The U.S. will deploy long-range B-1 bombers to Guam starting next Saturday for the first time in a decade.
The bombers are to be based at Andersen Air Force Base, replacing the B-52 bombers currently deployed there as part of the military’s continuous bomber presence in the Asia-Pacific region, the U.S. Air Force said. The bombers will be accompanied by 300 airmen.
“The B-1 units bring a unique perspective and years of repeated combat and operational experience from the Central Command theater to the Pacific,” an air force statement said. “They will provide a significant rapid global strike capability that enables our readiness and commitment to deterrence, offers assurance to our allies, and strengthens regional security and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.”
The deployment comes at a time of heightened tensions in the South China Sea after an international arbitration tribunal earlier this month rejected Beijing’s historic claims to much of the waters. China has ignored the decision, blasting the proceedings as a “farce” and calling the ruling “waste paper.”
Beijing claims most of the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion in annual trade passes. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam all have rival claims.
It has also constructed man-made islands on some of the features it controls in the waters, on which it has built military-grade infrastructure, including airstrips and radar facilities.
The United States says China is militarizing its outposts in the waters, and Washington has conducted what it calls “freedom of navigation” exercises near Chinese-controlled islands.
In March, reports said that Washington was holding high-level talks with Canberra on the rotational deployment of B-1 bombers to Australia.
With a range of 5,100 nautical miles (9,400 km), B-1 deployments to both Guam and Australia would put the aircraft well within striking distance of the South China Sea.
Analysts have said that the 30-year-old aircraft’s speed, range and low-flying capability give it enduring advantages as China deploys what are known as anti-access/area-denial capabilities in the region to counter U.S. power projection.
China’s air force has announced that it recently flew long-range, nuclear-capable H6-K bombers over the South China Sea, including near the flash-point Scarborough Shoal just 230 km (125 nautical miles) west of the Philippines.
It said the patrols would become a “regular practice.”
The B-1s being deployed to Guam were involved in the fight against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria but were sent back to the U.S. in January for maintenance.
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