In a war game called “Pacific Vision” run by the US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) in Hawaii, aviators concluded that US air power would defeat a “near-peer competitor” in the Asia-Pacific region over the next seven years — provided a strategy of dispersal is adopted and certain investments are made.
For “near-peer competitor,” read China. But Air Force officers said that the adversary could also be a resurgent Russia. In any case, the war game was intended not only to test strategy but also to deter others from miscalculating US power and intentions.
General Carroll Chandler, who commands PACAF, said in an interview: “I asked them to look at what we think we need to carry out our mission, particularly when we have finite resources.” A staff officer said the general, in effect, “asked us to tell him where he should spend his next dollar.”
Meanwhile, the publication Defense News reported on a RAND study that suggested “US air power in the Pacific would be inadequate to thwart a Chinese attack on Taiwan in 2020.”
Among the conclusions drawn from the war game were:
Dispersal: Before hostilities begin, US fighters, bombers and aerial tankers should be dispersed to bases along an arc anchored in Alaska and wending south through Japan, South Korea and Guam and on to Southeast Asia and Australia. Said one officer: “This would complicate targeting for an adversary.”
Access: The US should intensify efforts to cultivate nations along that arc, including treaty allies, to ensure access to bases there and the freedom to operate in the event of hostilities.
Hardening: Aircraft hangers, command posts, electrical plants, ammunition depots and supply warehouses should be hardened to withstand attack, particularly from missiles rapidly being acquired or developed by China.
Repair: Crews and equipment to repair damaged bases should be trained and positioned so they can move quickly to bases where needed. Airfield runways, for instance, would need to be repaired quickly after an attack.
Tankers: The age of the Air Force’s tankers was documented. Because of distances in the Pacific, more tankers would be needed to defend the region than were needed in Europe to deter the former Soviet Union.
Stealth: Advantages of stealth technology that permits B-2 bombers and F-22 fighters to evade radar detection were validated. “We are sure that we can shoot them before they can see us,” a staff officer said.
Communications: The war game underscored the vulnerability of communications because the Air Force relies on unprotected commercial channels. Moreover, China destroyed an inactive satellite last year with an anti-satellite missile.
Integration: Aircraft carriers and submarines armed with cruise missiles would need to be dispersed like land-based aircraft. The Navy was represented in the war game but work was needed to integrate war plans.
Intelligence: The need for Global Hawk, an unmanned reconnaissance plane that can fly great distances, covering 100,000km² a day in all weather, was confirmed. The first of three Global Hawks will be sent to Guam next year.
Cyber Warfare: Officials discovered that the US is lagging in cyber warfare, from jamming radar to attacking computer networks as well as protecting radar and computers. China has emphasized cyber operations.
Control: The Air Operations Center in the 13th Air Force has been running for two years. PACAF and the 13th Air Force would fight an aerial war in the region through the center, which must improve controls over widely dispersed forces.
PACAF plans to apply these lessons. One officer said: “We’ve maintained a long period of peace because we continually prepare for war. That’s what Pacific Vision was all about.”
Richard Halloran is a writer based in Honolulu.
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