The Pacific Arms Race 101: Strategic Bombers in Asia
Though unlikely to devolve into open conflict, military presence in the South China Sea is crucial to ensure global security. Military posturing plays a key part in ensuring that diplomacy in the region – especially between the United States and China – can work. The threat of force needs to be seen as realistic by all parties in the region to incentivize negotiations.
Drastically different from trans-Atlantic relationships, regional power in the Pacific requires a nation’s ability to field strong naval, air and island assets to project control over the massive and largely unclaimed ocean. Conflicts in the South China Sea – in which regional powers are disputing China’s territorial claims to a resource-rich archipelago – are the most recent example of clashes as China develops and militarizes artificial islands and reefs to exert its influence. More than a simple territorial expansion, this build-up is being monitored by U.S. air and sea freedom of navigation operations as part of the U.S. insistence that the area is international territory. The posturing between the militaries of the United States and China in this region comes with the display of some of the world’s most impressive military aircraft: the strategic bomber.
The World War II image of a bomber blindly dropping dozens of bombs haphazardly over a target is no longer entirely accurate. When considered with modern combat operations, today’s aircraft possess platforms with the ability to safely loiter for long periods of time before carefully striking targets of opportunity with guided munitions. Four nations field these bombers: The United States, United Kingdom, Russia, and China. This means each nation possesses planes capable of long-range missions with a variety of conventional and nuclear munitions. Unlike aircraft carriers, which have the potential for and a history of humanitarian use, there is no way to soften the image of a bomber – they are offensive weapons that exist solely to rain munitions upon targets. The forward deployment of a bomber wing is an act of aggression meant to send a single message: that a strong nation is able project its might where it wishes. These planes play an increasingly important role in the U.S. pivot towards Asia. In the face of China’s growing influence and power projections as well as North Korean sabre-rattling, the United States must demonstrate its support to its key allies in the region – Japan and South Korea – and show that it is willing, capable, and able to provide support should it be needed.
As part of the U.S. routine strategic bomber presence in the Pacific, the United States deployed B1-B “Lancer” bombers and B2 “Spirit ” stealth bomber alongside the classic B-52 “Stratofortress” currently on deployment in Guam. The B1-Bs will be the backbone of the current bomber deployment and are capable of carrying 75,000 pounds of varied munitions over a range of nearly 7,500 miles. These planes have been battle-tested in Syria; they returned back stateside for maintenance and upgrades after nearly 500 missions over six months against approximately 3,700 targets. The B1-B is a “workhorse” in the words of Lt. Gen. Charles Brown Jr., due to “the fact that it can carry as many weapons as it can and stay airborne as long as it can.”
China has responded to the build-up with the deployment of its own strategic bomber, the Xian H-6K. Jane’s Defense Weekly referred to the deployment of the H-6K as an indication of “China’s willingness to employ strategic assets to enforce its claims in the disputed South China Sea.” With a range of nearly four thousand miles from its airbase (more than twice the distance from Chinese holdings in the South China Sea to U.S. bases in Guam), the presence of the plane could effectively deter the deployment of valuable U.S. naval assets to the region.
U.S. military capabilities for aircraft abroad lie in its ten flagship aircraft carriers. In addition to the symbolic value of U.S. power, carriers allow for rapid response and are crucial for U.S. force projection around the world. However, carriers are expensive and vulnerable assets – a successful strike on a carrier in the modern era would be massive morale blow to the United States, severely crippling its ability to engage in conflict and scoring a propaganda victory for the adversary. In contrast to modern U.S. ships, China’s fledging carrier fleet is largely based from second-hand hulls – the only active carrier, Liaoning, is used as a training vessel, and was purchased as a partially-completed hull from Ukraine following the collapse of the Soviet Union. To counteract the carrier disparity, China has focused its efforts on anti-ship missiles, such as the YJ-12 and Yl-91. Launched from an aircraft such as the H-6K, these missiles would be a significant threat to naval assets. Described as “hypersonic” and posing “immense challenges for shipboard defenses,” the widespread deployment of these weapons would force the United States to give the operating area of China’s air force a wide berth.
U.S. bombers mitigate the risk to its prized carriers while still allowing force projection in the Pacific Theater. As a mobile weapons platform with tactical missiles of their own, they are ideal for covering the long ranges of the Pacific Ocean from bases in Japan, Guam, and South Korea. Additionally, the United States can afford to take on more risk with its bomber fleet than it can with its carriers.
Ultimately, the deployment of strategic assets incentivizes the diplomatic process. It does not serve either nation to engage in open conflict, but to lend credibly to their negotiating positions, they must be able back up their diplomatic positions with force. The United States has maintained naval and air superiority over its eastern rivals since the end of World War II. As a result, China is rightly not attempting to match the capabilities of the United States but instead is focusing its military development towards developing effective counter-measures to U.S. deployments in regions where it wishes to extend influence. The actions and reactions of each party are a delicate dance where each must attempt to gain the slightest perceived advantage over its rival.