An audio file of this Briefing is available here.
Moderator: Thank you. Good morning and good afternoon, everyone, from the U.S. Department of State’s Asia Pacific Media Hub in Manila. I am Zia Syed, the Hub Director, and I welcome our participants today dialing in from across the continent and the United States. Today we are extremely pleased to be joined from Hawaii by Pacific Air Forces Commander, or PACAF, General Charles Q. Brown, Jr.
We’ll begin today’s call with opening remarks from General Brown, and then we will turn to your questions. We’ll try to get to as many questions as we can during the time that we have, which is approximately 30 minutes.
Please note that due to the high number of journalists on this particular call, we ask that you please limit your question to just the one question so others are able to participate. Finally, as a reminder, today’s call is on-the-record. And with that, I will turn it over to General Brown.
General Brown: Hi. Thank you so much, Zia, and thank you – thanks to everyone for dialing in to participate in today’s call from around the globe.
So, my last opportunity – this was in December – when we had gathered here at the Pacific headquarters 19 air forces to talk about a shared vision of a free and open Indo-Pacific. And I’ll tell you, a lot has transpired since December, but that vision of our shared values remains unchanged.
From confronting invisible threats from a global pandemic, to addressing military aggression and coercive activities, we remain a lethal, innovative, and interoperable force. Despite the challenges, particularly from the pandemic, the Airman of Pacific Air Forces have continued our mission. And our focus in support of the Department of Defense – the top priorities, particularly during a pandemic, is being able to protect our people, maintain our military readiness, and support our whole-of-government response.
As far as international support goes, we’ve been working very closely with our installation commanders stationed at the international locations in their host nation coordination. And we stand ready to assist through USAID and the U.S. Department of State efforts.
We’ve been very proactive with our COVID measures, which has enabled our lines of effort for PACAF, which is Strengthening Alliances and Partnerships, Increased Lethality and Interoperability, and Operating Concepts for Great Power Competition – for all of those to continue.
Referencing our first line of effort – strengthening our alliances and partnerships – back in April, I held a Pacific Air Chiefs video conference where we had a chance to bring in 19 different air forces and we shared practices – best practices, lessons learned, and collaborated on ways forward, particularly related to the pandemic. We’ve also increased our virtual engagements, because we can’t meet in person [because of] COVID, and last week we hosted our first virtual Airman to Airman Talks with the Royal Thai Air Force, the Washington State Air National Guard, and our staff here at PACAF headquarters. We also have Airman to Airman Talks scheduled with Indonesia and Bangladesh just ahead.
In reference to our second line of effort – Increased Lethality and Interoperability – typically, PACAF leads or participates in 50 exercises a year. And naturally, COVID has obviously impacted our ability to realize and maintain that amount of exercises. So, we’re focusing on how we might modify, merge, or delay exercises and we’re working through various sets of options that accomplish – to accomplish such in unconventional and nontraditional ways, and I can maybe address some of that in the Q&A.
And finally, with regards to Operating Concepts, PACAF continues to move ideas from concept to reality, and we have an innovative approach in order to do so, which includes how we deploy, how we employ, and how we integrate with our allies and partners. One area we’ve done that is with our bomber fleet here in the Pacific and how we transition in line with the National Defense Strategy’s objectives of strategic predictability and operational unpredictability.
We’ve taken steps to operate bombers in different ways, from a broader array of locations with greater operational resilience. An example: We returned the B-1s to the region, the first time since 2018. And then we’ve flown from the Continental United States as well as Guam. And we just hosted B-52s in Alaska – the first time since 2017.
I’m also encouraged by the greater integration with our allies and partners and our joint partners across the region – an integration that has global effects across the various Combatant Commands.
Additionally, we’ve received our first two of 54 F-35s to come to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska. In Alaska, we have the most concentrated state of combat-coded fifth-gen fighters. And we’ll have that number by December 2021 to get to that full complement of 54.
We also continue our premier training up in Alaska at the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex and we are actually happy that we’re contributing to greater F-35s not just from United States, United States Marine Corps, but from – also from our partners in Japan, Korea, and Australia.
We’ve also made progress on Agile Combat Employment. Agile Combat Employment continues to be part of everything we do. Our latest major exercise in this series is our exercise in January run out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, and the name of that exercise is Rumrunner. That was really designed to distribute joint forces that came together to disperse across different areas and recover rapidly and conduct ops, and that included not just Air Force, but Navy, Army, and United States Marine Corps personnel. I think we made tremendous progress at the Air Force level to formalize this agile warfighting construct.
Finally, as I look across the region, peace in the Indo-Pacific is made possible by the willingness of the free nations to work together and U.S. combat power postured in the region. I’m concerned by increasing opportunistic activity by the PRC to coerce its neighbors and press its unlawful maritime claims while the region and the world is focused on addressing the COVID pandemic.
We are committed to upholding the rules-based international order to maintain a free and open Indo-Pacific that protects the sovereignty of every nation, ensures the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion, and promotes free, fair, and reciprocal trade, and preserves freedom of navigation and overflight. A free and open Indo-Pacific is for all a safe, secure, prosperous, and free region that benefits all nations, allowing all nations to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.
In closing, it is my belief that our way of life will permanently be altered by the coronavirus, but the Indo-Pacific remains the most consequential region in the world and it is the priority theater for the United States Department of Defense. It’s an honor to command the Pacific Air Force and I’m very proud of our Airmen, our joint forces, and our growing network of allies and partners. I have a great appreciation for the theater and I’m also focused on great power competition.
The intent is to take this knowledge and inform the U.S. military activities at a greater level through my confirmation as the 22nd Air Force Chief of Staff.
Here in just a couple weeks I’ll have the great honor of turning over the command to a good friend of mine, General Ken Wilsbach, who will take command and bring – he brings a vast knowledge to the region. He’s served in the Pacific a number of times, so I’m really excited to hand off to him and his wife, Cindy. We’re really excited that they’re going to be joining us.
With that, I look forward to your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, General. We’ll now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call. For those asking the questions, please state your name and affiliation. Our first question will go to Alistair Gale, who’s calling from Japan from The Wall Street Journal. Alistair, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. Thank you, General Brown, for doing this call. You mentioned you’re concerned by coercive activity by the PRC. I wonder if you could just talk a little bit about your assessment of the capabilities of the Chinese air force and the challenge it represents to you. Thank you.
General Brown: Well, these are a couple of things I think about. It’s not only just the technology as we look at the number of – whether it be bombers that we see or fighters, small growth in advance fighters like their J-20, but it’s how they do their activity. And I’ll just share with you that as I came into the command and I talked to the staff here, very rarely did we see the PLAAF H-6 bombers fly over water, and now it’s an everyday occurrence. And so, it’s things like that I see. It’s not only the capability, but it’s the intent and how they use it, and so that’s the areas that we’re focused on as well, and how we have a better understanding of what’s going on in the region, and then how we influence in a sense of deterrence, but also a sense of assurance with our allies and partners.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next, if we could go to Dzirhan Mahadzir from USNI News in Malaysia. Dzirhan, please go ahead.
Question: Yes. Thank you, General Brown. Could you give us a state of where PACAF is at in the deployment of new innovations like the long-range anti-ship missile and the Quickstrike mines, and any other technologies?
General Brown: Sure. The long-range anti-ship missiles, I mean, it’s something we already have in the inventory and we’ll continue to increase that — our numbers and that capability, to work through that. We’re also working, as you mentioned, the Quickstrike mine, and it’s an area that we’ve done some testing on, and the next step is as we complete the testing to go into procurement. And so, what you can expect from PACAF and the United States Air Force is to increase our capability in the maritime – to support the maritime environment, to also – to assure and deter, so you can expect increased numbers as we go under future budget cycles for long-range, anti-ship missile as well as the Quickstrike mine.
Moderator: Thank you, General. If we could next go to Gordon Arthur from Shephard Media, calling from Christchurch, New Zealand. Gordon, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you, General Brown. Quick question, also about China. We know that the U.S. Marines have published their Force Design 2030 document, which treats China as a serious competitor. I’m just wondering whether the U.S. Air Force has something similar, and what are you doing to re-equip or restructure to meet the threat from the PLA? And just a follow-on, also related to China, last week, there was a U.S. Air Force [inaudible] that flew over Taiwan, which upset the Chinese. Can you comment on that as well?
General Brown: Sure. Let me take your first question. So, for the first question, what the Air Force has done is we have an Air Force warfighting integration center that’s really focused on future Air Force design. And the premise of their focus is also to be able to focus on the challenges that we have here in the Indo-Pacific and particularly with the PRC.
