Post-INF Deterrence and Strategic Stability in the Far East
The opinions expressed in this article reflect the opinions of its author(s). They do not represent the views of UCL's Diplomacy Society, Diplomacy Review nor The Diplomat.
Part 1. New Missile Arms Race in the Far East?
In the Asia-Pacific region, China's medium-range missile force, which has not been constrained by the INF Treaty, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, is currently being strengthened. Besides, Japan traditionally has not considered the possession of long-range strike capability in its strategy for a long time. This has led to today’s significant lack of strategic stability in the region.
With the growing likelihood of state-on-state full-scale war in the Asia Pacific region, the attempts to restore the balance and strategic stability require a reassessment of the security environment in the Far East, accompanied by an understanding of contemporary (post-Cold War & -INF treaty) deterrence concepts.
The concept of deterrence during the Cold War was relatively simple, as the balance of power between the major powers was almost a direct reflection of the balance of strategic nuclear weapons that the great powers possessed. However, the end of the Cold War marked the dawn of a new deterrence concept: post-Cold War deterrence is characterised by the interaction of conventional forces and the combined forces of advanced technology supporting these forces. This is also referred to as 'national cyberpower' and consists of military and economic power as the core of national power and the digital economy - the advanced technological capabilities that comprise the information, communications and electronic means - and the cross-domain (space, cyber and electromagnetic) capabilities to exert these powers in a comprehensive manner. The 'strategic deterrence' conceptual framework that emerged after the Cold War relativised the once absolute role of nuclear weapons in deterrence, making the simple 'nuclear-weapon-to-nuclear-weapon' framework no longer applicable.
Expiration of the INF Treaty and its consequences
The objective of the INF treaty signed between the US and the USSR in 1987 was to dismantle and destroy ground-based medium-range missiles (MRBMs) with a range of 500-5500 km within three years of the treaty coming into force. The INF treaty is not a 'treaty banning nuclear missiles', as many people misunderstand it, but is a treaty prohibiting missiles as a 'means of delivery' of nuclear warheads. It does not mandate the dismantling and disposal of nuclear warheads per se. Russia, which has been concerned about the development and deployment of MRBMs by neighbouring countries such as China, Iran and Pakistan since around 2004, accepted the decision of the US to abrogate the treaty in 2019.
While the expiry of the INF Treaty will not change deterrence as a theoretical framework, it could have a significant impact on the specific deterrence strategies of each country.
Growing Chinese threat
The most fundamental reason for US withdrawal from the INF Treaty is the undeniable fact that Chinese IRBMs, which are outside the INF Treaty's control, now pose a serious threat to the US. When former President Trump first mentioned withdrawal from the INF on 20 October 2018, he gave as reasons for his decision, violations by Russia but also the US disadvantage in the balance of forces with China, which also hints at the current threat perception of the US.
In Asia, the post-INF strike system is an existing and imminent threat. The response to it must be considered from both perspectives of the strike system and the defence system.
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) missile force comprises two pillars - an intercontinental ballistic missile system capable of striking the US mainland and a theatre missile system capable of threatening the US allies, the US forces and bases in the region. China may perceive the latter as a coercive tool that can be used to force politica compromises on the US and its allies in times of crisis or conflict: in addition to short-range (SR)/MRBMs and over 2000 cruise missiles (CMs), the PLA has a range of HGVs (Hypersonic Glide Vehicle) and space/cyber warfare capabilities. The PLA has established targets in the inland area of mainland China that resemble the US military bases, and repeatedly conducts missile launch exercises against them. Thus, these missiles can be presumed to be primarily aimed at the US forces and Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF) operating in and around Japan.
China's ‘exclusive possession’ of post-INF strike capability undermines strategic stability in the region from the perspective of ‘stability in crisis’ (mutual deterrence). Therefore, it is necessary to offset China's ‘first strike advantage’ and build a security framework based on mutual deterrence with conventional forces.
