China is getting closer to deploying a new intermediate-range ballistic missile known as the DF-26 — or “Guam Killer” — which could put American forces stationed on the western Pacific U.S. territory at risk, a government report has warned.

The report, published by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, a congressional commission that investigates national security and trade issues between the two countries, said last week that Beijing was working to modernize its strike capabilities amid Washington’s so-called Asia “pivot.”

The U.S. pivot to Asia comes as China’s Communist Party strives to reinforce its legitimacy by strengthening its military and protecting its territorial interests and claims, including in the disputed South and East China seas, the report says.

Beijing’s massive land-reclamation program in the contested South China Sea and its repeated incursions near the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have stoked concern in Washington and Tokyo.

Beijing’s unease over its ability to effectively defend these interests, the report says, have led it to develop missiles that can target U.S. military facilities in Asia — Guam in particular — as a means of deterring or denying U.S. intervention in any crisis.

Chinese leaders could also be more willing to resort to military force in such a crisis if they believed they could deter U.S. escalation with the threat of an attack on Guam, the report noted.

“Guam … is growing in importance to U.S. strategic interests and any potential warfighting operations in the Asia-Pacific, even as China’s ability to strike the island is increasing,” the report said. “Such attacks could hold key U.S. assets stationed on Guam at risk and also disrupt their regionwide response effort, slowing deployment timetables and reducing the effectiveness of U.S. forces in the theater.”

Guam hosts a sprawling U.S. Navy base, with docks for several submarines, as well as a U.S. Air Force base that houses a bomber group.

For Japan, the territory is also key to helping relieve Okinawa Prefecture’s burden in hosting U.S. troops.

In 2012, Washington and Tokyo reached a deal for the gradual redeployment of 5,000 U.S. Marines from Okinawa Prefecture to new facilities being built on Guam.

While the accuracy limitations and platform vulnerabilities of the DF-26 missile currently mean it poses a relatively low threat, Beijing’s commitment to modernizing the nation’s military forces indicates the risk is likely to grow.

China is believed to have long targeted Guam with nuclear-tipped long-range missiles. But the DF-26, which is designed so that it can be modified to carry various kinds of warheads — including atomic payloads — is China’s first conventional ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. territory.

According to Kyle Mizokami, a San Francisco-based defense analyst specializing in East Asian security issues, China is roughly five years away from deploying the DF-26 in significant quantities.

“The DF-26 would be very useful in the South China and East China seas,” Mizokami said. “China has, for years, worked very hard to isolate the U.S. from its Asian allies politically, by doing things such as playing up Japanese wartime atrocities. The goal is to split alliances so that China wouldn’t have to worry about U.S. forces intervening in a local spat.

“The DF-26 is a military version of that,” he said.

While analysts assess the missile as difficult — but not impossible — to shoot down, some say that if the situation in the South or East China seas escalates militarily, China hopes that the DF-26 will prevent the U.S. from sending fleets into either area, giving it freedom of action.

“The DF-26 could affect Japan by preventing U.S. forces from going near the East China Sea,” Mizokami said, adding that most Japanese contingency plans for the islands and the region involve U.S. forces acting in some kind of supporting role.

“Strip away the Americans and Japan’s plans would fall apart,” he said.

In a large-scale conflict, the DF-26’s 3,000- to 5,000-km range could also be used to strike military, political, and economic targets anywhere in Japan.

According to Zack Cooper, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, Guam’s location and size make it one of the few places capable of hosting and resupplying large numbers of U.S. aircraft and ships, making it a vital link to Asia in the event of any crisis there.

“The United States is going to be increasingly dependent on Guam as China’s anti-access capabilities force the U.S. military to prepare to operate from greater distances from the Chinese mainland,” Cooper said.

“If the DF-26 can get through U.S. missile defenses on Guam — or simply overwhelm them — then it could damage runways, parked aircraft, and the harbor on Guam, which would substantially complicate the difficulty of projecting power in the region,” he added.

But while the DF-26 would be a valuable strategic weapon for China, striking Guam would involve substantial political and strategic risk, even if such an attack is deemed operationally efficacious.

“The stakes would thus have to be commensurate with the risks,” said Toshi Yoshihara, a professor at the U.S. Naval War College who helped review the commission’s report. “For example, a war over Taiwan that involved U.S. intervention might merit the employment of the DF-26.”

Brandishing the missile over a peacetime encounter in the waters of the South or East China seas, however, would be out of proportion to the stakes involved, according to Yoshihara.

“Chinese threats in this … instance would not be credible,” he said.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.