The U.S. military is encircling China with a chain of air bases and military ports. The latest link: a small airstrip on the tiny Pacific island of Saipan. The U.S. Air Force is planning to lease 33 acres of land on the island for the next 50 years to build a "divert airfield" on an old World War II airbase there. But the residents don't want it. And the Chinese are in no mood to be surrounded by Americans.
The Pentagon's big, new strategy for the 21st century is something called Air-Sea Battle, a concept that's nominally about combining air and naval forces to punch through the increasingly-formidable defenses of nations like China or Iran. It may sound like an amorphous strategy -- and truth be told, a lot of Air-Sea Battle is still in the conceptual phase. But a very concrete part of this concept is being put into place in the Pacific. An important but oft-overlooked part of Air-Sea Battle calls for the military to operate from small, bare bones bases in the Pacific that its forces can disperse to in case their main bases are targeted by Chinese ballistic missiles.
Saipan would be used by American jets in case access to the U.S. superbase at Guam "or other Western Pacific airfields is limited or denied," reads this Air Force document discussing the impact building such fields on Saipan and nearby Tinian would have on the environment there. (Residents of Saipan actually want the Air Force to use the historic airbases on Tinian that the U.S. Marines are already refurbishing and flying F/A-18 Hornet fighters out of on an occasional basis.)
Specifically, the Air Force wants to expand the existing Saipan International Airport -- built on the skeleton of a World War II base used by Japan, and later the United States -- to accommodate cargo, fighter, and tanker aircraft along with up to 700 support personnel for "periodic divert landings, joint military exercises, and joint and combined humanitarian assistance and disaster relief efforts," according to Air Force documents on the project.
This means the service plans on building additional aircraft parking space, hangars, fuel storage tanks, and ammunition storage facilities, in addition to other improvements to the historic airfield. And it's not the only facility getting an upgrade.
View Possible bases of the U.S.'s Pacific Pivo in a larger map
In addition to the site on Saipan, the Air Force plans to send aircraft on regular deployments to bases ranging from Australia to India as part of its bulked up force in the Pacific. These plans include regular deployments to Royal Australian Air Force bases at Darwin and Tindal, Changi East air base in Singapore, Korat air base in Thailand, Trivandrum in India, and possibly bases at Cubi Point and Puerto Princesa in the Philippines and airfields in Indonesia and Malaysia, a top U.S. Air Force general revealed last month.
The Saipan announcement comes as Chinese defense minister, Gen. Chang Wanquan, visited Washington to talk with U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel. The specific topic of U.S. bases in the Pacific didn't come up during a joint press conference held by the two officials on Aug. 20, but Wanquan said in response to a question about the U.S. military's increased focus on the Pacific that "China is a peace-loving nation. And we hope that [America's] strategy does not target a specific country in the region."
While the U.S. military insists that Air Sea Battle, and the military's entire pivot to Asia, isn't about China, these bases are indeed a check against any future Chinese expansion into the Pacific ocean, according to Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
"China will be much more discreet throughout the entire region because U.S. power is already there, it's visible; you're not talking theory, you're already there in practice," he said.
This will also reassure America's allies in the region that the U.S. commitment to the Pacific is legit.
"As part of this rebalancing to the Pacific, you have to show people it's real at a time when so much of U.S. power is increasingly questioned by our budget debates," Cordesman added.
Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, commander of all U.S. Air Force assets in the Pacific, said that the United States is planning on operating tankers, fighters, and bombers out of a string of bases throughout the South Pacific and Southwest Asia. Like the sites at Tinian and Saipan, these facilities aren't slated for permanent occupation by American aircraft -- or at least that's what American commanders say. Instead, these sites will see a steady stream of U.S. and northern Pacific based units visiting on a regular basis.
"We're not gonna build any more bases in the Pacific" to support the U.S. Air Force's increased presence there, said Carlisle. And technically, he's telling the truth: no "new" bases, just expansions of existing airports and rebuilds of abandoned facilities like the sites at Saipan and Tinian. In fact, one of the fields being rebuilt by the Marines on Tinian is the place where the B-29 Enola Gay took off on its mission to drop the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima.
The refurbished airfields also hearken back to the Cold War era, when American units were constantly rotated in and out of Europe to keep the Soviets at bay. To counter a new foe, the Air Force will continuously deploy units based in the United States and the northern Pacific to a string of airfields in Southeast Asia.
"Back in the late, great days of the Cold War, we had a thing called Checkered Flag: We rotated almost every CONUS [Continental United States] unit to Europe," said Carlisle. "Every two years, every unit would go and work out of a collateral operating base in Europe. We're turning to that in the Pacific."
Not only does this dispersal allow the United States to hide its planes from destruction, it's also "a way to build up relations with partners in that part of the word," explains Jan Van Tol of the Center for Strategic And Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank that helped the Pentagon develop of the Air-Sea Battle concept. "It has to do with establishing interoperability, relationships, and experience in the actual areas" where the United States may have to fight.
When asked what other old bases the United States might consider expanding to, Van Tol said "people in different discussions will mention bases they might like to see, like Wake Island or, I think, Palau." Both feature the remains of American airstrips from World War II. Wake, in fact, already has a very limited American military presence. Meanwhile, Palau has openely invited the U.S military to return and use one of its World War II airstrips there.
Cordesman says the U.S. is likely looking at a three-tiered system of such bases in the Pacific. Some will be strictly American, others like those in Australia to India will be operated by allies who host the Americans on deployments, and the third tier will probably be a more secret string of austere, emergency bases.
"You want forward bases in some areas to show that the United States can operate on its own, then you want that build up interoperability and cooperation with our allies, and then you want contingency capabilities -- and with those you want to leave people guessing," said Cordesman.
It's another sign that, when comes to the Pacific, what's old is new again.
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