US stages joint Guam drill with Australia and Japan as it looks for ways to make it harder for China to ‘wipe out’ air forces with missile strikes

Teddy Ng
·4-min read

The United States is conducting a joint exercise with Australia and Japan on Guam as it seeks to counter its increasing vulnerability to attack from Russia or China.

The joint exercise at the Andersen Air Force Base, known as Cope North 2021, started on Wednesday and will run until February 19 and will see the base hosting F-35A joint strike fighters for the first time.

The exercise kicks off with an exercise designed to improve the three countries’ ability to carry out humanitarian operations in response to a natural disaster in the region, according to a statement from the US air force in the Pacific.

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It also includes air combat drills designed to improve their flexibility and common communications ability.

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Air Force magazine reported that one commander had said that one aim was to improve the forces’ ability to operate from small, rough airfields with limited facilities – also known as austere airfields– a move analysts said was designed to make it harder to “wipe out” US air power with missile attacks on major bases.

“China and Russia can increasingly hold overseas US bases at risk. To adapt, the air force must evolve from its dependence on well-established airfields or risk building an operational edge,” Brigadier General Jeremy Sloane, commander of the 36th Wing at Andersen, told a virtual event hosted by the Air Force Association.

“While the service can overcome some disadvantage with long-range bombers, a war in which missiles knock out American air bases and prevent the ability to launch and recover short-range fighter jets is unlikely to end well.”

Andersen’s Northwest Field is less than 2,400 metres (8,000 feet long), with limited taxiway and hangar space, and no permanent airfield controls. It is currently used by helicopters and C-130 Hercules transport aircraft.

Song Zhongping, a military analyst and former People’s Liberation Army instructor, said the “the exercise is to ensure the connection between the Guam base and other bases” if it comes under attack from the Chinese military.

“In addition, the fourth-generation aircraft and the fifth-generation aircraft are connected to form this mutual protection plan to ensure that these bases can survive on the one hand and continue to perform effective counterattacks on the other”.

Song said the inclusion of Japan and Australia in the exercise is to build a strategy with its allies to counter China and it could use bases in those countries to respond to any attack.

Defence analysts believe that the PLA air force is capable of penetrating the first island chain – a series of archipelagos in the Pacific stretching from the Kuril Islands, through Japan and on to the Philippines.

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A report by the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies said China’s subsonic H-20 stealth bomber will give it a “truly intercontinental” capacity expanding its reach far beyond the country’s seaboard.

In addition to the stealth bomber, it said China was also developing medium-range low observability bombers, which will improve the PLA’s strike capability in contested air space – in particular its ability to attack key US bases in Guam and Okinawa.

Timothy Heath, a senior international defence researcher at the Rand Corporation, said: “The ability to operate in more austere airfields means that the PLA cannot confidently plan to wipe out the US air force presence in the Asia-Pacific by smothering established airfields like that at Kadena Air Base [in Okinawa] with missiles.

“With this new capability, the US Air Force can flexibly deploy to other locations, improving the survivability of its aircraft. What this means for China is that the PLA will be less confident in its ability to defeat US military forces in the region because they will be less certain where fighter aircraft might operate from.”

Michael Raska, an assistant professor at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, said: “In potential military confrontations ... between adversaries armed with substantial nuclear arsenals and stand-off precision strike systems, there are considerable escalatory risks.

“Accordingly, both the US and China are engaging in competitive strategies to avoid large-scale conflicts, and instead rely on ‘peacetime’ military, diplomatic, information, and economic actions to gain influence without having to escalate to a major conflict. These ‘indirect’ actions can include the use of novel military deployments.”

Additional reporting by Kristin Huang and Minnie Chan

This article US stages joint Guam drill with Australia and Japan as it looks for ways to make it harder for China to ‘wipe out’ air forces with missile strikes first appeared on South China Morning Post

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