The Kadena Conundrum: Developing a Resilient Indo-Pacific Posture
The long-standing debate over whether the United States is prioritizing China and the Indo-Pacific region has reignited once more. The debate centers on U.S. posture — the forces, bases, and agreements that constitute America’s overseas military presence and make up the backbone of the U.S. Department of Defense’s deterrence strategies — in the Indo-Pacific.
The U.S. Air Force decision in October 2022 to remove two squadrons of aging F-15C/D fighters at Kadena Air Force Base on the Japanese island of Okinawa and replace it with a temporary detachment to cover the Kadena fighter mission sparked a firestorm. The announcement was quickly followed by numerous criticisms leveled by members of the Congress as well as regional and defense experts, many of whom have called for augmented posture in the Indo-Pacific to deter Chinese aggression. Their arguments cite a misalignment between resources and strategic priorities. If China’s developing military power renders it the U.S. Department of Defense’s priority pacing challenge, then why is the Pentagon removing key air assets that could contribute to holding Beijing at bay rather than doubling down on strengthening regional posture?
The answer is not as simple as the critique, but it boils down to a core concept often overlooked in deterrence debates: resiliency. For forces to be combat credible and effectively contribute to deterrence, they need to be able to ride out an attack, survive, and then resume operations and generate combat power. This is why the force-planning construct in the 2022 National Defense Strategy emphasizes a survivable future force and why nearly every military service has developed new operational concepts predicated on dispersed posture.
Kadena is uniquely ill-positioned for permanently basing large numbers of American aircraft, given the Chinese military’s large investment in long-range precision strike capabilities. The volume of fires that Chinese forces can direct against Kadena makes it more vulnerable to than other bases in the First Island Chain. While air bases are large targets that are difficult to permanently destroy, unprotected aircraft and ground support equipment are soft targets that can easily be destroyed. Submunitions can allow a single missile to damage multiple aircraft and key support equipment parked in the open.
The reduction in the forces based at Kadena is not a sign that the United States is abandoning Japan or the First Island Chain, but rather a prudent measure to reduce the vulnerability of forward based U.S. aircraft and increase their ability to conduct sustained combat operations. Moreover, it is an important step in changing U.S. military posture in the Indo-Pacific to be more resilient to meet the operational challenges posed by the growing Chinese military threat. The Pentagon should take this opportunity to provide the forces and resources required to evolve toward a distributed, survivable, and rotational posture in the Indo-Pacific that allows a rapid transition to a contingency footing. As it makes these changes, the United States needs to socialize these new posture concepts with both allies and adversaries to ensure American intent is well understood and allocate money to support a truly agile basing concept in the Indo-Pacific region.
This change supports the Air Force’s move towards distributed operations as a part of its agile combat employment concept. But more must be done to develop a resilient and survivable posture in the Indo-Pacific and shift vulnerable legacy presence to a combat credible posture. To successfully implement distributed operations, resources are required to improve the infrastructure at other bases in Japan, Australia, and the Philippines, and detachments of fighter aircraft from outside of the Indo-Pacific must be routinely deployed to practice, hone, and demonstrate their ability to execute this scheme of maneuver. The president’s fiscal year 2023 budget request for the Pacific Deterrence Initiative is inadequate. The funding request underinvests in the infrastructure and facilities needed to support distributed operations. Of all the services, the Air Force is investing the least in the Pacific Deterrence Initiative and is notably the only service not increasing its forces in the region.
There is a wide-spread push to make greater investments in U.S. force posture in the Indo-Pacific to counter the China challenge. But how to enhance U.S. force posture is less agreed upon, with debates over whether investments should be in forces or concrete, as well as over the location, type, and permanence of forces. Here, the arguments against the changes at Kadena are illustrative and largely fall into three categories: force structure, posture, and assuring allies and partners and deterring potential aggressors.
The force structure critique argues that the Air Force is too small for its missions and that more fifth-generation fighter squadrons are needed to meet global demands. This line of attack is less about posture and more about insufficient capacity. The posture argument is that Kadena is “strategic real estate” that enables American power projection in East Asia and the removal of 50 aging fighters represents a “tangible reduction” of U.S. “combat credible” posture. In this line of thought, more U.S. forces and bases are needed in the Indo-Pacific to deter China and any decrease in the American military presence anywhere in the theater is an unacceptable net reduction in U.S. military power. This claim is intrinsically linked with the final critique, that rotating fighter squadrons signal a lack of American commitment to defend its allies and partners against Chinese aggression. Others conclude this move will embolden Beijing by “lowering the bar for aggression and demonstrating a continued mismatch between the Biden Administration’s talking points on the Indo-Pacific and America’s actual commitments in the region.”
