In one awkward and still unexplained step, the Pentagon is unnerving allies and friends while potentially harming the US forward deterrent in the Pacific, especially as it applies to China.
The unexplained step was the mid-April withdrawal of strategic bombers from Guam. While Guam is far from the troubled Taiwan Straits, Okinawa and Japan, and even farther from the South China Sea, it is light years closer than flying combat aircraft from the middle of the US. Adding a dozen or more hours to the Pentagon’s ability to respond to an active threat seems hard to justify.
US Air Force bombers, including the B-1B Lancer, B-52 Stratofortress and B-2 Spirit, have been operating in Guam since 2004 under the so-called Continuous Bomber Presence program. The official statement on the pullback of the bomber fleet from Guam has led to a lot of head-scratching.
“In line with the National Defense Strategy, the United States has transitioned to an approach that enables strategic bombers to operate forward in the Indo-Pacific region from a broader array of overseas locations, when required, and with greater operational resilience, while these bombers are permanently based in the United States,” the US Air Force Global Strike Command said in a statement.
There are different ways to understand the official statement, although on its face value it is illogical. Why would the US pull back from bases that have served it effectively for years, only to redeploy them so they can “operate forward” from an “array of overseas locations”?And why pull them all the way back to Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and not to nearer by Alaska or Hawaii?
One theory is that the US base on Guam, which includes Andersen Air Force Base, is vulnerable to missile or bomber attacks from China. If true, will the US also pull back from Naval Base Guam, the other major base on the island? And what about US bases on Okinawa, Japan and Korea? Are these bases also vulnerable?
The short answer is that the build-up of China’s military, expansion of its navy, deployment of new strategic bombers, submarines, surface combatants and two aircraft carriers is shifting the region’s balance of power. But wouldn’t the logical response be to strengthen the US military posture in East Asia, instead of yanking bombers back to the US?
Part of the US Air Force’s concern is China’s DF-26 missile, sometimes referred to as the “Guam Killer.” The DF-26 is said to be capable of hitting targets up to 5,471 kilometers away with nuclear or conventional warheads.
If the DF-26 is the real threat, then the next step should be closing Naval base Guam, where the Covid-19 afflicted US aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt is now berthed. No such plan has been put forward, at least not yet.
Instead, there is a semi-secret Pentagon plan to reshape the navy by trimming the US aircraft carrier fleet by two, reducing the current 11 carriers to nine. The remaining nine carriers may still sound like a lot, but carriers are hugely difficult to maintain. At any given time, four or five carriers are undergoing major maintenance that can keep them out of service for one or two years.
Given US strategic responsibilities in the Atlantic, Mediterranean, Persian Gulf and Pacific, and the fact that carriers operate with task forces usually called Carrier Strike Groups and include surface ships and submarines to protect them, taking two carriers out of service also creates a significant redundancy for the other task force vessels.
A Carrier Strike Group consists of a guided-missile cruiser for air defense, 2 LAMPS (Light Airborne Multipurpose Ships that carry anti-submarine warfare helicopters) warships and one or two anti-submarine destroyers. The Strike Group is also supported by an undeclared number of nuclear attack submarines.
A variant of the Carrier Strike Group is an Expeditionary Strike Group that consists of an aircraft carrier and “an amphibious assault ship, a dock landing ship (LSD), an amphibious transport dock, a Marine expeditionary unit, AV-8B Harrier II or, more recently, Lockheed Martin F-35B Lightning II aircraft, CH-53E Super Stallion and CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters or, more recently, MV-22B tiltrotors, cruisers, destroyers and attack submarines.”
Carrier Strike Group 5 is based in Yokosuka, Japan, and is part of the US Seventh Fleet. The Seventh Fleet also has ship components in Sasebo, Japan, and at Apra Harbor, Naval Base Guam. If US carriers are cut back, will the US maintain its bases in Japan and elsewhere?
The Marines are also undergoing a major transformation including a downsizing of the number of serving Marines and a change in mission, making them more a US Navy adjunct than an independent strike force used in an expeditionary mission.
Overall, the rationale for getting rid of two carriers is to save money that can be sunk into buying a new class of small combatants like the European FREMM class frigate.
The FREMM is a joint French and Italian multipurpose frigate built by Armaris of France and Orizzonte Sistemi Navali of Italy, a joint venture between Fincantieri, Italy’s main shipbuilder, and Leonardo, Italy’s largest defense conglomerate.
FREMM frigates have a sophisticated air defense capability and can be used as anti-submarine warfare platforms. Exactly what the US plans are for a FREMM-type warship is unclear, and exactly why it would be superior to existing platforms such as the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyers, has not been explained.
Moreover, adding a new class of warship to the US fleet would seem to overburden the navy with another sophisticated system it would have to support. At present, the Pentagon plan does not appear to contemplate a move to unmanned semi-submersible vessels or to a new generation of missile defense systems, although unmanned platforms are under active review.
While the bomber redeployment is an accomplished fact, the navy’s plan to cut carriers and build a new class of smaller warships is far from decided. The plan, now circulating in the Pentagon, is not agreed internally nor has the proposal been tried out on Capitol Hill, which has a strong pro-carrier contingent of legislators.
Given the navy’s recent wasteful record of failed programs, including but not confined to the Littoral Combat Ship, the hugely costly Zumwalt class destroyers, the failed Long Range Land Attack Projectile, unlikely deployment for its expensive and unneeded long-range electromagnetic “supergun”, the seriously troubled new aircraft carrier designs with questionable catapults and non-functioning aircraft elevators, Congress may not be keen on signing on to yet another project where the strategic rationale is in the best case murky.
Indeed, the FREMM-type frigate program contemplated by the navy sounds like a shipbuilding program to keep navy shipbuilding yards working and not of any strategic value. Even so, whether Congress acts or doesn’t, the posture of both the air force and navy, as understood from outside the US, looks like a retreat from current day responsibilities.
From within the US, questions are bound to arise about America’s commitment to maintaining forward deterrence while a major potential adversary, China, is building up capabilities and adding impressive technology-based systems to its arsenal.