Despite the war in the Middle East and the need to face down Russia in Europe, the US has not veered away from its “pivot” to the Pacific, announced five years ago. In fact, the focus on the Pacific is entering a new phase, which will see the most advanced US aircraft deployed in the region, to demonstrate American commitment and—if necessary—deter or defeat hostile actors.
“In this next phase,” Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said in September in Coronado, Calif., the US “will continue to sharpen our military edge so we remain the most powerful military in the region and the security partner of choice.” He added that the US is “already sending our best people and platforms into the region.”
A planned pivot, phase three, would see even greater investments targeted at ensuring US capabilities in the Pacific region “stay the best,” the SecDef said.
The US can’t simply ignore North Korea’s continued saber-rattling and march to nuclear-capable missiles, or turn a blind eye toward China’s aggressive attempts to control trade routes through the South China Sea. This will be true no matter what happens in Syria, along Russia’s periphery, or in other global hot spots.
“This region,” Carter said, “with half of humanity, half of the world’s economy, is the single most consequential region for America’s future—and indeed for the world’s.”
As soon as practical, the US plans to send and deploy F-35 fighters and KC-46 tankers to the Pacific region. The continuous bomber presence in Guam, now in its 12th year, has become more intense and more public. Recently, all three types of US strategic bombers were deployed to the theater at the same time.
The Defense Department is going to hone its partnerships in the Pacific “even as we qualitatively upgrade the United States’ own force posture in the region and prioritize some big bet investments in advanced technologies,” Carter said during a press conference after a recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting in Hawaii.
Underscoring Carter’s remarks, the US put on a formidable display of military hardware for ASEAN defense ministers at JB Pearl Harbor-Hickam. On static display were a B-1 bomber and F-22 stealth fighter, an Army AH-64 Apache, and Navy P-8 and P-3 maritime patrol planes. Two F-22s—based at Hickam—roared overhead, and another B-1, deployed at the time to Andersen AFB, Guam, made a low pass over the base and the international visitors.
The aircraft represent the Air Force’s commitment to put its most advanced fighters—F-22s and soon F-35s—and bombers on constant rotation to the region.
More than 46,000 airmen in the region are ready to “fight tonight” because, in the event of any contingency, “the first call will be for airpower,” Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy told Air Force Magazine.
“Simply put, airpower’s unique attributes offer commanders speed and the flexibility to effectively address the tyranny of distance,” he said. He noted two recent missions: C-130s from the 374th Airlift Wing in April responding to an earthquake in Japan, and the September overflight of deployed B-1s to South Korea in response to nuclear tests by North Korea.
Carter, in his Coronado speech, said the military is “ensuring our continued air superiority and global reach” through investments in the Air Force fleet and plans for future deployments of those aircraft. More than $12 billion will be spent on the new B-21 stealth bomber in the next five years, he said, while USAF will invest about $16 billion during the same period on the KC-46A tanker. It will see plenty of use “to help shrink the Asia-Pacific’s vast distances,” Carter said.
The US military is also spending more than $56 billion over the next five years to buy more than 400 F-35s for the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. These investments come as partner nations, such as Australia, make their own investments in the F-35.
“The real story of fifth generation capability is that this is not just a US story,” O’Shaughnessy said. “It is really a story about a coalition of partner nations that will operate this platform in the very near future.”
PACAF is planning to base two F-35 squadrons at Eielson AFB, Alaska. That will double the service’s fifth generation presence in the Pacific, when counted with F-22s assigned to JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska. Aggressor F-16s will remain at Eielson to develop the skills of the fifth generation fighters and visiting air forces alike.
“We aren’t replacing other aircraft—we’re adding two squadrons of the world’s premier fighter to send a clear message about how important the Pacific is to our future and to underscore that the rebalance is real,” O’Shaughnessy said.
North Korea’s recent testing of both ballistic missiles and nuclear materials has earned a number of responses from PACAF. Four times in 2016, PACAF flew “flexible response” missions, with F-22s, B-52s, B-1s, or F-16s flying alongside South Korean aircraft “to demonstrate the ironclad US commitment to our allies in South Korea, in Japan, and to the defense of the American homeland,” O’Shaughnessy said.
The response to North Korea’s threats has not come from aircraft alone. The US and South Korea agreed this year to a new deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles to South Korea to deter or block North Korean action.
The US “remains committed to defending our allies against any threat with the full spectrum of American military might,” Carter said during an Oct. 20 joint press appearance with South Korean Defense Minister Han Min-koo at the Pentagon. “That’s why we’re adapting our force structure on the peninsula.”
The ASEAN ministerial meeting in late September came during a rocky episode between the US and one of its most stalwart Pacific allies: the Philippines.
“As it has been for decades, our alliance with the Philippines is ironclad,” Carter said in September. He noted the recent signing of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to modernize the Philippine armed forces, and the dispatch of Air Force C-130s and airmen to the country for joint training.
