While American defense budgets are in a rapidly escalating free-fall, Chinese defense budgets have seen annual double-digit increases.

China’s rapid military modernization is focusing on anti-access and area denial (A2/AD) technologies, which are designed to deny American naval and air forces access to the skies and waters off the Chinese coast.

The problem is that much of the American force is unstealthy and consequently would not be able penetrate the Chinese A2/AD zone until later on in a conflict, when the A2/AD forces were neutralized. The dilemma for American strategists is how to destroy Chinese targets on the mainland when the bulk of the U.S. arsenal would have to sit out the opening rounds of conflict.

The solution is long-range strike capabilities. Long-range strike is the American javelin that can leapfrog A2/AD defenses and destroy targets on the Chinese mainland at minimal risk to U.S. forces. America’s two most important long-range strike programs are the Navy’s SSBN-X, the Ohio-class replacement ballistic missile submarine, and the Air Force’s next-generation bomber.

While these two programs play a major role in nuclear deterrence, when equipped with conventional missiles, they are perfect vehicles with which to attack the Chinese A2/AD network. These stealthy platforms can penetrate Chinese “no go” zones and destroy key missile batteries, opening the door for non-stealthy platforms to enter the conflict.

Recent studies have indicated that a future conflict with China may be decided within the opening stages of an attack, long before preponderant American power could be marshaled to punch back against a Chinese offensive. Without effective long-range strike options, America would be left effectively defenseless against an opening salvo that could render airbases inoperable while keeping surface combatants out of their effective firing ranges.

The SSBN-X and the Air Force’s next-generation bomber will form the core of America’s long-range strike arsenal far into the future and must be protected at all costs against budget cuts. Investing in these programs will be expensive, but the more costly course would be to find the United States “locked out” of the Asian littoral and unable to hold Chinese targets at risk—undermining deterrence and allowing China free rein in East Asia.

In a time of fiscal uncertainty, America has a lot of choices—but let’s be sure we choose to maintain a military capable of meeting the threats of the 21st century.

Charles Morrison is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm