US, Australia, Japan Conduct Cope North 21 Military Exercises on Guam

February 10, 2021 Updated: February 11, 2021

The United States, Australia, and Japan are conducting trilateral military exercises on Guam as the allies look to strengthen joint response times to counter growing threats from China and Russia in the Indo-Pacific region.

The Cope North 21 exercises will bring together more than 2,000 military personnel at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, along with approximately 95 aircraft from the three nations.

Group Capt. Nathan Christie, the Australian commander for Exercise Cope North 21, said the allies will conduct combat-readiness exercises, procedures for humanitarian aid, and disaster relief operations.

Led this year by the Koku-Jieita (Japan Air Self-Defense Force), the U.S. Pacific Air Forces command has said the exercise will reflect real-world threats and scenarios, and focus on reestablishing combat air dominance in the region.

“China and Russia can increasingly hold overseas U.S. bases at risk,” U.S. Air Force Brig. Gen. Jeremy T. Sloane, commander of the 36th Wing at the Guam facility, said at a virtual conference run by the U.S. Air Force Association on Jan. 27.

“To adapt, the Air Force must evolve from its dependence on well-established airfields, or risk building an operational edge,” Sloane said.

A  promotional video by China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) last year for its H-6K strategic bombers showed them launching an attack on an unidentified military base. The Telegraph reported in September 2020 that the base appeared to be Andersen, although this wasn’t confirmed.

Whichever base might have been targeted in the video, the Cope North 21 exercises will involve staging a scenario for F-35 and F-16 fighter jets out of Japan and Alaska to launch a simulated mission in an environment similar to the base.

The planes will have to demonstrate the ability to land in a remote environment, refuel, and launch again on simulated attack missions, while operating from small, rough airfields with limited facilities. Describing the base’s northwest field, Sloane said, “It has minimal markings, minimal lighting, and no permanent aircraft or airfield control.”

Timothy Heath, a senior Rand Corp. defense researcher, told the South China Morning Post that the practical ability of the U.S. Air Force to work operations from smaller airfields such as on Guam means that the Chinese military can no longer “confidently plan to wipe out the U.S. Air Force presence in the Asia-Pacific.”

“The PLA will be less confident in its ability to defeat US military forces in the region because they will be less certain where fighter aircraft might operate from,” Heath said.

Cope North 21 will also establish the new fifth-generation Joint Strike Fighter’s military presence, the F-35A, as America will be deploying the planes into the theater of operation.

Australia and Japan both have F-35s but will focus this year on incorporating joint air communications capabilities and web-enabled logistics support as the planes roll out among the allied air forces.

The joint exercise is taking place as Russia, China, and Iran have announced they will conduct joint naval exercises in the Indian Ocean later this month. Russian ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, told RIA news agency on Feb. 8 that the trilateral naval exercises will include rehearsing search and rescue operations and ensuring shipping safety.

The three countries held similar drills in December 2019. These drills were seen as a reaction to increasing U.S. pressure on Iran after then-President Donald Trump pulled out of the Iranian nuclear deal in 2018 and reimposed sanctions on Tehran.