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The U.S. Air Force will likely be increasing Bomber Task Force patrols, increasing its presence in the Pacific in coming months and possibly even adding more F-35s in response to China’s aggressive expansion of its Air Force and the provocative actions it continues in sensitive areas near Taiwan and Japan.
Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown said the service is concerned that China does have a larger air presence in the Pacific than the U.S., yet he stopped short of specifying any particular measures he might direct in response.
Air Force in the Pacific
He did say the possibility of increasing the Air Force footprint in the Pacific was realistic, and added that U.S. allies in the region are increasingly playing a vital role in collective deterrence against China.
At the Air Force Association’s annual symposium, Brown told me the Air Force was now doing a lot of “analysis wargaming” to determine what he said would be the “right force capability for bombers, ISR and command and control.”
He did say the Air Force would “continue” its use of bomber task forces wherein key aircraft such as B-2s, B-1Bs and even Theater Air Sustainment Packages with F-35s uptick patrols and deterrence operations in the region.
What might an increased U.S. presence in the Pacific look like? Certainly it might leverage existing land bases where service assets already operate such as U.S. air bases in Guam. It also seems entirely realistic that more U.S. platforms could operate from friendly allied locations in places such as Australia and Japan or even additional SouthEast Asian countries.
Yet another element of this is the ongoing buildup in the region among U.S. allied forces such as Japan, Taiwan and Australia.
Japan, for instance, is not only buying U.S. Air Force Global Hawk drones for regional surveillance but also in the early stages of a massive, multi-billion F-35 buy. Some reports say the Japanese plan to operate well over 150 F-35s to include a mix of B and C variants.
Given the ability with which F-35s are known to be able to securely link to one another through a secure Multifunctional Advanced Data Link (MADL), it certainly seem realistic that larger numbers of U.S. F-35s could transit to the Pacific for basing and operate in close coordination with Japanese and Australian F-35s.
More B-52s and B-2s could also either rotate through more quickly or permanently base in the Pacific should allied locations open up. This would further support the Air Force’s already underway expansion of bomber task forces, something which gained momentum earlier this year. The Air Force began increasing bomber task force patrols earlier this year to make sure the U.S. and its coalition partners were less predictable and more assertive regarding the deployment of assets vital to deterrence.
F-35 Plus Up?
As part of a potential response to China in the Pacific, it also seems quite realistic that the Air Force might add more F-35s to the region as more and more enter the force.
The Secretary of the Air Force says the F-35 is here to stay for decades in large numbers because it is “such a superior platform” with a “high operational value compared to its cost.”
Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall is in a position to know, as he was the Pentagon’s acquisition chief during crucial years of the F-35 program when the effort essentially “turned around” and became a high-performing successful acquisition effort. Much of this transition for the F-35 program, from one known since its inception for some delays, cost overruns and developmental complications into a well-aligned, high-functioning acquisition success story, took place during his tenure as acquisition chief at the Pentagon. Many credit his involvement and leadership as critical to the successful program turn around.
Given all this, Kendall knows the F-35 from a programmatic as well as a technical perspective, and even amid political flurry about sustainment costs of the jet, he took a strong, clear position in support of the value added attributes of the aircraft.
“The F-35 is such a superior platform. Its operational value is high compared to its cost,” Kendall told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium.
During Kendall’s time as Pentagon Acquisition Chief, which spanned several years from 2010 through 2017, the F-35 passed a handful of successful developmental milestones to include breakthrough software integration, massive computer upgrades and the advent of a continuous development modernization program to ensure that the F-35 remains superior well into the 2070s and beyond. Currently as Secretary of the Air Force, Kendall expressed enthusiasm for current engine improvement initiatives intended to add fuel savings and an increase in thrust for the stealth fighter.
None of this seemed to mean Kendall was unaware of continued challenges with the program, as he made a point to say continued efforts to lower cost were needed.
“Cost of sustainment has been high for a long time, so there is room for improvement. We can do better. I’m a big believer in putting financial pressure on to create strong incentives. We are using that as a vehicle to get control of some of the intellectual property,” Kendall said.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox