The U.S. Air Force has since the early 2010s concentrated a growing portion of its investments into preparations for a potential hot war against a major state adversary in the Western Pacific. The shift followed the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia,” aimed at reorienting American military and diplomatic attentions toward countering China. The policy, later rephrased as a “rebalance,” was stimulated by China’s rise to become a world leader in key areas of high tech, as well as its emergence as the world’s largest economy in 2014 and the world’s greatest spender on defense acquisitions in 2020.
From by far the world’s largest military shipbuilding capacity, to its position as the only country other than the United States to field full squadrons of indigenous fifth-generation fighter aircraft, China’s growing economic and technological prowess have fast translated into a tremendous military potential, despite its low defense spending as a proportion of GDP. The country’s rise has challenged not only U.S. dominance of the regional order in East Asia, but centuries of Western-dominated order sustained largely through the projection of U.S. and European military force into the Western Pacific.
For the U.S. Air Force, which contracted sharply after the Cold War, and subsequently partly refocused toward supporting counterinsurgency efforts and tackling underdeveloped adversaries such as Iraq, reorienting for a fight against much more capable adversaries, and in a much more vast theater where supply lines are several times longer, has required major changes.
One leading challenge that the U.S. Air Force faces is growing Chinese and allied North Korean strike capabilities against U.S. military bases across the Pacific, which threaten to leave the service and particularly its tactical aviation unable to meaningfully contribute to operations in the region. These strike capabilities also affect the U.S. Air Force’s ability to resupply forward positions during a war, including a chain of facilities from Hawai’i across the Pacific Ocean, due to both the high possibility that ports and airfields could be quickly taken out of service, and to China’s fast expanding long range anti shipping capabilities.
Among the most notable strike assets deployed by adversaries are the Chinese DF-26 and North Korean Hwasong-12 intermediate range ballistic missiles, both of which are informally designated “Guam Killers” and deploy from mobile launchers, as well as the Chinese DF-17 and North Korean Hwasong-8 missiles, which have shorter ranges but carry hypersonic glide vehicles. Both countries deploy a range of cruise missiles launched from bombers, submarines, and ground-based launchers. China is expected to field a new class of strategic bomber, the H-20, within the next five years, which will benefit from a much higher endurance and advanced stealth capabilities allowing it to employ penetrative gravity bombs against hardened facilities even in heavily defended airspace. This will make China only the second country after the United States with such a capability and provide it with a counterpart to the upcoming U.S. B-21 bomber.
The U.S. Air Force has made a wide range of complementary investments to increase the survivability of its military facilities across East Asia, one of the simplest being an increase in the pre-positioning of equipment in hardened facilities across its chain of Pacific bases. While the air force conspicuously redeployed significant quantities of ordinance to Guam in 2017, at a time when the White House was seriously considering military action against North Korea, the pre-positioning that has taken place since, and the greater measures being called for by lawmakers in Washington, could leave positions in the Western and mid-Pacific significantly less vulnerable to major logistics disruptions.
Air force fighter units have also trained to operate with more limited supplies, which can be carried in a single transport such as a C-17. A leading example is the Rapid Raptor deployment concept for F-22 Raptor air superiority fighters. It allows units of four or more F-22s to deploy to austere and remote forward locations and be ready to conduct combat sorties within 24 hours, with additional pilots and supplies for refueling and rearming carried in one accompanying C-17. These deployments, although brief due to the F-22’s particularly high maintenance needs, can provide a means to launch a rapid response to contingencies in the region.
A greater ability to deploy from austere airfields has also been sought for the air force’s F-35 units – which are lighter, better suited to strike missions, and are being acquired in much larger numbers than the F-22 to form the backbone of the U.S. and allied fleets. The U.S. Air Force began its first ever Pacific exercises using F-35s for austere airfield operations in February 2021 at Guam’s Northwest Airfield – an airfield reactivated in the early 2010s that provides an alternative for basing should primary facilities be disabled in early strikes.