Against this background, there is a marked asymmetry between the US and China. China enjoys strategic depth - the quality for resilience - on the vast continent, and that is what the US military presence in the Pacific region, supported only by Japan and the distant, remote island of Guam, significantly lacks. Whereas China's missile capability consists mainly of ground-launched ballistic missiles (BMs) and CMs that are easily and swiftly deployed nd protected, US strike capability relies on land-based- and carrier-based-aircrafts, surface vessels and submarine-launched CMs. In addition, as fighter aircraft and destroyers are multi-purpose combat assets that can be assigned to various tasks and CMs occupy some of the VLS (Vertical Launching System) cells of the vessel and wing hardpoints (weapon stations) of fighter jet, engagement in strike missions constrains the execution of other operations and US-Japan forces' operational flexibility. The limited number of air bases available to US aircraft and their concentration on the Japanese mainland undermines strategic depth, making US forward deployment forces fatally vulnerable to the PlA’s first strike. The report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) also predicts that much of the air assets of the US and Japanese forces would be destroyed on the ground in the initial phases of the war. On the other hand, PLA air bases and civilian airports are dispersed across the vast Chinese mainland, increasing their resilience to US military strikes, and a 'cruise missile-centric' US counter strike would be far from sufficient to reduce the PLA's operational capabilities.
It must also be mentioned that while China continues to invest heavily in strengthening its military capabilities, it does not have the political will to advance arms control with its potential adversaries. In arms control discussions, the Chinese leadership deliberately conflates theatre missiles regulated by the INF Treaty with strategic nuclear forces regulated by treaties such as START, Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, and avoids constructive discussions. It can be seen that China’s intention is to reduce the superior strategic nuclear forces of the US and Russia while maintaining the superiority of China's theatre missile forces.
Issues surrounding the post-INF strike system and deterrence
What matters is 'deterrence' through comprehensive national power. Deterrence is the concept of making the aggressor clearly aware of the certainty and effectiveness of our 'armed response’ when an armed challenge to the status quo arises and preventing aggressive attempts in the first place. This concept therefore inevitably requires strategic communication with the potential enemy.
'Deterrence' is not dependent on a specific weapon system but is shaped by a country's military power as a whole. The impact of the post-INF strike system on deterrence strategy will be twofold. The first is the credibility issue of deterrence. It is important to make it clear to aggressors attempting to change the status quo that aggression will be met by effective armed response and fierce resistance. The development and deployment of medium-range missile forces that enable proportional counter attacks will contribute to improving deterrence credibility. The second issue relates to strategic stability. This is not a term referring to the entire stable strategic environment but includes two different frameworks of 'stabilities' - stability in the arms race and stability in crisis. The former refers to a situation that does not encourage an arms race in peacetime. The latter, in short, refers to a situation in which the guaranteed ability of both sides to launch counterattacks effectively prevent both sides from having to launch the first strike.
Post-INF strike systems and Theory of Victory (ToV)
‘War is the continuation of politics by different means, and the political object is the goal, war is the means of reaching it, and means can never be considered in isolation from their purpose’, as Clausewitz once wrote, the way of fighting must be closely related to and beneficial for the achievement of ultimate political goals. The Theory of Victory (ToV), which identifies what is politically compromisable or uncompromisable in order to achieve those objectives, is the guiding principle in strategic design.
China's ToV is expected to be to gain sea and air superiority following the first strike and to successfully land troops on Taiwan by striking the US Air Force with a rain of ground-launch BM/CM and anti-ship BM. Continuing to establish air superiority with fighter jets, naval forces would control the waters near the Taiwan Strait, and as a final step, landing forces would cross the Taiwan Strait.
In other words, the neutralisation of US forward bases with the first strike is not an ultimate objective for China. This implies that, even if the US fails to neutralise China's 'first strike advantage' and suffers certain damages, as long as it succeeds in preventing the PLA form establishing sea/air superiority or launching the final landing operation and achieving China's political objectives, China's existing 'first strike advantage’ will be confined to 'a means of gaining tactical superiority in the initial stages of war'.
The priority of the US ToV is to prevent China from establishing air superiority, to prevent China from gaining control of the sea, or to prevent an amphibious landing operation in a situation where forward-deployed air bases have been destroyed and carrier strike groups are 'denied' from traversing around Taiwan by China's A2AD (Anti-Access/Area Denial) device.
With regard to preventing the establishment of air superiority, existing aircraft-launch CMs with limited payload capacity cannot thoroughly destroy China’s airstrips and can only place a limited burden on the PLA’s operational capability for a few days. The complete destruction of airstrips and hardened aircraft shelters requires CMs with nuclear warheads or strikes by BMs or HGVs.
