US F-22 and F-35 stealth fighters and B-2 stealth bombers in the western Pacific recently trained for high-end combat scenarios requiring the full might of the US military — exercises that came as Beijing reacts with fury to heavy-duty missile deployments.
In a first, the F-35B, the short-takeoff, vertical-landing variant of the world’s most expensive weapons system, took off from the USS Wasp, an amphibious assault ship capable of launching aircraft, and dropped externally mounted bombs.
The F-35 is a stealth aircraft designed to store most of its weapons internally to preserve its streamlined, radar-evading shape, but the F-35Bs on the Wasp ditched that tactic to carry more bombs and air-to-air missiles.
An executive from Lockheed Martin, which builds the F-35, previously told Business Insider that an F-35 with external bomb stores represented a kind of “beast mode,” or an alternative to the normal stealth mode, and was something F-35s would do on the third day of a war, after enemy defenses had been knocked out and stealth became less of a priority.
A B-2 bomber from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri conducts aerial refueling near Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii during a training exercise in January 2019.
(U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Russ Scalf)
“We conducted these missions by launching from the USS Wasp, engaging role-player adversary aircraft, striking simulated targets with internally and externally mounted precision-guided munitions,” and then landing aboard the Wasp, Lt. Col. Michael Rountree, the F-35B detachment officer-in-charge on the Wasp, said in a statement.
While F-35s trained for Day Three of an all-out war in the Pacific, stealthier jets — the F-22 fighter and the B-2 bomber — trained for Day One.
B-2s from Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri flew to Hawaii, where they met up with F-22 stealth jets, the top air-to-air fighters in the US fleet.
The B-2s spent their time near Hawaii “going out to an airspace and practicing realistic threats,” with an F-22 on either wing, said Lt. Col. Robert Schoeneberg, commander of the 393rd Bomb Squadron at Whiteman.
The Pacific area of responsibility “is of high importance as of late,” Schoeneberg said, adding that “it will continue to be of high importance.”
F-22s and B-2 bombers represent the US’s most high-end platforms, designed to work as “door kickers,” or the opening punch in a war.
B-2s carry “massive ordnance penetrators” — the biggest non-nuclear bomb in the US inventory — and nuclear gravity bombs. Both could play a role in opening a conflict.
F-22s also serve an air-to-ground role and are frequently discussed as a first-strike weapon that could take out enemy air defenses and clear the way for less stealthy fighters.
China is getting mad and trying to get even
Washington’s focus on air power in the Pacific comes as Beijing’s military installations in the South China Sea are becoming formidable.
China has landed nuclear-capable bombers and fighter jets and deployed surface-to-air missiles and an extensive network of radars at those installations.
This, coupled with “carrier killer” long-range anti-ship missiles deployed on China’s mainland, indicates China is determined to lock the US out of international waters in the western Pacific.
China’s military is also speaking openly about fighting the US and even about sinking aircraft carriers.
Chinese state media said in early February 2019 that Gen. Xu Qiliang, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, “required the officers and soldiers to be well-prepared for different cases, encouraging them to staunchly safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests.”
Days earlier, US Navy ships had sailed through the tense Taiwan Strait. Days later, Navy destroyers challenged China’s extrajudicial claims in the South China Sea with a freedom-of-navigation exercise.
China responded to the US Navy’s sailing in international waters near its artificial islands with its usual fury, saying the US had threatened its sovereignty.
Beijing knows Washington is training, and it wants anti-stealth
China has been pioneering anti-stealth technology in an attempt to blunt the advantage of F-22s and F-35s.
“China is fielding networked air-defense systems that can coordinate the radar pictures from multiple sites in an area like the South China Sea,” Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments who was formerly a special assistant to the chief of naval operations, told Business Insider.
“This could enable the radars to see F-35Bs or other low-observable aircraft from the side or back aspect, where they have higher radar signatures, and share that information with [surface-to-air missile] launchers elsewhere in the region to engage the F-35Bs,” he added.
But the US knows no aircraft is truly invisible, especially in an area with a dense network of radars, like the South China Sea.
Instead of focusing solely on stealth, the US has shifted to employing decoys and electronic warfare to fight in highly contested areas, Clark said.
This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.