More Asian missile programs take off

City talk | Josh Smith 29 Jul 2021

Asia is sliding into a dangerous arms race as smaller nations that once stayed on the sidelines build arsenals of long-range missiles, following in Chinese and US footsteps.

China is mass producing its DF-26, a multipurpose weapon with a range of up to 4,000 kilometers, while the United States is developing weapons aimed at countering Beijing in the Pacific.

Other countries in the region are buying or developing their own new missiles, driven by security concerns over China and a desire to reduce their reliance on the US.

Before the decade is out Asia will be bristling with conventional missiles that fly farther and hit harder - a stark and dangerous change from recent years.

"The missile landscape is changing in Asia and it's changing fast," says David Santoro, president of the Pacific Forum.

Such weapons are increasingly affordable and accurate, and as countries acquire them, neighbors don't want to be left behind.

The long-term implications are uncertain, and there is a slim chance new weapons can balance tensions and help maintain peace, Santoro says, adding: "More likely is that missile proliferation will fuel suspicions, trigger arms races, increase tensions and ultimately cause crises and even wars."

According to 2021 documents, the US Indo-Pacific Command plans to deploy long-range weapons in precision-strike networks along the "First Island Chain," which includes Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan and islands ringing Chinese and Russian coasts.

They include the long-range Hypersonic Weapon, a missile that can deliver a warhead at more than five times the speed of sound to targets more than 2,775km away.

Japan, home to more than 54,000 US troops, could host some new missile batteries on its Okinawan islands, but the US would probably have to withdraw other forces. Allowing in US missiles would also bring an angry response from Beijing.

Some of America's allies are also developing their own arsenals.

Australia announced a 20-year program to produce advanced missiles. "It is sensible to have production capacity in Australia," says Michael Shoebridge of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Japan has spent heavily on long-range, air-launched weapons and is developing an anti-ship missile with an expected range of 1,000km. South Korea has the most robust program. Its Hyunmoo-4 has an 800km range, which gives it a reach well inside China.

"While North Korea still appears to be the primary driver behind the South's missile expansion, Seoul is pursuing systems with ranges beyond what is necessary to counter the North," says Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association in Washington.

Zhao Tong, a strategic security expert in Beijing, noted recently: "When the US allies' conventional long-range strike capabilities grow, the chances of their employment in the event of a regional conflict also increase."

Still, Washington "will continue to encourage its allies and partners to invest in defense capabilities compatible with coordinated operations," says Mike Rogers, a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

In December the US approved a Taiwanese request to buy dozens of short-range ballistic missiles. Officials say Taipei is also mass producing weapons and developing cruise missiles such as the Hsiung Feng, which could strike as far as Beijing.

All this is aimed at "making the spines of [the Taiwan] porcupine longer as the abilities of China's military improve," says Wang Ting-yu, a senior lawmaker in the Democratic Progressive Party, while insisting that the island's missiles are not meant to strike deep in China.

But a diplomatic source in Taipei says Taiwan's armed forces, traditionally focused on defending the island and warding off a Chinese invasion, are looking more offensive.

As proliferation accelerates, analysts say the most concerning missiles are those that can carry conventional or nuclear warheads. China, North Korea and the US all field such weapons.

"It is difficult, if not impossible, to determine if a ballistic missile is armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead until it reaches the target," Davenport says. And as the number of such weapons increases, "there is an increased risk of inadvertent escalation to a nuclear strike."


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