26 December 2012
The U.S. military has begun a staged, five-year process that will see each of its three main stealth warplane types deployed to bases near China. When the deployments are complete in 2017, Air Force F-22s and B-2s and Marine Corps F-35s could all be within striking range of America’s biggest economic rival at the same time. With Beijing now testing its own radar-evading jet fighters — two different models, to be exact — the clock is counting down to a stealth warplane showdown over the Western Pacific.
The gradual creation of the U.S. stealth strike force is an extension of the Pentagon’s much-touted “strategic pivot” to the Pacific region, and echoes the much faster formation, earlier this year, of a similar (but only partially stealthy) aerial armada in the Persian Gulf. That team of F-22s, non-stealthy F-15s and specialized “Bacon” radio-translator planes was clearly meant to deter a belligerent Iran, although the Pentagon denied it.
The announcements of new Pacific deployments of F-22s, F-35s and B-2s have come like a drumbeat in recent weeks. Early last month, 8th Air Force commander Maj. Gen. Stephen Wilson, who controls the Air Force’s 20-strong B-2 fleet normally based in Missouri, said “small numbers” of his multi-billion-dollar batwing bombers would begin rotating into the Pacific and other regions starting next year. The rotations would last “for a few weeks, a couple of times a year,” Wilson told Air Force magazine.
For the B-2s, which are being heavily upgraded with new radars and communications, the planned deployments represent a return to form. Beginning in the early 2000s, B-2s frequently deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, occasionally accompanied by stealthy F-22s. But the Pacific rotations were tough on the tiny B-2 force. In 2008 one of the bombers crashed and burned at Andersen; two years later another B-2 suffered a serious engine fire at the remote island base that nearly destroyed the plane.
The Air Force suppressed news of the second incident and quietly pulled the B-2s from the Pacific front line, replacing them with older B-52s. After a period of rest, the stealth bomber fleet is now ready to get back into the habit of operating overseas. “We’re going to put them into the ‘new normal,’” Wilson said.
F-22s, normally based in Florida, Virginia, Alaska and Hawaii, are already regular visitors to Andersen and, more frequently, the Pentagon’s Kadena mega-base in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. But problems with the pricey, high-flying jet’s oxygen systems resulted in crippling flight restrictions for much of this year. The Air Force believes it has finally figured out how to minimize the choking risk to its (occasionally mutinous) stealth pilots. And in a speech at the National Press Club last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said there would be “new deployments of F-22s … to Japan.”
In the same speech, Panetta announced the first planned overseas basing of the still-in-development F-35. The Defense Department is “laying the groundwork” for F-35s to deploy to Iwakuni, Japan, in 2017, Panetta said. Though he did not specify, it’s likely Panetta was referring to the Marines’ vertical-landing F-35B version of the troubled, delayed stealth attack jet, as the B version will be the first of three F-35 models to be cleared for combat — and since Iwakuni traditionally hosts Marine fighters.
To be fair, the B-2s, F-22s and F-35s aren’t expected to fight alone. Besides the existing Pacific force structure of F-15s, F-16s, A-10s and other warplanes, drones and support aircraft, the Pentagon is planning on sending in the Navy’s new P-8 patrol plane and, eventually, the Air Force’s still-unbuilt KC-46 tanker.
Still, it’s possible that all three radar-evading planes could be flying together over the blue waters of the Pacific as early as five years from now. By that time China might have built and deployed combat-ready versions of its own J-20 and J-31 stealth fighters. That doesn’t mean the two aerial armadas will be fighting each other, of course. Conventional war with China is, and will likely remain, unnecessary and unlikely.
For both sides the planned stealth strike forces are all about showing off,
and impressing your rival so much that actually fighting him seems unthinkable.
And that’s a good thing.