The US Navy’s Pacific fleet is currently conducting dual-carrier drills in the South China Sea, just as the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) finished its own lesser naval exercises. The show of force by the USS Nimitz and USS Ronald Regan carrier strike forces did not go unnoticed.
China was clearly irked and quickly put out a tweet by their state affiliated mouthpiece – the Global Times.
“China has a wide selection of anti-aircraft carrier weapons like DF-21D and DF-26 ‘aircraft carrier killer’ #missiles. South China Sea is fully within grasp of the #PLA; any US #aircraftcarrier movement in the region is at the pleasure of PLA,” Global Times tweeted, along with pictures of Chinese missiles.
The US Navy did not miss a beat in the messaging war, and quickly responded with its own – perhaps better – tweet:
“And yet, there they are. Two @USNavy aircraft carriers operating in the international waters of the South China Sea. #USSNimitz & #USSRonaldReagan are not intimidated #AtOurDiscretion.”
The ramp-up of US Navy fleet activity, combined with deployments of Air Force bombers to the region, are only part of the US strategy to confront China’s illegal and increasingly belligerent expansionism. As reported by The Drive, the US is also dramatically improving its military airbase on Wake Island.
New satellite imagery that The War Zone obtained from Planet Labs dated June 25th, 2020 shows that substantial improvements to the base have occurred recently. Based on archival satellite imagery, the major expansions to the airfield began early this year and are still underway today.
Wake Island, an unincorporated territory of the US, sits 1,500 miles east of Guam, outside the range of China’s and North Korea’s medium-range ballistic missiles, and mostly, if not entirely, out of range of their intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs). Guam is well within the range of these Chinese weapons.
As further described by The Drive, most of the restricted-access Wake Island atoll is taken up by a 9,800-foot runway—long enough to accommodate anything in the Pentagon’s inventory—and the infrastructure surrounding it. The island is best known as an emergency divert and stopping point for US aircraft crossing the Pacific.
As China increasingly threatens US forward bases – such as Kadena and Okinawa in Japan, as well as Guam – with vast numbers of ballistic and cruise missiles, Wake Island would become a critical strategic fallback base during the initial stages of a major conflict.
Turning Wake Island into a fallback base and airpower hub in the Pacific is already being tested. The Drive notes that “last year, B-2 Spirits stealth bombers used the airfield for the first time as a forward re-arming and refueling point (FARP), with their sorties beginning at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, not Guam. This would be the likely arrangement if U.S. installations to the east were threatened or destroyed during a conflict.”
While Wake Island is at the very limit of US aircraft and refueler range to targets in and around China, it is the best option US forces have in the Pacific if their other forward bases are initially knocked out. The ongoing upgrades are vital and well timed.
China needs to get the message clearly that the US is fully committed to maintaining its peacetime presence and warfighting capability in the Western Pacific.