I have a new piece out in Foreign Policy. It takes a look at the changing balance of power between Pacific Command and the PLA, with a special focus on the vulnerabilities of US Forces Japan. This section describes the problem:
The threat posed by China to forces stationed in Japan is real: Over the last ten years the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has drastically increased its ability to strike at the Japanese home islands, especially by missile or rocket. Ten years ago the PLA had fewer than 100 cruise or ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. air bases in Japan; according to the U.S. Department of Defense’s most recent report on the PLA, they now have around 1,000 ballistic or land-attack cruise missiles with this capability.
Missiles like these fly at extreme speeds. In a potential conflict, the first wave would arrive in Japan 6 to 9 minutes after being launched from mobile missile launchers scattered across China. This wave’s target list would include anti-missile and air defense systems, command centers, and communication systems. A review of PLA documents by Ian Easton and Oriana Skylar Mastro reveal a special focus on targeting runways of American bases in Japan. With runways cratered, American aircraft would be stranded, sitting ducks for the next wave of inbound missiles.
Simulations of these attacks are nauseating. In a 2017 report for the Center for a New American Security, Tom Shugart and Javier Gonzales conclude that the missile defense systems of every single American air and naval base in Japan would be overwhelmed by the PLA Rocket Force’s very first volley. They estimate that more than 200 aircraft, almost all fixed American command centers, every U.S. runway, and most of the American fleet at berth would be destroyed—tens of billions of dollars in military equipment gone in less than 30 minutes of fighting. Recent Rand Corp. war games found similar results. In response to the games, former Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work offered a caustic assessment: “In every case I know of, the F-35 rules the sky when it’s in the sky, but it gets killed on the ground in large numbers.”
There is a very real chance that America’s front-line forces would be crippled in the first moments of a conflict with China.
We are in a very grim situation in the West Pacific. If a war started tomorrow there is no guarantee the United States would win it. In fact, unless China started this war already a bit spent in other engagements (say, with Taiwan) it is quite certain we would lose the initial battles. Expect more from me on this issue over the coming months.
None of this is inevitable. My piece for Foreign Policy focuses in on one small part of what could be done to make things better: distributing American forces across Japan so that they cannot be destroyed in one devastating missile strike. In response to this suggestion you will hear many people argue that it is impossible, that the Japanese will never allow this. I rather hope this is not so. If the Japanese are not willing to accept a more decentralized American presence on the Japanese archipelago, then the time has come to ask whether a defense alliance with the Japanese is worth it the potential dangers and financial costs involved. If we are not allowed to actually defend Japan, then what is the point? Money wasted on their part, and lives on ours.
 Tanner Greer, “U.S. Bases in Japan are Sitting Ducks,” Foreign Policy (5 September 2019).