The discussion surrounding the new defense strategy with its “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific region has focused largely on prospective changes to the deployment and posturing of U.S. forces in the region. The U.S. Navy plans to shift ten percent of its fleet, between twenty-five and thirty ships, to the Pacific. In response to the erratic behavior of the North Korean regime, additional ballistic missile defense units, both Aegis BMD-capable destroyers and a THAAD battery have been deployed to the Western Pacific. However, additional missile defense capabilities in the region are required also in order to counter the massive increase in Chinese theater ballistic missiles. The Marine Corps’ situation on Okinawa has been resolved and there are plans to reposition some 2,500 Marines to Australia.
A critical aspect of the “pivot” is a strengthening of U.S. relationships in the region. The U.S. has a remarkably robust network of allies and friends across the Western Pacific. There are traditional allies such as Australia, Japan and the Republic of Korea. The U.S. has sold a wide range of advanced military hardware to these countries, including F-15 and F/A-18 fighters, Apache helicopters and the Patriot air and missile defense systems. The U.S. maintains a special relationship, including close security ties, with Taiwan. The U.S. is pursuing closer ties with Indonesia, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and even its erstwhile adversary, Vietnam. It is in America’s interest to ensure that its global allies, particularly those in the Asia-Pacific region, have the wherewithal to defend their security interests and, should the necessity arise, participate in coalition operations.
One of the most significant ways that the U.S. government can strengthen the security of regional allies as well as demonstrate its continuing commitment to the region is by providing many of these countries with the world’s most advanced tactical aircraft, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Eight countries are founding members of the F-35 international program, putting money on the table and developing critical technologies for the system. They are the United Kingdom, Australia, Italy, Canada, Turkey, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. Australia recently reconfirmed its commitment to acquire some 100 F-35s. Israel, South Korea, India, Belgium, Spain, the United Arab Emirates, Singapore and Saudi Arabia have each expressed interest in the possibility of acquiring the Joint Strike Fighter. These nations recognize that in a world of proliferating surface-to-air missile systems and advanced sensors, a fighter with the unique features of the F-35 is absolutely indispensable to their security.
In the hands of major U.S. allies, the F-35 will enhance their ability to defend their air space and national waters and provide support to ground forces. But international sales do much more. The experience with other major international aircraft programs, most notably the F-16 and F/A-18, is that they create a network of relationships based on a shared supply chain, common sustainment activities, collaborative training and joint exercises. With its advanced sensor and communications suite, the F-35 could serve as the basis for an ISR network spanning the entire Asia-Pacific region. When the F-35 is in the hands of U.S. allies in the Middle East and Europe as well, this network will be truly global. Acquisition of the Joint Strike Fighter will serve to support NATO’s assertion that it is a Pacific power.
As the F-35 program continues to make progress and major issues are resolved, U.S. allies and friends are reaffirming their support for the program. If these counties want to participate in high-end air operations in the 21st Century they now they have no option but to get with the Joint Strike Fighter international program.
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