Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley spoke about the Air Force’s role in the U.S. defense strategy to rebalance to the Asia-Pacific during the Air Force Association’s Global Warfare Symposium in Los Angeles, Calif., Nov. 16.
Donley closed the symposium, which gathered more than 320 airmen, industry officials and Air Force Association members together to discuss the current state of the Air Force, as well as the increasing demands on space, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
Since the release of the President’s Defense Strategic Guidance last January, the document’s reference to the security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region has generated much interest, said the secretary, but “it’s important to dispel the myth that this dynamic and diverse region was ever thought to be unimportant. As a Pacific power, the United States has substantial strategic and commercial interests in the region.”
The Asia-Pacific region is home to the world’s six largest militaries, and the United States is party to five mutual defense treaties with countries in the region.
Transnational threats, including terrorism, piracy, drug trafficking and weapons proliferation all pose risks to peace and stability in the region, Donley said.
Additionally, natural disasters have caused widespread damage and destruction in the Asia-Pacific and have made multinational humanitarian assistance efforts a regular occurrence.
“In hindsight we can speculate that our Nation might have devoted greater attention to the Asia-Pacific region if urgent requirements in Afghanistan and Iraq had not intervened,” said Donley, but the end of operations in Iraq and the active transition of operations in Afghanistan have made possible a reassessment of U.S. global strategic interests.
“[The Defense Strategic Guidance] envisions a joint force for the future that will be smaller and leaner, but will be agile, flexible, ready and technologically advanced,” he said.
For the Air Force, that means the opportunity to “build upon” a long history in the Pacific.
“A history that includes innovative World War II Airmen whose island-hopping strategy – evading the enemy while establishing critical airfields to extend our reach – demonstrated to great effect the advantages airpower can provide,” the secretary said.
It also means an opportunity to leverage the unique characteristics of airpower – range and speed – in an area of responsibility spanning more than 100 million square miles and 15 time zones.
“With respect to force structure, we are well-postured to overcome the vast distances we have in Pacific Command,” Donley said.
Approximately 60 percent of the Air Forces permanent forces outside of the continental U.S. – some 43,000 Airmen at nine bases – are stationed in the Pacific.
The Air Force has prioritized Asia-Pacific for its most capable modern systems, and the rebalance means the service will continue to invest and modernize capabilities needed to project power in the region. This includes the long-range strike bomber, the KC-46 tanker, improved precision munitions and satellite programs, but also a commitment to research and development to ensure future modernization.
As important as rebalancing and modernization are to the effort, Donley said U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific are strengthened by long-standing alliances.
“Our bases in Alaska, Hawaii, and Guam are critical to protecting U.S. territory and defending our interests, and our steady forward presence in the Republic of Korea and Japan has deterred conflict and promoted a stable and secure environment in which all nations in the Asia-Pacific region have prospered,” the secretary said.
Donley’s final comments focused on how the Air Force will make strategic decisions going forward in regards to the budget.
“As the defense budget works its way through Congress, the Air Force will stand firm on our strategic choices: trading size to maintain a quality force, and staying focused on readiness and modernization,” he said.
Beyond these challenges, the secretary spoke about the threat of sequestration.
“These additional and arbitrarily applied across-the-board cuts would leave the military without a workable strategy to counter global threats,” he said. “We remain hopefully and stand ready to work with Congress on the way forward to avoid a hollow force.”