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Moderator: Good day, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I’m the Hub Director, Zia Syed, and I want to thank you all for joining this briefing. Today we are pleased to be joined from Hawaii, U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) Commander General Ken Wilsbach. We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from the general. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have.
Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on the record. And with that, I will turn it over to General Wilsbach.
General Wilsbach: All right, thanks everybody, and good afternoon, good evening, and good morning to folks all over the world really, and it’s really an honor to be with you and I really want to thank you for taking your precious time out to spend some time with me and ask me some questions and then just have a dialogue. So it’s really a great opportunity for me and I hope you feel the same way. I’m looking forward to hearing your questions.
But before we get to that, let me just take just a few minutes and then I won’t speak long because really I want to hear your questions. But just to give you a few opening comments about what we think about at Pacific Air Forces and in the Indo-Pacific. And the first thing is our objective, our military objective — it should be clear to you, but hopefully – so I’ll just reiterate it. It’s to achieve a free and open Indo-Pacific region. And we do that through a number of activities and operations throughout the region. But what I would say, 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.
From the standpoint of the Pacific Air Forces, we’re talking about the United States Air Force. But we clearly are only just one service. And so we also work with U.S. Space Force, United States Marines, the U.S. Navy, and the U.S. Army to work together to achieve that objective of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
And so that is something that I think should be understood foundationally. And when you think about a free and open Indo-Pacific, it’s our assessment that there’s a few entities in this region that don’t actually want that. And who I’m talking about now is Russia, North Korea, as well as China. And when I say China, I’m talking about the Communist Party of China. And so we find ourselves in competition with these countries and – because they don’t want a free and open in Pacific, and we and our allies and partners do. And so those activities that we do and execute around the region are meant to comply with the rules-based international order and international law, but [also] to challenge the assertions of North Korea and Russia and China so that we can realize the free and open Indo-Pacific.
And so that, as a way of opening the discussion, are the main things that we think about here at PACAF. And so with that as a very brief introductory comment, let me turn it over to the questions.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question will go to Quoc Dat Duong from Zing News in Hanoi, Vietnam. Quoc Dat, please go ahead. If not, I’m going to move on. Can we go ahead and move to the next questioner? And that will be — Gordon Arthur from Shephard Media in Christchurch, New Zealand.
Question: You talked about a free and open Indo-Pacific. And I’m just wondering how concerned you are about the vulnerability of some of your facilities in places like Guam and perhaps in East Asia, also supply routes across the Pacific, perhaps threatened by Chinese missiles or aircraft or whatever. And just wondering what PACAF is doing to improve the situation, to harden some of the bases, perhaps.
General Wilsbach: Yes. So certainly, I mean, it doesn’t take a military expert to realize that the Chinese military capability has made significant improvements over the last several years. And one of those areas is in ballistic missiles and their capability to reach out beyond the first island chain and really threaten, not just us, in the second island chain or perhaps even beyond that, even to the continental United States and others of our allies and partners. So we’ve been watching that through our intelligence collection, and have also been working on ways to defend ourselves.
And so, one of the ways that you can defend yourself is to have a defensive capability to be able to target those inbound missiles. And you talked about China, but we also have concerns about, for similar reasons, for Russia and North Korea because both of those countries also have had significant developments in their missile capability. And so this answer really applies to those three countries.
But – so when you talk specifically about Guam, which was a great example, but we have this capability in other places — is we do have countering capabilities with the THAAD missile system as well as the Patriot missile system. And then in Guam, I think you may have heard the plans, hopefully, to install the Aegis Ashore, which gives us even more capabilities. 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. And we’re continuously improving those systems to account for advancements in the threat that we perceive. So, that’s the counter-ballistic missile capability.
But there’s another strategy that we have started to employ in the last few years, which is a strategy called Agile Combat Employment (ACE). And 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. And you would be quite agile and quite mobile. And so what that does is it takes a few very built-up bases as targets, and it creates a targeting problem for any adversary because not only would they have to target the hubs, but they would also have to target the spokes. And that really dilutes the amount of firepower that they can put down on any one of those targets.
