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Air Force must harden Pacific bases against missiles, secretary says

Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall during the Air Force Association Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Md., Sept. 20, 2021. (U.S. Air Force photo by Wayne Clark)

The U.S. Air Force needs to spend more to protect its Pacific bases from Chinese missiles, Secretary Frank Kendall said Wednesday.

“They [China] have noticed it’s quite obvious that we depend upon a small number of assets, including forward air bases, to conduct operations,” Kendall said Wednesday at a Center for a New American Security virtual event. “Because they’re fixed, they’re easily targetable, and they’ve built the assets to come after them. So we have got to respond to that.”

Historically, Air Force leaders have prioritized buying new aircraft over base defenses, which can include sophisticated anti-missile systems but can also mean dispersing and hardening hangars or even installing simple canopies to conceal the number and location of aircraft, Stacie Pettyjohn, director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security, wrote in War on the Rocks.

Kendall has made protecting the Air Force’s forward bases one of his seven top priorities, which he first announced at Defense One’s Outlook 2022 in December.

“What I am trying to instill within the whole department is a sense of urgency about all of this … they’re things we have to do to be successful,” Kendall said Wednesday.

He said the Air Force needs to move away from a small number of bases that concentrate aircraft within a few unhardened hangars.

“China has a formidable arsenal of conventionally armed long-range missiles that are significantly more accurate than the ones that the Soviet Union had during the Cold War and plans to fire them in a first strike to destroy U.S. forces on the land and at sea,” Pettyjohn wrote. “The Defense Department should ensure that American forces in the Indo-Pacific can survive this blow and generate combat power while under attack, which requires taking steps to increase the resiliency of U.S. military posture.”

In recent years, the Air Force has been using an Agile Combat Employment concept that calls for spreading out forces across more bases. The Air Force operates the bulk of its forces in the Pacific from nine bases, in Hawaii, Alaska, Guam, Japan, and South Korea. But Kendall said more needs to be done.

“We have to be harder; we have to create some ambiguity for the enemy,” he said. “We have to use a combination of multiple locations and deceptions to do that. We have to have some level of defenses so that he has uncertainty about how successful this attack might be, and we have to basically change the equation fundamentally in terms of how much leverage there is in shutting down air bases.”

Kendall said this is “about allocation of resources, at the end of the day.” The Pentagon is expected to send its 2023 budget proposal to Congress in March.

“We just have a lot more to do, and we need to get on with it as quickly as possible,” he said.

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