The arrival of USAF B-2 bombers in Diego Garcia comes amid a significant increase in military activity in the Indo-Pacific region. Credit: National Interest.

And so, the game continues.

The remote island of Diego Garcia, in the Indian Ocean — home to a secluded US air base — may seem like an odd place for a military game of chess on the world stage.

But in fact, it is an important chess piece, as tensions rise between the US and China in the region.

In the early hours of Aug. 11, three US Air Force B-2A Spirit stealth bombers — using the callsigns Reaper 11, Reaper 12 and Reaper 13 — launched from Whiteman Air Force Base, Missouri, headed for Diego Garcia, Jamie Hunter of the Warzone reported.

The deployment means the US Air Force now has assets more readily available to be dynamically employed in the region if required.

By no coincidence, next week the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) is expected to stage a series of exercises that are likely intended to simulate the storming of Taiwanese islands in the region.

The Global Times also reported that China’s newly revealed bomber, the H-6J, was recently deployed on Yongxing Island in the South China Sea for the first time, quoting sources at the Warzone.

At least one H-6J bomber was seen landing on Yongxing Island in an undated photo on foreign social media. If confirmed, this will be the first time the bomber has been deployed on the island, the report said.

Move, counter-move.

Is it a show of force in the region, or just another US Central Command (CENTCOM) requirement? Make no mistake, moving three of the stealth bombers to Diego Garcia is a huge logistical undertaking, both in terms of tanker and cargo support. 

And what do we make of the Chinese deployment of the H-6J?

Clearly, the deployment through the Indo-Pacific comes at a time of real tension in the South China Sea. And it’s not going to get any better — more US-led trilateral exercises are also planned in the region over the coming months, the Warzone reported.

Diego Garcia is one of just a handful of locations that are equipped to accommodate B-2s and it features four climate-controlled clamshell hangars known as B-2 Shelter Systems (BS22s) for the stealth bombers.

Historically, the base has been used as a hub from which to mount long-range bomber missions into the Middle East and Central Asia. Yet its location means bomber crews must fly extremely long-endurance missions to reach these areas, well over 10 hours to reach Afghanistan, for example, the Warzone reported.

Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar is far closer to the Middle East operational theaters and it had become a favored operating location for Air Force Global Strike Command’s B-1s and B-52s in recent years. However, it is vulnerable, falling well within reach of Iran’s ballistic missiles. It is also markedly farther away from hotspots in the Pacific. 

When Air Force Global Strike Command (AFGSC) sent six B-52Hs to Diego Garcia earlier this year to be ready to respond to any potential Iranian aggression, they did so specifically to also keep them safely out of the range of Tehran’s missile threat, the Warzone reported.

This deployment to Diego Garcia also comes after the USAF ended its 16-year Continuous Bomber Presence at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam in April 2020, as it sought to change the predictability of the Bomber Task Force’s rotating series of deployments.

This was in line with the National Defense Strategy’s objectives of strategic predictability and operational unpredictability. The USAF is looking not just at dynamic mission employment, but also dynamic basing for the B-2s, the Warzone reported.

Stealth bombers were notably dispatched to Wake Island in the Pacific in 2018 and to Iceland last year as part of its vision for rapid, expeditionary deployment concepts.

“We can come and go anytime they need us, we don’t need to be there physically,” said AFGSC chief General Timothy Ray of the new strategy, which means bombers can operate around the globe, even without being permanently deployed to bases abroad.

It’s possible that a B-2 deployment to the Indian Ocean is designed to fit into the large-scale US exercises that lay ahead, including the Rim Of The Pacific, or RIMPAC, exercises that are due to commence on August 17, the Warzone reported.

The Indian-led Malabar exercise is also scheduled to be held by the end of this year, and it could include Australian, as well as US assets.

China has expanded its naval operations into the Indian Ocean and it’s possible the B-2s could make their first appearance in this exercise. On the other hand, the deployment could also be at least partially aimed at Iran and even deterring China on a grander level.

And so, the game continues.