Another Tool in the Toolbox: Using Intermediate-Range Missiles to Counter Chinese A2/AD in the Pacific

The Defense Department conducts a flight test of a conventionally configured ground-launched cruise missile at San Nicolas Island, Calif. Photo Credit: Department of Defense/ Scott Howe.

On August 2nd, the State Department issued a press release confirming the withdrawal of the United States from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty.[i] Initially signed by President Ronald Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev in 1987, the treaty restricted the deployment of any ballistic missile, nuclear or conventional, that had an operating range between 500 and 5,000 kilometers. The American withdrawal from the INF treaty is best understood as an opportunity to expand Washington’s ability to counter Chinese anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) systems in East Asia. By accelerating the development and deployment of non-nuclear ground-launched missiles previously banned under the INF, the U.S. would possess a wider array of tools to counter Chinese A2/AD. In a conflict scenario in East Asia, a robust ground-based missile force could correct strategic imbalance in the region, enhance the effectiveness of other military assets, and provide a versatile, cost-effective option for achieving military objectives.

The Trump Administration’s decision to scrap the arms control agreement was nominally motivated by repeated Russian violations of the treaty in recent years. According to the State Department’s press release, “Russia failed to return to full and verified compliance through the destruction of its noncompliant missile system—the SSC-8 or 9M729 ground-launched, intermediate-range cruise missile.”[ii]  An additional motivation, however, is China’s absence from the treaty’s framework, which has allowed Beijing to develop an arsenal of missiles that form the centerpiece of China’s strategy against the United States in a military conflict.[iii]

The Chinese A2/AD strategy in the Pacific is designed to restrict or prohibit U.S. forces from operating within the first island chain, which starts at the Kamchatka Peninsula and goes through Japan down into the Philippines and the South China Sea, or projecting destabilizing power ashore into the Chinese mainland. Chinese A2/AD is supported by an increasingly uneven strategic balance in the region. China is rapidly expanding the number of vessels in its navy, which now outnumbers the US fleet.[iv] While numbers alone are not determinative of military effectiveness, this shift in the quantitative balance has been reinforced by qualitative improvements and modernization.[v] For instance, China has added two aircraft carriers to its fleet over the past decade.[vi]

Most concerning, though, is China’s ground-launched missile arsenal. There are more than 2,000 missiles based in mainland China, the largest missile inventory in the world.[vii] Ninety-five percent of these missiles would be banned if China had been governed by the INF treaty.[viii] The Chinese missile force notably includes the “carrier-killer” DF-21D and DF-26 intercontinental ballistic missiles. The threat these missiles pose to US naval forces and air bases in the region would severely limit US power projection in a conflict. The quantitative disadvantages of US forces in theater are compounded by the limited number of regional bases and aircraft carriers from which US aircraft can operate. While the American military would be operating thousands of miles from home, China will have the advantage of operating in its backyard, enjoying the benefits provided by local logistics, concentration of forces, and interior lines. In light of these considerations, the creation of a ground-launched missile force that could be deployed within the region would meaningfully augment US forces by mitigating the strategic imbalance.

Air-Sea Battle, the US doctrine created to counter A2/AD, has since been renamed Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JCAM-GC).[ix] The doctrine seeks to integrate US capabilities across all five warfighting domains (air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace) at the operational level and then leverage asymmetric advantages that arise within those domains to amplify overmatches in others. With these gains established, US forces would be able to proceed to “disrupt, destroy, and defeat” the components of A2/AD.[x]

In a conflict, US naval and air forces will be tasked with neutralizing a variety of targets supporting A2/AD. These range from advanced radar systems used for detection and targeting to air defenses, missile sites, and ships at sea. Theater-range missiles can fill operational gaps presented by the concentration in the air and sea domains. The first and possibly most concerning gap is the limited range of US carrier aircraft, which increases the vulnerability of carrier strike groups in contested environments. The current structure of the US carrier air wing, primarily composed of F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and F-35C Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters, has an average effective combat radius of approximately 500 nautical miles.[xi] While this limited combat radius has been of little significance in recent conflicts in the Middle East, where credible anti-ship threats were non-existent, it will present a major challenge in a contested location like the South China Sea. Due to this air wing range constraint, US carriers would be forced to conduct most operations within the first island chain. The proximity of the carriers to China’s shore increases their vulnerability to land-based aircraft and places them well within the targeting envelope of anti-ship missiles. Pre-deployed land-based theater-range missiles can be used to reduce these threats before deploying US carriers and their support ships into the A2/AD environment. Preserving the operational capacity of the carrier strike group in an A2/AD environment in turn provides the advantages of mobility and versatility they offer to US operations. 

