US sends land-attack missile system to Philippines for exercises in apparent message to China

China has accused the United States of “stoking military confrontation” with the recent deployment of a powerful missile launcher capable of firing weapons with a range of up to 1,600 kilometers to exercises in the Philippines.

The US Army’s Mid-Range Capability (MRC) ground-based missile system arrives in a region on edge following a series of dangerous Chinese-Philippine face-offs in the South China Sea, during which Philippine ships have been targeted with water cannons, injuring several Filipino sailors.

It’s the first-ever deployment of the MRC missile system, also known as the Typhon system, to the Indo-Pacific theater, and it comes amid a series of US-Philippine military exercises, including the largest-ever edition of the annual bilateral Balikatan drills beginning Monday.

The US Army has not said how long the Typhon system will remain in the Philippines, but its involvement in the series of joint exercises between the two treaty allies, the first of which began on April 8, sends a signal the US can put offensive weaponry well within striking distance of Chinese installations in the South China Sea, the southern Chinese mainland and along the Taiwan Strait, analysts say.

The Typhon system is capable of firing the Standard Missile 6 (SM-6), a ballistic missile defense munition that can also target ships at sea at a range of 370 kilometers (230 miles), according to the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

It also can fire the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile, a maneuverable cruise missile with a range of 1,600 kilometers (1,000 miles), according to the CSIS.

According to Beijing its presence in the region increases the risks of “misjudgment and miscalculation.”

During a regular news briefing last week, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian accused the US of seeking a “unilateral military advantage,” and underscored Beijing’s strong opposition to the deployment.

“We urge the US to earnestly respect other countries’ security concerns, stop stoking military confrontation, stop undermining peace and stability in the region, and take concrete actions to reduce strategic risks,” Lin said.

The US Army is calling the deployment, which began April 11 for the Salaknib exercise, a “landmark” in its regional capability.

Diplomatic fallout

The apparent diplomatic fallout comes as attendees from 29 countries, including the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, attend a two-day Western Pacific Naval Symposium, which began in the eastern Chinese port city of Qingdao on Sunday.

The attendees will discuss “maritime peace, maritime order based on maritime security cooperation and international laws, and global maritime governance,” according to Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency.

Those are the same rules Washington and Manila accuse Beijing of ignoring with aggressive Chinese actions that have injured Filipino sailors and damaged vessels around disputed features in the South China Sea.

The 1951 mutual defense treaty between the US and the Philippines – the oldest such US pact in Asia-Pacific – stipulates both sides would help defend each other if either were attacked by a third party.

In brief comments to CNN on the sidelines of the gathering, US Adm. Stephen Koehler said: “I think it’s a great opportunity for all navies to get together and discuss all the issues.”

A Mid-Range Capability (MRC) Launcher is unloaded from a US Air Force C-17 in the Philippines earlier this month. - US Army Pacific
A Mid-Range Capability (MRC) Launcher is unloaded from a US Air Force C-17 in the Philippines earlier this month. - US Army Pacific

China’s missile advantage

Analysts say the deployment of the Typhon missile battery is the first signal of US plans to address what has long been an advantage for Beijing in the region.

“This in some way ‘equalizes’ the prior situation where (Chinese) missiles have threatened US forces along the First Island Chain (which includes the northern Philippines, Japan and Taiwan), and even further eastward along the Second Island Chain centering on Guam,” said Collin Koh, research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

A 2021 report for the US Army’s professional journal Military Review puts the current missile advantage of the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force (PLARF) in stark terms.

“The conventional arm of the PLARF is the largest ground-based missile force in the world, with over 2,200 conventionally armed ballistic and cruise missiles and with enough antiship missiles to attack every US surface combatant vessel in the South China Sea with enough firepower to overcome each ship’s missile defense,” Army Maj. Christopher Milhal wrote.

While the Typhon can’t bring those kinds of numbers into play for US forces, its mobility represents a problem for Chinese mission planners — giving it important deterrent value, analysts say.

In announcing the Typhon deployment, the US military noted how the system was delivered to the Philippines via an 8,000-mile, 15-hour flight from Washington state by a US Air Force C-17 cargo jet.

Analysts don’t expect the Typhon system to be permanently based in the Philippines, but Koh said the ability to move the batteries to a range of “pre-surveyed launch sites” around the region on short notice increases their survivability and challenges relatively new and untested Chinese intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and targeting capabilities.

Whether the Typhon’s likely temporary status mitigates the fallout remains unknown. but China has previously reacted furiously to missile deployments in what it sees as its backyard.

Writing in the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance Blog, analyst Rupert Schulenberg noted that in 2016, when South Korea agreed to the deployment of a THAAD defensive missile system on the Korean Peninsula, “Beijing responded with an unofficial economic boycott that cost South Korea’s economy $7.5 billion in 2017 alone.”

A Mid-Range Capability (MRC) missile launcher is loaded into a US Air Force C-17 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, on April 4, 2024. - US Army Pacific
A Mid-Range Capability (MRC) missile launcher is loaded into a US Air Force C-17 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, on April 4, 2024. - US Army Pacific

The current deployment of the Typhon was something that would not have even been an option for the US military until 2019. Development of ground-launched missile systems of the type were banned under the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the US and the Soviet Union.

But the US formally withdrew from the treaty in 2019, with then-President Donald Trump “citing Russian noncompliance and concerns about China’s intermediate-range missile arsenal.”

Balikatan exercises begin

Meanwhile, the US and the Philippines kicked-off the largest of their series of joint exercises Monday, with the three-week Balikatan drills — Tagalog for shoulder-to-shoulder — involving thousands of military personnel.

A report from the official Philippine News Agency said Manila would use the annual exercises to showcase its military’s most advanced systems, including a missile frigate, light fighter jets, close-combat support aircraft and Black Hawk helicopters.

Philippine officials previously indicated the naval portion of the exercise would for the first time extend beyond the 12-nautical-mile limit of Philippine waters — and into the country’s exclusive economic zone, some 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from Philippine shores, though no exact route has been provided.

It will also include French naval participation in a group sail from Palawan Island, according to Philippine officials.

Palawan, which sits between the South China Sea and the Sulu Sea, is about 200 kilometers from Second Thomas Shoal, a contested feature in the Spratly Islands that has been the site of numerous face-offs between Philippine and Chinese coast guard vessels.

This story has been updated.

CNN’s Steven Jiang in Qingdao contributed to this report.

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