The Expanding X-Band Radar Network: US ‘Asia Pivot’ Gets Real

August 29, 2012

Zachary Fillingham

US military testing 

Recent comments on US plans to deploy X-Band radar stations in southern Japan and possibly Southeast Asia suggest that the Obama administration’s ‘Asia Pivot’ is gaining momentum.

The Obama administration has always had a clear vision of where the US military is needed the most: not the Middle East, where transitory energy supply concerns have swallowed up American blood and treasure, but East Asia, the lynchpin of global shipping and home to the first post-Cold War challenger to US military predominance.

These plans are complicated by the fact that China sees East Asia as its own strategic domain; the space that it can rightfully occupy given its increasing political and economic weight. A good historical analogy would be the US Monroe Doctrine that sought to keep European colonial powers out of what the US perceived to be its own sphere of influence. As such, China’s military modernization has been weighted heavily towards area-denial weapons meant to limit the ability of the US Navy to operate in waters off the coast of China; waters that border several key US allies such as Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and to a lesser extent Taiwan. The crowning jewel of the Chinese area-denial push is the DF-21D anti-ship ballistic missile, a platform that has been described as a ‘one-shot aircraft carrier killer.’

This kind of area-denial capability threatens the credibility of US military power in East Asia. But that’s where the expansion of the X-Band radar network comes in.

American officials have claimed that this potential placement of an X-Band installation in southern Japan is a response to the threat posed by North Korea, and that may well be the case, but it would also have the added side effect of wrapping an extensive radar blanket around China; one that may expand even further if radar systems in South Korea, Taiwan, and India were ever integrated into a wider regional system.

X-Band is a highly sophisticated type of radar that has the range and sensitivity required to give anti-ballistic missile platforms enough time to act. It is said to be able to detect a softball tossed in the air from 2,900 miles away, and has already been deployed in Israel and northern Japan. X-Band detection can be used in tandem with Terminal High Altitude Defense (THAAD) and ship-based anti-ballistic missile platforms. According to the Wall Street Journal article that broke the story of the Obama administration’s X-Band expansion in Asia, the US military is currently building six new THAADs and 10 new anti-ballistic missile capable warships, over half of which are bound for deployment in the Pacific.

Obviously, these weapons will affect the military balance in East Asia. They will help assuage Japanese fears over both North Korea and an increasingly nationalist China, and they will increase the credibility of US military deterrence in regards to a potential conflict over Taiwan.

But the X-Band expansion and increases in anti-ballistic missile platforms can’t change geography, and the US military will have a hard time maintaining an upper hand in what is essentially China’s backyard. For example, any anti-ballistic missile system can be overwhelmed and thus circumvented by simply increasing the amount of missiles being fired. Given the fact that China already has over 1,000 missiles aimed at Taiwan, the X-Band radar network couldn’t hope to prevent massive damage in the event of a conflict in the Taiwan Strait. However, it would help to limit the damage from any such attack and prevent small-scale ‘punitive’ strikes in the region.

This move provides some substance to what has until now been a largely rhetorical Asian pivot. It looks like the US government is serious about going toe-to-toe against China in East Asia. Consequently, announcements of more troops and equipment transfers to Asia should be expected in the future.

Zachary Fillingham is a contributor to the 

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  • YiJiun

    With X-band radar network seeking to neutralize any credible Chinese deterrent, deeper strategic implications are introduced into the Chinese defensive designs far beyond the dimensions of A2AD. What’s at stake at the heart here is strategic nuclear balance across the IndoPacific region.

    China has been exploiting strategic differences between the former Cold War rivals to fortify its otherwise vulnerable position in this international geopolitical equation which is unsustainable in the foreseeable future.

    Under the “Pivot to Asia” project, Washington is also intensifying deployment of its nuclear forces to the region.

    Now, with increasing pressure around the Chinese periphery to challenge China’s sovereign interests and rights, what can be its answer to that?

    Obviously, China has to step up enhancing its 2nd strike capacity with credible development of nuclear missile submarines. To ensure the potency of deterrence, the deployment of long-range hypersonic stealth bombers in the strategic Chinese arsenal is an added critical edge, supported by the establishment of strategic overseas military bases and aircraft carriers to enable power projection that draws hostile American forces away from clustering in China’s backyard.

    With an abundance of qualified manpower, the infiltration of Chinese spy network to defuse threats posed by X-band stations can be carefully engineered.

    In time to come, Beijing will set up its own X-band radar installations to broaden defensive buffer zones not only around the Chinese periphery but further afield, giving Washington a taste of its own medicine.

    Of course, there’s still a long way before any credible defense buildup but as a Chinese saying goes, journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step….Key is to be resolute in this endeavor, with the necessary determination and boldness.

    “Star Wars” is certainly the future…


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