Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A missing F-22 and a spy satellite

By Peter J Brown

The first leg of United States President Barack Obama's recent trip to Asia took him to Alaska, where he gave a brief speech to US military personnel. From there, US Air Force One made the long flight flight to Tokyo. There was not much media coverage of Obama's stop in Alaska.

However, more than two weeks later, and long after Obama arrived back home from Asia, Josh Rogin, who covers all things diplomatic as blogger extraordinaire at Foreign Policy's "The Cable", wrote that something most peculiar had taken place in Alaska.

What Rogin revealed is that just prior to Obama's speech at Elmendorf air force base, Obama's White House aides switched planes. No, we are not talking about Air Force One, but the plane which was positioned inside the hangar to serve as a prop when Obama gave his speech. US Air Force (USAF) personnel and others at Elmendorf had proudly placed a new F-22 fighter jet for everyone to see, including Obama. However, after Obama's aides saw it, they immediately ordered a change of plane prior to Obama's arrival - out with the F-22, in with the F-15.

So, when you see photos of the Obama in Alaska that day, an F-15 is prominently parked nearby. There is no F-22 in sight. Rogin pointed out that Obama was an outspoken proponent of ceasing the production of the F-22, and that, "the airmen there took offense to the Obama aides' demand, sources told The Cable, seeing it as a slight to the folks who are operating the F-22 proudly every day. They also expressed bewilderment that the White House staff would even care so much as to make an issue out of the fact that the F-22 was placed in the hangar with the president".

The stealthy, supersonic F-22 is the most expensive and most sophisticated fighter plane ever flown by the USAF. There are just over 180 deployed, and while the USAF wanted a lot more, Obama held firm earlier this year - in effect he capped the program - and refused to allow more F-22s to be built.

Rogin went on to say that a White House official insisted that no offense was meant to the folks in Alaska, but nobody in the White House would explain why the plug was pulled on the F-22. By the way, at press time, Rogin told Asia Times Online that he has still not received an explanation.

Obama's speech to the crowd in the hangar in Alaska was very positive. Among other things, he said:
By being here all of you are joining a long line of service at Elmendorf - from the liberation of Pacific islands during World War II through a long Cold War. You embody that creed: 'faithful to a proud heritage, a tradition of honor, and a legacy of valor'. And you uphold that legacy every day - 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You keep America's skies safe. So we salute the 3rd Wing and the 11th Air Force. You project power across the Pacific, returning just recently from Guam: the 90th Fighter Squadron - the 'Dicemen' and the 525th Fighter Squadron - the 'Bulldogs' and all the maintenance troops who support them. Welcome home. And when disaster strikes - whether a typhoon in the Philippines or an earthquake in Samoa - you're there, delivering the relief that saves lives. So thank you, 'Firebirds'. So, after his speech, Obama got back on his plane and flew off to Tokyo leaving behind questions about the F-22.

The F-22 was something that the prior government in Japan wanted badly. The US made it clear that the limited quantity of F-22s were not going to include an export version for Japan or any other nation. This stance caused much disappointment among many Japanese government officials who had placed the F-22 at the top of their shopping list as they set out to acquire a so-called "fifth generation" fighter plane for the Japan Air Self-Defense Forces' (JASDF). A protracted and often heated campaign to gain approval from the US for the export of F-22s to Japan finally ground to a halt with Obama's decision to cap production earlier this year.

As the curtain on this export deal was closing altogether, the North Korean nuclear test earlier this year provided one last chance - a last-minute glimmer of hope to the proponents in the F-22 export debate. In the end, this did not change the outcome.

So, an F-22 was probably not the plane that Obama wanted to be seen standing next to only hours before he arrived in Tokyo, although at least 12 USAF F-22s could be observed flying over Japan and even Okinawa in particular last summer.

Japanese readers will probably do a lot of head scratching over this missing F-22, and yet, although the F-22 is important here, it is not the key issue. What really matters, and what is very unsettling about this incident, is how the Obama administration responded. When the White House was simply asked to explain why the F- 22 had to be taken away, it remained silent.

In this case, a team that portrays itself as an agent for change preferred to play by old rules. What appears to be happening in Washington DC could be happening in Tokyo, too.

During his first meeting in Tokyo with China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, Japan's Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made a point of requesting that China further enhance its transparency, especially in light of the ongoing Chinese military build-up, according to Japan's Foreign Ministry.

This is consistent with past meetings involving the Chinese. The US is equally vocal along the same lines, and the theme of transparency is not likely to fade away in the coming months. Hatoyama informed Liang that China needed to "enhance its transparency more than ever", Liang replied that China had been "making an effort to enhance transparency".

So what did Japan do the very next morning? It launched a new US$565 million spy satellite, catching everyone by surprise in the process.

This launch was so secret that no information about the launch was released in advance. The Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) usually broadcasts news of any pending launch to the far corners of the globe. JAXA activates live webcam coverage so that anyone who might be interested is able to virtually witness all its launches. In this case, JAXA's lips were sealed. This flight of an H-2A rocket with its top secret payload from Japan's Yoshinobu launch complex on Tanegashima Island designated "F16" - means that Japan now has three optical spy satellites and one radar spy satellite in operation.

"The satellite will gather intelligence for our defense and diplomatic purposes," Hisashi Michigami, an official at the cabinet office, told Kyodo News Service. "We hope to upgrade our ability to gather intelligence on our own. Intelligence gathering is vital to our national security."

Gathering intelligence for diplomatic purposes is important, but so too is common sense. Telling China to be more transparent one moment in public and then engaging in an unannounced spy satellite launch the next is provocative, and this while a top Chinese defense official is still in town.

This took place just as China was sending its own direct message to Japan via the latest "Lowy Institute China Poll" which was conducted in late August and September. Roughly 1,200 Chinese participated in the phone poll. The results were just released.

"Of nine possible threats, it was non-traditional threats that most worried the Chinese people. 'Environmental issues like climate change' and 'water and food shortages' topped the list with 76% and 67% respectively saying they were a threat," said the Institute's report.

Next on this list of worrisome possible threats for the Chinese - with 61% in agreement - was the threat posed "if Japan were to acquire nuclear weapons". Contrast this with the finding that 50% of Chinese said the US posed a threat to China's security, while 49% said Japan posed a threat. "Younger Chinese adults tended to be more likely than their elders to say China was receiving less respect than it deserved and that Japan and the United States posed a threat," said the report.

As for the decision to substitute an F-15 for an F-22 in Alaska, two days after Rogin broke this story, a photograph of a JASDF F-15 minus its landing gear resting on its belly at Komatsu Airport surrounded by fire trucks got plenty of attention in Japan.

Nobody was hurt, but this was apparently the last straw for the JASDF, which suspended most if not all of its F-15 flights - Japanese news accounts disagree on this - immediately thereafter. The incident at Komatsu came just a few days after a vital component fell off another ASDF F-15 during an air show in Fukuoka prefecture.

Several other F-15 malfunctions besides these two recent incidents have taken place in Japan, too. So, sorting this all out will take some time. Japan's choice for a plane to fill in for the unavailable F-22 will soon be announced, and the JASDF F-15s will be airborne in a short time if they have not taken off already. No doubt they will be meeting up on occasion with USAF F-22s flying high over Japan. Life for the F-22 crews in Alaska is now back to normal after all the hectic activity surrounding Obama's quick visit. What the team preparing the next poll in China might ask is what younger Chinese in particular think the new Japanese satellite is really watching.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...


Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More