PACAF Competes With China Over Pacific Partnerships
By Abraham Mahshie
ANDERSEN AIR FORCE BASE, Guam
Ametaphorical chess match is playing out across the Pacific, with China and the United States offering military assistance and training to build strategic partnerships across the region in a competition for friends and access across the region.
While China offers big-ticket items such as aircraft, ships and port construction, the U.S. floats less expensive gear with the promise of interoperability and the training to make that useful, as well as long-term financial and military assistance, a Pacific Air Forces air liaison explained to Air Force Magazine.
“It is definitely a chess match,” said Lt. Col. Michael Ellis, a PACAF air adviser and commander of the 36th Contingency Response Support Squadron, in an interview at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. “The 36th CRSS is aligned for INDOPACOM AOR, which is a pretty hot and heavy topic right now,” Ellis said. “From our position within air advising, we are asked to provide them with equipment and then train them on it.”
In fiscal 2022, air advisers in the Indo-Pacific helped execute 50 missions with 15 different partner nations, delivering $32 million worth of equipment. Three funding streams provided assistance in theater: the Air Force’s BA04 [Budget Authority 04] funding for support to other nations; INDOPACOM Commander Adm. John C. Aquilino’s Asia-Pacific Regional Initiative funds; and congressionally authorized Title 10, Section 333, funds for building partnership capacity.
That’s small potatoes compared to what China seems to be doing. From 2013 to 2018, China provided $1.5 billion in development assistance to Pacific island nations. The total could be higher.
Ellis said the different U.S. funding streams and types of security assistance give INDOPACOM flexibility.
“It could look like 11 fuel trucks; it could look like backup generators for their airport; it could end up looking like forklifts so they can download cargo,” he said. “We train them in their country on this equipment that they’ve just received.”
Ellis cited Palau, where Exercise Valiant Shield concluded in June, and Timor-Leste as two countries in the theater receiving such assistance. Timor-Leste, a nation north of Australia that gained independence from Indonesia in 2002, is deepening ties; fiscal 2023 Pacific Deterrence Initiative funds slated for military construction there could benefit future U.S. operations.
“We hope, obviously, that it can end up being used for good in the future,” Ellis added. “And, possibly if America needs to partner with them, they have interoperable equipment now.”
Yet Ellis downplayed competition with China in defense assistance.
“When [the] cards are on the table, what we show is, even though there might not necessarily be a hospital, maybe there’s not necessarily a ship, [but] there is a support alliance, regional partnership,” he said.
U.S. as ‘Partner of Choice’
Michael Collat, a retired Air Force intelligence officer who leads Booz Allen Hamilton’s defense contracting work with INDOPACOM in Honolulu, said countries in the region are often forced to split their allegiance between China and the United States.
“China is their backdoor neighbor,” Collat said by video conference from Hawaii. “A lot of them look for China as economic partner of choice, but the U.S. as kind of the security partner.”
When China and the United States compete for access, it can be challenging, as is the case now in the Philippines. “There have been cycles throughout their history of turning west and east, kind of back-and-forth, as they try and strike that balance, depending on the administration, the party that’s in charge,” he said.
Newly elected Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. recently stated his desire for closer relations with Beijing, including possible military exchanges.
“China has been on this charm offensive for a relatively short period, but I think there’s a lot of countries already seeing what happens in that,” said Collat, referring to China’s predatory lending practices. “They look very attractive in the short term, but there’s a lot of strings that come attached to the offer.”
Ellis visited the Philippines prior to the May 9 presidential election to guide an ongoing security assistance program.
“The Philippines is one of those that will be receiving equipment in the future to support their airfield ops,” he said prior to Marcos’s comments. “Everything that I’ve seen, at least from a [political-military] standpoint, looks like it is favorable for the U.S. military cooperation with the Philippine government. I think time will tell, to be quite honest.”
In a June 9 interview at PACAF headquarters in Hawaii, commander Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach said countries indicate to him that they prefer working with the United States, which shares their desire for a free and open Indo-Pacific.
