A dull-gray B-2 bomber sat poised in a typhoon-proof air-conditioned hangar, its bat wings stretching 172 feet across. The bomb bay was fitted for 80 GPS-guided bombs, at 500 pounds each, that could be delivered to any target in Asia within a few hours.
The hulking stealth aircraft is a symbol of new times in the Pacific.
"Having this airplane in theater sends a message to the world," said Air Force Lt. Col. Tom Bussiere, of St. Johnsbury, Vt., who arrived at Andersen last February with four of the boomerang-shaped strategic warplanes.
The deployment of Bussiere's squadron, replacing a contingent of aging B-52s, marked part of a broad U.S. military realignment in the fast-changing Pacific. The reposturing, scheduled to run over several years, has been designed to strengthen U.S. military forces in Asia and usher them into a new era, reacting primarily to China's expanding diplomatic, economic and military power.
The rise of China as a regional force has shaken assumptions that had governed this vast region since the end of World War II, including that of uncontested U.S. naval and air power from California to the Chinese coast. With those days soon to end, senior officers said, the U.S. military in Asia is retooling to reflect new war-making technology, better prepare for military crises and counter any future threat from the emergent Chinese navy and air force.
Some U.S. specialists have predicted an Asian Cold War or outright conflict as a newly muscular China gets ready to project power beyond its shores. But U.S. military planners in the region have a different interpretation of the Chinese challenge. The goal, they said in interviews, is to maximize U.S. forces here -- as demonstrated by the B-2 deployment. However, the planners also said the United States was seeking to build a network of contacts with the Chinese government and military through which the power overlap could be managed rather than fought over.
"Do we have to have conflict because of the rise of China? I don't believe so," said Adm. William J. Fallon, who heads the Hawaii-based Pacific Command from an office with a sweeping view of Pearl Harbor and the vast ocean beyond.
"As they grow, there's going to be an inevitable push as they take advantage of their economic ability to improve their military capabilities," he said of the Chinese. "We ought to recognize that as a reality. This is not a zero-sum game.
"I do not buy the program," he said, referring to the presumption that conflict cannot be avoided. "I just don't buy it."
Fallon said he had received a clear mandate in this regard from Washington, despite widely noticed remarks in June from Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld questioning China's motives in modernizing its military forces. In addition, Fallon said in an interview, this approach means China's cultivation of stronger diplomatic and military ties with other Asian nations does not have to compete with U.S. changes in the Pacific.
"A rising China that is actively engaged in helping the countries of the region maintain security and stability can be a very good thing," he explained.
The admiral, who has led the Pacific Command for six months, got his start building military ties with China during a maiden visit there Sept. 5-9. Although he and his 300,000 troops have responsibility for 43 countries and more than 100 million square miles, Fallon said China's size and growth make it the center of his network-building efforts.
Eventually, he said during a stop in Beijing, he would like military-to-military contacts to grow to the point where he could invite Chinese officers to observe U.S.-South Korean military exercises. But, he acknowledged, there is a long path ahead before that would be possible.
The Taiwan Factor
Despite the resolve to get along, the U.S. military in Asia has long faced off with China as part of the struggle over Taiwan. Many of the U.S. moves underway in Asia have been designed to better counter the improving Chinese military in any conflict over Taiwan. Similarly, many of China's weapons acquisitions and other improvements have been made with a view to the possibility of fighting the United States over Taiwan.
This uneasy equation, Fallon said, is "a fact of life."
Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the United States has pledged to assist Taiwan in its defense. Whether this would mean military intervention in the event of a Chinese attack would be up to the leadership in Washington. But conversations with U.S. military planners in the region made it clear they feel mandated to be ready if it comes to that.
In his confirmation hearing to become Air Force chief of staff, Gen. T. Michael Moseley told the Senate Armed Services Committee in June that calculating the right mix of U.S. air power in Asia to defeat China in case of conflict was "at the top of my list." Fallon, in hearings several months earlier, expressed concern that recent Chinese military improvements, particularly in submarines, should not be allowed to alter the balance against Taiwan and, in case of conflict, U.S. forces that could be sent in to help.
The two were referring to the fruits of China's two-decade-old military modernization program. After years as the world's largest military reliant chiefly on masses of soldiers, the Chinese armed forces have sought to leap into the age of electronic warfare. Through acquisitions from Russia and elsewhere, along with developments in their own defense industry, they have laid the groundwork for a newly potent navy and air force, equipped with modern missiles able for the first time to pose a threat to U.S. forces in the region.
The long-standing danger of Taiwan becoming a reason to go to war against China has been part of the broader military realignment, contributing to concern over the extent to which China's rise changes the environment for U.S. military forces.
"China is a huge piece of the puzzle right now, and the military certainly recognizes it," said Col. Michael Boera, who commands the 36th Air Expeditionary Wing at Andersen.
