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March 17, 2021
Notes from the Pentagon

Pacific general vows ‘robust’ response to China attack

By Bill Gertz
China needs to learn the lessons being taught to the Russian military in Ukraine and the dangers Beijing’s military forces will face from any attack on Taiwan or another regional nation, the commander of the Pacific Air Forces said this week.

Air Force Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, who heads the air element of the Indo-Pacific Command, warned Beijing will suffer an even more forceful response if the People’s Liberation Army conducts an unprovoked attack on the island state similar to Russia’s strike against Ukraine. He contended that China’s communist government is operating “outside the rule of law and the rules-based international order” in conducting aerial and other incursions against neighboring states.

The first lesson China needs to learn, he said this week, is the power of international unity in punishing Russia and assisting Ukraine with weapons in response to the invasion.

And as in Ukraine, China’s military should now realize that military operations against Taiwan would be difficult to conduct and probably would not go according to Beijing’s plans for a decisive victory.

“What China would have to do … with the terrain that they have to contend with around where their neighbors are at is something else they should consider — that is, that it’s very difficult to conduct an invasion and to achieve the military objectives and perhaps they might not be ready to do what they would want to do,” Gen. Wilsbach said.

Russia is paying an “immense cost” in blood and treasure with large-scale loss of life, the general added. “I’m hoping China will pay attention to that as well,” he said.

The general argued that Beijing is engaged in nefarious activities that include predatory lending as part of the Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, the crushing of democracy in Hong Kong, and the takeover or attempted takeover of areas in the South China Sea and East China Sea.

The four-star general said U.S. military officials in the Pacific are closely watching China, amid concerns Beijing may seek to seize strategic opportunities as the world is focused on Ukraine. Intelligence assets are also closely monitoring China, along with North Korea, for signs of impending military action.

North Korea in recent weeks stepped up provocative missile tests, and China this week sent nine more military aircraft into Taiwan’s air defense zone as part of an ongoing military intimidation campaign.

Gen. Wilsbach said China also should realize the Russian military attack strengthened the NATO alliance and that aggression against Taiwan will have a similar impact for the nations of Asia.

He rejected Chinese complaints that Washington is seeking to build a Pacific-like NATO alliance. “We’re actually not doing that,” he said. But he added that “some kind of unprovoked attack inside the Pacific region certainly would provide some kind of solidarity for the nations of the Pacific to come together and oppose” the aggression.

Invading Taiwan likely would lead to either an actual Pacific NATO or a more informal set of regional alliances. “Either one of those I’m hopeful the Chinese will pay attention to,” the general said.

The PLA also is working with the Russian military in Asia, including a small number of integrated bomber patrols. Chinese and Russian forces, however, do not appear to be interoperable militarily, Gen. Wilsbach said.

During the flights, China has regarded itself as the leader of the two militaries while the Russians consider their forces to be in the lead. “I’m pretty happy with that tension, and I think that will be a problem for them as they go into the future,” Gen. Wilsbach said.

By contrast, U.S. Pacific air forces regularly conduct integrated operations together with the militaries of South Korea, Japan, Australia and many other regional states. Those flight operations show the warplanes can and would operate together in a conflict increasing their deterrent impact on China.

Pacific Air Forces (PAC-AF) have not changed the way they seek to deter a Chinese attack on Taiwan, an approach based on high levels of military readiness to respond to aggression in the region, Gen. Wilsbach said.

“One of the things that I hope China pays attention to for PAC-AF is our readiness,” Gen. Wilsbach said.

In the Pacific, the Air Force is applying a new doctrine called “agile combat employment,” described as both proactive and reactive military activities against threats using increased durability and survivability during combat.

The new doctrine is “just one example of presenting dilemmas in the event that we do have a conflict with [the Chinese] that they haven’t thought through the solutions to or come up with solutions to be able to counter what we can do,” Gen. Wilsbach said.

The doctrine is now guiding all forces in the Pacific, including the Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Army.

The Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Global Times dismissed the general’s remarks, noting “the only lesson we learn is that the U.S. is a paper tiger.”

