Written by Sydney J. Freedberg Jr; Originally appeared on breakingdefense.com
But while the skies are quiet today, US Pacific Air Forces are preparing for possible conflict: fielding new weapons like the F-35 stealth fighter and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), adding more space-operations planners to theater staffs, and reemphasizing that old-fashioned initiative so junior commanders can act when an enemy cuts off their communications with higher headquarters.
PENTAGON: Despite some alarming incidents at sea, Chinese forces have refrained from “provocative” behavior towards US aircraft, the commander of Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) said today. But while China has shown no intent to take hostile action, its capability to do so is real, Gen. C.Q. Brown told reporters in a Pentagon briefing, and the air units he commands are working hard on new tactics, technologies, and concepts to counter “our pacing threat… China.”
That includes everything from fielding new weapons like the F-35 stealth fighter and the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), to adding more space-operations planners to theater staffs, to reemphasizing that old-fashioned initiative so junior commanders can act when an enemy cuts off their communications with higher headquarters.
“By and large… safe and professional”
For now, China’s behavior in the air is pretty normal — or at least what passes for normal in what the National Defense Strategy calls an era of “strategic competition” between great powers.
Brown took over PACAF in July. “In the four months I’ve been in the job, I’ve seen very few intercepts of our bomber missions. There’s been intercepts of some of our intelligence aircraft,” he said. “It’s sporadic, it’s not every time we fly,” he said in a press briefing.
One reporter asked if there have been any Chinese intercepts of US aircraft you’d characterize as unsafe? “Not necessarily,” Brown said. “There are some we could characterize maybe as unprofessional, a little more aggressive than others, but… I see the same thing, having served in Europe, with the Russians, (and in this job) with the Russians up around Alaska, because that’s also part of my AOR (Area of Responsibility).”
“It kind of ebbs and flows, but by and large, they’ve been safe and professional,” Brown said. “I haven’t seen, at least from an air perspective, an increase in tensions.”
That’s a relief, particularly because the worst US-China crisis in a generation was triggered by an unsafe intercept back in 2001. That’s when a Chinese fighter collided with a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane off the sensitive naval bases on Hainan Island, killing the Chinese pilot, forcing the American plane — full of classified material and technology — down on Chinese soil, and leading China to detain the 24 US crew for 11 days. That incident was soon overshadowed by the 9/11 attacks and two decades of guerrilla warfare in the Muslim world, but China’s increasing assertiveness in the Pacific and American pushback make a repeat all too possible if either side should slip up.