacking China. The following is the full text of the blog:


China’s policy of militaristic expansion has caused the US to refocus on the Pacific theater and led to “strategies” such as the Pacific Pivot. The main problem with the Pacific Pivot is the lack of basing. The closest main US base to the Chinese theater is Guam which is home to Anderson AFB and Apra Naval Base. The problem with Guam is that it is too close to China to be safe from ballistic missiles or submarine launched cruise missiles and too far away to provide a convenient base of daily operations. The inability to support daily operations due to distance is the same basic problem that the US faced in WWII while prosecuting the war against Japan. We solved that problem by sequentially occupying a series of island bases between Pearl Harbor and Japan, each a bit closer to the ultimate target. Along with that, we built and operated a vast fleet of cargo and replenishment ships so that the warships could remain at sea for extended periods and at great distances from their bases. We also built an immense fleet of aircraft carriers to provide a forward based, mobile “air force”.

Today, it is highly debatable that we would have access to any non-US bases in the event of war with China. The Philippines certainly cannot be counted on for basing and leased Japanese bases are problematic. In fact, we’re slowly pulling back and reducing our presence in Japanese territories. For example, the US has agreed to remove 9000 III MEF marines from Okinawa and relocate them to Guam, Australia, and Hawaii (2).

Even if we could use Japanese bases in a war with China – and it’s quite likely that Japan would actively side with the US – those bases will be under constant attack due to their proximity to China. Thus, they would not be the kind of useful base where ships, aircraft, and troops can retire, rearm, and marshal in relative safety.

Despite all that, Guam figures prominently in the US’ stated desire to rebalance towards the Pacific and China. Currently Guam is home to around 6000 military personnel (1). Various reports have indicated the added presence in recent years of B-1/2/52 bombers, stocks of air launched cruise missiles, stocks of Joint Direct Attack Munitions and Joint Stand-Off Weapons, F-15/16 fighters, tanker aircraft, long range UAVs, and four nuclear attack submarines (3). In addition, Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) ballistic missile defense systems have been deployed.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the issues affecting the use of Guam as a base.

Distance is the main limitation. For example,

•Distance from Guam to Taiwan is 1711 miles
•Distance from Guam to center of the South China Sea is 2047 miles
•Distance from Guam to center of the East China Sea 1687 miles

The flight time from Guam to the South China Sea is on the order of 4.5 hours at a cruising speed of 450 mph (around 400 kts). Of course, that doesn’t take into account time spent flying at a much slower speed while refueling and waiting for other aircraft to refuel and assemble. Actual transit time is likely to be closer to 7 hours (300 mph average speed when factoring in refueling and other delays).

Wiki lists a combat radius of 500 miles or so for the F-22, depending on configuration and flight profile. Obviously, this is nowhere near enough range to reach Taiwan or the East/South China Seas without multilple aerial refuelings. Of course, aerial tankers represent a vulnerability, themselves. Tankers flying near combat zones are defenseless and if they can be eliminated or forced away from the zone, the offensive ability of our aircraft would be seriously restricted.

Setting aside the long transit time and lack of responsiveness that imposes, consider the physical and mental state of a pilot after several hours strapped into a cockpit, unable to move. At that point, a pilot is no longer in peak condition to engage in combat.

The surface ship cruise time from Guam to the South China Sea is on the order of 3.7 days at a cruising speed of 20 kts. From a naval operations perspective, this is quite acceptable which is fortunate since the Navy lacks a robust at-sea replenishment capability. Of course, this all but rules out the use of the LCS for operations given its mandated requirement to return to port every two weeks for maintenance, its limited 10-14 day supply capacity, and its very limited range at sustained higher speeds.

Another serious consideration is Guam’s susceptibility to ballistic missiles such as the DF-26 and other intermediate to long range missiles. The DF-26, with a range of up to 3400 miles (1), is capable of reaching Guam from the Chinese mainland and has been referred to as the “Guam Killer”. Guam’s bases and facilities are all known, fixed targets and, therefore, targeting is not an issue. To be fair, given the range of ballistic missiles, not many places are secure from such missiles.

A related concern is the island’s susceptibility to submarine launched cruise missiles such as the YJ-18 which is credited with a range of 330 miles and is believed to be carried on 052D and the coming 055 destroyers as well as the Type 093 Shang II nuclear attack subs.

The cruise missile threat highlights the need for an anti-submarine screen around Guam at ranges out to 500 miles or so.

Another threat to Guam is the possibility of a Chinese “blockade” which would prevent resupply. It is simply not possible to provide sufficient resupply by air to be viable in war. A blockade could take any form: submarine, surface ship, air, or, likely, a combination. Such a blockade would be all the more effective given the very limited naval and merchant cargo fleet the US possesses. Any losses would be crippling.

