The Buzz

America Makes a Big Move in the South China Sea (A-10 Warthogs and More)

On Wednesday, a temporary detachment of four US Navy EA-18G Growlers deployed to the Philippines. According to Pacific Command, the aircraft will engage in bilateral training with Philippine Air Force pilots and “will support routine operations that enhance regional maritime domain awareness and assure access to the air and maritime domains in accordance with international law.”

This deployment follows on the heels of a recent US Air Force detachment of five A-10 Warthogs. These temporary air contingents were established in the wake of the Philippine Supreme Court’s final approval of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) and the identification of five bases to which US forces would newly gain access.

At the time, there was some surprise that four of the five bases were air facilities and that none were ports. The first two air contingents to arrive in the Philippines, however, have made clearer how PACOM intends to use those facilities and why air power has thus far been prioritized under the terms of the EDCA.

The Warthogs, typically used for close air support, did not seem to be an obvious choice to deploy to the Philippines. Still, it may have been an inspired choice:

The plane isn’t meant for dogfights with Chinese fighters, but is capable of flying through international airspace near Scarborough Shoal and demonstrating the Pentagon’s commitment to keeping the skies there open to everyone…

Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, a spokesman for Air Forces Pacific, said Wednesday that the A-10 has excellent loiter capabilities and maneuverability at low air speeds and altitude that are “necessary for conducting the air contingent’s air and maritime domain awareness and personnel recovery missions.”

The A-10, then, would come in handy if the United States felt it needed to conduct louder, more visible freedom of navigation operations over or near contested islands. If need be, the A-10 could potentially carry out strike missions as well.

Unlike the “low and slow” Warthog, EA-18 Growlers fly high and fast. But ironically, like the Warthog, they are optimized for dealing with threats emanating from Chinese military facilities in the Spratlys. Growlers are electronic attack aircraft; Boeing, which makes the EA-18, describes it as “the most advanced airborne electronic attack (AEA) platform.” Flying from Clark Air Base, US Growlers will be well positioned to jam and, if necessary, destroy radar installations on China’s newly constructed islands in the South China Sea.

Taken together, the Warthog and Growler deployments in the Philippines send an important message to China: Your Spratly possessions are vulnerable. We can blind you at will. Should you declare an Air Defense Identification zone, we can make it impossible for you to enforce it.

The trick, of course, lies in convincing China that Washington is prepared to act on those implicit threats if push comes to shove. How Beijing reacts to the upcoming ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and whether Beijing brings its island-building campaign to Scarborough Shoal will tell us much about how China is interpreting the signals that America is sending.

This piece was first published on AEI Ideas here

Image: Flickr/Creative Commons.