U.S. Airmen load an R-11 fuel truck onto a C-130J during an agile combat employment exercise at Yokota Air Base in Japan, Feb. 13, 2020. U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Mayor state. Melanie A. Bulow-Gonterman
The vast distances of the Pacific region and the growing reach of the Chinese military have led the United States to seek ways to disperse its forces and bases.
For the US Air Force, that means scouring the region for runways and facilities that can support its planes as they try to expand and sustain potential combat operations.
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For the U.S. Air Force, that means scouring the region in search of new places to operate, but rather building new bases – it’s working with what’s there, according to Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of the U.S. Air Forces.
“What we are doing is taking advantage of the airfields that already exist,” Wilsbach told reporters last week. “If you’re going to put [in] an F-22 or an F-15 or a C-130, the airfield has to have certain criteria, so we’ve actually studied every piece of concrete in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific. To find out if they would meet our criteria.”
Air Force commanders developed plans for the expeditionary base in the 1990s, and the strategy is receiving renewed attention.
“In fact, we started working on this pretty diligently, probably about four or five years ago,” Wilsbach said.
“I was the commander in Alaska at the time … we really started to get involved in this in Alaska at the beginning and then it spread throughout the Indo-Pacific.”
The 2018 National Defense Strategy cited Russia and China as America’s top strategic rivals; the latter, he said, “will continue with a military modernization program that seeks regional hegemony in the Indo-Pacific in the short term and the displacement of the United States.”
The type of conflict described in that document “may not have fixed bases, infrastructure, and established command and control,” meaning the Air Force needed to return to its “expeditionary roots,” said General David Goldfein, then the senior officer of the Air Force, he said in a 2018 speech.
That ambition is reflected in Agile Combat Employment, in which planes from major bases or hubs would operate from stark locations, or radios, without an established support network to refuel, rearm and relaunch in a relatively short period of time.
“The premise behind ACE is instead of having a few … really big bases, we disperse the forces and become much more agile and much more mobile,” Wilsbach said, adding that the “audibles” would allow planes and crews to go and go. Come with what would seem random to an adversary.
US Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Noah Gulledge tests JP8 fuel during an agile combat employment exercise at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma in Japan, Feb. 20, 2020. US Air Force/Staff Sgt. David Owsianka
ACE has been around for some time, and “almost every exercise” the command does now has an ACE component, Wilsbach said.
During Exercise Valiant Shield in September, Airmen augmented it with additional duties.
“We had F-22s running, we called it Base X, so it’s not one of the core bases… [to] refuel, and they also practiced what we call a multi-role aviator,” Wilsbach said.
“You can send a smaller team to one of the outer bases and instead of having an airman, all they do, say, is refuel a plane, we ask them to learn various skills.”
Being able to multitask means fewer people would be needed on the radios, but being flexible can also mean grinding you out, Wilsbach said.
“When I was in Alaska, we did this, literally, on an empty base, and everyone was camping in” store-bought tents and eating MREs by the runway, Wilsbach said.
“We operated from that bare base for two weeks.”
US and allied personnel during an agile combat employment exercise at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam, March 6, 2019. US Air Force / Master Sgt. JT May III
Wilsbach did not elaborate on plans for those axles and spokes or where they might be, but the Air Force and other branches of the service are practicing to operate in wider swaths of the Pacific.
The United States has territories in that area, such as Guam, which has a major Air Force base, and the Northern Mariana Islands, but some countries are also eager to host.
The outgoing Palau president has repeatedly encouraged the US military to expand facilities there. Wilsbach has expressed a “desire to increase the options” at Palau, where the airfields are well located, but would require “a little more work” to expand.
Palau, along with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, have free association pacts with the US, under which their citizens earn benefits in the US and the US military gets broad rights to operate in the US.
The Pacific Air Forces “periodically assess locations” in the Indo-Pacific region for “operational, training and exercise objectives” and trains and operates “on a routine basis” in the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau and its surroundings, a public affairs officer for the command told Insider.
Interest in the region is growing because of its ease of a hub-and-spoke model and its proximity to both sides of the Pacific, according to Derek Grossman, senior advocacy analyst at think tank Rand Corporation.
“It wants to be able to project power into potential combat scenarios – the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait – and as China develops its cruise and ballistic missiles and other capabilities to strike further, it will want to be able to disperse a bit,” he said. Grossman told Insider in an interview in October.
That does not go unnoticed by China, which has courted countries there to further its own military and diplomatic goals.