How vulnerable are U.S. bases in the Pacific now?
December 7th, 2012
09:23 AM ET

How vulnerable are U.S. bases in the Pacific now?

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.

Post by:
Topics: Asia • China • Japan • Military • United States

soundoff (627 Responses)
  1. Nick

    The misconceptions about iron dome are staggering here. WWII era tech Katyusha rockets were stopped by it. Not even all of them. It selectively chooses what will hit a populated area. None of these were guided cruise type missiles that not only move faster, but have accurate targeting systems. Iron Dome would be not nearly as effective if 500 cruise type missiles came at it at once. Big difference from stopping 100 grid based unguided rockets fired in 20 increments over a 24 hour period and all of them coming at it at once with a higher rate of speed and sophisticated systems.

    Iron Dome is a tailored system designed to defeat these cheap WWII era throwaways and does not apply to all terrain and regions and weapon systems of the world. A dam is built to hold water, but it's useless against the wind blowing all around it. Get it?

    December 7, 2012 at 6:17 pm |
  2. Nick

    Now, onto the likely nature of this scenario. Economics and business go out the window when a country feels like it's being encircled. It's survival over $ at that point. Russia and China are feeling increasingly threatened by America's new "Human Rights" push of like minded regimes all around it. We did away with Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan is still in the pot, Syria is in the middle of a death rattle. We are supporting the downfall of these nations to do away with their anti-american style stances. It's a battle of ideals and world dominance. Do you really think the Russia/China leadership is so stupid as to not see the writing on the wall for them if they allow every dictator/top down government to collapse with UN/NATO/US support all while loosing (LIKE MINDED) business and military partnerships in favor of plutocratic nations such as ours? They see a threat in the "Human RIGHTS VIOLATIONS, YOU'RE GOING DOWN" strategy that the current administration has adopted. They know they share a lot more in common with Iran, Syria, ect... than they ever will with the Western Democracies.

    World War 3 is coming, trust that.

    December 7, 2012 at 6:27 pm |
  3. Jim

    Wait! Hold on one second! Are you saying China has NOT invaded?!? No way! I live in San Francisco and I can tell you there is a Lee's Deli on every corner and I get elbowed by Chinese lady's every time I take Muni out to Judah! Obviously the war is already over. No need to waste more money on yet more military junk and pet projects.

    December 7, 2012 at 6:36 pm |
  4. stfu

    It's like they pay people to start that war drum all over again. The latest war is over so let's look for the next one. Sit your war-mongering tail down & step away from the keyboard. The US is more than capable to address any acts of aggression from China or any other country.

    December 7, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  5. Anthony1223

    Before the US China war begin world stock market will plummet endlessly, world economy will collapse, inflation will skyrocket and everybody's life will be in hell. The world is moving closer to the brink of extermination! God save who save himself being..
    US-China conventional war can lead to all out nuclear war and leading to extermination of human.Weapons can win a war BUT never win the heart of the people as we can see in middle east and Afghanistan.We have to learn to respect and care about other people's interest,cultures and tradition then they will respect and care about ours,especially in unipolar world.
    It's time to give UN the power and responsibility to do all the jobs of World Government.God bless the world!!!

    December 8, 2012 at 12:31 am |
  6. aspengao

    Thanks, all the opinion, I read them all. It's like an as*hol* everybody has one.

    December 8, 2012 at 4:30 am |
  7. Brian

    1. China can swamp allied anti-missle batteries – our defenses can work wonders, and could hold off an attack of a moderate nature – but China could fling thousands of missles at our bases at once, and some will get through.

    2. Why would China attack us? To increase their hegemony and most importantly to regain Taiwan, which is the big bugaboo of Chinese relations. It's risky – they'd be very badly hurt.

    3. Nuclear weapons will only be used if nuclear weapons are used. They are just too dangerous to utilize – things would quickly go out of hand unless stopped immediately after a few detonations – something much easier to talk about than to do. It would also most probably drag Russia into the fight.

    December 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
  8. Skipper Sam

    Really ?

    And what would 20 Cruse missiles do to the 3 gorge dam ?

    ya think China knows this ?

    December 8, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
  9. rightospeak

    So we should borrow more money from Communist China to keep the Imperial posturing going ? Nonsense. What I am worried about are our good soldiers being left to fend for themselves in foreign countries due to U.S. bankrupcy.Ron Paul was right :"bring all of them home " , before it is too late. The era of printing presses as a cash cow is coming to an end fairly quickly. The Imperial Parrots and the lack of investigative journalism ( they were silenced ) made the bankrupcy happen and our corrupt politicians shouild be tried for treason.

    December 8, 2012 at 7:59 pm |
    • Brian

      uh, no – Ron Paul's a nut, and I'm glad he's going to be out of politics in January completely – isolationism would destroy this country

      December 10, 2012 at 7:52 am |
  10. chuck

    The Chinese are not wasteful or stupid people-they must understand that war is destructive,counterproductive,can backfire, as well as see that nations have gone broke due to war not to mention history which shows Europe destroyed twice -ww1 &2??? Why would the Chinese build their country and a great manufacturing base not to mention the great buildings and infrastructre only to throw it all away through war??? The Chinese are a sensible people- Why would they choose destruction and upheaval over prosperity and peace???Co operation ?negotiation must be the key–its the only way???

    December 9, 2012 at 4:12 am |
  11. chuck

    When is America gonna listen to the Middle eastern people??? The Bible does speak about all people beating their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning- hooks-– its the only way??? All leaders who pursue weapons/wars/weapons of mass destruction/killing--–should all be put to death-them and their familys!!!! The war that needs to be waged is 1 to do reforestation of the earth and finding an energy solution thats environmentally friendly as well as protect our rivers from pollution!!

    December 9, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  12. JamesOnThePotomac

    Just exactly what does this Yoshi Toshihara take us for anyway? It's hard to believe that he thinks that we're all dumb enough to believe this nonsense he posted here, but then again, judging by the strenghth of the Tea Party Movement in this country, ignorance is running rampant, showing that some people here are ignorant enough to believe this mumbo-jumbo!

    December 9, 2012 at 4:47 pm |
  13. Mark Ziegler

    Is it not nice to know that Dr. Strangelove is still living with us?


    December 9, 2012 at 8:43 pm |
  14. jamesdickason

    Not that we could do anything about it but we need to keep every base we have manned and ready. When North Korea or China decide to blow us as well as any other country off the face of the map, I would like to know a few hours in advance.

    December 9, 2012 at 9:31 pm |
  15. Common Sense

    Do you people realize that you are giving into one topic.. Its funny how some one can make a simple article and recieve so much intel from it. If the US is attacked, individuals like you are the ones to blame due to the brilliant ideas you place on here. Its nice to see that the service men and women are protecting their own killers. (for lack of better words)

    December 10, 2012 at 1:30 am |
  16. whothehell

    Why do we need to fear the chinese?
    Give me one historical evidence that China has attacked any country as an offender in the last 200 years

    December 10, 2012 at 2:14 am |
    • Brian

      LOL. China invaded Viet-Nam, for starters.

      December 10, 2012 at 7:49 am |
      • The Original Joe S

        And got their clocks cleaned: 2 successive armies destroyed and the third one mangled. The Chinese went home with their tail between their legs.

        December 9, 2014 at 3:06 am |
    • Declan


      December 4, 2013 at 12:20 pm |
  17. Gene

    To whomever is censoring the comments: you are violating CNN's rules (read your own rules). If you're going to censure comments based on what you like and don't like, then go do it on some biased website.

    December 10, 2012 at 7:08 am |
    • Nana Bowman

      What's going on?

      December 10, 2012 at 1:52 pm |
  18. Little bird...

    Do you think China would attack USA Military Bases in that part of the World? NO! Never, I think firmly and sincerely. Why?

    China knows that USA is the most Atomic Nuclear powerful country in the World and the retaliation of USA would be such that China would never do that and also other Allieds Atomic countries would unite and distroy those who would do such act of War...Total War would result and even the whole planet would be distroyed.Too many countries have the Ultimate weapon of the Atom. No, China would never attacked USA military bases... But what is very scary is that if Nuclear would fall in wrong hands and if USA or any other including China military bases would be attacked, the results would be a most destructive path for the planet and for Humanity because one would turn against each other thinking that the other did it... and that would be in the evil plan of those...wrong hands. We are living in this Atomic Age and it's a very scary world. Diplomaty is the key to solve our differences as human beings and working together against to prevent about "the wrong hands".... All we want is to survive and live our normal human life which is not very long in years... on this Earth.

    December 10, 2012 at 2:53 pm |
    • Nana Bowman

      Be afraid of inside jobs!

      December 10, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  19. durak

    Fun reading if you're stupid.

    December 10, 2012 at 7:47 pm |
  20. karen

    My husband and I had to go pick up a vehicle in Glauster, Va. We live in Chesapeake and I grew up in Va.Beach. I was shocked to see five carriers sitting in Norfolk port, as we drove the bridge before entering the Hampton Tunnel. Just who is minding the shop? Apparently that is half of our carriers!

    February 21, 2013 at 1:46 am |
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    September 6, 2013 at 4:53 pm |
  22. Declan

    This article is stupid. China has to reason to go to war with America the risks out weigh what would be won, they already have a great and rising economy and changing the image of there country for the better. let them do there own thing china is the one being threatened by the u.s and its bases on her door step. there is no chinese military bases right outside america is there? the usa economy is on the decline and with that so does military expenditure and power the only person who would have more to gain from a war between china and america is america hence why all these anti chinese articles to cloud peoples brains that way the politicanns can get the votes they need! to make them and ther corprate masters rich

    December 4, 2013 at 12:18 pm |
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