US phases out obsolete aircrafts from Okinawa base near Taiwan to much criticism


Washington continues efforts to contain China and boost Taiwan’s defence. Writes Ahmed Adel

The United States Air Force began a phased replacement of the obsolete F-15 C/D aircraft from the Kadena Air Force Base in Okinawa, Japan. The fleet comprises of 48 aircraft that have been in service for more than 30 years and have surpassed all flight time limits. They will be replaced by more modern F-22 fighter jets, the first of which will be sent from Alaska. But this action has received much criticism in the US.

The aging of any aircraft brings with it many problems, such as cracks and corrosion, electronics becoming obsolete, engines not working at full capacity, and many other issues. The United States Air Force considered a Life Extension Program for the Okinawa-based F-15 aircrafts, but with most of them being about 38-years-old, the idea was abandoned because it was not feasible.

According to the Financial Times, the F-15s at Kadena are operating beyond their design life.

Kadena Air Base is core to Washington’ strategy in containing and pressuring China in the East China Sea, and US efforts to contain China would be more difficult without fighter jets stationed there. The airbase is also located relatively close to Taiwan, amplifying its importance.

US Air Force spokeswoman Ann Stefanek assured the transition to more powerful aircraft at Kadena as an example of continued US commitment to Japan. However, she admits that a final decision has not yet been made on whether the US squadrons to remain at Kadena base will be permanent or rotating, and whether the obsolete F-15s will be replaced by F-22 or the modernised F-15EX.

“While we have not made a decision on the long-term solution, all of the proposals under consideration include advanced capabilities that are superior to the F-15C/D,” Stefanek said. “Until that decision is made, DoD [Department of Defense] will continue to use the Global Force Management process to provide backfill solutions that maintain regional deterrence and bolster our ability to uphold our Treaty obligations to Japan.”

In July this year, Japanese and American fighter jets conducted exercises in the Pacific Ocean to “improve tactical skills and joint response capabilities.” The exercise involved dozens of US Air Force F-22 stealth fighter jets, four F-35 stealth fighter jets, 13 F-15s and three US reconnaissance aircraft, along with the participation of 20 Japanese F-15 and F-2 fighter jets.

The balance of forces in the region could change as a result of the replacement of the Kadena-based fighter jet squadron with more modern fifth-generation fighter jets. For this reason, Beijing is not impressed with US actions.

However, despite the F-22 being considered a fifth-generation military aircraft, it does not have the best reputation. Although the US Air Force has used the F-22 in real combat conditions in Syria and Afghanistan, due to the exorbitantly high operational costs, the US government decided to abandon the purchase of this aircraft and focus on the F-35 instead.

None-the-less, F-22 aircrafts in Kaneda would still be a demonstration to Beijing that the US intends to block its advance in the region. American pilots, for example, will be flying in more modern planes and in close enough proximity to Taiwan.

After the fighter jets are replaced, the military potential of the Kadena base will significantly increase, but there are short-term risks. If tensions were to flare up over Taiwan during the replacement, which is a several months’ process, US capabilities to respond will be severely weakened.

None-the-less, according to the Financial Times, officials in Tokyo and the Pentagon have voiced concern that the move “will send a dangerous signal to China about deterrence.”

For his part, David Deptula, former Vice Commander, Pacific Air Forces, and himself a retired F-15 pilot, told the FT: “The message to China is the US is not serious about reversing the decline in its military forces. This will encourage the Chinese to take more dramatic action.”

Although the intention is to have one fighter squadron arriving at Kadena as another departs, Deptula expressed to the FT his doubts about the viability of this.

“They won’t have a heel-to-toe replacement,” Deptula said. “That’s why they’re doing a rotation. You could supplement by rotating F-22s there to help plug that gap, but that [then] stresses that force.”

In this way, although the intentions are to further isolate and contain China, according to experts, it is in fact weakening US power in the region as the move would likely see the current permanent units under the 18th Wing replaced by rotational fighter detachments. None-the-less, having fifth-generation fighter jets on its doorstep, Beijing will continue to watch the unfolding events very closely.


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