The Complex

New U.S. Drone Base Is America’s Latest Move to Contain China

U.S. officials swear that America’s military and diplomatic build-up in Asia is not an attempt to contain a rising China. But they sure are parking lots of advanced firepower on Beijing’s doorstep. The U.S. is even welcoming the increased militarization of Japan, the country America barred from having an offensive force in the aftermath of ...

U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force

U.S. officials swear that America’s military and diplomatic build-up in Asia is not an attempt to contain a rising China. But they sure are parking lots of advanced firepower on Beijing’s doorstep. The U.S. is even welcoming the increased militarization of Japan, the country America barred from having an offensive force in the aftermath of World War II.

On October 3, U.S. and Japanese officials announced that the U.S. Air Force will be stationing RQ-4 Global Hawk drones in Japan. The Global Hawk is a large, long-range spy jet meant to complement its 50-year-old counterpart, the legendary U-2 Dragon Lady.

This not only marks the first time U.S. drones will be based in Japan. The basing of the [Global Hawks] puts an American long-range intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capability in the heart of Asia.

U.S. officials say two or three of the high-flying drones will be stationed somewhere in Japan next spring. While no one said this explicitly, the high-tech aircraft will be able to easily monitor the East China Sea, including the uninhabited Senkaku Islands. The Japanese-controlled Senkakus sit in a potentially oil-rich section of the sea less than 150 miles northeast of Taiwan. China also claims sovereignty over them in a dispute that is increasing tensions between the two Asian powers.

In addition to the Global Hawks, U.S. and Japanese officials announced plans to base several other types of America’s newest combat aircraft in Japan soon.

The Global Hawks will be joined in Japan by two squadrons of U.S. Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey tiltrotors. An MV-22 can haul a couple dozen Marines over long distances at airplane speeds with the ability to take off and land vertically like a helicopter. Needless to say, these craft could be very useful in responding to emergencies in the Pacific, where American defense officials often lament "the tyranny of distance."

The Marines will also station F-35B Joint Strike Fighters in Japan starting in 2017, officials announced. The Marines are following the U.S. Air Force’s lead by positioning the stealth fighters in Japan. The air service announced last year that the first overseas bases for its fleet of F-35As will be in Japan. In addition to the American F-35 squadrons, the Japanese, Australian, and possibly Singaporean air forces will all fly the Joint Strike Fighter, ringing China’s southeast flank with the stealth jets.

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. Navy will base some of its brand-new P-8 Poseidon submarine- and ship-hunting jets in Japan starting in December. The P-8 is a navalized version of Boeing’s 737 airliner equipped with sonar gear, powerful radars, torpedos, and even Harpoon anti-ship missiles. (Chinese-made counterfeit parts have been found on P-8s, causing their critical ice-detection systems to fail.)

Defense officials also announced that Japan will get another powerful X-band radar capable of detecting missile launches from places like North Korea. The U.S. and Japan will also up cooperation on cybersecurity and intelligence efforts. The whole weapons package is part of a revised agreement between the U.S. and Japan that aims to bolster the longtime American ally’s defenses in the face of an increasingly aggressive China and an unpredictable North Korea.

The agreement is framed by a U.S.-Japanese "strategic vision" for East Asia and the Pacific that "reflecting our shared values of democracy, the rule of law, free and open markets, and respect for human rights, will effectively promote peace, security, stability, and economic prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region," according to a State Department announcement.

Tokyo is actively considering a revision of its constitution to allow it to enter combat to defend an ally that has been attacked. Japan’s constitution, written after World War II, only allows it to engage in combat when it has been attacked.

Japan is also looking at expanding its defense budget, "strengthening its capability to defend its sovereign territory, and broadening regional contributions, including capacity-building efforts vis-à-vis Southeast Asian countries," reads the announcement. All of these moves are "welcomed" by the United States.

The latest news out of Japan comes several months after the top U.S. Air Force general in the Pacific revealed that American fighters, bombers, and tankers will constantly deploy to a string of bases in the Pacific and Indian ocean regions. These facilities aren’t slated for permanent occupation by American aircraft — or at least that’s what American commanders say. Instead, these sites will see a steady stream of U.S. units visiting on a regular basis.

These temporary American bases range from Tinian and Saipan to Australia, Singapore, Thailand, India, and possibly sites in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. American jets permanently stationed at dozens of U.S. bases in the Pacific — as well as at bases in the U.S. — will rotate in and out of these airfields under a concept that harkens back to the Cold War.

"Back in the late, great days of the Cold War, we had a thing called Checkered Flag: We rotated almost every CONUS [Continental United States] unit to Europe," said Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle last July. "Every two years, every unit would go and work out of a collateral operating base in Europe. We’re turning to that in the Pacific."

(Click here for a map of the sites the U.S. is considering rotating its forces in and out of in the Pacific.)

Interestingly, Japan is helping to pay for the construction of bare-bones bases on Tinian and Saipan, according to the State Department announcement. This is partially in exchange for the U.S. Marines pulling some troops out of Okinawa and partially to allow the Japanese military access to the bases for training purposes. But the bottom line is that the U.S. is prepositioning forces around China. And Japan is only too happy to help.

–Additional reporting from Asia by Gordon Lubold.

John Reed is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He comes to FP after editing’s publication Defense Tech and working as the associate editor of DoDBuzz. Between 2007 and 2010, he covered major trends in military aviation and the defense industry around the world for Defense News and Inside the Air Force. Before moving to Washington in August 2007, Reed worked in corporate sales and business development for a Swedish IT firm, The Meltwater Group in Mountain View CA, and Philadelphia, PA. Prior to that, he worked as a reporter at the Tracy Press and the Scotts Valley Press-Banner newspapers in California. His first story as a professional reporter involved chasing escaped emus around California’s central valley with Mexican cowboys armed with lassos and local police armed with shotguns. Luckily for the giant birds, the cowboys caught them first and the emus were ok. A New England native, Reed graduated from the University of New Hampshire with a dual degree in international affairs and history.