The missiles come out of nowhere, flattening hangars, fuel dumps and barracks. It's a worst-case scenario. But it's one Australia is practising for with the United States.

Joint exercise Cope North 2021 began on the remote Pacific island of Guam last week. It ends on February 19.

It's a yearly event that brings together the United States, Japan and Australia in cooperative training for humanitarian relief and combat.

This year, the controversial F-35A Lightning II strike fighter will take part.

This aircraft, in particular, is heavily reliant on supporting computer equipment and networks, generators, hermetically-controlled hangars and intensive maintenance. So its ability to sustain operations from a rough airstrip with cobbled-together support facilities is an unknown quantity.

That's one of the scenarios being tested this year.

"China and Russia can increasingly hold overseas US bases at risk. To adapt, the air force must evolve from its dependence on well-established airfields," Brigadier General Jeremy T. Sloane reportedly told an Air Force Association event.

"While the service can overcome some disadvantage with long-range bombers, a war in which missiles knock out air bases and prevent the ability to launch and recover short-range fighter jets is unlikely to end well."

IN THE FIRING LINE

China and Russia are well aware of the strengths of US military technology. Which is why their strategists have for decades been focusing on how to exploit its weaknesses.

Now swarms of relatively cheap long-range missiles threaten to overwhelm the cruisers and destroyers tasked with defending nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.

Immobile airfields, such as Anderson Air Force Base on Guam and RAAF Base Tindal in the Northern Territory have minimal defences. And they can't run away.

In recent years, international strategic think-tanks have been calling into question the West's ability to survive a surprise missile strike.

"A pre-emptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin US military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility," the Centre for a New American Security (CNAS) warned in 2017.

"This might be the case particularly if China perceives that its attempts at deterrence of a major US intervention - say in a cross-strait Taiwan crisis or in a brewing dispute over the Senkaku Islands - have failed."

In 2021, both scenarios look increasingly likely.

TREMENDOUS TARGETS

Allied combat jets will be required to operate out of an airfield "carved out of the jungle" in Guam during this Cope North event. It's an operational test of a new strategic concept - Agile Combat Employment (ACE).

Brigadier General Sloane says the strategic significance of forward base facilities such as Guam and Okinawa cuts both ways.

"We look at ourselves sitting out here providing potentially an immense opportunity for US and partner operations, but we're also sitting out here as a tremendous target," he said.

It's a point not lost on Beijing's propagandists. Last year, a People's Liberation Army promotional video showed its H-6K strategic bombers launching an attack on the US island's military bases.

Now, some 2200 personnel and 97 aircraft have assembled at Anderson Air Force Base on the island. Australia has sent an E-7A Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning and Control aircraft, a KC-30A tanker and a "contingency response squadron" of 170 personnel to take part in the event.

So, what if Guam's Anderson Air Force Basse is hit - and hit hard?

Cope North will practice staging F-35 and F-16 fighters out of Japan and Alaska. They will land in "a no-kidding remote environment", where they will refuel before launching again on simulated attack missions.

"(It is) just under 8000 feet (2440m) with some ramp space, taxiways and some hangar capacity, Northwest Field is surrounded by harsh jungle," Brigadier General Sloane said. "It has minimal markings, minimal lighting and no permanent aircraft or airfield control."

The emergency airfield will operate as a "spoke" in a scenario intended to stress the ACE adaptability concept to its limits, he said.

MOVING TARGETS

The United States military has begun reviving disused World War II vintage airstrips and increasing its presence in allied facilities to disperse its valuable - but vulnerable - assets.

The Palau island of Angaur had an airfield restored to operational ability last year. Similar work has been carried out in Tinian and Saipan.

Part of the Cope North exercise will involve a rapid-response team of engineers being sent to the tiny Angaur island to repair a cratered airfield as F-35s deploy to Palau's International Airport to defend them.

Meanwhile, the US has been boosting the number of operational combat aircraft to Guam for missions over the contested East and South China Seas.

Four B-52H Stratofortress bombers landed at Anderson Airforce Base on February 1. Their mission was to demonstrate the US's ability to rapidly reposition its bombers worldwide and "reinforce the rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific region".

Last year, the US Air Force ceased permanently basing its bombers on Guam. This has been touted as producing a "less predictable" rotational deployment system to protect the aircraft. But some analysts say it may have more to do with the immense age of the US bomber fleet, and the resulting lack of functional aircraft.

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

Originally published as Aus joins US in 'worst case' war game


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