US upgrades defensive ‘buffer’ in Pacific as China’s military capabilities increase

Minnie Chan
·4-min read

The United States is planning to upgrade its facilities on a remote outpost in the western Pacific as a military fallback, satellite images suggest.

The images taken by US-based Planet Labs show how existing infrastructure on Wake Island – an incorporated territory between Guam and Hawaii that is run by the US Air Force – is being improved and new facilities are being built.

The island could also host vital anti-missile defences in the event of conflict with China or North Korea, which now have missiles capable of striking the continental United States.

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The American website The Drive, which published the photos on its War Zone blog, reported that the Pentagon has been pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into the stronghold in recent years, with the near 3km (1.9 mile)-long runway and other airfield infrastructure being upgraded, and a large solar plant and other facilities being built.

The website said the base can be used as a “fallback” for the US military if bases further west are attacked.

Satellite images taken on June 25 this year (left) and October 8, 2016, show the large apron expansion on the eastern side of the airfield and activity and construction in the support area to the north. Photo: Planet Labs Inc
Satellite images taken on June 25 this year (left) and October 8, 2016, show the large apron expansion on the eastern side of the airfield and activity and construction in the support area to the north. Photo: Planet Labs Inc

Wake Island was the scene of intense fighting between US forces and the Japanese following the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 but its strategic importance faded after the war.

Lu Li-shih, a former instructor at the naval academy in Taiwan, said Pearl Harbor, on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, remains an important naval base, and the work to upgrade the facilities on Wake Island would help defend US territory from an attack by Chinese missiles.

Guam, another key US base, is equipped with a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence System (THAAD) missile battery to defend against missile attacks from North Korea.

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But last year China unveiled its DF-26 ballistic missile, dubbed the “Guam killer”, and the DF-41 ICBM – which would enable strikes on the strategically vital island and the US mainland.

“Wake Island is the buffer before Hawaii, which is the first target of [the PLA’s missiles], before its next stop: hitting the continental United States,” Lu said.

The US strategy is to create a multilayered defensive system in the Pacific, stretching from bases in Japan and the Philippines to Hawaii, with Guam playing a key role in the second line of defence.

Lu said this strategy was designed to deter Chinese naval attacks.

Satellite images show new facilities that have been built on the airbase. Photo: Planet Labs Inc
Satellite images show new facilities that have been built on the airbase. Photo: Planet Labs Inc

Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said the Wake Island upgrade could be seen as part of the Pentagon’s preparations for future conflict with China, given the PLA’s increasing missile capabilities.

He also said it would play an important defensive role if Chinese submarines were able to break through the first island chain of defences and “hurl missiles at Guam”.

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“Wake Island does not present a panacea to the operational challenges the US military faces right now from the PLA. But at least it’ll provide an alternative staging ground for US forward deployed forces, in the event Guam is rendered inoperable,” Koh added.

Hong Kong-based military commentator Song Zhongping said the island’s geostrategic importance had been fading since the second world war.

“Both Guam and Wake Island are within the PLA’s missile range. Wake Island would become another PLA target,” Song said.

“Of course, the US has many military bases in the Pacific, and the reactivation of Wake Island will provide its navy and air force an extra option if they need it.”

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