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By: Stephen J. Bressett
By now, we are all familiar with the 2018 National Defense Strategy’s claim that America is “emerging from a period of strategic atrophy,” and in a return to “great power conflict.” Unsubtly so, this places China at the forefront of military strategy in the Pacific in an attempt to balance and contend the eco-political power yielded by the Sino juggernaut. Although conflict is not a forgone conclusion, the US-China relationship appears to be stuck in a security dilemma. This game of cat and mouse is expected to continue, but perhaps most interestingly is what each side is doing to counter the other. This article will examine the recent deployment of stealth bombers to the Pacific as an example of how the US is anticipating, adapting, and responding to the emerging threats in INDOPACOM.
The nickname of the DF-26 Chinese ballistic missile is designed to grab attention. Dubbed the “Guam killer” by Chinese and defense analysts, the missile is capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads past the second island chain – a geographic area represented in Figure 1. This places at risk the US Air Force’s stronghold on the island of Guam, presenting new security challenges to an already complex military problem. In response, the US military has long looked at using adaptive basing techniques to complicate an adversary’s ability to find-fix-track-target (F2T2) American forces in the Pacific vastness, and escape emerging missile threats. The tyranny of distance presented in the Pacific makes long-range strike bombers like the B-2, a key enabler and a probable player during initial conflict. A recent deployment of B-2 stealth bombers likely exercised this concept.
On August 21, 2018 the first of three B-2 stealth bombers landed on Hawaii for the first time in the aircraft’s 25-year existence. This action represents a new approach to the dynamic security environment of the greater Indo-Pacific region. The B-2’s deployment is a reserved and calculated action that honors emerging Chinese threats, while gaining crucial theater experience and integration for personnel, and exercises adaptive basing realities. But why Hawaii, and why now? Perhaps newly operational DF-26 missiles capable of striking Guam could be forcing the Pentagon to prepare for stealth strike operations without using Andersen AB as a hub.
Guam has traditionally been the staging area for bomber operations in the Pacific. Continuous bomber presence has been on-going for 14 years. Since 2004, US Air Force bombers such as the B-1B Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit have been in continuous rotations to Guam. These bombers provide a significant rapid global strike capability that enables readiness and US commitment to deterrence, offers assurance to our allies, and strengthens regional security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region. Bomber rotations also provide Pacific Air Forces and US Indo-Pacific Command commanders a global strike and extended deterrence capability against any potential adversary and provides opportunities to strengthen regional alliances and long-standing military-to-military partnerships throughout the region. Recently, these forces have projected power deep into the area of responsibility providing shows of force on the Korean peninsula, and in the South China Sea. Guam’s strategic importance remains uncontested, however, technological improvements by our adversaries have been successful creating concern about Guam’s long-term survival in a peer-based conflict.
On April 16, 2018, China’s Ministry of Defense announced that the People’s Liberation Army-Rocket Force had recently commissioned a new brigade of its Dong Feng-26 (DF-26) intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). The DF-26 was first publicly displayed in a September 2015 military parade. Nicknamed the “Guam-killer,” the missile has a range of 3,000-4,000 km and carries a 1,200-1,800 kilogram nuclear or conventional payload. The drive for a missile capable of striking Guam is the result of China’s leaders seeking capabilities to counter what they regard as US military encirclement of China. To counter US and allied forces in Asia, China is developing weapons for fighting conflicts in two island chains, the first stretching from Japan, to the Philippines to the South China Sea, and the second including the Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Palau, and eastern Indonesia.
With Guam now in range of IRBM strikes (Figure 2), strategic bombers may be forced to disperse to new locations, and conduct combat operations from a variety of improved and unimproved bases. This scenario of adaptive basing is something defense planners and diplomats have been working on for years. A vast network of bases exists throughout the region, creating a resilient option against China’s feared missile threat. Although many of the specific sites are in undisclosed locations, it is not outside of reason to believe that bomber operations would be conducted from the relative safety of Hawaii.
For the B-2, staging operations from Hawaii makes sense and is multifaceted. First, Hawaii is outside of the second island chain, removing Joint Base Pearl Harbor (JBPH) from the range of DF-26 missiles. This increases survivability for the limited number of stealth bombers remaining in the active inventory and provides a prepared military installation from which to operate. Secondly, F-22 Raptors stationed at JBPH afford an excellent opportunity for integration between the two stealth platforms. This marriage is typical in a modern air battle, and is necessary to compliment tactics between aircraft. Maximizing integration garners critical training opportunities for young pilots on both sides, while improving platform cross-communication and expectations. Additionally, KC-135 Stratotankers stationed on the island provide the B-2 with fuel for long-duration missions, as well as training for aircrew.
Normal B-2 operations in the Pacific have included hot-pit refueling in Australia, Diego Garcia, and Wake Island. These training missions are critical to testing capabilities, and generating experience for aircrews, maintainers, and logistics personnel. Specifically, aircrew members get new flying experiences in different airspaces, using different planning assumptions, and adjusting to new environmental constraints. The Pacific’s hot, humid, and often rainy climate is much different than the B-2’s home in Missouri. In part, this is what makes deployments to the Pacific so important – it is an opportunity to train in new and dynamic environments that tests the system from concept of operation to execution.
The B-2 is the most feared and respected weapon system in the inventory. With its unmatched range, precision, payload, and low observable qualities it remains peerless. The 393d Bomb Squadron harnesses this power, and carries a combat pedigree unlike any other fighting unit. With a historic resume that is surely familiar to all Americans, the Tigers are best known for ending WWII with the mission to drop two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This surely has our adversaries’ attention, and that’s the whole point. A nuclear capable, stealth aircraft lurking amongst the vastness of the region is alarming. Few aircraft have the capability to project power in this capacity, and arguably no other aircraft is a better symbol of America’s devotion to its allies. When the B-2 goes somewhere, people notice. The recent deployment of three B-2s to Hawaii represents the Pentagon’s ability to anticipate, adapt, and respond to China’s increasingly capable missile threat – and so for now, the game of tiger and mouse continues.
Maj Stephen Bressett is a student at the Air Command and Staff College in the Multi Domain Operations Strategists program and holds a doctorate degree in education. He is a senior pilot with more than 2,900 flight hours in the B-2, T-38 and T-6. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the U.S. Government.