The drumbeats of war have been pounding steadily over the past few years as China accelerates its military buildup, perpetuates its revanchist claims in the South China Sea, and rewrites history and law to strangle freedoms within its borders and abroad. Last year, former Indo-Pacific Command (IndoPaCom) Commander Admiral Philip Davidson warned that China could invade Taiwan in the next six years, and President Joe Biden has indicated that this could lead to a U.S. military response.1 But while many see this as a “Thucydides Trap” leading inevitably to war, it is still far from certain if or when the United States and China will actually tip the scales of great power competition to all-out war.2 Others, recognizing China’s nascent military capabilities and poor diplomatic reputation, argue that war is not many years away. Still others argue that war is not in the national interest of either country and will thus be avoided at all costs. In any case, Michael Horowitz rightly argued in War on the Rocks that the United States should “deter the risk of war with China and be prepared to defeat China if war occurs across all timeframes.”3
One purposeful way to deter the risk of war in the short term is to foster improved relationships and integration with allies and partner nations in key strategic areas. The most recent Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare, signed and released in April 2020, provides guidelines for how the Navy can engage diplomatically, stating, “Naval diplomacy is the application of naval capabilities in pursuit of national objectives during cooperation and competition below conflict.”4 Indeed, increasing engagement with regional partners has been a top priority for leaders along the entire chain of command.
The Indo-Pacific strategy emphasizes building “connections within and beyond the region” as a core tenet, while the White House’s Interim National Security Strategic Guidance asserts that diplomacy will be the “tool of first resort.”5 Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin declared at the Reagan National Defense Forum that the military’s “valued alliances” are central to “strengthening the Indo-Pacific security architecture.”6 Strengthening partnerships and alliances in the Indo-Pacific will help the United States prevail in conflict, as well as deter conflict from occurring in the first place.
Power and Diplomacy
Enter the F/A-18 Super Hornet and the carrier air wing (CVW). An aircraft carrier is a floating fortress of U.S. power projection and diplomacy. Yet, diplomatic use of the carrier’s symbolic power has atrophied over the past 20 years. This nuclear-powered, self-sustaining airport can transport its aircraft all over the world and integrate with many disparate partners and allies in a single deployment. Further, the jack-of-all-trades F/A-18 was designed as a multirole fighter, and its aircrew are uniquely trained in a wide range of missions. This qualifies Navy fighter aircrew to train effectively with a variety of regional partners who may have diverse goals and capabilities.
For these reasons, carrier air wings should detach small portions of F/A-18 squadrons when on deployment—around six to ten jets—to air bases in foreign countries for one to two weeks to train with foreign air and naval forces. Like the Navy’s use of expeditionary squadrons of E/A-18 Growlers or P-8A Poseidons to supplement its forward deployed forces, an “expeditionary” air wing would prioritize detaching jets from the ship for specific exercises or training evolutions during peacetime deployments. A detachment of aircraft would provide immense benefits to carrier training, improve the international security landscape in accordance with the U.S. national strategy, and send a powerful message to adversaries that the U.S. Navy stands with its allies and partners.
Getting quality training on board an isolated carrier on deployment is tough. There are few targets in the ocean to practice bombing, aircraft must stay clear of international air traffic, and advanced tactics face implementation challenges because of the single point of origin (i.e., the ship) of all “blue” and “red” forces as well as limited aerial refueling options. Working with foreign partners to use their overland ranges, aircraft, and resources would mitigate these challenges and provide a boon to the carrier’s quality of training. Trading blue and red forces from the ship to the shore also would help partner nations train to their tactics and better prepare their capabilities should war creep to their borders.
In addition, the ability to debrief a flight provides the most learning for everyone involved. Aircrew gain experience by flying, but the debrief is where aircrew identify and learn from mistakes, develop future best practices, and understand the intent and implementation of any given tactic or mission. When integrating with partner nations, F/A-18 aircrew typically launch from and return to the carrier, while the rest of the mission forces return to base on land. This does not allow for F/A-18 aircrew to debrief with pilots from partner nations. I have flown with foreign partners whose names and faces I will never know, and those pilots will never know mine. That is not true integration, and it fosters only minimal goodwill. Detaching aircraft to friendly nations would allow U.S. aircrew to train face-to-face with foreign partners, foster better relationships, and provide instant feedback on performance.
Improved training between the United States and its allies also would bolster the international “security architecture,” especially in the western Pacific. By improving the way foreign militaries integrate as a coalition force, the United States can increase the odds of success in an actual conflict. In addition, generating familiarity with foreign nations’ air bases would be highly useful should war break out, as the United States will need cooperation to access foreign bases and partners in a fight more than 7,000 miles from its own continental borders.
