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The US Military Just Tried To Intimidate China

May 13, 2020

Via Pacific AF.

With Beijing and Washington, DC now at odds over the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic the US military has shifted to signalling its regional primacy in Asia. Since the beginning of May the USAF’s B-1B strategic bombers have patrolled the East China Sea. The scope of these missions were never fully specified but the intent was clear enough; the US is ready to counter China’s moves over the same waters. In fact, for a number of years now Chinese combat aircraft and missile-armed bombers have maintained scheduled patrols to threaten Taiwan and encircled Japan’s airspace. The extent of military posturing between the rival superpowers since January emphasizes how dangerous their competition is shaping up to be.

Just one week after the 9th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron arrived in Guam to “support a free and open Indo-Pacific” flights of B-1B’s began deploying as far as the East China Sea. Their exact routes were never disclosed but their mission area is telling; the East China Sea is a starting point for Chinese air and sea activities for threatening Taiwan. Furthermore, asserting a presence in the sea allows the Pacific Air Force to protect Okinawa whose location is essential for defending the “first island chain” and serves as a forward base if the US Marine Corps must reinforce Taiwan. B-1B’s flew over the East China Sea on May 5, May 7, and May 12 when it was joined by elements of Japan’s aerial branch the JASDF.

An even more significant mission took place on May 7, the same date when a Guam-based B-1B reached the East China Sea, when the US Strategic Command sent six strategic bombers on separate missions to Europe and the Indo-Pacific. The stated goal was to “enhance the readiness and training necessary to respond to any potential crisis or challenge across the globe.” Of course, specifics were left out as it wasn’t clarified which among the four B-52H’s and two B-2’s were assigned to the Indo-Pacific. Photos shared by USSTRATCOM on its news feed and social media accounts revealed at least one B-52H reached Europe. It’s then likely the two B-2 stealth bombers who departed Whiteman AFB in Montana were bound for Asia.

The US Navy was in on the action with six of its supercarriers now deployed at sea while a smaller demonstration took place just last week. On May 8, a Friday, a littoral combat ship and a replenishment vessel sailed through the South China Sea. The USS Montgomery and the USNS Cesar Chavez’ journey were for “demonstrating [the] US Navy’s continued commitment to the region, friends, and partners.” On previous occasions when larger surface vessels transited the South China Sea these were described as FONOPs whose purpose was to negate China’s broad claim over the body of water. To date, China and several ASEAN members haven’t worked out a suitable “code of conduct” to settle their overlapping claims.

Another move by the US Navy was less forthcoming than the activities by surface vessels, perhaps for good reason. On May 11 the Pacific Fleet sent all of its Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarines on “contingency response operations at sea in the Western Pacific.” The geographical reference is telling as it affords a level of ambiguity. Los Angeles-class submarines are able to lurk near Chinese waters for extended periods and are among the US Navy’s few crucial advantages over the PLAN, whose own nuclear-powered attack submarines number just seven. But the PLAN’s SSN’s are expected to grow in the 2020s as an estimated 12 more attack submarines enter service and disrupt the naval balance of forces.

The latest appearance of a US strategic bomber near China’s coastline was another B-1B from Guam that conducted a “training mission” with elements of the JASDF on May 12. The role performed by Japanese aircraft and personnel in the mission were excluded from official news releases and social media. What’s undeniable is the supersonic B-1B is now the preferred strategic bomber for deterring Chinese operations beyond the first island chain given the sophistication of PLA/PLAN air defenses and the threat posed by the PLAAF’s multirole fighters the J-8II and J-11 as well as the stealthy J-20 when these are committed to defending sovereign airspace. (On paper, the J-20 is capable of entering Japanese airspace for strike missions on military targets.)

The extent of capabilities displayed in the last two weeks is staggering; from strategic bombers to supercarriers and attack submarines. For the US military to advertise its strength on short notice, along with concerted media coverage, is a definitive sign China is its foremost adversary just as the US homeland is ravaged by a pandemic.

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