The Air Force wants to extend the reach of its surveillance drones over the Pacific region by setting up refueling stations in several friendly countries in the area.
These refueling hubs would make it easier for the Air Force to operate its new fleet of Global Hawk high-altitude unmanned surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft, said Gen. Paul V. Hester, commander of Pacific Air Forces, at Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii.
"We are in discussions with several nations," Hester told reporters at the recent Air Force Association annual convention in Washington, D.C.
Among the candidate nations considering proposals to host Global Hawk bases are Japan, Singapore, Australia and South Korea.
These would not be major military bases, but rather modest "gas and go" refueling stations, Hester said. They would help extend the range of Global Hawk, which is the Air Forces most advanced surveillance drone.
Up to seven Global Hawks could be delivered in the coming years to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Andersen is expected to also become a permanent home for U.S. Navy units in the near future.
Other countries in the Pacific region are being encouraged to acquire Global Hawks, but it's too early to tell what countries will buy the cosdy aircraft, whose price tag ranges from $55 million to $130 million, depending on the sensor package.
"If countries can't afford Global Hawk, maybe they can provide basing and refueling" as part of a cooperative security agreement, Hester said.
The desire of many nations to gain access to regional intelligence make surveillance tools such as Global Hawk a valuable "opportunity for multilateral discussions with allies," Hester said. The absence of a formal regional alliance comparable to NATO in the Pacific area has severely hindered multilateral relations.
"We do business bilaterally," Hester said. "There is no multilateralism in the Pacific. We are looking for opportunities to do business together."
Multilateral collaboration in Asia is "extremely difficult," said Navy Adm. William Fallon, head of U.S. Pacific Command. "They all want to go one-on-one, bilaterally. The United States would like to engage in trilateral talks with Japan and South Korea, for instance. But that is not likely to happen any time soon due to long-standing tensions between the two Asian powers.
One area that is ripe for multinational collaboration is training, Hester said. "We are re-scoping our exercise program with our allies. We are trying to transition away from bilateral to multilateral training."
The aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in Southeast Asia convinced several countries that they needed to step up their preparations for disaster recovery and humanitarian relief. Training exercises that are tailored to these operations tend to get more attention and increased participation in a region that is considered the world's "ring of fire" due to earthquakes and volcanic activities.