Is the Conventional Wisdom on China's Island Bases Dangerously Wrong?

War on the Rocks has a debate on the role of China's "artificial" island bases in a future naval conflict, with Gregory B. Poling asserting that the US is dangerously underestimating the potential of China's island bases to deny access to the South China Sea for the US, and Olli Pekka Suorsa arguing that the US has adequate tools to deal with these bases even without support from allies.

The two authors agree that the primary intent behind building the bases is not to defeat the US in a military conflict. Rather, the island bases serve to support Chinese civilian and paramilitary forces in increasing Chinese naval influence in the South China Sea region. The bases are currently best understood as an extension of Chinese "soft power", demonstrating that China has a long term commitment to supporting its interpretation of its rights within the 9-dash-line. The goal of the Chinese government appears to be to intimidate US allies in the region directly, via a campaign of persistent low-intensity aggression through fishing vessels and paramilitary militia forces. The bases serve as support stations and supply depots for these forces, allowing them to operate in the South China Sea for months, rather than weeks. This campaign of intimidation serves to give US allies an uncomfortable choice: either acquiesce, and give China de facto control over the South China Sea, or reply to this intimidation with force, giving the People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) a pretext to intervene to "defend" Chinese citizens at sea.

Where the authors differ is in their interpretation of the role of these bases in a situation where this sort of soft power intimidation has failed, and the US has gotten involved in a regional conflict. Poling argues that the island bases pose a significant threat to US assets in the region, and could very well force US naval forces to retreat out of the South China Sea in the early stages of a conflict. According to him, the bases that China has built on the Spratly Islands and Woody Island can amass a significant amount of air power, as well as ground-launched anti-ship cruise missiles. These, combined with the signals intelligence resources on those bases, would pose an unacceptable risk to US naval forces. As a result, the US military would have to neutralize those bases before it is able to operate in the South China Sea.

Poling argues that disabling these bases is not going to be as easy as many US experts assume. The bases are much larger than are commonly assumed — for example, Mischief Reef's lagoon can swallow the Washington Beltway area and Subi Reef is larger than Pearl Harbor. This allows China to physically disperse critical infrastructure, requiring the US to expend more ordinance to disable these bases. Moreover, he posits that the only viable means of attacking these bases is with standoff weapons, such as cruise missiles. His estimate is that it would take roughly 100 cruise missiles to disable each of the bases on the Spratlys and Woody Island, plus a few dozen more for smaller facilities. This estimate is derived from the US attack on Al-Shayrat air base in Syria, where the US fired 59 missiles, and only disabled the base for a few hours. If it took 59 missiles to temporarily disable a relatively undefended unhardened Syrian air base, then it's not unreasonable to think that a Chinese air base with hardened air defenses and defenses on alert will require far more firepower to disable.

So what will launch all this ordinance? According to Poling, the only viable launch platform in the opening hours and days of a conflict in the South China Sea will be US submarines. However, tasking submarines to this mission will deplete their magazines (as well as depleting the US stocks of cruise missiles more generally), pull them away from attacking Chinese naval forces, and place them at unnecessary risk, as every launch gives Chinese forces an opportunity to detect and attack the sub.

Poling's suggestion is for the US to pursue further diplomatic and military contacts with the Philippines. This would allow the US to base aircraft at the Basa and Antonio Bautista air bases, as well as allowing the US to rapidly set up firebases at other locations. While such an agreement is unlikely under the current Duterte administration, the US can lay the groundwork with diplomatic and military-to-military contacts, greasing the rails for an agreement with a future Filipino government.

Olli Pekka Suorsa, on the other hand, argues that the US still has the ability to fight past Chinese defenses, even without support from the Philippines. He argues that satellite photos show that the actual amount of dispersion on Chinese bases is relatively low, and that most infrastructure is above ground and unhardened. He says that an initial strike of 30-50 cruise missiles per outpost would be sufficient to disable them sufficiently for air power (such as the B-2 or B-21) to put the bases out of commission for the duration of the conflict.

Suorsa also points out that these island bases don't have a lot of on-site infrastructure and thus are entirely dependent on the mainland for fuel, spare parts, food, and other supplies. Thus, any supply disruption would quickly affect the bases' ability to launch missions. Finally, the fact that most of these islands have only a single runway means that even in ideal circumstances, they will struggle to get all their planes in the air in a timely fashion, further increasing their vulnerability to air raids and cruise missiles.

In addition, the US has operational plans for gaining access to the South China Sea. The US Marine Corps' big-decked amphibious vessels, while not as capable as US Navy carriers, do pose enough of a threat to stretch out Chinese forces, potentially opening holes for carrier or ground-launched aircraft to attack the bases directly. The US Air Force is working on deploying 5th generation fighters in a dispersed fashion, requiring only a C-17 or C-130 for support, enabling it to use airfields that otherwise might have the infrastructure to launch high-end fighters like the F-22 or the F-35. More recently, with the US withdrawal from the INF treaty, the US Army is developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles that will also be able to attack these bases.

Suorsa concludes that even without a basing arrangement with the Philippines, the US possesses enough options to deal with the naval threat posed by China's island bases, and the US ability to neutralize these bases is only going to grow. He says that, far from being a strategic asset, these bases are actually a liability for China, and that it would be a mistake to focus on the island bases as the deciding factor in any future military conflict between the US and China.

Personally, I'm with Suorsa. I think that the threat posed by China's airbases in the South China Sea has been overblown. I think the US will be able to island hop past them just as it was able to with Japanese installations during the Philippine campaign in World War 2. The greater risk, is the one that the authors agree on: that the bases enable Chinese non-military forces to intimidate and harass US allies into giving up their navigation, fishing and mineral rights in the South China Sea without hostilities ever rising to the point of open conflict. The real threat to me, isn't that the US will lose a future war in the South China Sea, but rather that a war will never be fought, with US allies switching, one by one, to a China-led order without US interests ever being directly threatened.

In order to counter this, I would like to see the US do more to build up its allies' ability to resist Chinese non-military aggression. In particular, I would like to see greater involvement by the US Coast Guard in training and potentially equipping other Southeast Asian nations (like Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia) to better respond to violations of territorial waters and fishing rights by Chinese-flagged vessels. I also think that non-governmental efforts like the Asian Maritime Transparency Initiative are valuable for highlighting Chinese transgressions and ensuring that Chinese challenges to the navigation, fisheries and mineral rights of its neighbors don't pass unnoticed.