And so we’ve been expanding the envelope on ACE in about the last five or six years in PACAF. And I will say that a number of our allies and partners are also quite interested in this strategy and have joined us. And so, 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.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next if we can go to Sofia Tomacruz from the Philippines, from Rappler. Sofia, please go ahead.
Question: Good morning. Thank you for this briefing. I just wanted to ask a little bit more about specifically the Visiting Forces Agreement between the Philippines and the United States. If you can give us more perspective about how relevant is it for the U.S., in light of the situation in the region now and its military objectives, as you mentioned. And as a second follow-up question, with negotiations on the deal having been concluded, can you tell us more about the U.S. position on the agreement? Is this decision up — for either defending it or pushing through with the termination? Thank you.
General Wilsbach: Let me just make sure because there was a period where you cut out to me for a little bit. And I just want to make sure all of your question was referencing the Visiting Forces Agreement. You didn’t branch to anything else by the second part of your question, correct?
Question: Yes. Referencing just the Visiting Forces Agreement. But I guess in light of that also, as well, knowing that the Visiting Forces Agreement is also important for the Mutual Defense Treaty.
General Wilsbach: Yes, thanks for your question on that. So what I’ll tell you is that, as you might imagine, at the operational level where I’m at as the commander of the Pacific Air Forces, I am the benefactor of a Visiting Forces Agreement, or the lack thereof. If there’s not one, then that restricts what I can do in the Philippines.
And so with that being said, I’m very confident in our State Department colleagues that are doing the negotiation with the Philippines to figure out what the Visiting Forces Agreement will be in the end. And so I’m quite confident that between the Government of the Philippines and the State Department from the United States, we’ll get to some agreement in the future. And then that will then inform what we will be permitted to do in everyday, day-to-day training and real-world operations. And then that will also inform what, any kind of response to a mutual defense activity we could do.
So with that, I mean, so I don’t have much insight into the actual negotiations because I’m not actually participating in them. But I’m confident that the two governments can come to an agreement and meet their shared interest, and their individual interests, and we’ll get to a spot where we can – we, the military, once the agreement is made, we can train together, operate together, and if called upon and directed by my bosses, execute the tenets of the Mutual Defense Treaty.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next if we can go to Brad Lendon from CNN in Hong Kong. Brad, if you’re there, please go ahead.
Question: Thanks for taking my question, General. Could you comment on reports that U.S. reconnaissance around China and over the South China Sea is at record levels? I think I saw 70-some flights last month of Air Force and Navy, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative. Any comment on just the level of reconnaissance?
General Wilsbach: Well, I wouldn’t say that it’s a record. But I’m not the one keeping the records, and you can always – you know how statistics work. You can always make the statistic work out to make a headline like that. What I will tell you is that we are flying a fair amount of sorties throughout the Indo-Pacific region that are collecting intelligence. And the follow-on question is, why are you doing that? And I think it’s important for us to take a few moments for me to express why we’re doing that.
And the reason why 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. And so 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. And we want to be able to track their military activities. We want to be able to understand any testing and acquisitions with new equipment that they have made. And so that is why we are collecting.
And when you combine all of the advancements in military capability that we’d like to know with a lot of the other what I think is nefarious activities by the Chinese Communist Party – by taking over islands in the South and East China Sea that don’t belong to them, making islands in international water space that never belonged to them. I think you said you’re from Hong Kong — we’re tracking what’s happened in Hong Kong recently, with the promise from the CCP that you could execute democratic principles, and then taking that away. And then the dust-up that we’ve seen on the border with India, and moving into territory that was claimed by India. And the economic coercion that’s going on all over the world, but a lot that’s happening in this region. And I can keep going with the activities that the CCP has been doing.
