The United States is working toward fielding a number of new weapon systems including the Precision Strike Missile (PrSM), the “Typhon” Mid-Range Capability missile launcher, and the “Dark Eagle” Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, all designed from the ground up almost entirely to fight China in a future war the US envisions it can wage to prevent the East Asian nation from surpassing it militarily and economically both within the Indo-Pacific region, and globally.
The various weapon programs as well as a fundamental reorganization of an entire branch of the US military – the US Marine Corps – demonstrates the invasive and provocative nature of US foreign policy and how it is shaping its military to advance that foreign policy.
US Military Aggression vs. Chinese Defenses
China’s military posture demonstrates a desire for self-defense, its military capabilities confined almost entirely within or along China’s borders, which in turn reflects Beijing’s foreign policy of non-interference and non-intervention. Even US government and arms industry-funded think tanks like the RAND Corporation in its 2016 paper, “War with China: Thinking Through the Unthinkable” admit China lacks the desire and ability to strike at the US “homeland.”
Because China is pursuing an inherently defensive policy, it (like Russia) has invested heavily in anti-access area denial (A2AD) capabilities. A2AD capabilities are designed to prevent an adversary from entering into or maneuvering within an operational area. For China, this clearly means its land borders, shores, airspace, as well as information space. To protect China’s various domains, it has built up an immense military force with equally immense capabilities, including the world’s largest and most diverse missile and rocket arsenal.
US government and industry-funded think tank, Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) as part of its “China Power” project would describe China’s missile forces in a 2020 article titled, “How Are China’s Land-based Conventional Missile Forces Evolving?”
CSIS would note:
China has developed one of the most powerful land-based conventional missile arsenals in the world. China’s conventional missile forces have significantly reshaped the security landscape in the Indo-Pacific region, and the US and other regional actors are steadily adapting their own capabilities in response.
It also explained:
For decades, the PLA primarily sought to improve its missile capabilities to better ensure its ability to launch retaliatory nuclear strikes. While deterring nuclear attacks remains a top priority, China’s leaders have attached growing importance to the role of conventional land-based missile capabilities for both deterrence and warfighting.
The article mentions specific acts of US military aggression that prompted China’s development of its missile and rocket forces, including the 1990-1991 Gulf War and the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis.
The article admits that Chinese missiles and rockets are postured to counter the US military encirclement of China stretching from South Korea to Japan, up to and including Taiwan, and now in recent years, the Philippines.
In addition to these missile and rocket systems, China also possesses a formidable integrated air defense network consisting of some of the best air and missile defense systems on Earth, including Russia’s proven S-400 system. China also has developed a large, modern air force armed with air-to-air missiles able to out-range their US counterparts.
Together this creates a formidable A2AD strategy to deter, and if necessary, defeat US military aggression within or along China’s borders.
Rather than acknowledge China’s legitimate national security concerns and the reality of China’s rise and greater influence in the region of the planet it is located in on a map, the US insists on maintaining primacy over Asia, including over China, thousands of miles from America’s own shores. Because of China’s missiles, rockets, air and missile defense systems, and its increasingly capable air force, the US needs weapons and military forces capable of penetrating into and maneuvering within operational areas protected by Chinese A2AD capabilities.
Enter the Precision Strike Missile, Typhon, and Dark Eagle
Among the capabilities the US is developing to counter Chinese defenses, enabling US military aggression against China in Asia-Pacific, the US is developing 3 new missile systems.
The first, the Precision Strike Missile, or PrSM, is meant as a replacement for the US’ aging Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). With a range up to 500km (possibly more) versus the ATACMS’ 300km range, the missile is meant to provide greater range, more sophisticated targeting capabilities, and the ability to be upgraded well into the future. The PrSM would be launched from the M270 and HIMARS launcher vehicles.
The longer ranges of PrSM is made possible by Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed by the US and the Soviet Union (and inherited by the Russian Federation). While the US cited unverified claims of Russian non-compliance, it was clear the US withdrew from the treaty to develop missiles it believed it needed to contain China militarily in the Asia-Pacific region.
Among the intended recipients of PrSMs is the US Marine Corps. The US Marines were entirely reconfigured in recent years solely to wage a future war against China in the Western Pacific under what is called “Force Design 2030.”
