To spread out against China's missiles, the US Air Force is sending fighters to remote Pacific airfields

  • Faced with a Chinese military that can reach farther, the US Air Force is looking for ways to spread its forces throughout the region.
  • The service is practicing Agile Combat Employment to do that, and has a challenging exercise planned for February. 
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As China’s military grows in size and reach, the US Air Force is spreading out in the Pacific. In an upcoming exercise, the service will test its ability to keep jets flying from remote airfields in the region.

Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, the Air Force’s hub in the Western Pacific, is “within the range of many missile threats,” Brig. Gen. Jeremy Sloane, commander of the 36th Wing at Anderson, said at an Air Force Association event this week.

Ballistic and cruise missiles “put our main operating bases at risk and present new challenges for the US … at bases like Anderson,” Sloane added.

That has given new urgency to expeditionary operations, and the Air Force has in recent years put more emphasis on Agile Combat Employment.

ACE, as its known, pairs bases like Anderson, or hubs, with remote airfields, called spokes. Specially trained airmen, prepositioned equipment, and airlift capbility facilitate operations between them.

“ACE expands the number of bases from which air forces can generate combat sorties, and really that just gives us multiple options, expands our access for power projection, and complicates — this is important — complicates the enemy’s targeting problem,” Sloane said.

Most exercises now have an ACE component, but “one of the most challenging ACE operations is coming up here in February,” during an exercise called Cope North, Sloane said.

“F-35s and F-16s will conduct spoke operations by landing, refueling, replanning, and launching at Anderson’s Northwest Field,” Sloane added.

“Northwest Field is a truly austere airfield carved out of the jungle on the northwest side of our base,” Sloane said. “It has minimal markings, minimal lighting, and no permanent aircraft or airfield control. Thus far, only C-130s and [helicopter operations] have been conducted on that airfield.”

The 36th Contingency Response Group, a “first-in” force to secure and set up airfields, “will practice opening the airfield, controlling the airspace, clearing landing [operations], and supporting combat turns of F-35s and F-16s,” Sloane said, adding that his command has installed a temporary arresting system to slow landing aircraft and is “quick manufacturing” runway distance markers.

Sloane singled out “multi-capable airmen,” who trained to do multiple jobs, such as maintaining, rearming, and refueling aircraft, as essential to ACE.

“Proper setting of the theater is characterized by only needing a runway, ramp, a fuel source, munitions, food, and some multi-capable airmen to operate,” Sloane said, echoing Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces.

The 36th Wing is leading work on syllabi for training those airmen, Sloane said, calling them “a big portion of how we incorporate all airman into the fight.”

‘Buying a lot of risk’

Cope North is an annual exercise conducted with Japanese and Australian forces. The F-35s will come from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska and the F-16s from Misawa Air Base in Japan.

Sloane complimented crews from Misawa and Eielson, who he said were “buying a lot of risk to test … this concept in a no-kidding remote environment.”

Since Cope North 2020 in February last year, exercises in the region have been limited due to the pandemic. But Air Force officials have touted ongoing ACE efforts, especially during exercise Valiant Shield in September.

Sloane said Valiant Shield, though reduced in scale by half, featured F-22 operations on Andersen Air Force Base’s North Ramp, “which included the first ever 5th-gen[eration aircraft] refueling and first hot refueling from a C-130J aerial bulk fuel delivery system.”

Hot refueling refers to refueling while the receiving aircraft has its engine running. ABFDS uses 3,000-gallon fuel bladders, carried in cargo aircraft like C-130s, and a pumping system to refuel different kinds of aircraft.

ABFDS “gave full combat offloads during Valiant Shield simultaneously to two F-22s,” Sloane said. “The command is very excited about the expeditionary capability and flexibility this provides.”

The Air Force showed ABFDS off again two months later, hot-pit refueling two F-22s at Palau’s Koror International Airport as part of a dynamic force employment exercise.

Palau has signed a Compact of Free Association with the US, allowing extensive US military operations there. The US is also looking to make greater use of other territories.

“We’re partnering with, utilizing, and operationalizing runway and airfield support capabilities in places like … Tinian and Saipan,” Sloane said, referring to parts of the Northern Mariana Islands, an unincorporated US territory.

The US Defense Department in 2016 selected Tinian as the site for a divert airfield for aircraft that can’t land at a main hub like Anderson, and in 2019 the department signed $21.9 million lease for that facility.

Recent US defense spending bills have included millions of dollars to build Air Force facilities, such as fuel tanks and parking aprons, on Tinian.

Work has been ongoing in Palau, Sloane said. Air Force personnel have repaired airfield damage at Koror Airport and set up a new airfield on the island of Angaur, which has just 130 inhabitants. Airmen are also going to Palau for subject-matter exchanges and other prep work ahead of Cope North next month.

“These are not easy negotiations for deployments in and out of regions that are right now extremely wary of traveling visitors during the pandemic,” Sloane said. “So really, setting the theater requires continuous diplomatic engagement. I’m not kidding when I say things like Operation Christmas Drop pay big dividends.”

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