And so there’s a lack of trust by China, not by just the United States but many, many others. I mean, you look at what’s going to happen this year with the U.K. coming out into the region with the Queen Elizabeth, and the French are coming out, and the Germans are interested. And the reason is because they are all perceiving these activities by China, and the trust for China is extremely low. So, all of this combined mistrust between us and the allies and partners is driving us to want to know a lot about what China is up to militarily, because we don’t want any surprises.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we will go to Hye Jun Seo, who is with Korean Broadcasting System (KBS). Hye Jun, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you for taking my question. So, my question is: Are there any kind of strategic changes towards North Korea after the Biden administration finalized the North Korean policy review? And also, how would you assess U.S.-ROK joint military exercises when the U.S. – actually, North Korea again criticized the exercises, considering it as raising tension in the region? Thank you.
General Wilsbach: Yes. Let me answer the second part of your question first because I think you’re actually referring to what came out today, discussing about the Republic of Korea Air Force participating in RED FLAG-Alaska. And if that wasn’t it, come back to me and I can address it in a different way.
But we are allies. We’re treaty allies with the Republic of Korea, as we are with others in the region. And we all hold training exercises, and training is a normal, day-to-day operation that militaries all over the world conduct. And so the fact that we have the Republic of Korea Air Force at RED FLAG-Alaska upcoming is normal. It shouldn’t be seen as anything other than routine training. It just happens to be in Alaska. It is not in any way meant to be escalatory to the region or destabilizing to the region. All it is meant to be is proficiency and readiness for air force crews, and that’s it.
And I got so excited about your question I forgot the first – oh, I know. The first part of your question was: Has there been any changes to the policy vis-a-vis North Korea since the Biden administration has come into power. And I would say that no, overall my guidance from the Secretary of Defense was, steady as she goes. And what we had been executing from a strategy with respect to North Korea during the Trump administration, we’re executing that same strategy with the Biden administration.
And I would like to say, just in closing, that we have a very strong relationship with the Republic of Korea. And the Combined Forces Command is very tight, and as you might know from my bio, my previous job, I was the deputy U.S. Forces Korea commander as well as the commander for Seventh Air Force, which is all the air forces in Korea. And we work day-to-day, side by side, with the Koreans, not just in the Air Force but within all the services. And that relationship is as solid as they get. And so, things are good on the peninsula right now, as far as I’m concerned.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next if we can go to Elvis Chang from NTDAPTV in Taiwan. Elvis, go ahead.
Question: Thank you. Good morning General. The Malaysian Government said 16 CCP air force planes intruded into their airspace May 31st. And the CCP’s air force also continues to intrude into Taiwan’s ADIZ. And these activities happen during the epidemic. Could you share some comments on these activities, please? Thank you.
General Wilsbach: Yes. I think I understood your question. And let me just restate it, and if I get it wrong, if you would please correct me. But I think what you said is that there’s been an unprecedented number of incursions by Chinese aircraft into Taiwan’s airspace, and this even was happening during the pandemic. And you’d like for me to respond to it. Is that your question?
Moderator: I can just jump in here because he submitted his question in advance. It was also that the Malaysian Government has said that CCP air force has also intruded into their airspace on May 31st. So that was part one. And part two was Taiwan’s ADIZ.
General Wilsbach: I got it. So yes, we’ve been watching. As you might imagine, we watch extremely closely all of the air activity that happens around the region. And we actually have a pretty sophisticated sensing grid so that we can track movement, not just by Chinese aircraft but by all of them. But we are paying attention probably more closely to Chinese aircraft than any others, for reasons that I stated previously. And it adds to the list of destabilizing activities and also escalatory activities. And we set ourselves up for miscalculations around the region when we have some of these activities, where we’re getting into people’s airspace that we shouldn’t.