“As I go around the region and I talk to air chiefs and other senior military leaders, we’re the partner of choice,” Wilsbach said.
Wilsbach said countries in the region are worried about China’s aggressive behavior, including by Chinese flagged ships where it has maritime disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan. China also exhibits “some very bad behavior” in the skies, the commander said, citing a June 4 example of China ejecting chaff in close proximity to Australian and Canadian aircraft that caused damage to one of the engines.
“This is the environment,” Wilsbach said. “Air chiefs go, ’Yeah, we want to train with you more. We want to come and train with you in your place. We want you to come to our place and train, etc, etc, etc. So, they are seeking interoperability.”
The Business is Growing
China’s largesse across the Pacific led to a new defense agreement with the Solomon Islands in April, but Ellis said the United States is stepping up, too, with budget increases in coming years.
Some examples include further security cooperation with Mongolia and new partnerships with the Marshall Islands and Papua New Guinea in fiscal 2024.
“The business is growing,” he said.
Defense Department projections for fiscal 2024 use of congressional Section 333 funding have just been finalized, Ellis said, and INDOPACOM is expected to get 37 percent of the $1.16 billion allotted to the geographic combatant commands. Ellis said PACAF will be allowed to divvy up 50 percent of that total, or about $215 million.
“The signal is going up that there needs to be more of an investment when it comes to security cooperation—that building partnership capacity in the Indo-Pacific,” Ellis said.
The air liaison referred again to Palau as a success story. After first receiving security assistance from the Defense Department two years ago, Palau has hosted PACAF exercises Cope North 21, Pacific Iron 21, Cope North 22, and Valiant Shield 22.
“When we talk about getting after a pacing threat,” said Ellis—a reference to DOD’s preferred designation for China—working with the Pacific countries is how “they will end up trusting us.”
“There’s a lot of partnership that’s taking place,” he added. “I don’t think I can intelligently answer whether that’s going to result in actual, tangible results in the future, but what I can say is, it’s working toward the policy that needs to be done within the Indo-Pacific.”
B-2 Bomber Task Force Deploys to Australia
By Greg Hadley
A pair of B-2 bombers from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., arrived in Australia on July 10, starting a new bomber task force mission in the Indo-Pacific just days after the Air Force completed its last one.
The B-2s from the 509th Bomb Wing landed at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Amberley, according to a service press release, and will take part in “training missions and strategic deterrence missions with allies, partners, and joint forces.”
“This deployment of the B-2 to Australia demonstrates and enhances the readiness and lethality of our long-range penetrating strike force,” Lt. Col. Andrew Kousgaard, 393rd Expeditionary Bomb Squadron commander, said in a statement. “We look forward to training and enhancing our interoperability with our RAAF teammates, as well as partners and allies across the Indo-Pacific as we meet PACAF objectives.”
The bombers’ deployment will also support the Enhanced Cooperation Initiative under the Force Posture Agreement first signed more than a decade ago by the U.S. and Australia.
Collaboration between the two nations has increased even more recently, with the announcement of the AUKUS agreement, which will include enhanced air and space cooperation, as the allies look to challenge Chinese influence in the region.
More concretely, recent bomber missions in the Indo-Pacific have included training with the Royal Australian Air Force.
In 2020, Whiteman B-2s deployed to Naval Support Facility Diego Garcia then flew over Australian training areas while Marines and Australian troops trained together to control the strikes. In 2016, a B-2 from Whiteman landed at RAAF Base Tindal. Most recently, B-1s that deployed to Guam in June conducted hot-pit refueling operations with the RAAF in Australia.
Those B-1B Lancers arrived home to Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D., on July 4 to finish their bomber task force rotation. Less than a week later, the B-2s from Whiteman arrived in Australia.
This past March, a B-2 from the 509th Bomb Wing became the first bomber of its kind to land at RAAF Base Amberley, part of a quick turnaround amid more than 50 hours of flying. During that mission, the B-2 operated with Australian F-35s, EA-18 Growlers, and F/A-18F Super Hornets, as well as American F-16s and F-22s.
