A quartet of prominent Republican lawmakers is pushing back on Air Force plans to replace F-15 Eagle fighter squadrons permanently stationed in Japan with rotational forces, a plan the Pentagon says is aimed at modernizing squadrons in the Pacific.
In a letter this week to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, the lawmakers expressed concern that pulling the F-15C fighters from Okinawa "sends the wrong signal" to both China and U.S. allies in the Indo-Pacific region.
"We believe that DoD's plans to replace permanently-based fighters with rotational forces will lead to a tangible reduction in American forward combat power in the Indo-Pacific, lowering the bar for aggression and demonstrating a continuing mismatch between the Biden administration's talking points on the Indo-Pacific and America's actual commitments in the region," the lawmakers wrote in the letter released Tuesday.
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The letter was organized by Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., the vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee who is in a competitive reelection race he is favored to win, and Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subpanel. It was co-signed by Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., a former ambassador to Japan in the Trump administration, and Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
The lawmakers specifically asked the Pentagon to provide a briefing "articulating specific steps to replace the deterrent value and combat capability of any assets removed from the Indo-Pacific region, as well as the administration's plan to establish a force posture in the Indo-Pacific that would be resilient to a [Chinese] attack and capable of deterring an invasion of Taiwan."
Kadena Air Base in Okinawa is one of the closest installations to Taiwan at a little under 500 miles away.
The letter comes after the Air Force last week confirmed plans, which were first reported by the Financial Times, for a "phased" withdrawal of the F-15s from Kadena over a two-year span. The decision affects about half of the roughly 100 U.S. fighters based in Japan.
A Japanese Defense Ministry spokesperson told Stars and Stripes their country feels the U.S. plan "does not weaken deterrence." The move is "being conducted to maintain and to strengthen deterrence and response capability of the Japan-U.S. alliance as the security environment is becoming increasingly severe," the spokesperson added, according to Stars and Stripes.
Pentagon Press Secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder told reporters Monday that older models of the F-15 have been used by the military for more than 30 years and that they would be replaced with newer models. Kadena Air Base in Okinawa has been using the F-15 since the late '70s.
"I would just say upfront that the U.S. commitment to Japan and regional security and the defense of Japan remains ironclad," Ryder told reporters on Monday. "So we'll continue to maintain a steady state presence at Kadena Air Base by -- by rotational deployments, and this will include fourth-gen -- advanced fourth-gen and fifth-generation aircraft to backfill the F-15s as they depart."
News of the F-15 retirements out of Japan comes amid rising tensions with China over recent reports detailing that the U.S. military plans to send up to six nuclear-capable B-52 Stratofortress bombers to Australia.
Australia's Defence Minister Richard Marles told reporters Wednesday that "everyone needs to take a deep breath here" when asked about the move of the bombers, The Associated Press reported. Marles said the rotation is part of an initiative started in 2017, adding that U.S. bombers have visited the country since the 1980s.
Additionally, China boasts one of the most technologically advanced air defense systems among world militaries, defenses that would likely prevent a B-52, a plane that started flying in the early 1950s and has neither stealth properties nor a high top speed, from delivering a nuclear bomb.
Still, the move was heavily condemned by Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
"Such a move by the U.S. and Australia escalates regional tensions, gravely undermines regional peace and stability, and may trigger an arms race in the region," Lijian said during a press conference Monday.
Ryder confirmed the deployment of B-52s on Monday, saying the rotation of the long-range bombers is part of a "long-standing" relationship Australia and the U.S. military share. But he also didn't shy away from saying America is ready to react if needed.
"I think that it does send a clear signal to countries in the region, first of all, that the U.S. is a reliable partner," Ryder said. "But it also sends a clear message that we do have the capability to deter and, if necessary, engage."
In their letter, the lawmakers briefly mention plans for F-22 Raptors to backfill the F-15 squadrons with a rotational force from Alaska, citing news reports. But the Air Force said in a press release that no final decision has been made as to what jets will ultimately be stationed there.
"While the DoD has not made a decision on the long-term solution, all of the proposals under consideration include advanced capabilities that are superior to the F-15 C/D," Kadena Air Base said in an Oct. 28 press release. "Modernizing our capabilities in the Indo-Pacific theater remains a top priority for the U.S. This transition to more capable aircraft at Kadena exemplifies our continued commitment to enhancing our posture and building on the strong foundation of our Alliance with Japan."
But in their letter, the lawmakers argued the decision to remove the F-15s is "puzzling" coming on the heels of the public release of the Biden administration's National Defense Strategy, which names China as the Pentagon's "pacing challenge."
The strategy, released last week after first being briefed to Congress in March, also says it is a DoD priority to "deter aggression" and calls for "early and continuous" coordination with allies.
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.