So that being said, the region has a lot of international airspace, which we advocate for the lawful use of international airspace for military needs and other needs, like commerce and travel. And we advocate for that all the time. And so, if you’re going to use the airspace, use it in a lawful and respectful way to everyone so that we don’t have any miscalculations. We don’t have any safety incidences. But as you go back to look at what China is doing, especially with respect to Taiwan, they are incurring cost on Taiwan because Taiwan has an air defense responsibility; at least, that’s what they feel. And so, every time China comes out across the strait into the Taiwan airspace, then they react. So I believe this is a strategy by China to invoke cost for the Taiwan Air Force.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We have about 10 minutes left, and we’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during that time. Next if we could go to Andrew Beatty from AFP in Sydney, Australia. Andrew, please go ahead.
Question: General, I was wondering if you see any value in U.S. Air Force rotational deployments to Northern Australia, in the kind of way the Marines already do, during the exercises. And secondly, just to follow up on your comments about dispersal of forces, are new bases in Melanesia, Polynesia, and Micronesia on your list of priorities? I’m thinking of places like [inaudible] or Palau, for example.
General Wilsbach: You betcha. We’ve been to Palau a number of times, and one thing you may have heard me say before, and I’ll say it again for this group, is 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 place to operate to and operate from. 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. 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.
To get to your question about Northern Australia — absolutely. There’s always great value in training with the Australian Air Force and their joint services. And in fact, we had plans last year and this year to get into Northern Australia, and those were either very much abbreviated or canceled because of the pandemic. But we still have those on the books for this next year. Those are still in somewhat jeopardy because of COVID, but we’re trying to be able to comply with the all of the international rules with regard to COVID and yet still get the exercises.
But absolutely, we do value every single training event that we have with Australia. And we are so interoperable with the Royal Australian Air Force, and so the number of times that we get to fly with them it’s always beneficial. In fact, I just actually got to fly with them in the E-7 here in Hawaii, and then I also flew in some missions with the E-7 airborne controlling us, and so it was fantastic training, and both sides always get quite a bit out of that. And so, we’ll take as much as we can afford to do.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we’ll go to Kenji Kawase from Nikkei. Kenji, if you’re there.
Question: Hi. Thank you very much, General. Thank you very much for your taking your time for us today. This is Kenji from Nikkei. I’m from a Japanese newspaper but I’m based in Hong Kong. So my question will be based around China. First of all, I want to ask you the timing of this call, which is on June 4th for us. Especially being here, this will be the first time that people in Hong Kong will not be able to commemorate the deaths 32 years ago, and I wish you would make some comment on this move that China has been suppressing Hong Kong in many ways, including the Tiananmen massacre 32 years ago.
And another one is overnight, I learned that President Biden had signed an executive order with regard to putting Chinese companies that are related to the Chinese military. I wish from your perspective or from your standpoint — would you please give me your comment on this move by President Joe Biden, which this policy started from the Trump administration? And also, how much is the threat of the Chinese military in terms of their technology as I think the context of President Biden signing the executive order is that their technology standard is actually going up? Thank you very much.
General Wilsbach: Yes. So, arigato gozaimasu. Thank you for your question. And I will tell you that I touched on it in the earlier part of my remarks about Hong Kong, and the activities that are associated with what’s happening in Hong Kong is really so that the CCP can have ultimate power over the citizens there in Hong Kong, and frankly, for the rest of the entire Chinese nation. And I mean, I have no beef with the Chinese people; I have a beef with the Chinese Communist Party.
And when we think about the Uyghurs in the western part of China and the atrocities that are happening there, it’s no surprise that they would suppress the discussions and the commemoration of Tiananmen Square because that’s another example of the Chinese Communist Party overplaying their hand and completely looking past human rights and the way to do things, which is why the world is looking at China with a microscope right now and their reputation is pretty lousy, frankly. And so my heart goes out to you as a citizen of Hong Kong and know that we’re committed to trying to work a better outcome for you.
