KEY POINTS

  • Four U.S. F-16s flew from Misawa airbase in northern Japan to the South China Sea Monday
  • Taking these F16s to the disputed region required the services of four  Air Force KC-135 tankers
  • In case of a war, the US would require "hundreds of tankers" to deploy its fighter jets against PLA

An impressive flight by four U.S. F-16s into the South China Sea last week was the sign China was looking for. Along with the missile-loaded fighters, the United States sent out a message that it would not hesitate to resist China's aggressive postures militarily, but the maouevre also exposed a strategic nightmare. 

Four heavily armed F-16s flew from a U.S. airbase in Japan on April 12 towards USS Theodore Roosevelt positioned in the South China Sea south of Taiwan. The next day, Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr announced that only nine Chinese ships remained around the disputed Whitsun Reef.

China seemed to have blinked after a month-long operation that sent around 220 militia-manned vessels to the reef in direct confrontation with the Philippines claim of an exclusive economic zone. The Philippines sent four warships towards the reef and sent daily sorties over the intruding flotilla.

U.S. aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt entered the South China Sea along with its strike group in early April. The final push was the arrival of the F-16s, either from their home base in Misawa or from the Kadena base.

“China realized that its continued presence was simply going to strengthen the resistance,” Jerry Hendrix, a retired U.S. Navy officer and author, told Forbes

The show of strength, however, belied the "fragility of U.S. airpower in the western Pacific," Forbes commented. The F-16s required four Air Force KC-135 tankers.  An armed F-16 cannot fly more than 400 miles without mid-air refueling. 

While the Kadena airbase in Okinawa is 500 miles from the southern tip of Taiwan, Misawa airbase is farther away in northern Japan. 

The U.S. Navy will have to deploy every tanker in its inventory, one tanker per fighter, to counter China in its backyard. China can easily mobilize hundreds of modern fighters from multiple bases in the region.

At present, the Navy is committed to its thousand-foot supercarriers such as Roosevelt, as well as assault ships such as Makin Island.

This brings the focus back to the revival of First Fleet, which was first pitched by former Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite last year.

 According to Braithwaite, the proposed First Fleet will take some load off the U.S. Seventh Fleet, which has currently deployed carrier task forces in the South China Sea. He believes that having another numbered fleet in the Pacific could deter Chinese aggression. 

Currently, the Third and Seventh Fleet, along with supporting submarine, naval aviation, and naval surface forces, make up the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Though the Seventh Fleet is Navy's biggest forward-deployed fleet with 50 to 70 ships and submarines assigned to it, it covers a huge area from India down to Antarctica and up past Japan.

"You're talking about the largest ocean of the world, and you're talking about an area of responsibility currently for the Seventh Fleet that takes most of the Western Pacific and the South China Sea, which ... has become an area of increased tension, and then the entire Indian Ocean all the way over to where the Fifth Fleet [area of responsibility] begins," Braithwaite said. "So, there's a real void there."

Adm. John Aquilino, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, is reportedly studying the proposal.

The First Fleet, which was in operation from January 1947 to 1 February 1973 in the western Pacific Ocean as part of the Pacific Fleet, was disestablished and its duties assumed by the Third Fleet.

The USS Theodore Roosevelt moored in Guam in May 2020 File image of USS Theodore Roosevelt of the Seventh Fleet which is currently in South China Sea Photo: US NAVY / Conner D. BLAKE