In range of a new “Guam killer” missile, recent drills with B-2s and F-22s put China on notice that the U.S. can still strike from a safe distance.
The nickname of the DF-26 ballistic missile is designed to grab attention. Chinese media wonks and military experts call it the “Guam killer” because it can bring conventional explosives and nuclear warheads into the U.S. airbase on that small Pacific island—from 4,000 kilometers away.
Chinese military officials declared the intermediate ballistic missile operational earlier this year, and it looks like the Pentagon is doing more than just taking notice. They are preparing for stealth strike operations without using Guam as a hub.
This week the Air Force reported that three B-2 Spirits and approximately 200 airmen completed their first-ever deployment to Hawaii. The deployment lasted from Aug. 15 through Sept. 27.
“Although bombers regularly rotate throughout the Indo-Pacific, this marked the first deployment of B-2 Spirits to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam,” the Air Force said.
Guam is the traditional hub of B-2s, but as the range of Chinese and North Korean missiles grows and the guidance systems become more accurate, staging operations from the safety of Hawaii makes more sense. It also allows the B-2s to practice with F-22 Raptors assigned to the 199th Fighter Squadron, a unit of the Hawaii Air National Guard.
This integration conjures up future long-range, all-stealth strike packages. The F-22s would not just defend the bombers, they could also scout ahead while maintaining the mission’s low-observability on radar. These fighters can evade radar even better than a B-2 and can defeat anything in a dogfight. This is similar to the training that Popular Mechanics witnessed during a B-2 flight from Missouri.
“We hide,” one B-2 pilot described the ethos of these missions. “That’s what we do.”
Flying long-range missions requires aerial refueling, and so tankers surprisingly made an appearance during the exercises. Although B-2s can fly 6,900 miles on a full tank, refueling extends the time over targets. The tankers are not built to evade radar, so they would likely be available outside the range rings of enemy anti-aircraft batteries on the ground.
The drills gave pilots the chance to practice other options, like hot-pit refueling. During those operations, airmen refuel the B-2 while the engines are running. “One B-2 conducted hot-pit refueling at Wake Island, a coral limestone atoll in the mid-Pacific,” the Air Force said.
The release doesn’t say why this is important, but the reasons are scary. First, the B-2 is most vulnerable when the ground, especially if an enemy is monitoring refueling stations. Second, if there is a sortie of several bombers and they can only refuel one at a time at a remote airfield, there will be a premium on quick turnarounds.
And third, the airfield they are landing at could have been bombed with chemical, radiological, or biological warheads, with refuelers in MOPP suits, and the pilots may want to leave fast. Never forget that B-2s can carry nukes, and would be a way to respond to the use of weapons of mass destruction. That makes all sorts of Armageddon scenarios a possibility.
The Air Force never said specifically that the Guam killer prompted these operations, and it’s been in the crosshairs of missiles for a long time. But staging operations from Hawaii is one of the clearest signs that the Pentagon is planning for a war without Guam on the table.
“Our active-duty and guard members worked seamlessly together with their counterparts here in Hawaii to determine the best way for the B-2 to operate from this location in the future,” Lt. Col. Nicholas Adcock, commander of the 393rd squadron, said in a statement.
And that statement was aimed squarely at the Chinese military. As tensions mount over island bases and the dominance of vital sea lanes, more cat-and-mouse responses like this one will only happen more and more frequently