HONG KONG (Reuters) – On July 21, two U.S Air Force B-1B bombers took off from Guam and headed west over the Pacific Ocean to the hotly contested South China Sea. The sleek jets made a low-level pass over the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and its escorting fleet, which was exercising nearby in the Philippines Sea, according to images released by the U.S. military.
The operation was part of the Trump administration's intensifying challenge to China's ruling Communist Party and its sweeping territorial claims over one of the world's most important strategic waterways. While senior Trump officials launch diplomatic and rhetorical broadsides at Beijing, the U.S. Defense Department is turning to the firepower of its heavily armed, long-range bombers as it seeks to counter Beijing's bid to control the seas off the Chinese coast.
Since late January, American B-1B and B-52 bombers, usually operating in pairs, have flown about 20 missions over key waterways, including the South China Sea, the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan, according to accounts of these flights from U.S. Air Force statements and official social media posts. These missions, military analysts say, are designed to send a crystal-clear signal: The United States can threaten China's fleet and Chinese land targets at any time, from distant bases, without having to move America's aircraft carriers and other expensive surface warships within range of Beijing's massive arsenal of missiles.
In this response to the growing power of China's military, the Pentagon has combined some of its oldest weapons with some of its newest: Cold War-era bombers and cutting-edge, stealthy missiles. The supersonic B1-B first entered service in 1986; the newest plane in the B-52 fleet was built during the Kennedy administration. But these workhorses can carry a huge payload of precision weapons. A B-1B can carry 24 of the U.S. military's stealthy new Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, which entered service in 2018 and can strike targets at ranges of up to 600 kilometers, according to U.S. and other Western officials.
“A single B-1 can deliver the same ordnance payload as an entire carrier battle group in a day,” said David Deptula, dean of the Washington-based Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and a retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General. And, in a crisis, he added, bombers can be rapidly deployed.
“Depending on where they are, ships can take weeks to get in place,” said Deptula. “But by using bombers, they can respond in a matter of hours,” he adds, noting that the U.S. object is to deter war. “Nobody wants to engage in conflict with China.”
Chinese and western military strategists warn that a conflict between the two nuclear-armed powers could be difficult to contain.
In a clash with China, this fast response from the bomber force could be vital while the U.S. and its allies rush naval reinforcements to the Pacific to bolster the vastly outnumbered U.S. naval fleet stationed in the region, according to current and former U.S. and other Western military officers.
A spokeswoman for Pacific Air Forces, Captain Veronica Perez, said the U.S. Air Force had increased its publicity about its bomber missions to assure allies and partners of Washington's commitment to global security, regional stability and a free and open Indo-Pacific. “Though the frequency and scope of our operations vary based on the current operating environment, the U.S. has a persistent military presence and routinely operates throughout the Indo-Pacific,” she said.
China's defense ministry did not respond to questions from Reuters.
While the bomber missions continue, relations between Washington and Beijing have reached their lowest point since the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In a show of force, Chinese fighter jets crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait while U.S. Secretary for Health, Alex Azar, was visiting Taipei on Aug. 10 to congratulate the government of President Tsai Ing-wen on its successful containment of the COVID-19 virus. Azar was the most senior American official to visit Taiwan in four decades.
Taiwan's missile radars tracked the Chinese fighters in only the third such incursion across the median line since 2016, the Taiwanese government said. Beijing condemned the visit. It regards the island as a province of China and hasn't ruled out the use of force to bring it under Communist Party control.
In a series of speeches ahead of Azar's visit, top Trump officials had hammered China on multiple fronts, including its military build-up, territorial ambitions, domestic political repression, intellectual property theft, espionage, trade practices and its failure to alert the world to the danger of COVID-19.
In one of the most harshly worded attacks on China from an American official in decades, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on July 23 that China's military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA), was not a normal fighting force.
“Its purpose is to uphold the absolute rule of the Chinese Communist Party elites and expand a Chinese empire, not protect the Chinese people,” he said. “And so our Department of Defense has ramped up its efforts, freedom of navigation operations out and throughout the East and South China Seas and in the Taiwan Strait as well.” In July, Pompeo declared most of Beijing's claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea illegal.
With the combination of bombers and long-range missiles, the United States is trying to turn the tables on the PLA. Over more than two decades, China has assembled a force of ground, sea and air-launched missiles that would make it deadly for warships of the U.S. Navy and its allies to approach the Chinese coast in a conflict. This Chinese strategy is specifically tailored to threaten U.S. aircraft carrier battle groups and the network of bases that form the backbone of American power in Asia.
