The Imperial Japanese Navy’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor remains a popular, if somewhat tired, metaphor for the dangers of unpreparedness and overexposure to risk. For years analysts and policymakers have warned Americans about all kinds of new Pearl Harbors in space, cyberspace, the global financial markets, and even the earth’s climate.
But the real possibility that U.S. bases in the western Pacific could once again be vulnerable to a bolt-from-the-blue military attack has occasioned little publicity or debate. Yet it should take no stretched metaphors to appreciate this emerging threat.
This time, China – armed with a large and growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles – is poised to reprise Pearl Harbor. The People's Liberation Army (PLA) now possesses the means, the motives, and the opportunities to deliver disabling blows against U.S. bases in Japan where the bulk of American military power in Asia is concentrated.
First consider the means. The Chinese military can now lock their crosshairs on Japan, home to the largest U.S. naval and air bases in the world. China’s DF-15 ballistic missile can reach Kadena airbase in Okinawa, the hub of American airpower in Asia. The PLA’s non-nuclear version of the DF-21 missile boasts the range to hit all military facilities across the entire Japanese archipelago. According to the Pentagon’s 2010 annual report on the PLA, the DF-15 and the DF-21 missiles numbered over 300 and 80 respectively.