“The nonsense of U.S. military officials will only ramp up the risks they may encounter,” the outlet stated in an editorial published Wednesday. “It is hoped Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach will learn the lessons; otherwise, Washington will be more embarrassed when China takes actions to solve its internal Taiwan question.”

U.S. MiG-29s could help Ukraine
The Air Force has a stash of MiG-29 jet fighters that Ukrainian allies say would be a perfect fit for a country besieged by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s relentless killing machine. However, Air Force officials told Capitol Hill this week that the 21 Cold War MiG-29 fighters will remain stateside.

“Yes, we have MiG-29s in inventory. At this time, we have no plans to transfer planes to the Ukrainian Air Force,” the service said in an email to House military staffers shared with Inside the Ring.

President Biden already nixed a plan by Poland to send some of its Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine over fears the jet transfers would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has vowed to use nuclear weapons if the Ukraine conflict escalates. The Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and other cities are now under constant bombardment by Russian planes, artillery and tanks.

Mr. Biden and NATO also refused to set up and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, for fear it would lead to direct combat encounters with Russian forces.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday repeated calls in a virtual address to Congress for Western powers to set up the no-fly zone and send fighter aircraft that can be used to defend Ukraine. Republican lawmakers have pressed the Biden administration to send Polish MiGs to Ukraine. Poland, a key NATO ally, agreed to send the MiGs if they could buy new U.S. strike aircraft as replacements.

The American-owned MiGs were obtained by the Air Force in the late 1990s. At the time, the Clinton administration feared the jets would end up in the hands of a terrorist state like Iran. As a result, the 21 MiG-29s were secretly purchased from Moldova — a state that borders Ukraine — and moved aboard C-17 transports to Dayton, Ohio, according to 1997 press reports.

The Air Force used the MiGs for training, playing the role of aggressor enemy aircraft, until the jets were worn out.

“None are flying or able to fly,” the Air Force said. “They require a lot of refurbishment to restore to flight-capable status.”

But one Hill defense aide told the Ring that Ukraine’s survival requires U.S. aerial help and that there are aircraft depots that could refurbish the planes within a year. The source said rebuilding the MiGs would be the perfect job for The Boneyard aircraft storage site at Davis-Monthan Air AFB, Tucson, Arizona, and its 309th Aerospace Maintenance and Regeneration Group.

“The refurbishment of these MIG-29 aircraft for the Ukrainian air force is great work for our arsenal of democracy,” the source said. “There is no shortage of depots that could do the work.”

Navy carrier ops near North Korea
A Navy aircraft carrier strike group has conducted high-profile flight operations in the Yellow Sea in response to stepped up North Korean ballistic missile testing.

The Navy’s Seventh Fleet said in a statement that the United States “strongly condemns” missile tests that included two intercontinental-range missile launches Feb. 27 and March 5.

“As a demonstration of our resolve and commitment to our regional allies, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command conducted a carrier-based air demonstration in the Yellow Sea,” the Navy said.

“This demonstration was carried out in international airspace by fourth- and fifth-generation aircraft from the USS Abraham Lincoln, along with regionally-based U.S. Air Force aircraft, and is in addition to previously announced increases in [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] collection in the Yellow Sea and enhanced regional ballistic missile defense posture on the Korean peninsula.”

The ICBMs launched by Pyongyang were “a brazen violation” of several U.N. Security Council resolutions and pose a threat to regional states and the world, the statement said.

“We have made clear our growing concern over the significant increase in [North Korea’s] missile testing, and we will continue to take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the United States and our allies,” the statement said.

The Yellow Sea is bordered by the Korean Peninsula on the east and China on the west, including Qingdao, a major Chinese naval port.

Chinese state media reported Tuesday that PLA naval exercises were held simultaneously in the Yellow Sea and East China and South China Seas.

The naval maneuvers were carried out in response to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s call for allies in Asia to strengthen credible deterrence against China, the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times reported.

  • Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter via @BillGertz.

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