In a demonstration of this capability, the PLA launched one of its so-called carrier-killer missiles, the DF-26, in an exercise in the South China Sea following the deployment in July of two U.S. aircraft carriers to the area, China's official military media reported in early August. And a U.S. defense official told Reuters that on Aug. 26, China launched four medium-range ballistic missiles that hit the South China Sea between Hainan Island and the Paracel Islands.
But the PLA Navy's huge and rapidly expanding fleet is also vulnerable to long-range missiles. China has built the world's biggest navy, including new aircraft carriers, amphibious assault ships and powerful cruisers and destroyers. And the PLA's extensive network of bases and ports would also be targets for missiles.
In a conflict, U.S. bombers over the Western Pacific could target PLA Navy warships at their bases on the Chinese coast or underway inside the so-called first island chain, the string of islands that run from the Japanese archipelago through Taiwan, the Philippines and on to Borneo, enclosing China's coastal seas. Chinese warships would be even more vulnerable if they broke out through the island chain into the Western Pacific, outside the coverage of the PLA's land-based air defenses and strike aircraft.
The firepower gap
In the aftermath of the Cold War, Washington assumed it had uncontested control of the oceans and neglected to arm its surface fleet with modern, long-range anti-ship missiles. To be sure, the U.S. and its allies, particularly Japan, still have a powerful fleet of attack submarines that would pose a deadly menace to PLA warships. But the bombers help fill the firepower gap in the U.S. surface fleet while the Pentagon is re-purposing existing missiles and introducing new versions to its destroyers and cruisers, according to maritime strategists.
The bomber deployments are one element of a much wider reshaping of forces and tactics that the U.S. and its allies in East Asia have launched to deter China from attacking Taiwan, expanding its hold over the South China Sea or seizing other disputed territories. These include the uninhabited group of isles in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China, which are claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing.
Tensions are on the rise around these islands, now under Japanese control. The commander of U.S. forces in Japan, Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider, pledged in July that America would help Japan monitor “unprecedented” Chinese incursions into waters around the Senkakus that were challenging Tokyo's administration. Within an hour of Schneider's comments, China's foreign ministry fired back that the islands were “Chinese territory.”
Long-range U.S. bombers operating from distant airfields would remain a threat if Chinese missile attacks disabled key U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea and Guam. These bases, mostly a carry-over from World War Two and the Korean War, were built at a time when China had very limited means to attack them.
Now it does. In a clear acknowledgement that Guam is now at risk, the U.S. Air Force announced on April 17 it would end its continuous rotation of bombers to the island base and withdraw them to the U.S. mainland.
The absence of a permanent bomber presence at Guam is a blow to Washington's ability to deter China and North Korea, airpower experts say. The island in the Western Pacific is less than a five-hour flight from the South China Sea.
“It makes it look like the Chinese military build-up has worked,” said Peter Layton, a visiting fellow at Griffith University in Australia and a retired Australian air force Group Captain who has worked at the Pentagon. “They are now taken out of range.”
Since then, the United States has sent bombers to Guam for short-term deployments from their continental bases. U.S. airpower researchers suggest that the availability of better training facilities at mainland U.S. bases was also a factor in the decision to withdraw the bombers. But in further evidence of Guam's vulnerability, the head of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, has asked Congress to fund a powerful missile defense system for the island by 2026.
Another hurdle for the Pentagon: America's bomber force is shrinking just as the PLA challenge grows. From a force of more than 400 at the end of the Cold War, the U.S. bomber fleet has shrunk to 158 aircraft. Of those planes, 62 are B-1Bs and 76 are B-52S. The United States also has a smaller force of 20 newer B-2 stealth bombers.
The Air Force plans to retire 17 B-1Bs next year to concentrate resources on the remaining bombers until the planned introduction of a new generation of stealthy bomber, the B-21, toward the end of this decade. This bomber is expected to sharply improve the U.S. Air Force's ability to penetrate Chinese airspace. Northrop Grumman is now building the first prototype, according to air force officials.
'Not like fighting Saddam'
As the risk of conflict rises, some Western airpower experts doubt that U.S. bombers would deliver a decisive advantage in a clash with the PLA. They say the Chinese military has spent decades preparing formidable, integrated air defenses. Even if the U.S. bombers were able to sink PLA Navy warships and stealthily penetrate Chinese airspace to strike some ground targets, they say it would not necessarily translate into victory against a vast and powerful adversary.
