By Sandra Stojanovic
NELLIS AIR FORCE BASE, Nevada (Reuters) - The United States, Britain and Australia carried out joint air drills on Wednesday over the Nevada desert and beyond as part of an effort to simulate high-end combat operations against Chinese fighter aircraft and air defenses.
Reuters accompanied British forces for several hours during the U.S.-hosted, three-week-long Red Flag exercises aboard Britain's KC-2 Voyager refueling tanker aircraft, which on Wednesday supplied fuel for U.S. and British fighter jets.
U.S. Air Force Colonel Jared J. Hutchinson, commander of the 414th Combat Training Squadron that runs Red Flag, said the annual drills were not tied to any recent events. On Saturday, a U.S. fighter jet shot down a suspected Chinese spy balloon off the coast of South Carolina, hiking tensions.
"(China is) just the pacing challenge that we train to so that we're ready ... We think that if we're ready for China, we're ready for anybody," Hutchinson said, citing U.S policy.
At the heart of the drills was addressing the vast distances that the United States, Britain and Australia would contend with when operating across the Pacific, and improving inter-operability of the three countries' air forces.
For the crew aboard the Royal Air Force's Voyager, that means serving as a kind of gas station in the skies - providing air-to-air refueling of fighter aircraft carrying out the simulated mission.
Air Commodore John Lyle, commander of the RAF's Air Mobility Force, told Reuters the mission during the Red Flag drills would simulate bringing the air forces into "an area where there has been an invasion by a hostile country."
"So our role will be to support the force to effectively proceed into the area that's been occupied and to undertake targeting of key assets to allow us to degrade the enemy's capabilities," Lyle said, without mentioning China by name, or identifying what simulated area had been invaded.
The Pentagon has voiced growing concern in recent years about pressure by Beijing on self-ruled Taiwan, an island China sees as a breakaway province.
Beyond the tanker aircraft, Britain also flew Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets in the exercises. Australia contributed EA-18G Growler aircraft, according to data provided by Red Flag organizers.
The U.S. government has identified China as the U.S. military's top strategic priority, even as it devotes billions of dollars to support Kyiv in repelling invading Russian forces.
Speaking last week in Washington, U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns also cautioned the United States knew "as a matter of intelligence" that Xi had ordered his military to be ready to conduct an invasion of self-governed Taiwan by 2027.
"Now, that does not mean that he's decided to conduct an invasion in 2027, or any other year, but it's a reminder of the seriousness of his focus and his ambition," Burns told an event at Georgetown University in Washington.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)