A machine gunner and squad leader with Marine Rotational Force — Darwin patrols a Tongan village Sept. 10 during Exercise Tafakula 2013. The administration's shift toward Asia shows a preoccupation of Pentagon planners who worry Chinese missiles could be used as a threat to deny access to the region by U.S. ships, planes and troops. (Lance Cpl. Nathan Knapke / Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is fortifying bases in the Pacific and looking to revive World War II-era air bases as part of an effort to survive a Chinese missile attack that could wipe out critical installations on Okinawa and elsewhere, military records, interviews and congressional testimony show.
The strategy indicates the evolution of the administration’s shift toward Asia, which includes the creation of a growing base in northern Australia. Chinese missiles have been a preoccupation of Pentagon planners who worry they could be used as a threat to deny access to the region by U.S. ships, planes and troops.
Chinese ballistic missiles — termed anti-access, area denial weapons — mean that virtually every U.S. base in the Pacific is under “heavy threat,” said Michael Lostumbo, director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Study. A RAND report found that 90 percent of the bases were within 1,080 nautical miles of China, the distance it defined as being under heavy threat.
“We compared threats in the Pacific region with other regions,” Lostumbo said. “The Pacific bases are all under threat if you are considering Chinese ballistic missiles.”
RAND identified three options for dealing with the threat: moving bases out of missile range, hardening aircraft hangars and dispersing aircraft to limit the damage any one attack could exact.
Pentagon strategists are re-examining bases such as Kadena on Okinawa because its proximity to China makes it particularly vulnerable, a senior officer said. The other reason to explore options, according to another senior officer, is to disrupt planning by the Chinese military and keep it guessing. Both officers spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
Among recent developments with U.S. forces in Asia:
Darwin, Australia. The Marine Corps is beefing up its presence. The first deployment of 200 Marines occurred last year. The goal, says Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine spokesman, is to rotate as many as 2,500 Marines to the base as part of an air-ground task force.
“This rotational basis allows for Marines to be present in the region without large basing requirements,” Flanagan said in an email. “We won’t need big mess halls, exchanges or other military base comforts, lessening the cost of having Marines in the region.”
Guam. Since 2000, the Pentagon has been bolstering forces on the westernmost U.S. territory, according to the Congressional Research Service. About 8,000 Marines based on Okinawa are slated to move there. The buildup and regular military exercises concern the Chinese, the service said in a report dated Nov. 15. The island has two important U.S.bases: Apra for the Navy and Anderson for the Air Force.
For the Pentagon, a key concern on Guam is an attack by Chinese or North Korean missiles, the report says. That is reflected in requests for hundreds of millions of dollars to fortify fuel bunkers and airplane hangars. The Air Force seeks a “hardened facility” for its bombers, cargo and tankers. The hangar would have concrete roof and walls with a thickness of 31/2 feet, according to budget documents.
Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh told Congress this month that the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific has asked for the protection in the event of a missile attack. Welsh put the cost at $256 million for the new fortifications.
“The hardened facilities on Guam are in response to a combatant commander request to provide more resilient capability on Guam because of an increased threat of surface-to-surface missile attack,” Welsh said. “He didn’t request that everything be hardened, just those things that are key facilities that you couldn’t improvise if there was damage.”
Tinian and Saipan. Two islands in the North Pacific, U.S. territory not far from Guam, could be candidates for dispersing aircraft among a number of bases, according to the Pentagon. The Air Force seeks more than $115 million to build infrastructure on Saipan. The intent, according to budget documents, is to use the island for exercises and as emergency landing strips in case of bad weather.
The islands have long held strategic importance to the U.S. military. In World War II, American troops seized them from Japanese forces in 1944 and set up a sprawling base on Tinian for B-29 bombers to strike Japan. The Enola Gay and Bock’s Car flew from Tinian in August 1945 to drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.