Alaska Command Girds for Threats
By Amy Hudson
Q: With its new F-35s, Alaska now has more fifth-generation combat power than anywhere else in the world. What does this mean for the region, and what changes are you planning for the Joint Pacific Alaskan Range Complex (JPARC) to better train with these more advanced aircraft?
A: The addition of the F-35s … is a mind-meld step in our … nation’s ability to project power all over the Northern Hemisphere. When we look at Alaska from a globe, … what you see is [that from] … anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, you can get from Alaska really, really quickly. …The location here just creates an ability for our nation to be able to respond almost anywhere in the world, and these aircraft are the most advanced in the world.
The airplanes are very complex. They have incredible sensors. They can shoot weapons that go further faster, and we need an airspace training area that allows our operators to exercise those aircraft to their fullest capabilities. So, we need to continue to build up the JPARC, … [including] increasing the size of the airspace to reflect those better sensors and longer-range weapons as well as improving the threats.
Q: Can you elaborate on the threat updates that you’re looking at with regards to the range?
A: What we’re looking at primarily are the ground threats that our operators can train against. … What are the systems that we can buy that can replicate what our operators will face in conflict? … Technology is moving at an incredibly rapid rate. Our adversaries, potential adversaries at least, are looking at some incredible technological advancements across the electromagnetic spectrum. We just need to not be locked into the past.
… The threat doesn’t have ones or twos of these systems. They have dozens, if not hundreds. So, we need to be able to replicate that. We need an environment that is densely packed with electromagnetic signals and systems that can provide feedback to our operators about when they’re targeted, when they’re vulnerable, and … if the tactics they were doing were correct. I’m pleased with the progress. You always want to go faster, but we are moving at it.
Q: Prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, it was busy forming new military units focused on the Arctic, refurbishing old infrastructure, and building new bases. Where does that stand now?
A: Certainly, the focus of their military operations has been on the invasion of Ukraine. I don’t think there’s any doubt of that, but we haven’t seen them, … take assets or people out of those … areas … [they were] building up, and I think that that’s expected because the Arctic is very, very important to Russia. Depending upon what number you look at, it generates a significant portion of their GDP from materials like petrochemicals and hydrocarbons. … They are committed to securing their interests in the Arctic.
Q: Are you still intercepting the same number of Russian aircraft entering the U.S. Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ)? A few years ago that was a record high.
A: We don’t talk specific numbers because of operational security, but certainly we also do message when we are tracking and or intercepting aircraft that come into our ADIZ, and those have been few and far between of late.
… What I would say is we don’t see any change in their commitment to the Arctic. But it is reasonable to assume that some of the operations that they’ve done in the past have not been conducted of late. And I think it’s important to note, … operations in the Arctic are pretty circular, right? So, … we’ll see increases [in exercises or training] and then we’ll see some lulls. I think it’s too early to tell if this is just one of those standard lulls or if it’s something new.
Q: China obviously is not geographically close to the Arctic but considers itself an Arctic nation. Have you seen any changes there?
A: China, … has proclaimed themselves a near-Arctic nation. … If you’re familiar with Google Maps, you might find some disparities with that statement. Here’s what we know: China continues to have an interest in the Arctic. They use research vessels, which … most likely have a dual civilian and military purpose in the Arctic. They are keenly involved in the Arctic Council, even though they’re only an observer, because they are not an Arctic nation despite what they might want to proclaim. They obviously understand that the Arctic is going to be important to them and to the world in the upcoming future and they want, I believe, to try to influence the governance of the Arctic and how it’s managed.
Q: Last year, Gen. Glen D. VanHerck, commander of U.S. Northern Command, told Congress Arctic funding was “inching” along. Has there has been progress in this area in FY23?
A: The FY 23 budget isn’t finalized yet, so … it’s too early to declare victory, stalemate, or defeat when it comes to Arctic funding. But I would say that people are recognizing the importance of the Arctic. There are just some incredible competing demands right now, and … funding is not unlimited. It’s going to have to be apportioned to the priorities of our nation. … In order to make different strategies work, you’re going to have to resource them, and if you want to resource those strategies, you’re going to have to take from other areas, and I think that’s the discussion we continue to have.