Shortly after the C-130s arrived, though, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited China and said he planned to break off military relations with the US.
The US has Lost
“In this venue, your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte said. “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost.”
A week later, he said the US could “forget” the EDCA and that he looks forward to a time when Filipino soldiers are the only military inside his country.
US officials maintain they will continue to cooperate with the Philippines, despite the conflicting messages.
Daniel R. Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, said in October that there is a lot of noise and uncertainty associated with cooperation with the Philippines at this moment, but the US is working through it. He added that “we’ve been through a lot worse in our 70-year history.”
Though PACAF is troubled by this recent rhetoric, military-to-military relations remain “robust and multifaceted,” O’Shaughnessy insisted.
China’s actions in the South China Sea—from building up reefs into manmade islands, to restricting the freedom of other nations to sail in international waters—have prompted some of the strongest words and actions from Washington.
“Beijing sometimes appears to want to pick and choose which principles it wants to benefit from and which it prefers to try to undercut,” Carter said in Coronado. “For example, the universal right to freedom of navigation that allows China’s ships and aircraft to transit safely and peacefully is the same right that Beijing criticizes other countries for exercising in the region. But principles are not like that. They apply to everyone, and to every nation, equally.”
To counter this, the Air Force has sent multiple deployments to conduct international patrols of the sea. Air Force A-10s from Clark AB in the Philippines patrolled the area, and future rotations in that region are expected to continue.
“We’re working to train with our partners in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and we’re using our Air Force assets to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea,” service Secretary Deborah Lee James said at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber conference in September.
“On every corner of the map, our airmen are engaged with allies and partners to enhance global security and stand tall against aggression,” highlighting that “more airpower” is needed in the area to protect freedom of navigation, she asserted.
At the ASEAN meeting in September, Carter pushed the other countries to raise their involvement in countering China.
“Any nation and any military—no matter its capability, budget, or experience—can contribute,” Carter said as the meeting convened. “And that’s important because, as we see at meetings like this one here today, every nation has a stake in ensuring this network’s success and every military can make a vital contribution to regional security.”
In 2017, US Pacific Command will convene ASEAN partner nations in a maritime exercise “to improve information sharing in the … maritime domain,” Carter announced. This exercise will be in addition to large-scale exercises with other nations in the area, including the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, which has seen more Chinese involvement.
The US “will continue to stand with our allies and partners” and will continue to “fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows,” Carter said in Coronado. “With the military component of the rebalance,” the US aims to “help the region to meet these challenges and to remain the primary mainstay of security in the Asia-Pacific.”
Adversity and danger
China’s island-building and North Korea’s missile and nuclear tests have raised “collective concern” among Pacific nations, O’Shaughnessy said. “Adversity and danger are bonding our allies and partners ever closer” and have led to increases in engagements and training, he said.
In 2016, PACAF airmen participated in more than 200 engagements and exercises with partner nations. These have included large-scale events such as Cope North, Red Flag-Alaska, and Rim of the Pacific, as well as smaller operations such as a B-1 training mission with Royal Australian Air Force joint terminal attack controllers. This was the first such joint exercise in more than 10 years, O’Shaughnessy said.
There will be an even higher tempo of these exercises as more Air Force assets flow into the theater and interoperability with partners becomes even more important, he said.
“These engagements offer invaluable opportunities to train together, develop relationships, and become more interoperable as we assess how to best leverage and complement one another’s capabilities in the event of a crisis or contingency,” he said.
PACAF is concentrating on other, emerging powers such as India, Vietnam, and Indonesia, and engaging them in new ways. In November, PACAF and Indonesia launched Cope West, the first time in nearly two decades the US and Indonesian air forces have flown in fighter combat training.
It isn’t just fighter training, either: PACAF has increased humanitarian assistance and disaster relief training alongside combat training to let those missions “kick off in high gear when the call comes,” O’Shaughnessy said.
PACAF needs to be able to respond to possible aggression to its forces throughout the region, as its footprint increases, he continued. The service is reviewing its force posture, protection, agility, and command and control to be ready.
“With our posture, we are exploring opportunities to pre-position assets so we can shorten our logistics tail and reduce our response times in crisis or conflict,” he said.
Though he would not mention specific locations, O’Shaughnessy said PACAF is looking at a number of bases, including “stand-in” forward bases that can offer quick access to hot spots in a contingency, even though they could face a high threat level. The command is reviewing its balance of the other “stand-off” bases that are removed from hot spots but can still be used to move combat power over vast distances, he said.
While the Air Force across the world has a history of being agile to project power in areas such as US Central Command and US European Command, the Pacific provides a unique challenge in its massive size.
“For this theater, we need to increase the scale and scope of those operations,” O’Shaughnessy concluded.