Ground-launched missiles can function in a similar role to support US air forces in theater. As they enter combat, these aircraft will face an advanced integrated air defense system (IADS) that will pose a serious threat to US air power, especially to airframes without stealth characteristics. Theater-range missiles can assist US air operations by targeting air defense components. Even a limited reduction of Chinese IADS could create gaps in the A2/AD network that could then be exploited by air forces, as well as by additional missile strikes.

Despite the advantages that ground-launched missiles can provide to air and naval forces in an A2/AD environment, it is important to note that the United States should not pursue a strategy of missile deployments in place of current weapon platforms. Each domain offers unique asymmetric advantages and disadvantages that when integrated effectively will enhance overall operational effectiveness. In this context, ground-launched missiles can free up more dynamic assets to perform in roles appropriate to their capabilities. The ability of air assets to loiter extensively over a battlefield and respond to new developments quickly, combined with the diversity of mission-types they can execute, is not something that can be replicated by missile forces. Similarly, the mobility of US aircraft carriers provides a clear asymmetric advantage over China’s primarily ground based air forces and negates some of the inherent vulnerability of less-mobile US ground-launched missiles.

While ground-launched missiles have their own vulnerabilities, particularly interception by enemy IADS, there are technical developments that could make them more effective in this mission. The United States has already been modifying existing weapon systems to fulfill a ground-launched intermediate missile role. On August 19, a Tomahawk Land Attack Cruise Missile was launched from a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System, used in the Aegis Ashore missile defense system.[xii] This was the first test of a ground-launched missile previously banned under the INF treaty. Signaling an intent to pursue further development, Secretary of Defense Mark Esper has stated that “the Department of Defense will fully pursue the development of these ground-launched conventional missiles as a prudent response to Russia’s actions and as part of the Joint Force’s broader portfolio of conventional strike options.”[xiii]  Although the conversion of the Tomahawk is a quick and economical option to acquire ground-launched missiles, its limited range and speed would limit capabilities in an East Asia conflict scenario. To hit targets protected by extensive air defense deep within mainland China, the US should explore the development of a diverse arsenal of missiles that could be deployed from stationary platforms or mobile transporter erector launchers (TEL). This could include intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM), like the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26, or hypersonic boost-glide missiles, which would be extremely difficult for modern IADS to intercept.[xiv]

The development and deployment of these weapons in ground-based launchers would also serve as a cost-effective alternative to using current air and naval platforms. A study conducted by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments found that the cost of developing an IRBM or hypersonic boost-glide missile with a 4,000 km range would be $1.1 billion, with a unit cost of $21 million a missile.[xv] Conversion of existing cruise missile programs like the Tomahawk or the AGM-158 JASSM (Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile), would be much less expensive at $1.1 million or $1.4 million per missile, respectively.[xvi] For comparison, the unit cost of the F-35’s cheapest variant is $89 million[xvii], and the navy’s primary guided missile destroyer, the Arleigh Burke class, costs $1.8 billion per ship.[xviii] Currently, cruise missiles are deployed from a variety of air and sea-based platforms, and the Navy is exploring the deployment of sea-based hypersonic missiles. While these naval and air platforms enjoy important advantages, they also suffer from high procurement and sustainment costs. Comparatively, therefore, ground-launched missiles are significantly more cost-effective. Beyond their lower costs, ground-based missile systems would offer a range of potential solutions to the different operational demands of an A2/AD environment.

A criticism of the deployment of intermediate-range missiles to the Pacific is that US allies in the region will refuse to host them, fearing domestic political opposition and Chinese retribution. While US territories in the Pacific, notably Guam, could be used to deploy longer-range missiles like an IRBM, the island’s limited size makes it vulnerable to a massed missile attack from China. Furthermore, placing US missiles in a single, small location would make it easier for Chinese forces to anticipate potential missile flight paths, easing interception.[xix] It is therefore imperative that the United States utilize the geographic characteristics of allies in the Pacific to deploy ground-launched missiles in a variety of locations throughout the first island chain.

China is acutely aware of the threat posed by US intermediate-range missiles based in these countries. In response to US withdrawal from the INF treaty, China’s Director General of the Department of Arms Control stated that “China will not stand idly by and will be forced to take counter measures if the U.S. deploys intermediate-range ground-based missiles in this part of the world. And we also called on our neighboring countries to exercise prudence and not to allow U.S. deployment on its territory, because that will not serve the national security interests of these countries.”[xx] There is already a precedent for retaliation against US allies in response to the deployment of missile systems. In 2017, the Chinese government imposed sanctions on the South Korean retailer Lotte in response to the deployment of US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) launchers in South Korea to defend against the threat of North Korean missile attack. For two years the retailer was forced to halt construction projects in China. The economic damage was exacerbated by an unofficial boycott on South Korean products.[xxi] Additionally, Chinese tour groups were banned from visiting South Korea.[xxii] Overcoming the barriers that China seeks to create between the United States and allies in the Pacific region will require effort from both parties. Thus, the recent US demands that South Korea quadruple its share of financial support for current defense commitments is questionable as a course of action.[xxiii] This demanding approach threatens to create a wedge between the US and its Asian allies, and provides ammunition for domestic opponents of US military presence within these countries.

