Keeping America's Pacific Bases Competitive

How the Navy can maintain its edge in Asia without risking needless escalation toward war.

Joint warfare as a national way of war has become deeply ingrained in U.S. strategic thinking since the Goldwater-Nichols Act of 1986. Within the command structure of the various regional U.S. Combatant Commands, the Navy, Air Force, Army and Marines have become hardwired to fight joint military operations around the world. Over the last thirty years, it is an approach that has yielded impressive conventional war results in Operation Desert Storm, in the Balkans, and in the opening months of Operation Iraqi Freedom. However, in the Far East, the United States is increasingly faced with a conundrum in which the U.S. propensity for joint warfighting sharply increases the risk of escalation and widening war.

The basis of much American striking power is its commitment to a way of war that relies in large part on relatively short-range land- and sea-based tactical aircraft that “bed down” close to the enemy and fly in to deliver relatively short-range ordnance. In the Far East, the U.S. stages nearly all of its land-based air power forward in a small number of bases on Japanese territory and Guam. These bases, which were once a sanctuary for the U.S., are now at risk as China increases its precision cruise and ballistic missile range to encompass all current U.S. bases in the region. This opens the possibility that a local conflict with China might quickly escalate into a regional (or even global) conflict, because so much of the United States’ strike capability in the region is concentrated either on foreign soil or on U.S. territory that is well within the range of China’s growing arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. The operational risks and implications—possible destruction of a significant portion of U.S. air capabilities in-theater—are clear, but the escalatory implications have been less well-considered.

Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, Andersen Air Base in Guam and Iwakuni Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) in Japan are the three most important land basing options for U.S. military aircraft in the Far East. Kadena and Andersen are two of the largest U.S. Air Force bases on Earth, and provide the U.S. with significant basing and air power projection in the Far East. E-3 AWACS planes, KC-135 Stratotankers and F-15 Eagle and F-22 Raptor fighters regularly rotate through Kadena, and MCAS Iwakuni hosts a significant contingent of Marine Corps F-18 Super Hornets, F-35B Lightning Joint Strike Fighters and a variety of support aircraft that likewise rotate from home bases in the United States. Their ability to house and project power in the region is significant.

Andersen Air Force Base on Guam is equally important, but located as it is on a U.S. territory, it presents an even more worrying problem. Andersen, along with Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, is a forward operating base for the Air Force bomber fleet, providing essential strike and logistics support for operational aircraft in a Far East military conflict. B-52s, B-1Bs and B-2s, often parked wingtip-to-wingtip, all frequently operate out of Andersen. Furthermore, the air base is home to special mission tanker and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, as well as F-22, F-16 and F-15 fighter aircraft.

Clearly these bases, perhaps even currently unused Clark Air Base in the Philippines, would become a centerpiece in any high-intensity conflict with China in the Far East. In addition to the strike power at these bases, E-3 AWACS planes are indispensable airborne assets for early warning and combat command and control, integrating air combat operations at a level unmatched by any other nation in the world. KC-135 tankers extend the reach of otherwise limited-range fighter aircraft, allowing them to extend their combat radius over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, as well as extend their on-station time in a potential Taiwan conflict. Finally, forward-basing strategic bombing assets allows for a much higher sortie rate and a much smaller logistical tail to support bombing operations. For joint war fighting, the use of these bases to project force is vitally important.

However, it is the concentrated nature of this force that makes Andersen, Kadena and Iwakuni such a tempting target, and therefore raises the risk of escalation. The more reliant the U.S. is on Guam, Kadena, Iwakuni and perhaps even Clark, the greater the temptation for the PRC to strike at the U.S. center of gravity, inflicting potentially enormous damage on American aircraft and drastically increasing the risk of widening a local conflict over Taiwan or the Spratlys into a broader regional conflict, pulling in other nations and significantly increasing the risk of escalation between the U.S. and China.

For example, a sustained combat air campaign over Taiwan or the South China Sea originating from these bases is very likely to force China to attack those bases with cruise missiles or ballistic missiles. Given the excellent tactical capabilities of these aircraft, the PRC is likely to conclude that the only way to defeat them is on the ground. This is especially true in a conflict in the South China Sea, where distance and shortage of basing for forward-deployed aircraft (despite new runways on Fiery Cross and Subi Reefs) make it critical for the PRC to find another way to defeat U.S. air operations.