The London Telegraph in a 2020 article titled, “US Marine Corps to ditch tanks in readiness for confrontation with China in the Pacific,” would explain:
The United States Marine Corps is to ditch its tanks and slash troop numbers as it prepares to fight Second World War style island-hopping campaigns in the Pacific amid rising tensions with China.
A ten-year reform programme announced this week comes follow warnings that Chinese advances in drone and missile technology have drastically eroded the West’s military dominance in the Western Pacific.
The Telegraph is unable to explain why the US should hold “military dominance in the Western Pacific,” thousands of miles from America’s own shores.
But the article does explain that the US Marines would replace their tanks and reduced numbers of artillery pieces and helicopter squadrons with “rocket and missile batteries, drone squadrons, and C-130 transport squadrons.” Among those rocket and missile batteries will be HIMARS and potentially automated launch vehicles carrying among other ordnance, PrSMs.
For mid-range capabilities, the US is developing the ground-based “Typhon” mid-range capability (MRC) missile launcher capable of firing SM-6 anti-aircraft missiles and Tomahawk cruise missiles. The system consists of a vertical launcher mounted on a trailer holding up to 4 missiles pulled by an M983A4 Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT).
Plans to deploy the Typhon to the Indo-Pacific region have already been announced, according to Breaking Defense in a November 2023 article titled, “Army’s new Typhon strike weapon headed to Indo-Pacific in 2024.”
The PrSM and Typhon, while being “fielded,” will only exist in relatively small numbers as development and improvements continue. The US Army, for example, will only be receiving 120 PrSMs in 2023. Between 2023-2027, according to Breaking Defense, the US Army will acquire up to 1,086 missiles with a maximum annual output of 266 missiles peaking in 2026. Considering the scale of fighting in Ukraine where Russia is firing hundreds of missiles a month, US production numbers are entirely insufficient should the US find itself in a direct conflict with either Russia or China.
The third missile system, the longer range “Dark Eagle” Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon, is also being rushed into the field, however, it has suffered many setbacks including during several test launches.
Defense News in a September article titled, “US Army’s Dark Eagle hypersonic weapon fielding delayed to year’s end,” would report:
The U.S. Army will miss its goal to field the Dark Eagle Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon during the government’s fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, but is still aiming to deliver the capability by the end of the calendar year, according to the service’s acquisition chief.
The delay is due to the cancellation of a critical test of the Common Hypersonic Glide Body, Assistant Secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology Doug Bush told Defense News in a Sept. 18 interview. The scrapped test planned for this month was going to be “pretty close to an operational test” rather than a developmental test, he said.
Both the US Army and US Navy are slated to receive the system. The US Army’s version, like the Typhon, consists of missile launchers attached to a trailer, but containing only 2 missiles rather than 4. The US Navy version is designed to be launched from surface vessels and submarines.
The longer-range missiles release an unpowered hypersonic glide vehicle that operates in the upper-atmosphere at speeds exceeding Mach 5. It is designed to not only move at great speeds over longer ranges (over 2875 km) but also assume an erratic flight path, making detection and interception more difficult.
Magic Missiles vs Very Real Industrial Limits
Washington’s fast-paced reorganization of the US Marines and the rushed development of these missile systems stem from a growing understanding that both Russia and China are developing formidable military capabilities – not to threaten or attack the United States itself – but instead, making it increasingly difficult for the US to coerce, contain, or subordinate Russia, China, or their growing list of allies and partners.
China’s rapid rise economically and militarily creates a closing window of opportunity for the United States to exploit its perceived, existing military advantages over China in a conflict now rather than later after China irreversibly surpasses the US by all conceivable metrics.
It could be argued that this window of opportunity has already closed, and no amount of reorganization or rushed missile development can make up for the United States’ fundamentally weak industrial base and the fact that it seeks to wage war against a nuclear-armed superpower across an entire ocean, and do so off that targeted nation’s own coasts.
Considering the role military industrial production has played in the conflict in Ukraine and the weaknesses revealed in this regard across the entirety of the West, one wonders why the US believes it can somehow outproduce and outfight China if it was unable to outproduce and outfight Russia.
Brian Berletic is a Bangkok-based geopolitical researcher and writer, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.