Air Force Says Its New China-Focused Reorganization ‘Not Best Optimized’ for Middle East

by Braxton Taylor

When officials announced historic sweeping changes to the Air Force and Space Force’s structure last week to prepare for potential conflict with China, it seemed they had thought of everything.

But all those changes seemed to overlook one potential theater of war, one that the U.S. military has not been able to withdraw from for decades — the Middle East. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Allvin told Military.com during a reporter’s roundtable at the Air and Space Forces Association’s conference in Colorado last week that the new strategy is not optimized for that region.

“I would say that, if we had to choose one or another, it is not best optimized for the Middle East,” Allvin said. “It is best optimized for the pacing challenge that our national defense strategy says we need to focus on.”

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Both former President Donald Trump and current President Joe Biden’s administrations have put recent national defense strategy focus on China. Defense officials have said that President Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready to take Taiwan by force by 2027.

But American service members are still dying in the Middle East. Late last month, three U.S. soldiers were killed in Jordan, while more than 40 other service members were injured following a drone strike at a military base near the Syrian border.

Also, last month, a pair of Navy SEAL operators fell into the water amid efforts to board an unflagged ship carrying Iranian-made weapons to Houthi rebels off the coast of Somalia. Both are presumed dead.

Military.com has reported that U.S. military strikes are ramping up on Houthi forces in Yemen, and militant attacks on troops in Iraq and Syria are growing. Additionally, the war between Israel and Hamas continues to lead to massive casualties in the Gaza Strip and sparked a wave of regional turmoil.

The Air Force’s strategy, which identifies China as the main focus, is reminiscent of the Marine Corps’ Force Design — a controversial effort that updates the service’s warfighting strategy to take on a conflict, in part, in the Pacific.

Notably, despite that overall strategy, the Pentagon has recently deployed the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit and a Navy amphibious ready group headed by the USS Bataan in the Mediterranean Sea amid growing regional turmoil in the Middle East. Houthi fighters have also shot down and targeted MQ-9 Reapers, according to the Pentagon, and media reports state the service has bombed targets in Syria in response to Iran militia attacks.

Mark Cancian, a retired Marine Corps colonel and a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C., said the Air Force and Marine Corps have taken on a similar strategy, and it’s proving hard to disengage with the Middle East.

“The Air Force and the Marine Corps have taken very similar paths, basically arguing that the national strategy prioritizes China as the pacing threat and therefore they’re going to focus on China and leave other global responsibility either to other services or as lesser priorities,” Cancian said. “I personally think that’s a mistake, because we can’t just walk away from the rest of the world.

“We’ve seen that we’ve been dragged back into Europe because of the Russians, and we’ve been dragged back in the Middle East because of conflicts with Hamas and then with Iran,” he said. “We are not able strategically to disengage from these areas.”

The Air Force has already started adjusting some of its Middle East-focused aircraft and jobs to confront China.

Last year, Military.com reported that the Air Force announced it was retiring more A-10 Warthogs from service and that it also aims to cut over the next three years the number of elite airmen responsible for calling in close-air support on the battlefield.

Katherine Kuzminski, a military researcher at the Center for a New American Security think tank, told Military.com that it’s unlikely the U.S. military will free up its involvement in the Middle East, but she said it’s possible the Air Force will play a different role in the future, highlighting the Navy and Marine Corps response in the region recently.

“The reality is that, with what’s going on between Hamas and Israel, while that’s not necessarily the Air Force mission … I don’t know how much we would lean on the Air Force versus other services,” Kuzminski said. “It’s not optimized for the Middle East, and that doesn’t mean that we won’t ever be in the Middle East again, but that also may not be an Air Force lead challenge.”

The Air Force’s big strategic changes announced this month include bringing back warrant officers — a plan first reported by Military.com — as well as changes to training. Overall, 24 different changes were unveiled: 16 for the Air Force, five for the Space Force and three for the entire Department of the Air Force.

Some of the changes are specific and short-term goals set to happen within a year, while a majority are vague renaming and rebranding efforts aimed at “great power competition,” Defense Department lingo for escalating defense spending, operational strategy and overall resources against adversaries — namely, China.

Rose Riley, a Department of the Air Force spokeswoman, said the new efforts also are “looking at how we fight and how units are structured, particularly [continental U.S.] units that are going to be called upon to go forward and fight with short notice.”

It will also involve reorienting Air Combat Command and changing the relationship between combat wings and base commands. The service will stand up a new Integrated Capabilities Command, which will be led by a three-star general to oversee those strategies.

Other new commands and organizations being created include the Information Dominance Systems Center and the Air Dominance Systems Center, as well as an Air Force Nuclear Systems Center within the existing Air Force Materiel Command.

The service is also elevating Air Force Cyber to a stand-alone service component command to highlight the importance of cyber warfare against China. And the Space Force is setting up a new field command called Space Futures Command focused, in part, on “experimentation and war games,” the Department of the Air Force said.

Riley told Military.com on Wednesday that the new strategies do not mean the service will be absent in the Middle East but highlight the overall competitive threat airmen and Guardians need to prepare for.

“The Department of the Air Force will continue supporting combatant commander requirements in the U.S. Central Command region and around the world in support of the joint force through these reoptimization efforts,” Riley said. “To strengthen deterrence and ensure airmen and Guardians are as prepared as possible to fight and win, should deterrence fail, we need to continue to adapt to the threat and the competitive environment we are now experiencing.”

One of these changes includes renaming and reorganizing Air Education and Training Command into a new Airman Development Command “to provide airmen a common, mission-focused development and training path.”

As well, Allvin said the service wants to “upgrade and advance the cadet experience” for ROTC and Air Force Academy students to “lead in a complex environment” to take on China.

“Xi Jinping has told his military to be ready to take Taiwan by force by 2027, even if the U.S. intervenes,” Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall said at the Air and Space Forces Association’s conference last week. “Freshmen at both the Air Force Academy and those entering ROTC units will be commissioned in 2027.”

Allvin added during his media roundtable that the current strategies and principles remain focused on the Middle East. He said the Air Force can still take on threats in the region, but it must change overall to take on China.

“Right now, we are optimized for a scheme of maneuver that takes us in the Middle East in the same way we have in the last 20 years,” Allvin said. “That is not the pacing challenge, and that is not the great threat in front of us.

“So, while we will still expect to do those, we will do those in a manner that comes from an Air Force that is optimized to be able to deploy into the Indo-Pacific or other areas where you have to confront a challenge or threat the size and scope of the [People’s Republic of China],” he said.

Related: In Major Overhaul, Air Force and Space Force Will Roll Out New Ranks, Training, Structure to Compete with China

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