Russian aircraft movements alarm military leader in Pacific
By WILLIAM COLE | The Honolulu Star-Advertiser | Published: October 10, 2014
(MCT) — Russia's increasing bomber and fighter flights near the United States — including Hawaii within the last year or so — are part of a pattern of activity by President Vladimir Putin that's "very, very concerning," the head of the U.S. Air Force in the Pacific said.
Gen. Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle said Putin "very much is trying to reassert Russia on the world stage as a world power, and I believe that he sees the Pacific as a key component of that."
Two MiG-31 fighters, two Tu-95 "Bear" strategic bombers and two refueling tankers were intercepted off Alaska and Canada in September.
Russian military planes have flown increasingly near Japan, in the vicinity of Guam and near Hawaii in what Carlisle described as "not a recurring" event.
"I get nervous with Russia's intentions. It's very much an autocratic society," Carlisle said. "I think Russia's got some huge structural problems within their country. Economically, they are petro-dollars only."
Russia's population is declining at a rapid rate, and corruption is a "huge challenge," Carlisle said.
"And all of those things combined, with his (Putin's) attempt to re-establish himself, that combination is very, very concerning to me," he said.
Carlisle, who has held the top Air Force job in the Pacific since August 2012, spoke to reporters Thursday at Pacific Air Forces headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam as he prepares for a new assignment as head of Air Combat Command at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Va.
Lt. Gen. Lori Robinson, former vice commander of Air Combat Command, will get a fourth star and take over Pacific Air Forces in a 10:30 a.m. ceremony Thursday at Hickam.
Carlisle said increased Air Force capability is expected to rotate through the Indo-Asia-Pacific as part of the "re-balance" to the region, but there won't be the benchmark "60 percent" of forces that the Navy is striving to base here.
China's actions also remain a concern, but air safety is generally improving, with the exception of incidents such as the Aug. 19 barrel roll of a Chinese fighter jet over a U.S. Navy surveillance plane off China's Hainan Island, Carlisle said.
Carlisle said with downsizing the Air Force can't meet all the mission demands placed on it by U.S. Pacific Command.
The Air Force is the smallest it's been since 1947, he said. Pacific Air Forces has about 45,000 airmen, 10 wings, nine bases and about 400 permanently assigned aircraft, the command said.
The Air Force isn't planning on permanently moving more forces into the region, Carlisle said.
"We want to increase our presence, and most of that, other than what is permanently stationed here -- which we don't plan on raising, but we don't plan on decreasing it, either -- most of our increased presence will be by rotational force," Carlisle said.
During the Cold War the Air Force employed a program called Checkered Flag to rotate stateside units through Europe, and Carlisle said that's the plan in the Pacific.
The Air Force already has rotated B-52 and B-2 bombers as well as F-22 and F-16 fighters through the Pacific from the mainland, he said.
China last year unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea that is disputed by the United States and other countries.
"We do get queried in many cases by the (People's Republic of China), and we respond we are operating in accordance with international law," Carlisle said. "There have been intercepts but there's always been intercepts. To a large extent they are very safe."
The Chinese navy air force and its regular air force are not nearly aligned as U.S. forces, and most of the unsafe intercepts have been by the Chinese navy air force, he said.
"As a general rule, we found that they are kind of isolated to kind of one place and one unit," Carlisle said. "And I think the PRC knows that as well, so they are responding."
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