In missions for preventing the PLA’s sea superiority, anti-ship warfare will be the primary operational action. There will be coordinated large-scale anti-ship attacks carried out by carrier-based aircrafts, surface vessels and allied forces including the JSDF.
Counter-landing operations can be divided into several patterns. Direct attacks on landing fleet convoys consisting of transports and landing craft would be carried out using the same methods as in the anti-ship warfare referred to immediately above; attacks on hostile amphibious forces, landing forces and their supply depots could be carried out by massing and concentrating existing assets. ‘Long-range sniping’ with BMs and HGVs will be necessary to attack enemy command and control functions, such as command posts and signal bases, immediately after their discovery.
Instead of the existing concept of 'aircrafts first, CMs second' that assumes the initial strike by manned aircraft followed by CMs, there should be a new ToV based on the concept of 'post-INF strike system first, aircrafts second'. China's strike capability and advanced IADS (Integrated Air-Defence System) have made SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) against mainland China by non-stealth manned aircraft a suicidal mission.
In addition, Japan-US ToVs and security strategies are destined to be 'passive'. To begin with, the political goal of Japan-US is to 'maintain the status quo', a strategically passive position. Thus, the Japan-US alliance is not likely to take the initiative, as it is expected to respond passively to military operations deployed in line with China's aggressive ToV.
Role required of Japan
Excessive reliance on the US defence posture and lack of effort as an ally will cause the alliance to become dysfunctional. Japan should..
(1) fully assess China's strategic objectives in the Indo-Pacific,
(ii) clearly determine the direction of its own defence efforts, and
(iii) respond jointly with other countries that share fundamental values.
Japan needs to hold discussions with NATO countries, Australia, India and ASEAN, Association of Southeast Asian Nations, countries on new threat perception in the post-INF era.
Even the US is still in the process of assembling a concrete ToV concept and equipment system and is open to ideas and proposals from the Japanese side, so Japan should actively take the initiative because a common understanding of ToV among Japan, the US and the US-Japan alliance is crucial. As the national interests of each country differ, these three ToVs do not necessarily have to be identical. What must be emphasised is that the specific operation of weapons is subordinate to military strategy, and military strategy is subordinate to national grand strategy.
One of the directions Japan should pursue within the framework of the US-Japan alliance is the division of tasks. For example, Japan could be responsible for preventing China from gaining maritime superiority while the US is engaging in the operation to prevent China from gaining air superiority.
Part 2. How Japan’s long-range strike capability should address the growing China’s threat in the region
The traditional flaw in Japan's security strategy
One of the fatal flaws in Japan’s traditional security strategy has been the lack of strategic communication. The Chinese threat is completely different in nature from that of North Korea. China will seek to expand its sphere of influence and change the status quo at every opportunity. Japan and the US need to be prepared to deter China from taking further actions to change the existing state of the order in the region. The function of modern deterrence inevitably entails strategic communication with potential enemies. However, as concepts such as 'Exclusive Defense-Oriented Policy’ and 'Concept for Basic Defense Force' suggest, post-war Japan has developed a habit of thinking about national strategy on its own, without communicating with its partners. If Japan does not send a message and China becomes aware of the existence of a power vacuum, it could use this to expand its area of influence further.
In addition to ‘deterrence by punishment’, which imposes a threat of intolerable retaliation on the enemy, there are other factors such as the country’s ability to endure prolonged war such as enhanced energy and food supply, and the possibility of resistance by the population in the event of occupation, which prevent an opponent from achieving its military objectives (e.g. Winter War, The Blitz, etc.). 'Deterrence by denial’, another major deterrence concept, comprises these factors and efforts.
The threat of nuclear retaliation by the US against China is no longer a perfect solution as the effectiveness of the nuclear umbrella is insufficient against China's opportunistic and gradual expansionary behaviour (symbolised by grey-zone tactics), which starts with low-level provocations with the intention of assessing the other party's behaviour and gradually erodes its interests and builds up a history of success. Threats of nuclear attack by the US against Chinese patrol vessels are not very persuasive.
The U.S. and Japan must have a security strategy like an unbroken chain consisting of various deterrence measures, from the patrol capabilities of the Japan Coast Guard to various conventional warfare capabilities of the Self-Defence Forces, and finally to the nuclear force of the US.