With respect to the policy on those companies that President Biden named that came out earlier today, my comment is that it highlights the way that the Chinese Communist Party does business in China, and that is that businesses in some way or ultimately work for the party, and the connections there would be – in our system would be considered – unethical. But to protect our nation, and I think there’ll be some benefits to other nations, is to highlight the fact that Chinese companies that do business around the world, they have to pay some sort of tribute to the party in order to continue on, and that tribute oftentimes is in nefarious or unwarranted activities and other things that help the party and perhaps help – or hurt the buyer. And so I think it’ll bring light to that, and so I’m happy that that policy came out.
And then with respect to the question about technology, and I would say yes, I mean, we’ve seen – especially on the military side – advancements, great advancements in the Chinese military capability, and they’ve really advanced themselves in about the last 10 years. And so we all ought to be asking ourselves, for what? That’s the first question, is why are you doing this? And I think it’s pretty clear: They want to be the only superpower and they want everybody else to kowtow to the Communist party. But I also thing we ought to ask, how did they do this? And one of the ways that they’ve done this is they’ve stolen the technology from the world. They’ve stolen a lot of it from the United States, but they’ve stolen it from other countries as well, all over the world, and then they reverse engineer it and they manufacture it themselves. And so the intellectual property theft is just another example of the CCP who has trouble complying with laws and norms and a rules-based order, and they really just look for what they can do to promote the party.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next we’ll go to John Power from the South China Morning Post. John, if you’re there, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, thanks for taking the time. It’s John Power in Hong Kong. I was wondering if you would be able to speak to any concerns about Chinese buildup in Pacific islands. In particular, there were recently reports that China was helping Kiribati to expand an airstrip there, and there have been reports about perhaps building of bases in places like Vanuatu as well. Could you speak to those specific examples and, I suppose, just generally about what you see as China’s role in that part of the world?
General Wilsbach: Yes. So 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. And they coerce with overwhelming military power. They also use their economic power to coerce, and 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. And as I stated before, in a previous question, it’s clear to me that the CCP wants to become a superpower. And when we hear what they say and when we read their writings, they don’t believe that there can be multiple superpowers. They believe that there can only be one, and they want to return back to the glory days of China where everybody else was a vassal state and everybody comes and pays [tribute] to the emperor. And the emperor now is the Chinese Communist Party.
And so in the region, the region and the world has a problem with this because it comes back to the main objectives that I stated in the beginning, which is it’s not a free and open Pacific; in fact, it’s an Indo-Pacific that is dictated by the Chinese Communist Party. And there’s a lot of nations out there, including the United States, that have a problem with that.
So, as we see China going about the region and planting these bases, it’s clear to me that they’re trying to expand their influence, and create a situation where they can keep those that would be a counter to a free and open Indo-Pacific out.
Moderator: Thank you very much. We still have another 10 minutes or so, so please stay on the line if you’re asking questions, although, please, we do ask that you limit your question to one question only.
Let’s go ahead and go back to where we tried earlier, Duong Quoc Dat from Zing News in Hanoi, Vietnam. If you’re there, please go ahead, Quoc.
Question: Hello. I want to ask one question. Recently the USS Ronald Reagan, the only U.S. aircraft carrier in East Asia, was moved to the Middle East. So without an aircraft carrier, what can the Air Force do to fill the gap, especially in the Southeast Asia region?
And a question number two: Will the Air Force increase the frequency of bomber operations over the South China Sea? Thank you so much.
General Wilsbach: Thank you. So yes, you might imagine that we move around our assets around the world frequently. Everyone’s seen us do that. And so we did move around some carriers recently, and when that happens, we always have an internal discussion between the services of what can we do to mitigate that, or do we even need to mitigate it is another part of that discussion. So certainly, you know that we fly our aircraft, not only the bombers, but fighters, in the region. And so we have the ability to move around, and we have moved around fighter and bomber aircraft to ensure that we have a presence here and that we continue, basically, a steady beat of operations. Because one of the things that we want everybody to know is we want to be very strategically predictable, and because we’re really committed to a stable region, and we believe that – and I have heard from many of my counterparts in other countries that have expressed that: hey, we want to be your partner; we want to work with you; we want to be interoperable with you; you’re the partner of choice. All of these things have been said to me as I go around the region.
