SINGAPORE – The head of the Pacific Air Forces pointed to a need for tankers and airlifters distributed around the region to respond to crises, hours before the Pentagon announced it would cut legacy tankers in its latest budget.
Speaking to reporters at a media roundtable on the eve of the Singapore Airshow, Gen. Charles Brown, Jr. said tankers and airlifters available to PACAF was a “key aspect” to his command’s activities in the vast region, adding that they need not necessarily be based in theater.
The aircraft would be among logistical capabilities prepositioned “in small packages we can put in a lot of different places that would speed up our ability to respond to a crisis, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to a full-blown contingency,” Brown said.
The comments provide an interesting contrast to the news that came hours later that the USAF is divesting part of its legacy tanker fleet as part of the Trump administration’s FY21 budget request. The request seeks to retire 29 of the USAF’s legacy tankers, which will comprise of 13 KC-135s and 16 KC-10s. To make up for the numbers, the Air Force will seek an additional 15 Boeing KC-46A tankers, despite its ongoing developmental challenges.
Brown also touched on the decision by the USAF to divest the older airframes in its B-1 bomber fleet, pointing out that while the bomber was “critical to some aspects of the maritime capability” in the region, the B-1s other missions could be accomplished by other bomber types.
Ultimately the USAF will have to think about “what it is going to look like in the future, and how to start making that transition,” and if putting money to preserve the current capability will come at the expense of acquiring other capabilities.
With the planned introduction of longer ranged capabilities such as hypersonic strike weapons into the theater, Brown added that improved command-and-control, along with the intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capability to find those targets could be a game changer.
Even with hypersonic weapons, he explained, a flight time of 8-10 minutes to get to a target would mean that good intelligence is still needed to ensure that the target is at the same location as before, particularly.
“It’s not enough to have that weapon; I have got to have the whole thing – the kill chain, or as we are now talking about, the kill web.”
Brown added that he was looking for the increased fifth-generation fighter capability to the region, with the addition of two squadrons of USAF F-35As to Alaska beginning in April. These will add to the squadron of F-22s in Hawaii, along with the squadron of Marine Corps F-35Bs in Japan.
These fifth-generation fighter assets will improve the flexibility of PACAF to respond in the region, with Brown also noting that F-35s are being or will be introduced to fleets of a number of U.S. allies and partners in the region: Australia, Japan, South Korea and Singapore.
Mike Yeo is the Asia correspondent for Defense News.