The Air Force right now does not have a similar document to what the United States Marine Corps has, but I actually personally have talked to General Berger, the Commandant of the Marine Corps. What he wrote very much resonates with me, and as I get ready to take the chair as the 22nd Air Force Chief of Staff, I’m thinking about something very similar so we can actually [inaudible] the United States Air Force going forward on how we think about this region. I mean, that’s something that we’ll continue to work on.
I can’t really speak much on the most recent event that you highlighted of the aircraft. We were following all of the normal procedures, and I’ll just leave it at that.
Moderator: Thank you. Next, we’ll go to Motoko Rich, from The New York Times, in Tokyo, Japan. Motoko, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hello. Thank you so much for taking the call, General Brown. I was just wondering – I’m calling from Japan, and I’m wondering what your sense of the state of the alliance is, given the recent decision by the Japanese Government to back off from purchasing the Aegis Ashore.
General Brown: Well, I still think the alliance is really strong. And anytime we’re doing – working through new weapons systems with our partners, there’s opportunity, there’s times that we’ve got to go back and spend a little time talking to each other, and they may have a few questions that we’re willing to address. And I know that’s an aspect that we’re – the Department of Defense – is willing to work with the Government of Japan to understand what their concerns are, and to be able to address those with the appropriate entities and agencies so we can continue to move forward.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next we’ll go to Philip Heijmans from Bloomberg News in Singapore. Philip, please go ahead.
Question: Hi, thank you very much. Firstly, I just want to ask, what signal does it send to China that the B-52s were withdrawn from Guam? And secondly, regarding the South China Sea, you mentioned the Indo-Pacific being the priority theater there; does any redeployment there increase the chances of a conflict with China? Thank you.
General Brown: No, I don’t think so. And matter of fact, as I engage with our partners and talk to them about how we’re doing things a bit differently, our tempo for number and quantity, locations where we’re flying bombers, is pretty much the same as it was when we had the B-52s sitting in Guam all the time. And so, it’s pretty transparent to our partners, but I will tell you we have a lot more flexibility in the approach we’re taking. And I’ve been pretty pleased with that, working very closely with Air Force Global Strike Command and INDOPACOM, working with the USSTRATCOM, Strategic Command. We’ve got a pretty good approach and a lot of flexibility, and it gives us ways to look at how we do things a bit differently in employment at the same tempo to that we were doing when we had a continuous bomber presence there in Guam.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next if we could go to Dong Hyun Kim from Voice of America Korean Service in Washington, D.C.
Question: Thank you for doing this, sir. This is Dong Hyun Kim for Voice of America Korean Service. Regarding – so, we haven’t seen strategic assets such as B-52s deployed in the Korean Peninsula for around two years. As we see – have recently seen rapid military escalation from North Korea, do you consider the option in the future of re-deploying strategic assets to the peninsula if the situation gets worse this year, and if so, what is the condition that would trigger such a decision? Thank you very much, sir.
General Brown: I can’t get into any kind of operational details of what would actually trigger or the like, but I’ll just tell you, one of the things we do is we pay attention to what’s going on. And that’s our job as military members, is to provide best military advice. And so, we spend time looking at the activity, the change in activity, always assessing. And not just today, but we’ve been doing it for the past – particularly 2017 and beyond, to pay attention and posture. And that actually drives into our decision-calculus of what assets we may or may not recommend based on – in support of the diplomatic efforts that are ongoing.
And so, right now things have changed a little bit here just recently with some of the activity from North Korea, and it’s something that we’re going to continue to pay attention to, and going forward, we’ll make some recommendations based on – and it’s not just what comes to the military; it’s a whole-of-government approach that kind of goes into this. So, we’re really kind of just standing by to see how some of this plays out.
Moderator: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Ella Hermonio, Ella Hermonio from Nikkei in the Philippines. Ella, please ago ahead.
Question: Yes. Good day, General. We would just like to ask about the reports of China planning to declare air defense identification zones over the disputed South China Sea. What can you say about that and how will that affect the PACAF’s activity in the area?