By extension, these arguments lend themselves to several solutions: increasing force size, augmenting legacy posture, and prioritizing reassurance over deterrence. For the most part, this would be doubling down on continued U.S. presence at bases that are now more vulnerable than ever to Chinese missile attack. These solutions are insufficient to meet the operational challenges posed by China to the United States and its allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific. The threats to Kadena Air Base are the canary in the coal mine and illustrate why the concepts and posture of the past 70 years must change to meet the growing Chinese military challenge.
Kadena: The Canary in the Coal Mine
Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has operated from airbases almost totally secure from air and missile attacks. The sanctuary era is long over, especially in the Indo-Pacific due to China’s acquisition of a large number of accurate long-range missiles and increasingly modern air forces. Conventionally armed Chinese missiles can range most American bases in the region, including Guam, but the level of the threat varies considerably and is directly tied to the base’s distance from China.
A simple firepower and density analysis, conducted by one of this article’s authors, of potential People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force firepower against three U.S. fighter bases in Japan — Kadena, Iwakuni, and Misawa — further differentiates the level of threat and shows that not all airbases in the First Island Chain are created equal. Kadena is in a particularly vulnerable and unenvious position, as the thousands of short-range missiles that China has stockpiled to attack Taiwan can also reach Okinawa. Given China’s greater investment in short-range missiles over more expensive long- and medium-range missiles, short-range missiles present a threat with greater magazine depth.
To geolocate the Chinese rocket forces, we used CASI’s recently published analysis of Chinese missile bases with the DF-11, DF-16, DF-17, DF-21, CJ-10, and DF-100. We did not consider the DF-26 as it would likely be reserved for more distant targets. With the exception of the DF-100, missile ranges were taken from the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Threat website.
In the largest single salvo that Beijing could fire at any one of the three bases, China has 252 short- and medium-range ballistic and cruise missile launchers that can reach Kadena, 126 that can strike Iwakuni, and 36 that can reach Misawa. The 2021 China Military Power Report indicates that Chinese rocket forces have approximately 4 short-range ballistic missile rounds per launcher and 2.4 medium-range ballistic missiles rounds per launcher. This means that that Kadena could face multiple salvos of this scale.
No location in the theater is completely safe, but being farther away from China is better for American forces. Kadena is the closest U.S. air base to the Chinese coastline and faces twice as many People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force missiles than the next closest U.S. fighter base Iwakuni. If forces are moved from Kadena to Misawa, the number of Chinese missiles is reduced by 86 percent.
Don’t Simply Replace, Reshape Posture
American combat aircraft have operated from Kadena since 1945, but the growing Chinese missile threat has made this position untenable. Permanently basing several squadrons of fifth-generation fighters at Kadena does not provide significant combat capability in the early stages of a war. They instead present an opportunity for China to take out a significant portion of America’s tactical aircraft fleet with its deep inventory of short-range missiles. As Dick Betts’s seminal work on surprise has shown, it is unlikely that a Chinese opening blow would be a bolt-from-the-blue attack with little to no warning. However, it could still be an operational surprise, whether it’s because American leaders doubt that China will attack, fail to take appropriate defensive measures, or misjudge the time or location of the strike.
During a crisis or conflict, aircraft based at Kadena would either retrograde or be neutralized. Neither of these are good signals for the United States to send to allies or adversaries during a crisis. Chinese missile attacks would likely damage or destroy fighters parked in the open or may temporarily ground all aircraft at the base by rendering the runways and taxiways inoperable and destroying fuel stores. Although aircraft at Kadena would serve as a tripwire that could bring the United States into the war if they were attacked, symbolic force deployments do not shift the balance of power and do not enhance deterrence.
The U.S. Air Force should not leave Kadena entirely. It remains a valuable location for routine peacetime reconnaissance and surveillance operations in the East and South China Seas, and it could potentially be a useful in the latter stages of a war once China’s missile inventory is depleted. It is also an important symbol of the American commitment to Japan’s defense. However, Japan and other allies need to understand that the Department of Defense will not prevail in a war against China if it loses too many forces in the first few days. Dispersing American forces beyond the heart of the Chinese missile threat increases their ability to absorb an opening blow and to continue to effectively operate, which should be reassuring to allies and worrying to adversaries.
The retirement of the F-15C/Ds enables American posture to evolve, permanently stationing fewer aircraft at a highly vulnerable base and reducing the concentration of U.S. forces in the region to improve U.S. posture in the First Island Chain. There is a large body of analysis that demonstrates the value of dispersion and the improvements it would produce for force survivability. To enable this, the Pentagon needs to make investments in passive defenses and a distributed network of near and far bases. Thus far, efforts have focused on building up distant bases by improving defenses at Guam; upgrading an airbase on Tinian: augmenting support facilities in Darwin; and expanding an airfield at Tindal. Such distant bases are essential for tanker and bomber operations.
