Despite a new study saying America has lost its “military primacy” in the Indo-Pacific due to a focus on the Middle East while China advanced its military capability, the head of Pacific Air Forces on Oahu said the United States still has the advantage.
“What I do see is, China is actually trying to increase its capability,” Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. said Tuesday. “I wouldn’t say that our advantage is completely lost — counter to what the study said.”
The United States has some key pluses that China doesn’t have: the quality of its platforms, the quality of its airmen and the quality of its relationships, Brown said in a meeting with reporters.
“We have good relationships with a number of countries (that we) exercise with across the region. You don’t see that with China,” he said. U.S. forces have been combat-tested around the world in recent years, he noted.
“We want to be the partner of choice from a security perspective — and I think we are in a lot of areas,” said Brown, whose headquarters is at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
An August report by the United States Studies Centre in Sydney concluded that the combined effect of nearly two decades of counterinsurgency wars in the Middle East, budget austerity and underinvestment in advanced weapons has left America with an atrophying force that is “ill-prepared for great power competition in the Indo-Pacific.”
The United States is trying to play catch-up, but an “outdated superpower mindset” is seen as limiting efforts to scale back on global commitments and hampering efforts in the Pacific as a result.
Brown and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently returned from a trip to the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia.
It was the first visit to Vietnam by an Air Force chief of staff since the end of the war with America in 1975. Brown, head of the Pacific Air Force command with 46,000 military and civilian personnel and about 320 fighter and attack aircraft, was also making his first trip to Vietnam. An additional 100 aircraft rotate through Guam.
Brown said the stop in Vietnam, including Hanoi, was “pretty moving.” He noted that both his and Goldfein’s fathers fought in the country — his father in the Army and Goldfein’s as an F-4 pilot.
“Remembering as a young guy my dad going off to Vietnam, and then actually being there (myself), was somewhat surreal,” he said.
Vietnam has clashed with China over contested islands and regions in the South China Sea, and is seen as a possible counterweight to China.
“They shared their opinions about what they felt the (People’s Republic of China) was doing inside their exclusive economic area, and the fact they are feeling pressure from the PRC,” Brown said. “So they are a bit vocal, and they actually mentioned the fact that it would be helpful if the United States and others would actually call China out.”
Vietnam is pursuing T-6 Texan II trainer aircraft for their air force, “which is interesting because most of the stuff they have right now is from Russia,” he said.
Also discussed was English language training. Brown said a “significant number” of Vietnamese come to the United States for college.
“And there are opportunities there,” he said. There are no Vietnamese nationals at any of the military academies, and Goldfein has made it a goal to invite a Vietnamese student to attend the Air Force Academy next academic year, Brown said.
In 2017 a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter was transferred to Vietnam, and in 2018 the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson made a port call in Danang — the first such stop since the end of the Vietnam War.
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