- Satellite images show work on the remote base on Wake Island, which could play a key defensive role in event of conflict in the western Pacific
- China now has missiles capable of targeting the defences on Guam and striking the continental United States
SCMP Published: 10:00pm, 9 Jul, 2020
Published: 10:00pm, 9 Jul, 2020Why you can trust SCMP
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
“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.”Purchase the 120+ page China Internet Report 2020 Pro Edition, brought to you by SCMP Research, and enjoy a 30% discount (original price US$400). The report includes deep-dive analysis, trends, and case studies on the 10 most important internet sectors. Now in its 3rd year, this go-to source for understanding China tech also comes with exclusive access to 6+ webinars with C-level executives, including Charles Li, CEO of HKEX, James Peng, CEO/founder of Pony.ai, and senior executives from Alibaba, Huawei, Kuaishou, Pinduoduo, and more. Offer valid until 31 August 2020. To purchase, please click here.
Minnie Chan is an award-winning journalist, specialising in reporting on defence and diplomacy in China. Her coverage of the US EP-3 spy plane crash with a PLA J-8 in 2001 near the South China Sea opened her door to the military world. Since then, she has had several scoops relating to China’s military development. She has been at the Post since 2005 and has a master’s in international public affairs from The University of Hong Kong.