US To Withdraw Permanent F-15 Fighter Forces From Okinawa

The shift to a rotational model is being criticized as sending the wrong message to China

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The US Air Force will retire two squadrons of aging F-15 Eagles that have been permanently based at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, according to six people familiar with the situation. The move has sparked alarm in some parts of the Japanese government and the Pentagon because the Air Force does not intend to replace them with a permanent presence in the near term.

The move will involve half of the roughly 100 air force fighters in Japan and is part of a modernization program. Critics are concerned about possible gaps that could weaken the ability to deter China.

“The message to China is the US is not serious about reversing the decline in its military forces,” said David Deptula, a retired F-15 pilot and former vice-commander of US Pacific Air Forces who blamed years of under-investment for a lack of aircraft. “This will encourage the Chinese to take more dramatic action.”

The Air Force plans to send fifth-generation F-22 fighters from Alaska to Kadena, a critical air base in the region, for an initial six-month rotation after some of F-15s depart. But several people said the force had not worked out future rotations, which raised concerns about possible gaps.

The air force initially declined to discuss the plan. But after publication, spokesperson Ann Stefanek said it would start a two-year phased withdrawal of F-15s next week. She said the Pentagon would “maintain a steady-state presence at Kadena by rotationally deploying newer and more advanced fourth and fifth-generation aircraft” to replace the F-15s.

Stefanek added that the Air Force had “not made a decision on the long-term solution” but said that all the proposals being considered involved aircraft with advanced capabilities that were superior to the retiring F-15s.

US Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees US forces in Asia, did not comment. Japan’s defense and foreign ministries did not comment.

Critics said the move appeared to undermine the Pentagon’s mantra that China is the “pacing threat.” Eric Sayers, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute, said it was “alarming” that the Air Force was ending the permanent presence with no clear long-term plan. He said part of the problem was that the Pentagon was sending advanced fighter jets to Europe and providing them to National Guard and reserves in the US.

“This continues a long, frustrating pattern of using lofty rhetoric about the importance of . . . Asia but then taking actions that look like the opposite,” said Sayers.

Two people said the air force told Japan there would be “heel-to-toe” rotations, meaning no gaps between rotations. Deptula said that was debatable. “They won’t have a heel-to-toe replacement,” he said. “That’s why they’re doing a rotation. You could supplement by rotating F-22s there to help plug that gap, but that [then] stresses that force.”

Christopher Johnstone, a former Pentagon official focused on Japan at the CSIS think-tank, said the move came at a bad time. “It sends a concerning signal to Tokyo about US commitment when everyone is focused on Taiwan,” he said.

Japan plans to boost its defense budget by roughly 11 per cent to more than ¥6tn ($41bn) for the year to March 2024, amid growing calls within the ruling party to match NATO’s target for members to spend 2 per cent of gross domestic product on defense. It is also considering developing counter-strike capabilities against enemy bases and wants domestically made cruise missiles with a range that can strike targets in China.

Johnstone said a genuine “heel-to-toe” rotational plan would significantly reduce concern, but the Pentagon had to make sure that happened. “The Japanese will see this as a presence that is less solid — until DoD demonstrates otherwise,” he said.

Michael Green, head of the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, said the move would ripple beyond Japan. “US allies are already worried about the tactical air picture vis-à-vis the Chinese air force,” he said. “They would view this with real concern.”

Heigo Sato, a defense expert at Takushoku University, said F-22s would alleviate concerns, but if the Air Force could not replace the F-15s, “the credibility of the US military could be under question.”

Chip Gregson, a retired Marine general and former top Pentagon official on Asia, said that while some military leaders disliked rotational models, they had benefits. He said units that trained in the US and deployed on a rotational basis sometimes had higher efficiency, partly because they were deployed together for a full rotation, without the constant personnel churn that happens when people leave units deployed overseas for longer periods.

“It’s the difference between a coherent team that is the same day to day over six or seven months and a team with a constantly changing roster,” said Gregson.

Douglas Birkey, head of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies and former Air Force Association executive, said a rotational model was a “Band-Aid” and the US had to resource the Air Force better.

Evan Medeiros, a China expert at Georgetown University, said a rotational presence had another benefit because Kadena was vulnerable to Chinese missiles, but a rotational posture would be perceived in Tokyo as a reduced US commitment.

“The US faces a real strategic trade-off,” Medeiros said. ✪

Pentagon: US To Scrap Sea-Launched Nuclear Missile Program Despite Military Backing

The United States will stop developing nuclear-armed sea launched cruise missiles, Pentagon documents released on Thursday said, despite senior military officials publicly recommending keeping it...

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The documents (pdf), released on Oct. 27 state the United States will “retire the B83-1 gravity bomb,” and will “cancel the nuclear-armed Sea-Launched Cruise Missile (SLCM-N) program.”

During a news conference, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin faced questions about retiring the two programs, arguing that “our inventory of nuclear weapons is significant.”

“I do not believe this sends a message to Putin,” Austin told a reporter. “He understands what our capability is.”

The Biden Administration released three documents on Oct. 27: the National Defense Strategy, Nuclear Posture Review, and Missile Defense Review. Together they lay out the military’s priorities for the coming years and underscore that Washington plans to maintain “a very high bar for nuclear employment.”

During the Trump Administration, the Pentagon made a decision in 2018 to develop a new nuclear-armed, sea-launched cruise missile, with the focus specifically on the threat from Russia.

However, the Biden Administration said in its review that the sea-launched cruise missile program was unnecessary and would be canceled because the United States already had the “means to deter limited nuclear use.”

One program from the Trump era Biden is keeping is the W76-2 low-yield submarine-launched ballistic missile, which the Pentagon fielded in 2020 to address Russia’s potential employment of similar-scale tactical nuclear weapons, the kind that Moscow has threatened to use in Ukraine to salvage its war there.

‘Very High Bar’

The document also states U.S. nuclear policy will maintain “a very high bar for nuclear employment,” but it would “only consider the use of nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States or its Allies and partners.”

“By the 2030s, the United States will, for the first time in its history, face two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries. This will create new stresses on stability and new challenges for deterrence, assurance, arms control, and risk reduction,” the document says.

In addressing the U.S. military’s strategy, Austin told reporters that Russia, unlike China, “cannot systemically challenge the United States in the long term,” but he said that Russian aggression currently poses “an immediate and sharp threat to our interests and values.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese regime wants to employ 1,000 deliverable warheads by the end of the 2020s, according to the Pentagon document. The Chinese Communist Party, it added, could use those weapons for military provocations against U.S. allies in the region.

Despite Russian officials’ recent comments about using nuclear weapons to defend Russia, U.S. officials say they haven’t seen indications that Moscow is preparing to use them. Russian President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 26 observed exercises by Russia’s strategic nuclear forces, the Kremlin said.✪

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