Senate Calls for New F-35 Hub in Pacific, Deployment of Cruise Missile Batteries

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Two F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft fly over the Alaska Canada Highway.
Two F-35A Lightning II fighter aircraft fly over the Alaska Canada Highway en route to their home at the 354th Fighter Wing, Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, April 21, 2020. (U.S. Air National Guard/Tech. Sgt. Adam Keele)

The Senate Armed Services Committee wants to spend nearly $7 billion over two years to launch an aggressive new military effort aimed at deterring China and shoring up U.S. defenses in the Pacific region. It's also calling for strategic deployments of weapons and platforms to keep China and other threats, including Russia, at bay.

The Pacific Deterrence Initiative, approved as part of the Senate version of the 2021 defense budget and policy bill, includes $1.4 billion for next year and plans $5.5 billion for fiscal 2022 to augment missile defense, fund new efforts in support of regional allies, and forward-posture more troops in the region.

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"The best way to protect U.S. security and prosperity in Asia is to maintain a credible balance of military power but, after years of underfunding, America's ability to do so is at risk," a summary of the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, released by the Senate Armed Services Committee following markups, reads.

The Senate-approved NDAA "encourages" the Air Force to establish a new F-35A Joint Strike Fighter operating location in the Indo-Pacific region "quickly to posture ready forces in our priority arena," the bill summary states.

In April, Pacific Air Forces took delivery of its first two F-35s, stationed at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The base is set to have 54 of the aircraft by December 2021. The Senate's version of the NDAA includes a total of $9.1 billion to buy more of the stealthy fifth-generation fighters -- 14 more than the White House asked for in its budget request.

Elements of the Pacific Deterrence Initiative also include improving active and passive missile-defense systems for bases and operating locations in the region; building up the military's system of prepositioned stockpiles, including vehicles, weapons and fuel; and starting to transition the military's operating model in the Pacific from large and difficult-to-defend bases to "dispersed, resilient, and adaptive basing."

In a May op-ed for War on the Rocks, committee chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and ranking member Jack Reed, D-Rhode Island, argued that the creation of the PDI would re-orient the Pentagon's approach to strategic planning and spending.

"It doesn't matter how many F-35s the military buys if very few are stationed in the region, their primary bases have little defense against Chinese missiles, they don't have secondary airfields to operate from, they can't access prepositioned stocks of fuel and munitions, or they can't be repaired in theater and get back in the fight when it counts," they wrote. "The Pacific Deterrence Initiative will incentivize increased focus on posture and logistics, and help measure whether these requirements are being matched with resources."

The PDI would follow the European Deterrence Initiative, launched in 2014 in response to the Russian annexation of Crimea. The EDI, initially known as the European Reassurance Initiative, allowed the U.S. to deploy more troops to Europe for exercises and presence missions to reassure allies.

The Senate's NDAA would also require the secretary of the Army to draft and present a plan to station or deploy its two batteries of interim cruise missile defense capability into operational theaters. This refers to the Israeli-made Iron Dome weapons system, purchased by the Army in 2019 to fill an urgent capability gap. The service is set to take delivery of the first of two Iron Dome batteries in December.

In addition, it would require the chief of naval operations and the head of U.S. European Command to collaborate on a "detailed plan" to base two additional guided-missile destroyers in Rota, Spain, a hub that has been used as a launchpad for quick-response forces to Africa and the surrounding region. The commander of EUCOM, Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February that he wanted two additional destroyers in Rota to execute command-and-control in light of increased Russian undersea activity in the region.

The Senate bill, which totals $740.5 billion, must still be reconciled with a House version. The House Armed Services Committee plans to mark up its version of the bill later this month.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at hope.seck@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @HopeSeck.

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