The Pentagon wants to scatter its surface-to-air Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile launchers and radar onto diverse tiny islands around Guam, instead of currently concentrating everything at one site there, to survive possible US-China warfare in the West Pacific.
Guam’s strategic air and naval facilities, including Andersen Air Force Base, Naval Base Guam, Marine Corps Camp Blaz, and the Joint Region Marianas Headquarters, are perceived main targets for China if warfare erupts against the US in the Pacific over Taiwan island’s government, or territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Guam island is the nearest American base on US territory to mainland China. China’s largest commercial city Shanghai is 1,800 miles (2,897 kilometers) northwest from Guam. Andersen AFB would be a vital forward position for launching, re-arming, and repairing US strike aircraft.
“Naval Base Guam is strategically located to support all submarines deployed to 7th Fleet,” the Navy said on its Commander Submarine Force website.
The 7th Fleet, based in Yokosuka, Japan, includes nuclear submarines. The US Army is already testing the diversification of THAAD’s missile launchers and telecommunications on remote islands.
The US Navy is meanwhile preparing West Pacific sites for installations of THAAD’s radar and other equipment, plus possible personnel. Some of THAAD’s mobile assets may be kept on ships. THAAD has been on Guam island since 2013.
THAAD’s missiles currently provide only a sliver of protection and are not strong enough to fully protect Guam, according to Guam-based Joint Region Marianas Commander, Navy Rear Admiral Benjamin Nicholson.
THAAD “gives us protection from ballistic missiles, and some of the other missiles as well, but it is somewhat limited in scope,” Nicholson said in June, according to Air Force magazine.
“The new system will provide a more comprehensive ability to defend the island [Guam] from all threat axes, and a larger group of missiles.
“That’s in the works. There’s still a lot of work to be done, on where those parts and pieces will go,” Nicholson said.
The new Guam Defense System would ideally include 360-degree radar and missile defenses against advanced ballistic, hypersonic, and cruise missiles, plus sophisticated drones and space weaponry.
Britain’s “BAE Systems has received a contract from Lockheed Martin to design and manufacture next-generation infrared Seeker technology for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor missile,” BAE Systems announced on August 16.
“Guided by BAE Systems’ infrared technology, THAAD interceptors engage ballistic missiles and destroy warheads with kinetic force in or out of the atmosphere,” it said.
Guam, a sunny L-shaped island only 30 miles (48 kilometers) long and eight miles at its widest, is home to 170,000 Americans on its 225 square miles (362 kilometers).
“In a war with China, the American territory of Guam would likely become the 21st Century Pearl Harbor,” reported Task & Purpose, a news site focused on active duty military.
Opponents denounce the THAAD diversification strategy as hype and alarmism for a lucrative, oceanic arms race against China.
“Guam is home to Andersen Air Force Base, from which F-22 Raptors and strategic bomber rotations project US power from the skies, and to the deep-water port Apra Harbor, which plays a critical role in US Navy missions aimed at keeping trade routes open,” the Hudson Institute said in July.
“Guam’s strategic importance is difficult to overstate,” Navy Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific Command, told the House Appropriations Committee-Defense in May.
“The [Defense] Department has committed more than $11 billion for military construction projects on Guam in FY22-FY27.”
Guam’s new, expanded missile defense “will include Navy SM-3 and SM-6 missiles, the Patriot air-and-missile defense system and the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System,” Defense News reported in March.
“Think of it as a distributed system,” said Missile Defense Agency Director, Vice Admiral Jon Hill.
Previous plans for Guam considered Israel’s Iron Dome Missile Defense system, by Rafael, and an Aegis Ashore missile site.
“In 2021, the Army tested the Iron Dome missile defense system on Guam, but its high humidity proved a challenge,” Air Force Magazine reported on June 21.
“Now the Missile Defense Agency is proposing a multi-layer defense system, seeking $539 million in fiscal 2023 to begin building a multi-layer defense system for Guam that could be fielded by 2026.”
To test a remote launch’s ability to hit an incoming ballistic missile, a Lockheed Martin manufactured THAAD unit was deployed in March to Rota island, also a US territory, 40 miles (64 kilometers) northeast of Guam.
Rota is expected to be among the “dispersed” tiny West Pacific islands and “austere locations” handling pieces of THAAD’s integrated functions, the report said.
Sites presumably also could include uninhabited and sparsely inhabited rocky isles and outcroppings. The US Army said it was thrilled with THAAD’s test results on Rota island.
“THAAD’s newest piece of equipment, the Remote Launch Kit, proved its worth.
“In a first-ever operation, the air defenders of the E-3 Air Defense Battery used the newly developed Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, remote launch capability to expand their ability to defend the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI),” the Army reported on its website in March.
“The exercise was to demonstrate a new capability we received January — the Remote Launch Kit,” said Army E-3 Air Defense Battery’s 1st Lieutenant Peter Gonsalves.
“On Rota, [we] brought a launcher and wanted to send a message that we can defend the entirety of CNMI,” Gonsalves said according to the Army’s website.
“There is a misconception that we only protect Andersen Air Force Base. By bringing a launcher out here, we can show all the people here on Rota that we are not just an organization that is defending military assets, but are here to protect their safety as well,” he said.
Navy Admiral Phil Davidson, head of INDOPACOM, told members of Congress in 2021: “China’s own Air Force has put out a propaganda video showing their H-6 bomber force attacking Andersen Air Force Base at Guam, and distributed that quite publicly.”
The Hudson Institute said US “policymakers should educate the American public on the integral role the US territory of Guam plays in the security of the United States and in the American way of life.
“A lack of support domestically to fight from, and for, Guam could convey a lack of political will on the part of US government officials.
“It is wise to make efforts publicly, in rhetoric – for example, Admiral Davidson’s effort to describe Guam’s defense as ‘Homeland Defense System Guam.'”
Richard S Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, “Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. — Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York” and “Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks” are available here.