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US Air Force Secretary: Chinese Military Threat Requires More Tanker Squadrons 


A U.S. Air Force KC130J refueling tanker and two French Caracal helicopters fly over the Champs Elysees during the Bastille Day military parade in Paris, France, July 14, 2016.

The U.S. military needs more tanker aircraft squadrons to compete with a modernizing Chinese military, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Wednesday.

“The challenge in the Pacific is the tyranny of distance, and that means tanker squadrons are very important,” Wilson told members of the Senate during a hearing Wednesday on Air Force readiness.

The Air Force recently announced plans to increase the number of tanker squadrons — needed to refuel military aircraft in flight — from 40 to 54 by 2030.

FILE - U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 6, 2017.
FILE - U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testifies during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 6, 2017.

“When we project into the 2025, 2030 timeframe, our pacing threat, we believe, is China,” Wilson said.

The secretary’s comments follow recent U.S. military “freedom of navigation” operations, which dispute Chinese claims in international waters and promote free passage in waters where half the world’s merchant fleet tonnage transit.

A U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Jan. 10, 2016. The bomber flew low over South Korea on Sunday, a show of force from the U.S. as a Cold War-style standoff deepened between ally Seoul and North Korea.
A U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber flies over Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea, Jan. 10, 2016. The bomber flew low over South Korea on Sunday, a show of force from the U.S. as a Cold War-style standoff deepened between ally Seoul and North Korea.

U.S. Air Force B-52 bombers conducted transit operations in international airspace over the South China Sea and East China Sea last month, which the Pentagon called part of its “continuous bomber presence” in the region, and China called “provocative.”

The new tanker plans are part of proposed squadron increases across the Air Force. Wilson said the increases support the Trump administration’s new National Defense Strategy, which prioritizes great-power competition with China and Russia over counterterrorism efforts.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during the 2018 POW/MIA National Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, Sept. 21, 2018.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis speaks during the 2018 POW/MIA National Recognition Day Ceremony at the Pentagon in Washington, Sept. 21, 2018.

When Defense Secretary Jim Mattis rolled out the strategy in January, he cautioned the U.S. military was losing its competitive advantage over near-peer competitors.

“Our military is still strong, yet our competitive edge has eroded in every domain of warfare — air, land, sea, space and cyberspace — and is continuing to erode,” Mattis said.

Liberal and conservative critics have slammed recent increases in military spending for raising U.S. debt at a time when politicians should be cutting federal spending.

Mattis cautioned that Americans have “no preordained right to victory on the battlefield” and must pay the costs to remain the world’s strongest fighting force.

“It’s expensive. We recognize that. But it’s less expensive than fighting a war with somebody who thought that we were weak enough that they could take advantage,” he said.

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    Carla Babb

    Carla is VOA's Pentagon correspondent covering defense and international security issues. Her datelines include Ukraine, Turkey, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq and Korea.

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