And, they warn, it might be impossible to fight a limited conflict on China's periphery. “It is not like fighting Saddam Hussein, it would be a major world war,” said Layton, the retired Australian air force officer. “Both sides have nuclear weapons and there is the potential for escalation. If either side is losing, what is going to happen then?”
Alongside relying on its bombers, the United States has been forced to develop other plans to offset the Chinese missile and naval threat. The U.S Marine Corps is planning to disperse smaller units armed with long-range anti-ship and land-attack missiles through the first island chain, where they could threaten the Chinese navy and land targets on China's mainland.
The U.S. Army also intends to spread forces through the first island chain and other outposts in the Western Pacific. It is planning a series of major exercises this year and next where troops would deploy to islands in the region, according to senior commanders and top Pentagon officials.
New weapons are in the pipeline that would give specially formed army task force units the firepower to strike at Chinese warships and other targets in a conflict. The U.S. Army's top commander, General James McConville, told an online seminar hosted by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in late July that a very long-range hypersonic missile was under development and tests had been successful. And soldiers would have the tools to attack an enemy's navy. “We are going to have mid-range missiles that can sink ships,” McConville said.
The U.S. and its allies also intend to link all their surveillance systems and weapons together in a regional network so that tracking information about a target could be shared between radar stations, satellites, surface warships, submarines, aircraft and land forces. In this system, a stealth fighter flying from a carrier could detect an enemy warship and relay this information to an army unit on an island, which could attack the foe with an anti-ship missile.
On May 21, two U.S. B-1B bombers from Guam flew to an area near Misawa Air Base in Japan, where they conducted long-range anti-ship missile training with a P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft and the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan, according to a U.S. Pacific Air Force statement. This exercise demonstrated that the U.S. had the capability to “hold any target at risk, anytime and anywhere,” said Perez, the Pacific Air Forces spokeswoman.
The ships and aircraft involved in this exercise likely practised the sharing of target information to mount a simulated attack, according to U.S. and Asian military experts. On other missions this year, the American bombers have held joint exercises with U.S., Japanese and South Korean fighters.
In this networked battlefield, the Pentagon's old warhorses of the air would be an even more formidable rival.
The speed and range of America's Cold War-vintage bombers would allow them to approach Chinese targets from different directions and fire salvos of difficult-to-detect missiles at multiple ships, according to current and retired U.S. air force officers. With even longer range missiles that Washington has in the pipeline, such attacks could be mounted from well outside the range of China's powerful, land-based air defenses. American bombers can also drop precision-guided mines to block strategically important ocean passages or ports.
And the U.S. B-2 stealth bombers could penetrate more deeply into Chinese airspace and attack key targets with sharply less chance of detection than the older bombers. These bombers already carry a heavy payload of precision, land-attack munitions and could also be configured to carry the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile.
A B-1B could take off from the continental United States, refuel from tanker aircraft en route, and arrive over the Western Pacific in about 15 hours, according to Deptula and other military aviation analysts. From Hawaii the trip would take about nine hours, they say. Even closer, from northern Australia, the transit would take six hours without refuelling.
The Australian government announced in February it would spend $814 million upgrading a key air base at Tindal in the Northern Territory, including a major extension to its runway. Part of the reason for the upgrade is to support expanded U.S. Air Force operations, the Australian government said. American bombers are already using the base.
The B-1B originally served as a nuclear bomber. That role has been phased out. It now carries around 34 metric tonnes (75,000 pounds) of conventional guided and unguided weapons, the biggest payload of any U.S. aircraft. In the military operations launched after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, these bombers were flown hard for almost two decades to provide ground support to American and allied troops in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
With the Pentagon having turned its competitive sights on China, the B-1B is now increasingly employed as a ship killer. In future, it could also be armed with a new hypersonic missile, the Air-Launched Rapid Response Weapon (ARRW), now in testing, and a new long-range cruise missile, according to senior U.S. Air Force commanders. Hypersonic missiles traveling at more than five times the speed of sound would be hard to intercept.
The B-52 is an even older icon of American might, in service since the mid-1950s. It carries a slightly smaller payload than the B-1B. As part of this weapons load, it can be armed with up to 14 upgraded versions of the Cold War-era Harpoon anti-ship missile. And, it could also be configured in future to carry 20 Long Range Anti-Ship Missiles, according to air power experts. Along with the B-2, the B-52 can also launch nuclear missiles.
While these older bombers remain potent, American air power experts say a strong force of B-21 stealth bombers will be much more effective when they begin entering service later this decade. The new bomber is being developed in a highly classified program. “All the indications are that it is proceeding well in the development phases,” said Deptula.