Exercise Cope North, an annual multilateral Air Force training exercise, is deploying airmen to enable F-35 stealth fighters to conduct “hub and spoke” operations at Palau International Airport in the coming month, says Brigadier General Jeremy T. Sloane, Commander of the 36th Wing at Anderson Air Force Base in Guam.

The exercise will also deploy eight Red Horse engineers to repair a ten-by-ten crater on Angaur Airfield.

Speaking during a virtual “Air and Space Warfighters in Action” event on January 26, General Sloane said that the exercise in Palau will focus on enabling “combat turns” of F-35 stealth fighters on the Airai Airfield.

The idea of “hub and spoke” operations is meant to provide combat fighters in the Pacific with various bases on which to land, operating out of a central “hub”. The operations seek to further establish a network of landing sites open to the US Air Force, and Palau is increasingly becoming a part of this network.

“China and Russia can increasingly hold overseas US bases at risk,” said General Sloane, adding that the Air Force must evolve from its dependence on “well-established airfields” like Anderson Base to a more diverse network of landing-sites– which could account for the military’s renewed interests in Angaur and Sonsorol.

The General stressed that the US has to establish “real, meaningful relationships with otherwise small communities that could allow access at some time of our choosing”.  

The Air Force personnel operating in Koror this February include ten Contingency Response Group airmen, two Civil Engineer airmen, three OSI agents, and three medics.

Cope North will otherwise take place largely on Guam between February 3 and 19, and will involve cooperation between the US Air Force, the Royal Australian Air Force, and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. The goal of the collaborative exercise is to improve combat interoperability against potential “aggressors” like China, as well as the capacity of these three Air Forces to provide humanitarian assistance to allies.

“These are not easy negotiations for deployment in and out of regions that are extremely wary of travel and visitors during the pandemic,” said General Sloane. “I’m not kidding when I say things like Operation Christmas Drop payed big dividends in supporting these regional partnerships,” he added, in reference to the added costs and measures taken to make this past December’s gift-drop COVID-safe.  

While Cope North is not new—it has been a regional exercise since 1978 and has taken place at Anderson since 1999—this year comes with greater complications with lockdown and quarantine requirements.

Despite the difficulties that come along with border closures, however, the US military has shown that it does not plan to reduce its aerial presence in Palau anytime soon. 2020 has seen a variety of new initiatives in support of this presence, from a Veterans Day flyover involving a Rockwell B-1 Lancer bomber plane and two F-22 raptor fighter jets, to the planning of a helicopter landing site on Sonsorol.

In October of last year, the US Embassy purchased land on Sonsorol in order to accommodate military helicopters and training exercises. In a statement to the Palau National Government, the US Embassy stressed that the Southwest is “of strategic importance and ties into the overall strategy for the US defense of Palau”. Sonsorol State Governor Nicholas Aquino has expressed his support of the project, saying that the presence of the site will be good for the island’s development, and could provide emergency evacuations for the island’s citizens who may need medical attention in Koror.

General Sloane also called attention to the “dynamic force deployments” in Palau which have taken place in the past few months, such as the landing of the C-130 on the Angaur Airstrip in September 2020, the hot-pit refueling for two F-22 raptors at Palau International in November, and the “airfield damage repair” conducted by the Air Force on Palau International and Angaur Airstrip in October.

Last year, then-President Tommy Remengesau requested that the US build “joint-use facilities” to be used regularly by the US military, in order to provide for Palau’s defense preparedness as well as to serve as a driver for Palau’s economy, a desire which has since been echoed by President Surangel Whipps Jr.

The Air Force exercises add to maritime and Coast Guard deployments, and to the buildup of radar and aerial monitoring systems by the US.

The US has not been shy in stressing that this heightened military activity in the region aims to counter Chinese influence.

“By far the biggest challenge in the region is China,” states a recent Republican Policy Committee report on the US military strategy in the Indo-Pacific. “Increasingly, [China] has threatened trade security and the territory of US allies in an attempt to become the dominate power in the region.”

General Sloane stressed that China’s arsenal of “thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles” is fully capable of targeting Anderson Base. “The Air Force is especially vulnerable to these threats, because of its reliance on prepared airfields,” he said.

Former Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who visited Palau last year and emphasized the “ongoing destabilizing activities of China”, outlined the military’s strategy in the Pacific as consisting of “preparedness, partnerships, and regional integration”. The Pacific Pathways exercises, for instance, are training exercises between the US and various allies in the Pacific, including Palau, in an attempt to establish a “pathway” across the region for military forces.

The contested waters of the South China Sea, which sit about 1,500 miles west of Palau, has become a particular area of friction between the US and Chinese militaries, with China continually increasing its number of military outposts in the waters, and the US Navy conducting “freedom of navigation” exercises in areas close to these outposts.

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