U.S. Air Force to Expand Bomber Presence in Pacific

By Jon Harper

The Air Force is working out plans for new bomber and tanker rotations through Australia, according to a top service official.

The United States has reached a general agreement with Canberra on a “force posture initiative,” Gen. Lori Robinson, commander of Pacific air forces, told reporters at a breakfast in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 18.

“We know that we want to do that,” she said. The two sides are still working through the details about “what is it what we’re going to put there, when we’re going to put it there, and how are we going to go forward with that. So that’s all part of the conversations that we’re having now,” she said.

Robinson said she didn’t have a timetable for when those decisions will be made.

The U.S. bombers and tankers would rotate through Australia’s Tindal air base, she said.

The Air Force regularly conducts flights and rotations out of Guam with B-52, B-1 and B-2 bombers, as well as other aircraft. The Pentagon wants a similar model with Australia, Robinson said.

“The idea is much like what we do in Guam — rotation of tankers and bombers to do training and working with Australian allies … as well as training our pilots and air crews [on] what it’s like in the region, to help them understand the vastness of that region,” she said.

Defense officials have said that the U.S. bomber presence in the Pacific is important for deterring potential adversaries and reassuring allies. The new long-range strike bomber — the contract for which was recently awarded to Northrop Grumman —could fill that role, Robinson said.

“Our ability to power project through the theater would be one of the capabilities that we would want to have because … that shows a commitment to the theater,” she said,

“As we go forward it will probably … do continuous bomber presence just like we’re doing now and provide that stability,” she added.

Her command and U.S. allies in the region are looking forward to the anticipated deployment of F-35 joint strike fighters to the Asia-Pacific, she noted.

“It will provide that same kind of messaging” as the bomber rotations, she said.

Plans for stepped up aircraft rotations and deployments are in the works at a time when the Pentagon is worried about China’s growing military capabilities and Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific.

“The concern of all of us is … that smaller gap in technological capability between the two air forces,” Robinson said, while also expressing her belief that “we still have the technological edge over everybody.”

She declined to discuss the capabilities of China’s new J-31 fighter, citing a reluctance to talk about intelligence matters. But the development of the aircraft — which analysts have noted bears striking resemblance to the F-35 — isn’t a “game changer,” she said.

Over the past year, China has been building, occupying and building infrastructure on disputed territories in the South China Sea, as well as developing man-made islands. Beijing has claimed sovereignty over the islands and surrounding waters and airspace. The United States and other countries in the region do not recognize China’s claims.

The U.S. Navy recently dispatched a warship within 12 nautical miles of one of the artificial islands to demonstrate its right to navigate in the area. The Air Force has not yet flown over any of the man-made islands, Robinson said, but the service is prepared to do so.

“We’ve provided [U.S. Pacific Command Commander Adm. Harry Harris, Jr.] a range of options that he can use as he puts together his range of options to provide to the leaders and the decision makers [in Washington, D.C.],” she said. “Once guidance is given we’ll execute as directed.”

Topics: Defense Department

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