NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. -- The Indo-Pacific Strategy Report published in June clearly states “the Indo-Pacific is the Department of Defense’s priority theater.” It’s also the largest and arguably most diverse.
In an effort to raise greater understanding of the theater and the Airmen and families that operate in it, wing commanders from across Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) participated in a media roundtable at the 2019 Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference here Sept. 17.
The group represented the diversity of the vast area of responsibility (AOR), from the “Icemen” at Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, to the “Wolf Pack” at Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea, the Air Force’s largest combat wing at Kadena Air Base, Japan, to its most forward U.S. sovereign air force base in Guam, to the command and control node run by the 613th Air Operations Center (AOC) at Joint Base Pearl-Harbor Hickam (JBPHH), Hawaii, and the 3rd Wing at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson (JBER), Alaska, providing homeland defense in the form of highly ready F-22s.
Much of the panel’s focus was highlighting PACAF’s efforts to address the challenges presented by the National Defense Strategy and the return of great power competition. The command supports the NDS through three lines of effort in its strategy -- strengthening allies and partners, increasing lethality and interoperability through our exercise program, and operational concepts for great power competition.
“One of the things we’re doing is really fleshing out one of the concepts in the PACAF strategy, Agile Combat Employment (ACE),” said Col. Robert Davis, 3rd Wing commander at JBER. “Across the command we’re experimenting, innovating and trying to figure out how we can continue to generate combat airpower in the face of an adversary that might take away some of those forward operating bases.”
The concept, also referred to as ACE, was a consistent theme throughout the conference, highlighting a focus on a lighter, leaner, more agile force. Moving beyond concept, PACAF units exercise ACE as part of nearly everything they do.
For example, in April, Airmen and aircraft from across the command joined together at Andersen to test the concept throughout Micronesia, said Brig. Gen. Gentry Boswell, 36th Wing commander at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
The exercise, named Resilient Typhoon, took Airmen and aircraft concentrated at one location—Andersen AFB—who then dispersed, recovered and rapidly resumed operations at airports and airfields in Guam, Tinian, Saipan, The Federated States of Micronesia and Palau.
In an AOR that spans from Hollywood to Bollywood, penguins to polar bears, the concept is not without its challenges, from logistics to command and control.
To address these challenges, the command’s strategy focuses heavily on relationships, from joint teammates to allies and partners. These efforts center on everything from humanitarian aid and disaster response, to domain awareness and interoperability.
“One of the unique advantages in our theater is our partners…the relationships we have throughout the region,” Davis said, sharing a recent example from Exercise Talisman Sabre earlier this year when a Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) KC-30A Tanker aircraft conducted an air-to-air refueling mission with a U.S. Air Force F-22. The event was a first for the region during a combined exercise.
The RAAF and U.S. Air Force also recently implemented a new C-17 maintenance-sharing arrangement, allowing Airmen from either nation to perform full, interoperable cross-maintenance on either nation’s C-17s.
“Our goal is to build those relationships so we have a mutual benefit,” said Col. Jason Rueschhoff, 613th AOC commander at JBPHH, Hawaii, explaining that it’s not just about finding opportunities for access…“it’s as much about what we can provide to them, not just what they can provide to us.”
Brig. Gen. Joel Carey, 18th Wing commander at Kadena, Japan, went further to showcase how these relationships tie in to Multi-Domain Command and Control, or MDC2.
“While we’re all working with our joint partners, it’s equally if not more important to work with our host nation partners to ensure that from sensor down to every effect you might need to employ, that you’re integrated in equipping and training and potentially employing with the government of Japan,” Carey said. “We’ve got to look at how to present the enemy with dilemmas across all domains simultaneously…increasing connectivity across MDC2 is the only way we’re going to get there.”
Additional questions ranged from the role of bombers in maintaining a free and open Indo-Pacific, fifth generation interoperability, and the feedback from the Resiliency Tactical Pause initiative.
While bomber readiness was a focus of great discussion at the conference, Boswell focused on the role B-52s currently play in supporting Continuous Bomber Presence (CBP) operations from Andersen, as well as the Bomber Task Force (BTF) operations which happen routinely across the globe.
PACAF has played host to all three bomber platforms within the past year, to include hosting a BTF made up of B-2s in Hawaii, a first, in late 2018, and again in early 2019.
The bombers support a free and open Indo-Pacific, assuring allies and partners and deterring adversaries, “and reinforcing international norms and laws that we all subscribe to,” he said. “[The Continuous Bomber Presence] and Bomber Task Force also allow us to do training and integration with our partners, allies and our joint partners.”
