China-US tension: American naval drill with dozens of F-22s ‘may be aimed at next-gen Chinese bombers’

·4-min read

An unusually large sortie of US warplanes deployed to join a naval exercise is an explicit warning to China and may be aimed at countering China’s next-generation strategic bombers, analysts said.

The assessment followed media reports that the United States was this month sending dozens of F-22 Raptors to join a military exercise in Guam and Tinian island in the western Pacific for Operation Pacific Iron 2021.

Pacific Iron 2021 is an operation by the US Air Force to project forces into the Indo-Pacific region and train them to be “more lethal, adaptive and resilient”, according to the US Indo-Pacific Command.

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About 25 F-22 Raptors from the Hawaii Air National Guard and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska will deploy, according to US media outlet CNN, citing US Pacific Air Forces Commander General Ken Wilsbach.

“We have never had this many Raptors deployed together in the Pacific Air Forces area of operations,” Wilsbach told CNN.

Retired air force lieutenant general Dan Leaf, a former deputy commander of US Pacific Command and now managing director of security consultancy Phase Minus 1, said he was not aware of a previous exercise employing F-22s in such numbers.

The F-22s are fifth-generation combat jets, the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft, incorporating stealth technology and connecting on-board sensor systems with off-board information systems to give their pilots a detailed view of the battle space.

The exercise involves more than 35 aircraft, including 10 F-15E Strike Eagles all-weather multirole strike fighters and two C-130J Hercules military transport aircraft, and more than 800 personnel, according to the US statement.

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US airmen will practise skills and conduct simulated combat flight operations from local airports in Guam and Tinian.

Leung Kwok-leung, a Hong Kong-based military analyst, said the deployment of a large sortie of advanced fighters could be used to counter China’s strategic bombers.

“I think the main responsibility of deploying F-22s to the western Pacific is to prevent advanced strategic bombers, including Chinese next-generation bombers, that might carry out striking operations in the US homeland,” Leung said.

China’s mysterious next-generation Xian H-20 strategic bomber is believed to have a stealth wing design that can help it strike targets in the “second island chain” and beyond.

The H-20 would be equipped with nuclear and conventional missiles, have a maximum take-off weight of at least 200 tonnes and a payload of up to 45 tonnes.

It was expected to fly at subsonic speeds and potentially fire four powerful hypersonic stealth cruise missiles.

The announcement of the naval exercise came amid growing US attention in the Indo-Pacific region, and increasing rivalry between Washington and Beijing in areas from human rights to military development.

In May, the Pentagon submitted a plan to Congress outlining more than US$27 billion in proposed spending over the next six years to bolster capabilities across the Pacific region to deter China – a plan known as the Pacific Deterrence Initiative – which would mostly include the establishment of forward-deployed long-range strike capabilities.

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Zhou Bo, a retired senior colonel and now a senior fellow at Tsinghua University’s Centre for International Security and Strategy, said the large deployment of advanced fighter jets in a US drill near China would increase tension in the region.

“Many US drills in the Indo-Pacific region are targeted at China, and taking into consideration such a large number of fighters that would be deployed in one go, this can be seen as a message to China,” Zhou said.

“It cannot defuse regional tension at all, although it’s unlikely that this drill would result in any new accidents.”

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