But the United States cannot win a war by fighting only from long-range. The Air Force’s fleet is heavily weighted towards short-range fighter aircraft. Operating from distant bases would not allow the undersized bomber force and short-range fighter fleet, heavily dependent on vulnerable aerial refueling, to generate enough mass to defeat a large-scale attack. Therefore, the United States must also distribute its fighters across Japan and the Philippines, which requires making improvements to the near bases in these countries. Because aircraft are highly responsive and can deploy from the United States on relatively short notice, their presence does not need to be continuous, but adequate air base installations do need to be in place to support them. The United States has access to five airbases in the Philippines but has not built the infrastructure needed at these locations to support American air operations.
According to the Commander of U.S. Pacific Air Forces, agile combat employment is “just normal ops” at U.S. bases in Japan, but more needs to be done to practice this concept throughout the theater and at scale. The United States should regularly have one to two rotational fighter squadrons in the theater at different bases, demonstrating highly expeditionary operations. At times, the Air Force should surge in additional squadrons along to demonstrate agile combat employment at scale. This approach exercises the logistics and force flow activities needed in any contingency scenario. If the old adage is that you fight like you train, rotational activities will allow the Air Force to do just that. Rotations will also expose a greater percentage of the overall force to both this form of operation but also, crucially, Chinese operational patterns. During World War II, the U.S. Navy rotated its best aircrews back home to continue to train the next generation against adversary tactics. The current, static deployment model risks concentrating key operational knowledge in a smaller number of aircrews.
Ultimately, the Defense Department should embrace a joint vision of posture and deterrence. The current debate over Kadena is centered on aircraft from a single service, located at a particular base. In a theater the size of the Indo-Pacific, relatively short-ranged, manned tactical aviation assets are not sufficient to achieve U.S. aims. Unmanned aircraft can augment the manned U.S. fleet. Mobile Marine and Army ground-based missile units offer another way of generating responsive, early conflict firepower inside the First Island Chain with greater survivability. Small groups of missile launchers are able to blend in with other vehicles and move around frequently, making them difficult to find and destroy. Stealthy attack submarines are also a critical part of the inside force in the early phases of a conflict. These stand-in forces are complimented by bombers operating from distant bases to provide sustainable, massed fires. Meanwhile, surface naval forces provide air and missile defense capabilities at key locations across the theater to enhance the survivability of more distant bases.
Bringing Our Friends Along
This new model will only truly work if the United States socializes it with our allies and partners. These activities must be paired with thoughtful diplomatic efforts to explain their value to key U.S. allies and partners — including Japan — and get them on board with the new approach. Ultimately, it will take the United States and its allies and partners working together to deter China, the goal of integrated deterrence. That means Japanese Air Self-Defense forces may take primary role defending their airspace from threats, freeing up U.S. aircraft to conduct other missions. Temporary access to additional bases for dispersed operations is also needed in Japan as well as access for American ground-based missile units. Further afield, developments to infrastructure at bases in the Philippines and Australia must be made in order to provide additional bases for dispersal and add resiliency to U.S. distributed operations.
This new approach to posture is just as much of a change for American allies as it is for the United States itself. While it is a bit disingenuous to argue that the removal of less than 50 aircraft from Okinawa will lead Japan to conclude that U.S. commitment is “less solid” when Japan still hosts Seventh Fleet, III Marine Expeditionary Force, and Fifth Air Force, it is understandable why Japanese leadership would have questions about long term plans and intentions after these moves. The United States has socialized allies into thinking that more presence and larger forces equals more deterrence and assurance. This model is not viable in the mature precision strike era.
Change is often difficult but necessary. As counterintuitive as it seems, removing the F-15C/Ds from Kadena is an opportunity to positively change the balance of power in the First Island Chain by enhancing the resiliency of U.S. posture in the Indo-Pacific. This requires additional improvements to bases, prepositioning equipment, and regular rotations of smaller detachments of U.S. military forces to practice distributed operations. All of these steps will require additional resources and disciplined execution. Upgrading additional bases is not that expensive but has been habitually shortchanged because the services prefer to invest in force structure and Congress does not like spending money overseas. But rotational forces can be more expensive than permanently based ones and the bill for the logistics to support distributed operations will be sizable. Finally, there will be opportunity costs as the Defense Department does not have enough forces to be everywhere. American leaders will need to prioritize the Indo-Pacific and resist the urge to reflexively deploy forces to the Middle East at each Iranian provocation. Building a combat credible force that can effectively resist Chinese aggression will not be cheap or easy. But if American forces are dispersed across bases in the First and Second Island Chains and fewer forces are at Kadena, they will be able to withstand attacks, recover, and undertake effective operations to defeat aggression.
Stacie Pettyjohn is a senior fellow and director of the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.
Andrew Metrick is a fellow in the defense program at the Center for a New American Security.
Becca Wasser is a senior fellow and lead of The Gaming Lab at the Center for a New American Security.