Updated: Jun 5
Editor's note: This has been updated with additional comments from PACAF Public Affairs Office
The U.S. military has been surveying sites in the Pacific islands region in search of suitable locations to expand its footprint and Palau may be in the running for a new hub, according to Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the U.S. Pacific Air Force.
“We’ve been to Palau a number of times,” Wilsbach said in a telephonic conference with the Asia-Pacific media Friday. “We have, in fact, operated from Palau a number of times. And thank you to the government of Palau because they actually ask us to come in, which is amazing, and we’re very thankful for that."
An archipelago of over 500 islands, Palau became an independent nation in 1994 in free association with the United States. Military access to the nation's land, air and water is among the terms under the Compact of Free Association.
U.S. military resources are currently concentrated on Guam, which hosts the terminal high altitude area defense as well as the Patriot missile systems that provide the region capabilities to counter any potential aggression, particularly from China and North Korea.
“And then in Guam, I think you may have heard the plans, hopefully, to install the Aegis Ashore, which gives us even more capabilities,” Wilsbach said.
The 360-degree defense system for Guam topped the Indo-Pacific Command’s investment priorities for fiscal 2021. Former IndoPacom commander Adm. Phillip Davidson earlier this year told the U.S. Congress that he hoped to get the Aegis Ashore up and running by 2026.
“So that is one aspect – and not necessarily a hardening, but it’s a defensive measure that we can put in place. And we do have those in multiple places around the region, as do a number of our allies and partners also have that capability,” Wilsbach said. “And we’re continuously improving those systems to account for advancements in the threat that we perceive.”
In the past five years, Wilsbach said, the air force command has employed the agile combat employment or ACE strategy.
“The tenets of ACE are, in lieu of being very built-up on extremely large bases, to disperse the forces to many hubs and spokes so that you would be moving about between the hubs and spokes multiple times per day, multiple times per week,” he said.
Thus, he said, explained the need to find more suitable locations.
“When we look at possible places to disperse around the region, we’ve looked – and we’ve pretty much looked at every piece of concrete in the region, and we’ve analyzed it and assessed it for possible use as a place to operate to and operate from,” Wilsbach said.
“And so, we have a significant database of information about every single airfield. Some of them are not suitable for our needs, but a lot of them are, and so you will have seen us already operating from some. Later in the summer, we’ll operate from some more.”
In an email, the Pacific Air Force Public Affairs said a number of options are being evaluated.
"But due to operational security will not get into specifics," the public affairs office said. "Any airfields we may seek to improve, whether enabling access to provide aid in the event of a natural disaster or enhancing our ability to execute operations, will help us ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific while strengthening our relationships with our allies and partners."
Wilsbach said U.S. allies have supported the new strategy as part of the scheme to neutralize China.
“As you pay attention to our operations throughout the Pacific, you’re going to see this, or you may have already seen quite a bit of this going on throughout the region as we exercise this and we practice it,” Wilsbach said.
The air force, he added, has been flying a fair amount of sorties throughout the Indo-Pacific region to collect intelligence.
“We’re doing that is because of all of the activity that our adversaries are executing, and we want to keep a close eye on that because we use it for indications and warnings,” Wilsbach said.
“When I look around the Pacific and I see particularly Chinese military executing missions into the South China Sea, East China Sea, going in close proximity to islands that are claimed by other countries, when I see them executing what looks to be simulated attacks on our partners as well as our own bases, we want to have a full understanding of what that’s about. “
He said the air force is tracking China’s military activities to be able to understand any testing and acquisitions with new equipment that Beijing has made.
“I see them taking over islands. I see them building their own islands that never belonged to them and, frankly, somebody else – oftentimes other countries have claimed them historically,” Wilsbach said. ADVERTISEMENT
Besides overwhelming military power, Wilsbach said, China uses its economic power to coerce island nations.
“We see a lot of predatory lending practices that at least the United States, we’ve outlawed – but they are executing that frequently where they’ll loan an insane amount of money to a country that they know can’t pay it back, and then when the bill comes due, they ask for concessions, which then gives them access,” he said.
The U.S. military’s mission, Wilsbach said, is to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific region.
“We do that through a number of activities and operations throughout the region,” he said.
“The main foundation of this is working with our allies and partners because we find it extremely important that there are a number of like-minded nations around this region who also think that the Indo-Pacific should be free and open, and they work with us to be able to do that.”