General Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, the top Air Force officer in the Asia-Pacific region has one of the hardest jobs in the world. His Area of Operations (AOR) is by far the largest in the world, extending from India to the shores of California and from the Arctic to the Antarctic. It is home to six of the world’s biggest economies and the largest share of global gross domestic product and international commerce.
This AOR also is home to the world’s largest and most capable ballistic missile arsenals; and they are all pointed at the United States, its Pacific territories and bases and U.S. allies. China alone has deployed nearly 2,000 land-based theater ballistic missiles of various ranges, most of which can carry both nuclear and conventional warheads. Virtually all of these are located along China’s eastern coast where they can reach Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and U.S. Pacific bases. The People’s Liberation Army has also developed a specialized theater ballistic missile, the DF-21, which has a terminally-guided warhead. It is believed that the purpose of this weapon is to attack U.S. aircraft carriers in the Western Pacific. In addition, the PLA deploys an array of land and sea-based cruise missiles.
North Korea has as many as 1,000 theater ballistic missiles which threaten not only South Korea and Japan but can reach out as far as U.S. bases at Guam, Okinawa and even Alaska. These systems are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Some are road mobile, making them extremely difficult to track or attack. Pyongyang has been working on an inter-continental ballistic missile that could carry a nuclear warhead to the U.S.
These ballistic missiles form the core of both China’s and North Korea’s anti-access capabilities. It is generally believed that in the event of a conflict with a U.S. regional ally or the United States itself, that massed ballistic and cruise missile strikes would be conducted toward forward deployed forces, naval units in the region, airfields, headquarters, logistics centers and key transportation nodes. The purpose of such strikes would be to paralyze hostile forces and prevent an effective response to, for example, a North Korean invasion of the South or a Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan.
General Carlisle, along with his counterparts in allied and partner countries, has the difficult task of trying to deter aggression in the region but also, should a conflict occur, preventing China or North Korea from being able to execute a “knock out” blow against U.S. and allied forces. This requires a layered and integrated response, one that involves not only joint U.S. forces but those of partner and allied nations too. The U.S. and its allies need to expand their theater air and missile defense capabilities. The current array of Patriot, Aegis/Standard Missile and THAAD missile defense units needs to be increased. A network of sensors and communications systems able to pass information around the Pacific theater to each and every allied nation needs to be created. Our allies need to do more to ensure that their bases and facilities can be reconstituted after they are attacked. Most of all, the United States and its allies need to work together more, practicing for the day when they may have to conduct operations as a united force.
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