General Brown: Well, it’s not just PACAF. If the PRC were to claim an ADIZ in the South China Sea, it impacts all of the nations that are – and it actually goes against – as I said earlier, a free and open Indo-Pacific is to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows. And this kind of impinges upon some of the international airspace, and it impacts not just the PACAF, but all of the nations in the region. And so, it’s important for us to pay attention to something like this. This is probably – it really goes against the rules-based international order, and that’s concerning not only for PACAF and the United States, but I would say many of the nations in the region.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next if we could go to Mike Yeo, Mike Yeo from Defense News in Melbourne, Australia. Mike, please go ahead.
Question: Yes, hi. Good morning, General. Given issues with the KC-46 Tanker development and the impending requirement of some of the USAF’s KC-10s and even KC-135 tankers, does the U.S. – will the U.S. Air Force have enough tankers to support its missions in the Pacific, given the long distances involved, and if not, what are some of the options that the USAF is looking at for – with regard to tanker availability?
General Brown: Mike, thanks. Based on the analysis that’s been done, we have enough tankers. And as you look at the KC-46, the KC-46 is coming on to replace some of our older and aging tankers that are more expensive to operate. The KC-10 is pretty expensive to operate, and part of what the Air Force is proposing is retiring some of those as we bring in the KC-46. And so, our retirement timeline marries up with, as we bring in the KC-46, realizing there are a couple of problems, but I think we are actually – in my conversations with headquarters of the Air Force, we are actually in a much better spot with Boeing as we move forward, and have the right approach now to correct some of the deficiencies to get that capability out into the hands of our warfighters.
Question: All right, thank you.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next if we could go to Adlinna Abdul Alim from Asian Defense Journal in Malaysia. Adlinna, please go ahead.
Question: Good morning, General. My question is — you mentioned just now about the bomber task force. Can you tell us about the development of the bomber task force from central U.S. to the Pacific? And secondly, my question is you mentioned just now about the training activities due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and you had mentioned that you have some meetings with some of the ASEAN air forces. So how do you think that we could still have the training exercises, albeit virtually or anything, amidst this pandemic, in light of the increasing Chinese activity with the South China Sea and of course the Taiwan Strait?
General Brown: Sure. So first, let me – our bomber task force. The bomber task force is not something new to the United States Air Force. This is something that they’ve done in the past, and actually even when we’ve had a continuous bomber presence in Guam, we still had bomber task forces that would come out to the Pacific. We also would send them out into Europe and also send them out into the Middle East. The approach now is, it gives us a little bit more flexibility to not have a continuous presence here, and we just basically increase the tempo of our bomber task force.
On COVID and exercises, we do have to socially distance, and that’s part of the COVID aspect. And one way for us to do this is – and this is the kind of thing we do in our headquarters – is we limit interactions between different parts, and it’s very easy for us to actually all come to a particular airfield, separate ourselves from other people from an operations and maintenance standpoint, and the only place we actually meet is in the air. And by that aspect, we’re socially distanced because we’re not going to be within six feet of each other. So it’s pretty easy for us to be able to exercise that way. And I think the one challenge we have to work through is the various travel restrictions, and restrictions of movement protocols at the various nations that we go to, either ahead of, or when we return from, an exercise. And that’s – those are some of the planning factors we lay into as we start looking at exercises that we hope to do. We’re looking at how we’re going to start doing these later into the summer and into the rest of this particular year.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next, we have Kathrin Hille from The Financial Times in Taipei. Kathrin, please go ahead.
Question: Thank you. Thanks, General Brown, for doing this call. We’ve seen that the Taiwan MND, they have reported a sharp uptick in the PLAAF incursions in the Taiwan ADIZ and especially in the southwestern corner. Do you observe that kind of leap in PLAAF activity in that particular spot or are they just reporting more?
General Brown: My sense is there’s a bit more activity. I look at kind of what – because of the pandemic, there’s an opportunity for the PRC and the PLAAF to actually do a bit more while others are focused. There was also the election in Taiwan this year and the inauguration there as well. What I find is there’s times that they tend to do more to send a message. And so there’s, I would say, maybe a little more activity than I – at least I’ve noticed in the time that I’ve been in this job here for the past couple of years.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next, if we could go to Jungeun Lee from Dong-A Ilbo Daily in Washington, D.C. Please, go ahead.
Question: Yes, thank you very much. Just one more question about North Korea. Recently, we’ve seen growing concerns about North Korea’s threat, and it has escalated tension in the peninsula. So, there are voices raised asking for the resumption of U.S.-ROK military – joint military drills to the full capacity. So, is this something that you would consider this year?