Analysing or categorising military power and operations in terms of a 'shield and spear' dichotomy is outdated. The fundamental purpose of defence forces is to deter war. If deterrence fails, the role expected of military forces is to prevent the enemy from achieving further objectives. The most important theme in this process is a proactive management and control of the escalation of the situation.
The concept of the US military being in charge of offensive and Japan concentrating on defence is no longer appropriate as it is impossible to classify the necessary military capabilities and actions as 'offensive' or 'defensive' in the first place although the Japanese government has been traditionally trying to do so.
Striking capability gap in the Asia-Pacific
Japan's limited long-range strike capability
When deploying ground-launched post-INF strike systems, highly vulnerable deployment methods should be avoided from the perspective of strategic stability, as they give the enemy an incentive to launch a first strike. These missiles should be deployed in large numbers and in a dispersed manner. CMs should be deployed, by nature, in numbers of at least a few hundred and preferably more than a thousand, otherwise the strategic impact would be negligible.
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability is also essential for strike operations. Targeting and battle damage assessment (BDA) are carried out based on information provided by several assets including reconnaissance satellites, but Japan is currently dependent on the US for this capability.
It should also be mentioned that strike capability is not a substitute for missile defence. Air and missile defence can only be fully effective if the various elements - early warning, deterrence by denial, civil defence, counterforce and deterrence by punishment - are combined in a balanced manner. In short, strike capability and air defence are complementary for Japan.
Acquiring deterrence capability for deterrence by denial
‘Counterforce’ strike capability against 'fixed targets' - airstrips, hardened aircraft hangars and bunkers, ammunition/fuel depots, radar facilities, communications facilities, command and control systems nodes, etc. – is the deterrence capabilities that Japan needs to acquire.
If China becomes confident that they can escalate the confrontation from a grey zone to a small-scale armed conflict and still overwhelm Japan's Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defence Force before the US military intervenes, they will likely become even more active in provocations in the grey zone.
To prevent China from gaining such false confidence, it is not enough to strengthen the Coast Guard's patrol capabilities; the SDF's ability to quickly reject Chinese escalation needs to be strengthened to underpin its ability to deal with the grey zone situations.
In a medium- to high-intensity crisis scenario in which China attempts a maritime blockade around Taiwan or a full-scale military invasion, China would first destroy air bases and ports in Japan and Guam with its abundant missile capability, while combining cyber and electronic attacks, and exhaust Japan-US missile defence capabilities, and then deploy fighter jets and naval vessels around the First Island Chain and try to prevent US military intervention. If this is the case, the Japanese must make China realise that such military objectives are unachievable in the first place.
To deal with these scenarios, two different kinds of strike capabilities should be considered.
The first is an anti-ship cruise missile to intercept approaching Chinese transports, landing craft and other naval vessels. The Ministry of Defence decided to introduce relatively long-range anti-ship cruise missiles, namely Joint Strike Missile (JSM) (range 500 km), in the 2018 Defence Programmes and Medium-term Defence Force Development Plan. However, these are all air-launched, i.e., carried by F-35 and F-15 fighter jets. In the initial stages of a contingency, China will probably use medium-range missiles to attack Japanese air bases and runways, destroying fighter aircrafts and preventing them from even taking off. Air power that can actually be deployed for anti-ship attack missions will therefore be quite limited.
Later, the Japanese Government decided to develop advanced model of Type 12 surface-to-ship missiles (12SSM-ER), which is estimated to have a range of around 900-1200 km. The Ground Self-Defence Force's anti-ship missiles including 12SSM-ER could be data-linked to Air Self-Defence Force’s missiles and ground-launched Tomahawks, the US Marine Corps has requested to acquire. The extended range and high-speed data-link capabilities will enable the US-Japan forces to conduct saturation attacks on the same target from multiple directions, penetrating the air defence of the PLA’s fleet.
A second consideration is a BM or HGV that is capable of neutralising air bases located on the Chinese coast. China has an overwhelming numerical advantage in mobile ground-launched missile forces, and it is impossible to neutralise them in the initial phase. However, in order to ensure the safe transport of landing forces and the operation of the PLA fleet in the East China Sea and around Taiwan, China needs to deploy fighter jets after missile attacks to gain air superiority and maritime control and conduct naval blockade with naval vessels. Conversely, even if the missile attack were to cause damage to the Japanese and US sides, China's military and political objectives would not be achieved unless China effectively and efficiently sustain its air operations capabilities against fierce resistance.