Combine the bombers strategic reach to Anderson’s critical location, it’s no surprise the base is considered a power projection platform for the region.
“The geo-strategic location in the Southwest Pacific gives us unique access to reach out and touch anything, whether through kinetic or non-kinetic means in the entire theatre,” Boswell said, also highlighting the role of the 36th Contingency Response Group at Andersen.
The group, comprised of cross-functional Airmen that provide initial Air Force presence in potentially austere forward locations, is always in high demand, but has been particularly busy over the last year due to the number of inclement weather events driving humanitarian aid needs throughout the region.
Outside the region, inclement weather drove a different type of significant event at JBER early in the year. Davis highlighted the success of integrating an additional seven F-22s after Hurricane Michael hit Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida. Not only was the transition “seamless,” he said, the base currently has “overall the best maintenance organization” as they were able to surpass the 80 percent mission capable goal for the broader fleet.
Units across PACAF have maintained a heightened readiness in support of diplomatic efforts in the region, at Kunsan, Col. Tad Clark, 8th Fighter Wing commander, highlighted how Airmen and their ROK counterparts are utilizing creative solutions to maintain their lethality and interoperability. Kunsan is home to both U.S. Army and Republic of Korea Air Force Airmen.
“We are the only base on the Korean peninsula that has both [U.S.] Air Force F-16s and [Republic of Korea Air Force] F-16s as well,” Clark said. “So we are creative on how we train day in and day out and routine training operations together so that if and when we are asked to work together those skills are already there.”
However, most exciting may be Eielson’s preparations to receive PACAF’s first F-35 in April 2020.
“On Oct. 10 we’re going to standup our first F-35 combat squadron; we’re re-activating the 356th Fighter Squadron,” said Col. Ben Bishop, 354th Fighter Wing commander at Eielson. “This, in preparation for our first aircraft to arrive in April of 2020…this will be the first of 54 F-35 Lightning II aircraft stationed at Eielson.”
Between the F-35s to come and the F-22s already in place, Alaska will soon be home to the greatest presence of fifth generation aircraft in the U.S. Air Force.
Interior Alaska is also known as the home of the Joint Pacific Alaska Range Complex, the largest U.S. military training range in the world and one of the main reasons both U.S. and international units complete an annual expedition to Alaska.
Spanning more than 67,000 square miles of airspace—roughly the size of Florida—the JPARC serves as the playing field for RED FLAG-Alaska exercises, during which Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines and international partners are able to train virtually uninterrupted and unrestricted.
“Eielson is an important piece of concrete. From that runway we can achieve, with one fighter sortie and appropriate tanker support, every target in [U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] and [U.S. European Command],” Bishop said. “It’s exciting to bring that capability to PACAF, but also the power projection capability it provides.”
The number of regionally-based F-35s will continue to grow as well, reaching more than 220 by 2025. At that point, nearly 75 percent will belong to allies and partners.
As important as the operational concepts and airframes are, however, commanders stressed the priority focused paid to taking care of Airmen and families.
“What we do, at its core, is a human endeavor and has to be enduring,” Boswell said reflecting on the recently directed Resiliency Tactical Pause.
The group stressed the importance of connectedness and a consistent and continual focus versus just a one-time event.
“We learned how important leadership involvement (is) at echelons up and down the chain, supervisory involvement in the day-in/day-out challenges of being human, and then the additional challenges of serving in the military, in the Air Force… and how important it is to be connected,” Carey said. “People need support and making sure that Airmen know they’ve got a voice and know who to speak to and ensuring that we’re ready to respond when they do speak.”
From Kunsan, Clark showcased what was a 30-day effort that ended in a day of personal testimony, among other events to bring the wing together and promote transparency.
“We pulled resources into their squadrons so mental health wasn’t an office but actually a face and a name [Airmen] could associate with,” he said, adding that key leaders throughout the wing shared personal testimonies. “I think what our Airmen need to know is we are all human, we are all in this together.”
Another common theme, was ensuring this effort was considered a priority across for Airmen at all levels, and a focus to get beyond just communicating and actually connect with each other.
“The operations tempo of the command is significant, everyone is working extremely hard, so having the direction to take a pause was extremely important,” said Rueschhoff, highlight the demands of not only steadying a 24/7 operations center, but connecting across 16 time zones. “What we found most important was connectedness, and understanding your why.”