And so, we know that our military operating in the region and training with our allies and partners is a stabilizing effect, and it is a comfort to those that look to the United States. And it’s not just the United States. It’s a comfort to the United States that other countries work with us too. And so I know that it’s a feeling of mutual interest that the countries around the region work together as our forces are in the region, and so that would be my answer about that.
As far as will you see more bomber operations — I really don’t want to get too much into future operations and what you might see other than to say that you can expect that we’re going to be around.
Moderator: Thank you. We’re just going to try to get to a couple more here before we have to wrap up. Next we have Dzirhan Mahadzir from USNI News in Malaysia. Dzirhan, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, General. Two quick questions. Can you tell us a little bit about the upcoming exercise with the French in Hawaii? I believe Admiral Rey, the commander of French forces in the Asia-Pacific, just visited you.
And secondly, you mentioned about – sorry, I’m just getting my thoughts together. You mentioned about the Queen Elizabeth traveling to the region. Is PACAF going to be conducting any activities with it? And also on the E-7, you mentioned the need for it to replace the E-3. Where’s the progress on that? Thank you.
General Wilsbach: Okay. So yes, the French will be out in the region here in a few weeks, and we’ve been working with them for the last several months to orchestrate that exercise and activity, and we’re extremely excited about this. And I mentioned it earlier in my remarks that it’s exciting to me to have our European allies, in this case, and partners, to be interested in the Indo-Pacific, and certainly France has territories in the South Pacific, and we’re excited that they’re coming out and that they’re showing interest. And so they’re going to be out there and then they’re going to be in Hawaii for a short period of time, and we’re going to be doing some flights between their Rafales and our F-22s here in Hawaii before they go back to France. So that’s going to be an excellent exercise, just a training opportunity for some fighter pilots to get together, but also the statement that it says about France in the Indo-Pacific region and their desire, just like ours, to have a free and open Indo-Pacific is really important. And so yes, I did have a meeting with Admiral Rey and we had a great time as he visited Hawaii, and I’m excited.
We do have some plans to work with the Queen Elizabeth. Again, I don’t want to get too much into the details of operational aspects, but I will tell you that we’re going to do some flying with them as they come out. And it’s not just the PACAF doing the flying with them, but my joint counterparts in the Marines and the Navy and the Army will be doing some training activities with them as well. And they all – the Queen Elizabeth will also be having a number of port calls and also training activities with regional partners and allies. So it’s going to be a great opportunity for the UK, and you probably know that there is a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B squadron embarked on the squadron as well. So that’s something that hasn’t been done in quite some time, and so that’s another very interesting aspect.
On the E-7, I would say you’ve heard me talk about desiring to have E-7 to replace the E-3. That’s still my stand and what I’ve expressed up my chain of command. Still nothing to report out other than we keep talking about it. We were talking about it earlier today with Headquarters Air Force, and I think more to follow from Headquarters Air Force. I’ve made my requirements known and we’re working out the details of what next for E-3 replacement.
Moderator: Thank you very much. Next we’ll go to Duy Linh Hang from Tuoi Tre in Vietnam. Duy Linh, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you for spending time with us, General. I have a very short question. Can you give more information about cooperation between Vietnam and the U.S. Air Force in near future? Thank you.
General Wilsbach: Yes. So probably the biggest thing is the T-6 aircraft, the trainer aircraft that Vietnam is buying, and the reason they’re buying that is because they want to improve their pilot training program. And so that’s probably one of the most important and probably the most visible improvements that you will see, and we’re committed to helping that aircraft be delivered and then operationalizing it and improving the Vietnamese air force’s pilot training. And so that’s probably the most visible thing that you’ll see.