The Guam buildup also contains the risk of creating the next “Pearl Harbor” by concentrating so much of the US’ Pacific military might in one location. Today, instead of an attack by carrier based air, the Guam “Pearl Harbor” would come in the form of submarine, air, and land launched ballistic and cruise missiles. We do not have anything approaching the degree of defensive systems needed to protect Guam. If Guam is eliminated, our next forward most base is Pearl Harbor which puts us in the exact same situation we faced at the beginning of WWII.

China has begun to focus on the military destruction of Guam. CRS reports,

“China is believed to have deployed missiles that could target forces on or near Guam, considered by China as part of the “Second Island Chain” from which it needs to break out of perceived U.S.-led “encirclement.” China’s missiles that could target Guam include the DF-3A (CSS-2) medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) and land-attack cruise missiles (LACMs) launched from upgraded, longer-range H-6K bombers. China also has deployed DH-10 LACMs and DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) to target aircraft carriers and other ships. While the DF-21D’s initial range could be 1,500-2,000 km (930-1,240 mi), a more advanced variant could extend the range to about 3,000 km (1,860 mi) and reach Guam. The PLA reportedly has the world’s largest force of ground-launched LACMs, with about 100 LACMs entering the operational force each year and up to 500 LACMs by 2014. Moreover, the PRC reportedly has developed DF-25 and DF-26C intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) with a range of 3,200-4,000 km. In 2012, the PLA Navy started to conduct military activities, perhaps suspected surveillance, in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around Guam.” (4)

North Korea is also working to develop ballistic missiles with the range to reach Guam although their technical prowess is far from demonstrated.

It is clear that the US will have to devote a significant amount of combat power to the protection of Guam in order to ensure its viability and usefulness in war. It is questionable whether the US currently has enough combat power to simultaneously protect Guam and conduct offensive operations. It would likely require dozens of submarines, many surface ships, dedicated anti-ballistic missile Aegis cruisers/destroyers, dozens of maritime patrol aircraft, and dozens of aircraft just to patrol and defend Guam. This is in addition to whatever land based ballistic missile defenses are needed.

In short, Guam offers significant benefits but only if it can be defended. We need to be gaming out how to conduct a war with China, decide what role Guam will play, figure out how to defend it, and begin acquiring the necessary assets and resources.

Source: Navy Matters “Naval analysis provided by ComNavOps, Commander – Naval Opinions”

Note: This is Navy Matters’ article I post here for readers’ information. It does not mean that I agree or disagree with the article’s views.


3 Comments on “US Lack of Basing in Attacking China”

  1. Fre Okin says:

    Guam is indefensible. Runways will be completely destroyed and all bombers, F22, F35, refueling air tankers will be on a one way trip and be forced to crash into the sea or nearest island. Divert airfield in Tinian, Saipan will be destroyed too, so US will not dare to attack China from Guam.

    Instead US will only dare to attack the Spratlys artificial islands and nowhere else. Not Hainan island, not mainland China as this will draw China into attacking Guam, Okinawa, Diego Garcia to start. Tillerson navy blockade threat on Chinese artificial island could result in Naval war Only, involving US subs hiding about 1000 miles from the artificial islands. No air wing involved.

    By not involving Guam, Okinawa, thus no B2, B1 bombers, F22’s taking off from Guam, China may not want to escalate war by taking on these big military targets and also with substantial population nearby.

    Instead China may make a proportional response by attacking Diego Garcia From submarines sailing as close as possible, off Gulf of Thailand, before Malacca Strait with SLBM to hit Diego Garcia.

    Destroy the artificial islands with Ohio, Virginia sub launched Tomahawks, Chinese subs destroy Diego Garcia with her SLBM. It will be a draw and US will lose her hegemony after this exchange. China will come up ahead and no nuke exchange if everybody remain calm.


  2. Simon says:

    Whoever created that map need to had his/her head examine. It has Hainan Island not part of China, Aksai China as “disputed territory”, South Tibet not disputed territory and whole of Kashmir as part of India. Are sure it was not drawn by an Indian?


  3. Steve says:

    US lack basing in attacking China, it’s also fair to say that China lack basing to attack US. Either way the US is still in a favourable position compared to China. In times of war around the ECS and SCS, the US has favourable alliances with Japan, Sth Korea and Australia plus Guam. The strengthening of Russia/China de facto alliance/partnership as it now stands in military R & D and strategy is extremely important for both homelands. China, with the financial resources need to speed up on it’s high end military weapon technology. The US could be weaponising space in the near future.