Finally, detaching aircraft to partner nations would send a powerful deterrence message to any nation that seeks to disrupt the rules-based international order. Carriers could send their media personnel to get photos of F/A-18 Super Hornets landing at foreign bases and of U.S. pilots working shoulder-to-shoulder with foreign counterparts. Working with U.S. embassies to combine these expeditions with port calls, distinguished visitor tours of the carrier, and official statements on the progress made by the partnership would add icing to the cake. But there must be substance underneath the images that advances not only the perception but also the reality of a free and open Indo-Pacific.
This idea is not novel. Until the wars in the Middle East consumed the military’s focus, carrier air wings in the 1990s and early 2000s routinely detached small portions of squadrons onto foreign soil to enhance training, leverage alliances, and build partnerships. Indeed, just before the 9/11 attacks, CVW-8 had detached portions of its squadrons to locations in France, Tunisia, and Israel while on deployment. Currently, the Navy is flexing these muscles in the Sixth Fleet area of responsibility. During the NATO-led Neptune Shield 2022 exercise, Super Hornets embarked on the USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) detached to friendly shores to integrate training efforts and demonstrate commitment to military partnerships. Similar efforts should be prioritized in Seventh Fleet to build those relationships now, ahead of any potential future conflict.
Takes Two to Tango
Worried about optics and a backlash from China, some countries may not want to have U.S. fighter jets operating inside their borders at all. Many others will, however, and carrier strike group and air wing staffs should thoroughly plan the logistics of carrier detachments to ease the concerns of hesitant partners. The United States should start by reaching out to close allies such as Australia, Japan, and South Korea. From there, air wings can practice detaching to foreign nations by leveraging international military exercises already in existence, such as Cope Tiger in Thailand. For countries wishing to avoid the perception of picking sides in great power competition, the United States can limit the media spectacle without sacrificing the substance of the training. Finally, reaching out to strategic partners who wish to work with the United States, but with whom there currently is limited engagement, such as India, would allow the Navy to truly flex its diplomatic muscles.
At the Halifax International Security Forum in November 2021, the commander of IndoPaCom, Admiral John C. Aquilino, emphasized that “it is critically important the global set of like-minded allies, partners, and friends work together to support our common values.”7 For too long, aircraft carriers—or, more specifically, the aircraft they carry—have been working largely in isolation in the middle of the ocean. Current integration efforts are hollow if done only to garner a photo for Twitter. There must be true relationships, learning, and integration behind those images. It is long past due to step up to Admiral Aquilino’s call to “think, act, and operate differently” when it comes to using the might of a carrier air wing during peacetime.8
Undoubtedly, the carrier strike group’s first priority is training to win the next war. But given that war could be years away, or might never occur, the carrier air wing should find ways to be useful in great power competition at a threshold below war. Vice Admiral Karl Thomas, Seventh Fleet commander, was right when he said, “In this region, the strength of our partnerships matters, and our ability and willingness to work together is paramount. We are stronger when we sail together.”9
Indeed, we are stronger also when we fly together, and more so when we plan, brief, and debrief together. Carrier strike groups and air wings should retrain themselves in the skill of naval diplomacy, and prioritizing air wing expeditions in the Indo-Pacific can accomplish tactical training objectives while also supporting greater operational and strategic imperatives. Carrier air wing peacetime detachments will make the United States and its allies stronger in the face of war with China—and help deter a war from occurring at all.
1. Adela Suliman, “China Could Invade Taiwan in the Next 6 Years, Warns U.S. Admiral,” NBC News, 10 March 2021; and David Sanger, “Biden Said the U.S. Would Protect Taiwan. But It’s Not That Clear-Cut,” The New York Times, 22 October 2021.
2. Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? (Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017).
3. Michael Horowitz, “War by Timeframe: Responding to China’s Pacing Challenge,” War on the Rocks, 19 November 2021.
4. Department of the Navy, Naval Doctrine Publication 1: Naval Warfare (1 April 2020): 25.
5. The White House, “Indo-Pacific Strategy of the United States,” 11 February 2022; and The White House, Interim National Security Strategic Guidance, 1 March 2021.
6. HON Lloyd Austin, “Remarks by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III at the Reagan National Defense Forum (As Delivered)” (speech, Washington, DC, 4 December 2021).
7. ADM John C. Aquilino, USN, “Importance of Allies and Partners in the Indo-Pacific,” (speech, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 22 November 2021), U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Public Affairs Office.
8. Aquilino, “Importance of Allies and Partners.”
9. VADM Karl Thomas, USN, “Commander, U.S. 7th Fleet Provides SEACAT 2021 Opening Remarks,” U.S. Navy, DVIDS, 10 August 2021.