And then just one more question. What is your assessment of the U.S.-ROK alliance now when there are concerns about stalled negotiations of SMA, and also concerns about the withdrawal of the U.S. troops from the peninsula? Thank you.
General Brown: Thanks. So, on the exercises, I’d actually probably defer more to General Abrams, the USFK Commander, on his approach for exercises. But, it’s a constant dialogue of how we actually exercise and how we do things differently. I’ll tell you, COVID has also told us – we’ve learned some things about how we might do things differently to maintain and sustain our level of readiness. And so, that’s – naturally, it’ll be in conversation as we go forward, particularly if we see the threat continue to rise. Realize, we are in support of the diplomatic negotiations and so that factors into the decision-making process for exercises.
In reference to SMA, this is a Department of State negotiation, so from a military perspective I think the alliance is just as strong. I talk to General Won, the ROKAF chief of staff, on a fairly regular basis in different forms. My engagement – and matter of fact, General Wilsbach, who’s going to replace me, was the Seventh Air Force Commander in Korea and he knows firsthand the good working relationship and dialogue we have on the military side from the alliance, realizing our diplomats have to do the negotiations for the SMA. So I think the – from my perspective, the military-to-military relationship, the alliance is still strong.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Next, we’ll go to Danh Le from Zing News in Vietnam. Danh, can you please go ahead?
Question: Thank you, General. I’d like to ask about is there are any further cooperation between Vietnam and U.S. to expect in the future? We saw the aviation leadership program with two Vietnamese pilots – one of them graduated in May 2019.
General Brown: Well, I think there’s a growing opportunity for a relationship and I – matter of fact, I just received a letter of congratulations from the ambassador and he highlighted some of the areas that – I was there almost a year ago with General Goldfein, the current Chief of Staff, in Vietnam. We had a really good engagement and opportunity to continue our dialogue as the Airman Leadership program for pilots, as well as their interest in additional aircraft. And I understand they have a big air expo here coming up next year as well.
So, there’s opportunities for us to continue to build the relationship with Vietnam, and I’m excited about the opportunity to be honest with you. We’ve had pretty good dialogue following our visit last August and I think there’s more opportunities going forward.
Moderator: Thank you, General. Before we wrap up, General, I wanted to ask you a question that came in advance from Gaynor Daleno from the Guam Daily Post in Guam. Gaynor was asking, “Can you tell us more about the plans for Andersen Air Force Base and its role in Indo-Pacific defense?”
General Brown: Well, Guam is a very strategic location. I think, and as most folks may be aware, there’s active work there to improve the facilities on Guam as we – because it is the westernmost territory for the United States and acts as a strategic hub. We’re also working our missile defense capabilities for homeland defense. We’re also working very closely with VOX Space for some space launch capability – and so that’s one piece. And then, we’re also working with the Marine Corps, more so on the Navy, Department of Navy side. There is some buildup that will happen based on Marine presence that will come into Guam.
And then finally, Singapore is looking at putting a training det in Guam. It’ll get established roughly about 2029. And so, Guam is important to us. A very important location for just day-to-day operations, but also for assurance and deterrence, and it’s something that we will look to continue to invest in and protect as we go forward.
Moderator: Okay. Thank you, General. Before we wrap up the call, would you like to make any closing remarks?
General Brown: Zia, first of all, thank you for the opportunity, and thanks for all the questions. I’m always amazed by the questions I get when we do these forums because they’re all great questions and a great chance for me to talk about what our – not only our airmen from PACAF are doing, but our joint partners from the other services in the United States, but also our partners in the region.
I’ve been very pleased to be out here for almost two years as the PACAF Commander. I’ve had a chance to travel throughout the region. This is the third one of these calls I’ve been able to do, and I’ve really appreciated the friendships that I’ve built while I’ve been here.
I’m in a series of phone calls right now over the course of the next two weeks talking to pretty much every one of the air chiefs that I’ve had a chance to engage with. Some of them I knew before I got here, and some I’ve just met. But as I go to my next job, I’ll have a chance to continue to engage. So I have, you might say, fond memories of – and will continue to have fond memories of the Pacific, Indo-Pacific region, and I appreciate the support and the opportunity to speak with each one of you today.
Moderator: Thank you. That concludes today’s call. I want to thank Pacific Air Forces Commander General Brown. And I also thank all of our callers for participating. 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 you all 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.