The United States recently carried out military exercises alongside Australia, Japan, and France that have been described as the "most aggressive" to date. These maneuvers were conducted with the intention of preparing for a potential major conflict with China.

The Cope North airpower exercise was recently conducted by the United States, Japan, Australia, and France. During the exercise, the US Air Force (USAF) put its Agile Combat Employment (ACE) doctrine to the test. The drills began on February 10 and ended on February 24. Fighter and bomber aircraft from the US Air Force, US Navy, and Marine Corps (USMC), as well as aerial refuelers and airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) aircraft, were supported by French and Australian transports and Japanese fighters. The aim of the exercise was to test the ability of these aircraft to operate from remote and austere airbases spread out across 1,200 miles of the Pacific Ocean. The exercise involved a total of 2,000 service members from all four nations. They operated from a ‘hub-and-spoke’ system of 10 air bases. These bases were located from the Japanese island of Iwo Jima, also called Iwo To, in the north, through Saipan, Rota, and Guam, and down to Micronesia and the Republic of Palau in the south. The USAF has been developing the ACE concept to meet the challenge posed by anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities fielded by near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia. These countries have developed long-range precision fires involving thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, which can make overseas US bases vulnerable to attacks.
The ACE doctrine focuses on the ability to move aircraft rapidly to a network of smaller airfields in the Western Pacific to avoid being targeted by Chinese missiles in the event of war. As part of this, the ‘hub-and-spoke’ system enables rapid dispersion of aircraft during high tension from major bases, called the ‘hubs,’ to several smaller distributed bases known as ‘spokes.’ The exercise brought out both the promise of the ACE doctrine and the challenges involved in building resiliency with such a widely dispersed force posture. The Commander of the 36th Wing out of Andersen Air Force Base (AFB), Guam, Brig. Gen. Paul R. Birch, said that this year’s Cope North exercise was probably the most aggressive and challenging one he had seen. The exercise showed that while complicating an adversary’s targeting challenge is necessary, generating airpower from lethal bases that can help in competing and winning is also vital. Experts suggest that performing logistics tasks in an austere location with less infrastructure and support at a main operating base could be very challenging, especially in a ‘contested’ or even ‘denied’ scenario. However, US Defense industry representatives believe that artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) systems can address the challenges the USAF could face while carrying out far-flung operations. The recent exercise comes amid heightened tensions between the US and China, particularly since the visit by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan in August 2022. Several US military and intelligence officials and the Taiwanese government have been warning about the possibility of war with China. However, there is a consensus among them that China could become capable of attacking or invading Taiwan by 2027. The head of the USAF’s Air Mobility also believes that the USAF needs to be prepared for the possibility of conflict with China in the future.

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