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US unveils island launchers for China containment

Part of initiative placing long-range weapons in the First Island Chain to create air and maritime superiority

“US Long-Range Fires Launcher complements OpFires and Typhon in implementing its missile wall strategy versus China.”

The US Marine Corps (USMC) has just unveiled its new land-based cruise missile launcher, the latest addition to several similar systems promising dispersed, survivable firepower in its “missile wall” containment strategy against China.

This month, The Warzone reported that the USMC had unveiled the Long-Range Fires Launcher, an uncrewed 4×4 launch vehicle based on the Remotely Operated Ground Unit for Expeditionary-Fires (ROGUE-Fires) vehicle for the land-based Tomahawk cruise missile that the service aims to field.

The source notes that the USMC’s first Long Range Missile (LMSL) battery had already been formally activated this year, with the service hoping to have a multi-battery LMSL battalion with an unspecified number of launchers by 2030.

The Warzone notes that the Long-Range Fires Launcher can hold just one Tomahawk missile at a time, unlike the Navy-Marine Expeditionary Ship Interdiction System (NMESIS), which can fit two Naval Strike Missiles. The source notes both are mounted on the ROGUE-Fires uncrewed Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV) operated remotely by ground personnel.

The USMC’s development of the Long-Range Fires launcher may address a mobility gap associated with the truck-towed OpFires and Typhon. Naval News notes that the latter two launchers cannot fit in a C-130 cargo plane, whereas they could if mounted on the USMC’s smaller Medium Tactical Vehicle Replacement (MTVR). That could make their rapid deployment possible on remote Pacific islands.

In July 2022, Asia Times reported about the USMC Operational Fires (OpFires) hypersonic weapon test that month. OpFires features a high degree of interoperability with US Army systems, with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) noting that a USMC logistics truck with the Palletized Load System (PLS) launched the OpFires missile, making any vehicle in the US inventory with the system a potential launcher.

DARPA also said the OpFires test used US Army artillery and fire control systems for launch, enabling inter-service joint operations, reinforcing systems capability and simplifying logistics.

In terms of system components, Naval News notes that the OpFires can carry various payloads, with the system consisting of missiles, canisters, and launchers sized to fit on the US Army’s PLS and USMC’s Logistic Vehicle System Replacement (LVSR) units. The source also says three OpFires missiles can fit on a US military 10×10 truck and that the US Marine Corps is experimenting with the Tactical Tomahawk fired from a trailer-mounted Mk 41 VLS.                                                                                                                            

Previously, in December 2022, Asia Times reported about the US Army’s acquisition of its first four Typhon missile launchers as part of its mid-range capability (MRC) program to fill in its requirement for long-range fires in the Pacific theater. The Typhon is designed to fire Standard SM-6 or Tomahawk missiles between 500 and 1,800 kilometers, which are between the US Army’s Precision Strike Missile (PSM) and the Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon (LRHW), which have respective ranges of 482 and 2,776 kilometers.

The latest Standard SM-6 Block IB features a redesigned body and larger rocket motor, giving it improved anti-air and anti-missile capabilities, and a possible secondary land attack function, while the latest Tomahawk Block V features new communications, anti-ship capability, and multi-effect warheads. Each Typhon unit consists of an operations center, four Mk 41-derived vertical launch system (VLS) launchers towed by M983A4 tractor trucks, and associated reloading and ground equipment.

Land-based missile launchers may have advantages over their ship-based counterparts, including increased survivability and effectiveness for less cost. They can also constantly present in contested areas, providing tactical and operational cover for US and allied forces. Also, attacking ISland-based missile launchers on its allies’ territories can significantly escalate hostilities.

Those advantages may tie into the 2021 US Marine Corps Concept for Stand-In Forces (SIF), which defines SIFs as “small but lethal, low signature, mobile, relatively simple to maintain and sustain forces designed to operate across the competition continuum within a contested area as the leading edge of a maritime defense-in-depth to disrupt the plans of a potential or actual adversary intentionally.” The document also states that SIFs conduct sea denial operations to support fleet operations near maritime chokepoints, using organic sensors and weapons to complete kill webs.

Those systems also tie in with the US New Pacific Deterrence Initiative, which USNI News notes will involve ground forces with long-range weapons in the First Island Chain to create temporary bubbles of localized air and maritime superiority, enabling maneuver by amphibious forces to create temporal and geographic uncertainty to impose costs and conduct forcible entry operations.

Island chain strategy map: Researchgate

At the strategic level, the US Long-Range Fires, OpFires, and Typhon programs may be part of a larger “missile wall” containment strategy against China. The simultaneous deployment of US and Chinese anti-access/area denial capabilities near contested waterways and airspace can result in neither side enjoying the freedom of maneuver over those areas, maintaining a tense but stable military balance in the Pacific.

However, a 2022 RAND study notes that the strategy may fail since the US may need help finding an ideal partner for these Ground-Based Intermediate-Range Missiles (GBIRM). It states that as long as Thailand has a military-backed government that pursues closer ties with China, Thailand will not want to host US GBIRMs.

While the Philippines’ alliance with the US has undergone a significant reset under the Marcos Jr. administration, that has not alleviated the former’s reluctance to host permanent US bases, weak territorial defense capability, and vulnerability to naval blockade. Such makes US deployments of GBIRMs unlikely in the Philippines.

The RAND study notes that South Korea is not an ideal base for US ground-based long-range missiles due to its vulnerability to Chinese economic pressure, disagreements with the US over operational control of South Korea’s military, and South Korea’s doubts over US security guarantees.

While the study notes Australia and the US’ strong alliance, the former’s distance from Taiwan and the South China Sea, coupled with its reluctance to host permanent US bases, rules it out as an ideal GBIRM basing location.

The study notes that Japan may be an ideal partner for US GBIRM deployments, citing its strong alliance with the US and willingness to bolster its defense capabilities. Although it says that Japan may be reluctant to host US GBIRMs, as they could be nuclear-armed, Japan may be willing to host conventionally-armed missiles. It also says that the US approach to Japan that would most likely succeed would be to help the latter have its arsenal of ground-based anti-ship missiles.

Source : Asia Times