Congress must act to boost combat-credible air power in Indo-Pacific

Senior Airman Lynette M. Rolen

It is hardly news that for the last decade the Pentagon has fallen short of its strategic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific. Still, it is quite conspicuous when evidence of that “say-do gap” emerges within 24 hours of the publication of the Pentagon’s most important strategic document.

Last week, the Pentagon’s new National Defense Strategy declared that China is the “pacing challenge” of this “decisive decade” while citing posture as a key element of deterring Chinese aggression. Within hours of the strategy’s publication, the Financial Times reported that the Pentagon is set to withdraw two fighter squadrons stationed at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan over the next two years. The Pentagon later confirmed the withdrawal. And though it plans to begin temporary deployments of more advanced aircraft during the withdrawal, it acknowledged it has made no decision on a long-term solution to replace the loss of forward-stationed combat power.

The problem with withdrawing permanently stationed fighter aircraft from Japan is not about symbolic presence or the “message” the decision sends to Beijing. The central issue is combat-credible posture. Eliminating one-quarter of the permanently stationed fighter squadrons west of the international date line, promising temporary rotations as a substitute, and offering no long term plan for their replacement does not enhance combat-credible posture.

Defenders of the decision say the retiring F-15C and D aircraft currently stationed at Kadena are old, fourth-generation aircraft that would not contribute much in a conflict with China. Yes, the Air Force should upgrade fighter aircraft in the Indo-Pacific. Indeed, we strongly support stationing F-35As at Misawa Air Base in Japan. But that is not what the Air Force has announced. It has promised temporary rotations of more advanced aircraft but has not finalized plans beyond an initial six-month rotation for F-22s from Alaska. Moreover, after operating fifth-generation aircraft for nearly two decades, the Air Force has announced no plans to permanently station any fifth-generation aircraft west of the international date line.

Send Air Force F-35s to Japan

Other observers argue withdrawing U.S. fighter aircraft from Kadena Air Base is wise given the base’s vulnerability to Chinese missile strikes in a contingency. Repositioning fighter aircraft from Okinawa to other bases in Japan or elsewhere in the Second Island Chain certainly has merit. But once again, that is not what the Air Force has announced.

The Air Force has made no decisions to base additional aircraft at any other Indo-Pacific bases. More to the point, the Air Force appears to have no intention of leaving Kadena. In a statement last week, the Air Force pledged to “maintain a steady-state presence at Kadena.” Indeed, the Air Force is still investing in the base. Its fiscal year 2023 budget request asked for $148 million in military construction at Kadena. The year before it asked for $232.1 million.

Still others argue that permanently stationing fighter aircraft at Kadena or other forward locations in the Indo-Pacific is not necessary. They contend that rotational forces would be just as effective. Failing that, aircraft can deploy rapidly from elsewhere around the world in the event of a contingency. We disagree. Analysis from the RAND Corporation suggests “it is much more costly to rotate forces than to permanently base them abroad,” and thus that “continuous rotations should be minimized to the extent possible.”

The source of rotational forces also matters. If rotational aircraft are sourced from elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific area of operations (such as Alaska or Hawaii), the withdrawal of permanently stationed aircraft from Kadena would result in a net reduction of combat power in the region. Moreover, a rotational model raises the possibility of gaps in forward presence. And while it is true that aircraft could deploy relatively quickly to the Indo-Pacific in the event of a contingency, that’s cold comfort in plausible scenarios where minutes and hours could make the difference in denying a fait accompli invasion attempt. Relying too heavily on aircraft from outside the theater reduces options in competition, crisis, and early in a conflict. Moreover, introducing forces into theater in a crisis (instead of those forces being present from the start) may add to the risk of escalation.

The decision to withdraw two permanently stationed fighter squadrons from Japan without a ready replacement plan demonstrates that the Indo-Pacific is not being treated as the posture priority so often touted.

Year after year, the Air Force has divested older aircraft in search of budget savings. Just in FY23, it’s seeking to cut 150 aircraft while purchasing just 82. Meanwhile, it’s used new aircraft to replace missions at domestic bases set to lose aircraft.

Consider the F-35. As of today, the Air Force has decided to station F-35As at no less than six active component bases, four Guard bases, and one reserve base in the United States. It has chosen just one overseas base for the F-35A in the United Kingdom. That’s twelve F-35-A bases with zero planned for the Indo-Pacific.

How many more U.S. or European bases will the Air Force select to receive F-35As before a single base in the Indo-Pacific west of the international date line? The same question should be asked about the F-15EX.

The Air Force has been considering the retirement of the F-15 for at least the last five years. But even with the benefit of time, F-15 retirements at Kadena will commence with no plan for their replacement. That’s a stark contrast to Europe. The Air Force selected RAF Lakenheath as its first F-35 base in Europe back in 2015. Until F-35As began arriving in December 2021, the Air Force used European Deterrence Initiative funds to keep F-15s at RAF Lakenheath. The aircraft finally departed in April 2022.

Congress needs to ask the Pentagon and the Air Force some pointed questions:

  • What is U.S. Indo-Pacific Command’s risk assessment of the near-term loss of two permanently stationed fighter squadrons?

  • How does the Japanese government view this decision?

  • In the short term, will the Air Force maintain continuous rotational presence at Kadena?

  • Will rotational aircraft be sourced from the continental United States or from those already assigned to U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in Alaska and Hawaii?

  • In the longer term, will the 48 F-15s at Kadena be replaced tail-for-tail?

  • Will their replacements be permanent or rotational?

  • Will those replacements go to Kadena, or will other Indo-Pacific bases be considered?

  • How many other bases will receive F-15EX and F-35A aircraft before these two Indo-Pacific squadrons are replaced?

Until these questions are answered, Congress needs to intervene legislatively. As the defense committees finalize negotiations on the National Defense Authorization Act for FY23, lawmakers should prohibit the withdrawal of F-15s from Japan pending the submission of a classified assessment by U.S. Indo-Pacific Command of the impact of the withdrawal as well as a clear transition plan from the Air Force for its fighter aircraft posture in Japan and elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific.

The new National Defense Strategy was correct that we are living through a decisive decade and that we must prioritize the China challenge in the Indo-Pacific region. How the Pentagon responds now in putting forward an urgent plan to enhance — not just backfill — combat-credible air power in the Indo-Pacific will be the first major test of translating this new defense strategy from words into action.

Mackenzie Eaglen is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where she works on defense budget, defense strategy, and military readiness. Eric Sayers and Dustin Walker are nonresident fellows at the American Enterprise Institute. Walker was the lead adviser to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Europe and the Indo-Pacific from 2017 to 2020. Sayers was the lead adviser to the Senate Armed Services Committee on the Indo-Pacific from 2014 to 2016 and an adviser to the commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command from 2016 to 2018.

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