The US cannot afford to estrange allies in the Pacific at this time. Not only are they essential for US strategy in the region at-large, but they would also play a critical role in the operational effectiveness of an intermediate-range missile force. However, governments may face political and economic costs for supporting US efforts. US diplomatic efforts must be respectful of these concerns while also illustrating the importance of intermediate-range missiles for future regional security. If allies are overcome by constraining circumstances and refuse to permanently base missiles, additional options to explore include limited deployment agreements that would only place missiles in country during a time of crisis.[xxiv] The U.S. must also emphasize the danger of allowing a precedent of successful Chinese economic and political coercion to be established.

The threat posed by the Chinese A2/AD strategy is possibly the most concerning in any theater of conventional military operations. China’s exclusion from the INF treaty has allowed it to support this strategy with an unmatched force of intermediate-range missiles. Now that the United States has removed itself from the treaty, it should seize upon this opportunity to counter China with a missile force of its own. Serving as a supplement to current US capabilities, a ground-based, intermediate-range missile force would help to rectify the strategic imbalance in the region, augment the role of naval and air power, and provide a greater degree of options at a lower cost than existing weapon systems.


[i] “U.S. Withdrawal from the INF Treaty on August 2, 2019,” United States Department of State, August 2, 2019,

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] David E. Sanger and Edward Wong, “U.S. Ends Cold War Missile Treaty, With Aim of Countering China,” The New York Times, August 1, 2019,

[iv] David Lague and Benjamin Kang Lim, “China’s Vast Fleet is Tipping the Balance in the Pacific,” Reuters, April 30, 2019,

[v] Chinese Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile Development and Counter-Intervention Efforts: Testimony before Hearing on China’s Advanced Weapons, U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, February 23, 2017 (statement of Andrew S. Erickson),

[vi] China Power Team, “What do we know (so far) about China’s second aircraft carrier?” China Power, April 22, 2017, updated November 4, 2019,

[vii] Andrew S Erickson, “Good Riddance to the INF Treaty,” Foreign Affairs, August 29, 2019,

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Michael E. Hutchens, William D. Dries, Jason C. Perdew, Vincent D. Bryan, and Kerry E. Moores, “Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons: A New Joint Operational Concept,” Joint Force Quarterly 84 (1st Quarter 2017): 134-139,

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Jerry Hendrix, “Retreat from Range: The Rise and Fall of Carrier Aviation,” Center for a New American Security, October 19, 2015, 47,

[xii] Aaron Mehta, “Watch the Pentagon test its first land-based cruise missile in a post-INF treaty world,” Defense News, August 19, 2019,

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Jacob Cohn, Timothy A. Walton, Adam Lemon, and Toshi Yoshihara, “Leveling the Playing Field: Reintroducing U.S. Theater-Range Missiles in a Post-INF World,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, May 21, 2019, 11,

[xv] Cohn et al., 38

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] “How Much Does the F-35 Cost?” F-35 Lightning II, accessed November 19, 2019,

[xviii] U.S. Library of Congress, Congressional Research Service, Navy DDG-51 and DDG-1000 Destroyer Programs: Background and Issues for Congress, by Ronald O’Rourke, RL32109 (2019).

[xix] Stratfor Worldview, “No One in the Pacific Wants to Host America’s New Intermediate-Range Missiles,” The National Interest, August 25, 2019,

[xx] “Briefing by Mr. Fu Cong, Director General of the Department of Arms Control and

Disarmament of Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, August 6, 2019,

[xxi] Lee Jeong-ho, “China ends sanctions on Lotte two years after South Korean retailer cedes land to US missile defences,” South China Morning Post, May 2, 2019,

[xxii] Tom Hancock, Wang Xueqiao, Bryan Harris, and Kang Buseong, “China begins to lift ban on group tours in South Korea,” Financial Times, August 28, 2018,

[xxiii] Julian Ryall, “China signs defence agreement with South Korea as US angers Seoul with demand for $5bn troop payment,” The Telegraph, November 18, 2019,

[xxiv] Erickson, “Good Riddance to the INF Treaty.”

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