The exercise was a major component of an emerging initiative – Agile Combat Employment (ACE) – which is intended to provide a greater number of more dispersed operating locations for U.S. fixed wing aviation to avoid the vulnerability of relying on a small number of larger airfields. An official press release by the U.S. Air Force elaborated regarding its purpose: “ACE is the new warfighting concept that Pacific Air Forces is operationalizing to ensure agility, deterrence, and resiliency in a contested or degraded environment.” A focus on austere airfield operations for F-35s has also been observed in the Marine Corps, which uses the F-35B variant better suited to using makeshift runways – albeit requiring more maintenance and much more limited in its endurance and combat performance than the Air Force’s F-35A.
Reflecting the considerable investment put into enhancing the air force’s ability to conduct austere airfields operations, the Air National Guard recently deployed a “prototype portable camouflage, concealment, and deception hangar” in exercises in Florida, which specifically simulated such operations. The exercises involved “new innovations in agile secure communications, portable aerospace ground equipment and aircraft concealment and survival kits” including, for austere F-22 operations, a never before seen new foldable crew ladder that can be stowed inside the cockpit. Mobile hangars on wheeled frames were also seen at the exercises, and were at least partially made of inflatable sections with a strong emphasis on being easily camouflaged and able to be quickly set up. These hangars, which are thought to conceal aircraft within them not only from view, but also from thermal sensors, are also expected to serve as decoys and be widely deployed as a means of further enhancing the survivability of the fighter fleet when it is on the ground.
Complementing efforts to improve fighter units’ ability to use austere airfields and redeployable hangars, the U.S. Air Force has invested in achieving greater dispersion of its assets through expansion and modernization of more minor facilities. A notable example was the service’s airfield on Wake Island, which began to be modernized and expanded in 2020. Facilities on Tinian Island have also received growing investment, allowing assets to be dispersed more widely and reducing the service’s vulnerability to potential strikes on Guam and other more major operational hubs. Indeed, Tinian first hosted F-22s for operations in March 2023.
While there have been calls to have facilities further hardened, some figures such as the head of Pacific Air Forces, General Kenneth Wilsbach, have claimed that this is much less effective when adversaries deploy precision guidance capabilities and can “put a 2,000-pound bomb right through the roof.” Wilsbach stressed that hardening sufficient to survive strikes from precision guided weapons would require “inordinate amounts of resources.” He instead advocated greater deployments of air defense assets such as the THAAD and Patriot systems, which can be quickly redeployed and protect facilities across the region. The performance records of U.S. ground-based air defense systems, however, leave their viability in question against the advanced missile classes adversaries deploy – particularly hypersonic missiles now in the Chinese and North Korean arsenals.
Efforts to further expand the range of facilities from which U.S. Air Force units can deploy; train and equip for austere airfield operations; pre-position arsenals across the region; and increase the survivability of existing facilities are expected to continue throughout the decade and remain a central priority for the service. This will place the Air Force in a race against the expansion of Chinese and North Korean strike capabilities as new kinds of assets, both for surveillance of U.S. facilities and for striking them, continue to be brought into service rapidly in both countries.
The air force’s priorities mirror those of the navy, and even of the army for its special forces operations in forward positions such as Taiwan, where pre-positioning of munitions has begun. These efforts by the air force will complement work currently underway to develop a sixth-generation fighter with a much greater endurance – a kind of asset both the United States and China are expected to field by around 2030. A sixth-generation fighter fleet will facilitate operations over much greater distances and thus reduce vulnerability to the destruction of bases or of airborne refueling aircraft compared to the relatively short ranged F-22 and F-35.
Expansion of the intercontinental range bomber fleet with acquisitions of B-21s, which will also enter service near the end of the decade, will reduce the burden on tactical aviation to perform strike missions and the burden on facilities in the Pacific itself due to the bombers’ ability to conduct combat sorties into the region from the U.S. mainland. The U.S. Air Force currently deploys an accident-prone and aging fleet of just 20 intercontinental range stealth bombers in a single squadron, with its limitations increasing the burden on assets such as F-35s for missions such as stealthy penetration flights into defended airspace. The planned fielding of between five and ten B-21 squadrons is thus particularly significant and complementary to ongoing efforts to improve tactical aviation’s ability to operate from forward positions in the Western Pacific.