But also, we find that we have a pretty good relationship via mostly Zoom and phone calls right now because of the pandemic, but later on in the summer I’m going to be hosting a conference called the Pacific Air Chiefs Conference where 22 nations are going to be sending their air chiefs to Hawaii to have talks for about a week with myself as well as the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, General Brown. And Vietnam’s air chief is planning to attend, and so we’re excited that he’s coming for that and we’re looking forward to the discussion, which I believe will lead to a furthering of our relationship and give us other opportunities for engagement. But that’s what I would say as we look to the near future.
Moderator: Thank you. We probably only have time for about one more. We’ll go to Mike Yeo from Defense News in Melbourne, Australia. Mike, if you’re there.
Question: Thank you, General, for speaking with us. My question is about the importance of tanker aircraft to support U.S. Air Force operations throughout the region due to the vast distances involved. Now, there has been talk previously about the USAF looking at engaging privately operated tanker aircraft to support its operations. Have you got any visibility on that program?
And also one more question. There have been disputes about the number of aircraft, Chinese transport aircraft that flew near Malaysia’s coastline recently. Malaysia says there had been 16 and some Chinese sources have said there had been two aircraft. Can you provide any visibility on the numbers involved and what their flights were like?
General Wilsbach: So for your first question, on the commercial tankers, we actually aren’t pursing that from a PACAF standpoint or, for that matter, even from the U.S. Air Force. I know there’s other organizations that, in a small way, use some commercial tanker options, but we’re not, from the U.S. Air Force. So we actually have the KC-135. We have a few KC-10s. And then of course I think you’re tracking that we have the KC-46 — that’s our brand-new tanker that we’re fielding at the moment. And so with those, in addition we also have allies and partners that have tankers which we refuel from as well. So we actually feel like we have sufficient airborne fuel with the indigenous capability that we have inside the U.S. Air Force as well as our allies and partners so that we probably don’t need to go down the route of contracted tankers. So that’s what I would have to say about the tankers.
As far as the exact number of Chinese flights that incurred into the Malaysian airspace, I don’t actually have the exact number off the top of my head. I can probably go back and check it. But my gut would tell me it would be probably not as close to the Chinese number as what the Chinese said it was, but that would just be a guess and I would have to go back to our sources to get the exact number.
Moderator: Thank you very much. I’m afraid that’s all the time that we’re going to have. Do you have any final comments for us, General?
General Wilsbach: I do. So, one, thank you so much for your time and I really appreciate the really insightful questions. I really enjoyed having the time to chat with you, and sorry we didn’t get to everybody, I’m sure. But if you do have some follow-up questions, please don’t hesitate to get with our staff and pose your question in writing or by email or text, and we’ll do everything we can to get back to you and to answer your questions. And so we want to be as transparent as we can be.
The other thing is, hopefully you picked up on some of my key messages, which is: free and open Indo-Pacific; the value of the allies and partners and the collaboration that likeminded nations who value a rules-based order, how valuable that is to us and how important it is to cooperate. And frankly, to counter the ideas and really some of the activities that nations who don’t value that and who are really just looking to retain power, and so hopefully you picked up on the value of allies and partners.
And with that, I’ll close and once again, just thank you so much for your questions and your time. I wish each and every one of you a great morning, afternoon, and evening. Thank you.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank U.S. Pacific Air Forces Commander General Ken Wilsbach. I also would like to thank all of you for participating in this briefing, and I apologize as there were several of you who were on hold there for a long time that we weren’t able to get to. I apologize for that.
Please stay on the line for information regarding access to an audio recording of the call. Also, please be aware that a transcript of the call will be posted to our social media platforms and sent out to all of you within a day. If you have any questions about today’s call, you may contact the Asia-Pacific Media Hub at AsiaPacMedia@state.gov. Thank you very much.