The Air Force is ramping up its doctrine to prepare for the possibility of a “high-end” fight against its chief rivals and plans to add more than 7,000 airmen this fiscal year to continue growing a force that’s too small for the missions it may be called upon to perform, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Friday.
Wilson, who became the 24th Air Force secretary in May, stopped at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on Thursday and Friday following her first official trip to the region, with visits to Guam, the Philippines, South Korea and Japan.
A new National Defense Strategy released last month “recognizes explicitly that we’ve returned to an era of great power competition, and for the United States Air Force, really, the pacing threat, if you will, is China,” Wilson told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser. “It is rapidly modernizing and we need to prepare to be able to protect our vital national interests in a highly contested region.”
The fiscal 2019 budget request will emphasize restoring the lethal capacity of the Air Force and “will include continued modernization of the force (and) additional purchases of everything from (refueling) tankers to F-35s to the continued development of the B-21 bomber,” Wilson said.
She added that over the next five years the goal is to steadily grow the Air Force — which lost 30,000 people to sequestration — and “use those positions to put them in the operational Air Force.”
Hawaii has been a hub of extra-busy, high-level military activity recently with tensions running high with North Korea.
Wilson had met with Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, head of Pacific Air Forces, and Adm. Harry Harris, who leads the U.S. Pacific Command, at the start of her trip during a stopover on Oahu.
And Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Harris on Thursday at U.S. Pacific Command headquarters on Oahu before a trip to Australia to discuss the “situation with North Korea, relations with China and efforts to counter terrorism in the region,” a Defense Department news release said.
The new National Defense Strategy states the United States is “emerging from a strategic atrophy, aware that our competitive military advantage has been eroding,” while finding itself in an increasingly complex security environment defined by rapid technological change.
“China is a strategic competitor using predatory economics to intimidate its neighbors while militarizing features in the South China Sea,” the strategy says, and Russia has violated the borders of nearby nations.
A more “lethal, resilient and rapidly innovating joint force, combined with a robust constellation of allies and partners, will sustain American influence and ensure favorable balances of power,” according to the defense paper.
Secretary of Defense James Mattis said on Jan. 19 that “great power competition” between nations is becoming a reality once again. And although the United States will continue to prosecute terrorism to some degree, “great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of U.S. national security.”
Wilson visited Manila in the Philippines, which has competing claims with China to islands in the South China Sea and is a strategically important alliance partner for the United States. Wilson said the Philippines has agreed to a return to live-fire exercises with the Air Force.
The Philippines also would like to work with the Air Force on training and proficiency for their FA-50 fighters, she said. “And we may end up bringing some fighters back to do some joint training this fall,” Wilson said.
She added that the Philippines also is getting some new radars “to be able to make sure that all of us as allies are sharing information about what’s going on in that region of the world.” The Air Force plans to send technical assistance to help.
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