By Toshi Yoshihara, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Toshi Yoshihara is John A. van Beuren Chair of Asia-Pacific Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. The views expressed are his own.
The Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor remains a popular, if somewhat tired, metaphor for the dangers of unpreparedness and overexposure to risk. For years analysts and policymakers have warned Americans about all kinds of new Pearl Harbors in space, cyberspace, the global financial markets, and even the earth’s climate.
But the real possibility that U.S. bases in the western Pacific could once again be vulnerable to a bolt-from-the-blue military attack has occasioned little publicity or debate. Yet it should take no stretched metaphors to appreciate this emerging threat.
This time, China – armed with a large and growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles – is poised to reprise Pearl Harbor. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) now possesses the means, the motives, and the opportunities to deliver disabling blows against U.S. bases in Japan where the bulk of American military power in Asia is concentrated.
First consider the means. The Chinese military can now lock their crosshairs on Japan, home to the largest U.S. naval and air bases in the world. China’s DF-15 ballistic missile can reach Kadena airbase in Okinawa, the hub of American airpower in Asia. The PLA’s non-nuclear version of the DF-21 missile boasts the range to hit all military facilities across the entire Japanese archipelago. According to the Pentagon’s 2010 annual report on the PLA, the DF-15 and the DF-21 missiles numbered over 300 and 80 respectively.
Think about Yokosuka naval base, where the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS George Washington, is permanently stationed. The DF-21s could be launched against fuel storage tanks, ammunition depots, dry docks, and pierside facilities located there. Docked warships and supply vessels fixed at their berths would be sitting ducks. Civilian and military personnel, including shipyard workers so essential to the base’s main functions, could also suffer casualties in such missile raids.
Next consider the motives. China’s regional missile force would facilitate what the Pentagon terms “anti-access/area denial” operations, meaning efforts to bar regional bases to U.S. reinforcements while keeping military forces already in the theater from nearing China's backyard. In effect, China hopes to erect a no-go zone across large swathes of maritime Asia.
For a local military campaign (against Taiwan, for example) to obtain its maximum effectiveness, the PLA would need to inflict substantial damage on Japanese airfields and naval facilities that are critical to U.S. air superiority and sea control, the two operational prerequisites for thwarting Chinese war aims. As such, salvoes of missile strikes to render inoperative Kadena airbase and Yokosuka naval base would likely be among the PLA’s opening moves.
Crippling bases in Japan would by no means constitute a war winner for Beijing. But denying American use of bases near China would shove back the start line for U.S. warships and aircraft by thousands of kilometers to such military hubs as Guam and Hawaii. And the more distance U.S. forces must cover to reach China, the less staying power those same forces would enjoy while operating in the war zone.
Finally, opportunities beckon. Perceptions of American overdependence on forward bases could tempt the Chinese to hit first and hard. No naval base in Asia rivals Yokosuka’s strategic location, physical infrastructure, world-class repair facilities, and highly-skilled local workforce. Chinese strategists believe, perhaps rightly, that if the PLA could knock out Yokosuka, the U.S. fleet would need to fall back to Hawaii or even San Diego to meet its critical logistical needs.
A preemptive Chinese missile campaign, so goes this reasoning, could deliver a massive blow to the logistical foundations of U.S. power projection in Asia. By disrupting the supply system and degrading repair capabilities, Beijing may hope to choke off the American capacity to conduct combat operations at the outset.
Still, as events after Japan’s bombardment of Pearl Harbor show, an operational triumph alone does not beget strategic success. Indeed, disaster awaited Imperial Japan. The Japanese diplomats accepting unconditional surrender onboard the battleship Missouri would surely have agreed.
It is unclear whether Beijing has thought through the likely strategic fallout following a missile blitzkrieg against U.S. forces on allied soil. But, the PLA’s continuing missile buildup suggests that Chinese leaders might succumb to the false promise of a quick military fix that so beguiled Japanese strategists seven decades ago.