Unlike CMs, which can only fly at the speed of a passenger aircraft, MRBMs can fly at nearly nine times the speed of sound and, even with conventional warheads, can cause fatal damage to Chinese airstrips, hardened aircraft hangers and ammunition depots with pinpoint accuracy. If Japan and the US are prepared to potentially attack Chinese air bases, it would pose a certain risk to their recovery efforts and would also force fighters and bombers on sorties to return to more distant bases, which would ultimately, improve the combat efficiency of air defence combat of the US-Japan forces in the East China Sea and around Taiwan.
The post-INF strike system capable of striking mainland China that Japan has now decided to develop is the Hyper Velocity Gliding Projectile (HVGP), whose development policy has been officially announced. It is a de facto medium-range ballistic missile planned to be developed and deployed in two or three phases, with a final range of over 3,000 km. The weapon would have the same effect as a medium-range ballistic missile, with a range from Japan's northernmost prefecture, Hokkaido, to the Taiwan Strait and, if deployed in the Kyushu area, to Hainan Island. Dispersed deployment of HVGP units across Japan would prevent detection and destruction by Chinese ISR and pose a significant threat to high-value and time-sensitive targets on the Chinese mainland, thus placing constraints on the operational behaviour of Chinese forces in a contingency.
In addition, the SDF has also decided to purchase submarine launch CMs and build submarines with vertical missile launching systems for the missiles with longer range. Covert submarines equipped with long-range missiles are capable of launching attacks that the hostile forces cannot anticipate and react.
Acquiring missiles alone is not enough. The development of a posture capable of countering various types of Chinese and North Korean missiles (long-range CM, variable orbit ballistic BMs, hypersonic glide weapons) also includes strengthening ISR capability, such as the use of satellite constellations and unmanned aerial vehicles, enhancing command and communications capabilities, such as strengthening the functions of the Air Self-Defence Force’s JADGE (the Japan Aerospace Defense Ground Environment) system, and improving the defensive capability of bases, etc.
Incidentally, although the Western media widely reported Japan's decision to purchase Tomahawk CMs from the US through FMS (Foreign Military Subsidy), 400 Tomahawk CMs will be merely a 'stopgap’ for Japan until the mass production basis of domestically produced missiles including 12SSM-ER and HVGP is completed.
Japan's new National Security Strategy, published in December 2022, was described by foreign media as ‘Japan Steps Up’ and ‘Japan’s Long-Awaited Return to Geopolitics’. The most significant turning point for Japan found in this document is that, for the first time, Japan has formulated its strategy on the basis of the 'capability of potential threat'. For a long time after the Second World War, Japan maintained the ‘minimum military force necessary to avoid creating a power vacuum in the region’. This document represents a decisive break from such a policy, a 'capability-based planning' against the capabilities of potential enemies. If there is a problem, it is that a major shift in national strategy, including the acquisition of strike capabilities, has taken place without prior open discussion and detailed explanation to the public. Of course, the new capabilities and equipment to be acquired do not go beyond the constraints set out in the parliamentary debate so far. However, what the Russian-Ukrainian war shows is the importance of the 'readiness' of the population. If the people are aware of the current situation of their state and are ready to accept the difficulties it faces, then the state will demonstrate strong resilience in a crisis, as Ukraine did. On the other hand, if there is no shared vision between the government and its people, the state will be vulnerable in a crisis. For example, even the 'patriotic' Russians who support Putin’s regime and his 'special military operations' now try to flee the country or resist for fear of being drafted.
The illegal and unprovoked invasion by Russia on Ukraine has proved that conventional state-on-state competition is not obsolete. Some suggest that this invasion may have delayed China's invasion of Taiwan by several years, but in the end, it is China, the aggressor, who will determine the ultimate effectiveness of any efforts: if the aggressor has a firm intention to change the status quo and lacks the will to engage in dialogue, the war avoidance effort deterrence, balance and communication in an effort to avoid war has limits.
However, it is undeniable that sustained tension between states with advanced military capabilities is itself a major risk. Mechanisms for facilitating communication in times of crisis should be considered in peacetime, not only with China but also with Taiwan and South Korea.
Although such efforts will not have an immediate effect, diplomacy and security often means building up decades of effort for a brief moment. Even if war should seem inevitable, efforts to seek peace and avoid war should continue.