Another part of the U.S. military's new environment is a shifting Japan, which has moved away from postwar pacifism and tightened strategic ties with the United States. One clear sign of the evolution was Japan's decision to buy PAC-3 and Aegis anti-missile systems from the United States. The layered defense system, Japanese and U.S. officials noted, was designed to protect Japan -- and U.S. forces based in Japan -- against any threat from Chinese medium-range missiles as well as any North Korean attack.
Some Taiwanese officials have suggested the possibility of an integrated U.S., Japanese and Taiwanese missile defense system based on PAC-3 and Aegis. Fallon noted, however, that Taiwan's defense spending was nowhere near the level needed for that; the Taipei government has still not decided whether to finance purchase of a PAC-3 system on offer from Washington for the last four years.
Nonetheless, Japan and the United States for the first time last February identified stability around Taiwan as a "common strategic objective." Although China complained, Japanese officials called the decision a logical response to China's expanding missile arsenal. Southern Japanese islands, including Okinawa and its many U.S. forces, fall well within Chinese missile range, they noted.
"Japan is very close to Taiwan," said a senior Japanese official involved in defense policy. "And if something happened in this area, it will undoubtedly affect Japanese security. It is naive to suggest that a cross-strait conflict would not affect Japan."
Japan's growing assertiveness and willingness to work militarily with the United States, although a boon in planning for Taiwan, has also raised the prospect of U.S. involvement in other quarrels with China. Long prickly because of the legacy of Japanese occupation during World War II, Japanese-Chinese relations have grown more tense in recent months over competing claims to several islands and petroleum exploration rights in the East China Sea.
The Japanese government recently complained that for the first time it had observed several Chinese warships, including a guided-missile destroyer, patrolling in the vicinity of the disputed petroleum deposits.
The United States has been careful to avoid taking sides in either set of disputes, officers noted. But as the U.S.-Japanese military alliance has strengthened, so has the danger that an unforeseen clash in the East China Sea could end up involving the United States.
An Indonesian Shift
Indonesia, a longtime U.S. ally, has recently become another example of the new environment for U.S. military forces operating in Asia. After years of caution and even enmity toward the Chinese government, Indonesia in April concluded a strategic partnership with Beijing, with President Hu Jintao proclaiming a "new era" in relations between the two nations.
Since then, talks have opened on the sale and technology transfer of Chinese surface-to-surface missiles, according to Maj. Gen. Dadi Susanto, director general for defense strategy at the Indonesian Defense Department.
During a visit to Beijing in July, Susanto said, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono signed an agreement specifying Chinese assistance in a broad range of military production, including aircraft and ships, small arms and ammunition as well as the missiles.
"It's everything," Susanto said in an interview. "Whatever we would want to have from them, they would support."
During the same period, the United States has debated lifting restrictions on U.S. cooperation with the Indonesian military that were imposed five years ago over army abuses during the East Timor secession. Since U.S. forces mounted a prominent rescue operation in January after the Dec. 26 tsunami hit Indonesia, chances for agreement on loosening the restrictions have improved, U.S. officers said. Some spare parts have already been provided and International Military Training exchanges have resumed. But Congress has not yet changed the rules on sales or grants of lethal weapons and major equipment such as aircraft.
Susanto said Indonesia's military wanted to retain its ties to the United States but could not wait too long for resumption of sales and grants because its equipment was aging. "The enhancement of relations between China and Indonesia is not because we hate the United States, but just for our legitimate needs," he said, adding, "Our principle is we're open to everybody."
The Role of Guam
Although repositioning in the Pacific is part of Rumsfeld's order to make the military more agile, it has also resulted in the deployment of more modern forces close to Asia's likely trouble spots. Nowhere is that more visible than at Andersen, a 21,000-acre base where a permanent bomber presence and a regular rotation of fighter planes have been ordered since last year, along with the stationing of KC-135 tanker aircraft.
A second submarine, the USS Houston, was assigned to Guam's naval base in December, joining the USS City of Corpus Christi, which arrived in 2002. A third submarine is planned soon.
Officers pointed out that using Guam, a U.S. territory, frees the U.S. military from restraints imposed by basing in foreign countries, such as Japan or South Korea. Japanese sensitivities over nuclear power, for instances, do not apply on this 200-square-mile island surrounded by the broad Pacific.
Although the realignment is still being worked out, a sketch of what Fallon has in mind was offered in a recent solicitation for comment on the environmental impact of Andersen's expansion plans. When the realignment is complete, according to the document, Andersen could be hosting three Global Hawk unmanned aerial reconnaissance aircraft and 12 KC-135 aerial refueling tankers, along with 48 fighter planes and six strategic bombers on regular rotation from the United States.
Correspondents Anthony Faiola in Tokyo and Alan Sipress in Jakarta contributed to this report.