… What I always like to emphasize is what happens in our Arctic, … we want to be by choice, not by consequence. So, we need to make the right choices about funding the right things in our Arctic strategy, so that we’re not trying to play catch up later on.
Q: This spring you had multiple simultaneous Arctic exercises going on where Agile Combat Employment played a big role. What unique challenges, if any, does ACE present in the Arctic? What have you learned so far?
A: The concept of agile combat employment isn’t only for the Pacific region. The threat is real, and essential bases that are consolidated, are vulnerable now to different types of attack. … Dispersal is going to be a key part for us in future conflict, … and being able to move assets, … to keep your assets protected by surprise, by concealment—you know complicating the enemies’, targeting—that’s going to be a fundamental concept of conflict in the future. …
We’ve learned that organizing, training, and equipping on a regular and consistent basis is going to be key, because you just don’t show up in January in the Arctic and thrive. You’re pretty much just trying to survive, much less thrive. … We know that we need a regular drumbeat of exercising, training, and equipping our forces to work up here. The environment itself is challenging. The cold, the snow, the wind, the weather, are just things that our service members need to experience. … It’s also the equipment because we bring equipment that’s never seen below freezing to Alaska, different things happen, so understanding hydraulics, understanding seals, understanding all the things that the cold weather affects is important for not just the human body but also for the equipment that we use.
Q: Clear Space Force Station, Alaska, received its first Long Range Discrimination Radar in December. Can you talk about the capabilities that brings to the region and where that stands in terms of operational capability?
A: Clear is an important improvement in both domain awareness as well as missile defenses, and I’m excited about what that capability brings for us. The Space Force is running that location, we’re obviously providing support where we can. … Much like real estate, it’s all about location, location, location. Where Alaska sits provides an incredible place for you to be able to detect, track, and engage threats to our homeland. And a Clear provides us those capabilities.
Q: How is climate change impacting all these things that we’ve talked about?
A: The warming rate is two to four time faster [in the Arctic] than the rest of the globe, and what that’s doing is creating a different environment. … It’s really affecting the permafrost, so the ground in which we built and utilize all of our systems … is changing. So it’s going to change the way that we build in the future, and it’s going to probably require us to make modifications to the things that were built in the past. The warmer temperatures are creating less sea ice and that gives us a couple of challenges. … Do you know how when a hurricane comes up from the Caribbean and … goes on the East Coast, and … it’s got like 75 mile an hour winds and everyone’s freaking out in New Jersey and New York? We call that a Thursday up here in the Arctic. When you have less sea ice, now you have the wind and the storms, causing some incredible erosion patterns that we just never really anticipated. Because the open water is there longer, … we’re seeing some erosion rates on the coast of Alaska that are decades further than we thought. … At one of our sites the erosion is already up to what we predicted it would be in 2040. …
A lack of sea ice also is creating opportunities. … If you think about a route from East Asia to Europe, you can save somewhere in the order of seven to 12 days in travel time with a ship sailing from East Asia to Europe. That’s an incredible cost savings for transportation companies, and just one of the reasons that we believe that a few countries like China are looking very closely at the Arctic. The … lack of sea ice … doesn’t make the environment less formidable, but it allows you to have access to some of the resources, … in the form of hydrocarbons, … rare earth metals, minerals, and … fish, … which again, is why I think you see Russia very steadfastly building up this Arctic presence to safeguard what it believes are its national interests.
Q: If erosion is happening so much faster than you anticipated, what does that mean for the radars located along the coast?
A: We’ve already built a number of sea walls and fortified the structures around those radars. … The radars themselves are vitally important to us, but in the future, we’re looking at different technologies, like over-the-horizon radars—those wouldn’t necessarily be built on the coast—to provide us that domain awareness. … We’re not planning on moving any of our radar sites at this time. I think we understand how to protect them with those sea walls … and fortifying them.