Gen. Charles Brown Jr. discusses PACAF mission readiness with airmen at JB Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, in February. Photo: A1C Caitlin Russell
Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. spoke with Editorial Director John A. Tirpak on Sept. 3 about the challenges of operating in the Pacific Theater, deterring China and Russia, a new force dispersal strategy, and lines of responsibility between regional commands. (The conversation has been edited for length and clarity).
Q. China and Russia recently conducted joint bomber flights in the Pacific. Does this development drive a new operational response from PACAF?
A. Our operations don’t necessarily change dramatically. It’s really our focus on what both Russia and China might do. One of the goals of the National Defense Strategy is to not drive the two of them together. When they do collaborate, that sets off some alarm bells that we need to pay closer attention. And it’s not so much that Russia and China will come together, but they will make it way more difficult for us in the region.
We also need to backstop our partners, particularly Japan and South Korea, because many times, when Russia flies, they tend to come out toward Japan and/or South Korea. So we work with them to help their awareness, and our own awareness will be key.
Q. Were those July 23 bomber flights a grave concern?
A. I don’t think their level of interoperability is anything like when we operate and do an exercise with our partners. So, it may be in the nascent stages, or just for show. Time will tell.
Q. What does it mean for your long-term posture?
A. It’s not just what we do in PACAF. It’s INDOPACOM, USAFE-AFRICA, and what we do with EUCOM. And also NORAD and NORTHCOM. It requires more collaboration and a more concentrated effort between those combat commands and their air components, so that we don’t have any seams, because Russia can influence any of those combatant commands. How we work together, share information, and coordinate our activity will be what’s important. And also the strategic message we send.
Q. The Air Force and Navy developed the AirSea Battle concept. What did that yield?
A. It really helped open our eyes to the anti-access/area-denial environment and our understanding that we’re going to have to change some of our approaches. We now practice what we call Agile Combat Employment. We’ve learned that we have to be lighter, leaner, more maneuverable, and working multi-domain operations to create multiple dilemmas for our adversaries. In the era of anti-access/area-denial, you’re probably not going to be able to go toe-to-toe—well, you can, but there’s more risk associated with it—so it’s about having different options available, and this aspect of being able to work in multiple domains versus just the air domain. And we work closely with PACFLT.
Q. Will the Air Force’s Pacific bomber presence mission expand to more locations?
A. I don’t see the numbers increasing. And I wouldn’t say we’ll probably change locations—we are pretty much based out of Guam. But we do change up the flight profiles, and we’ve done a variety of them with different partners in the region. And that helps with my awareness in the air and maritime domains. … I want to see where the [People’s Republic of China forces] have gap seams or where they’re able to track us.
Q. Are those bomber presence flights dangerous, given China’s complaints about them?
A. When we do freedom of navigation profiles—our bombers, or the Navy’s ships—we’re actually flying [and steaming] where international law allows. When we go to a disputed area, what I expect is we’ll get calls on Guard. And depending on how close we get—just like we do with them—I expect to be intercepted. But I also expect it to be safe and professional.
Q. How do you reassure our allies in the Pacific that the US is a credible security partner, and that an attack by China on, say, Taiwan, wouldn’t be over before the US could react?
A. We have a national commitment to help provide Taiwan the capabilities for its own self-defense. Some of those capabilities—they’re pursuing additional F-16s—will help them. But one of the ways we show our commitment is with our presence—people or aircraft. It’s part of my engagement when I travel, and when my senior officers or even junior airmen travel. They spend time in various countries and build those relationships.
We exercise with various nations to the level of their ability and interest. It not only demonstrates our commitment but our level of assurance, and we also see it as a deterrent.
Q. Some argue such exercises sap your readiness because USAF units don’t get much training benefit. Others say exercises are crucial to building interoperability and relationships. Where’s the balance?
A. There are several lines of effort in the PACAF strategy. One is to strengthen allies and partners. A second is to increase our interoperability. Those go hand in hand. That being said, certain partners are very far along, and we get great … rigorous, high-end training in exercises with them. By the same token, when we go to nations that don’t have the same level of capability, it challenges us to learn a bit more about how we would execute with them. But the key to me is building those relationships, because we all have to start someplace. We can’t say we’ll only exercise with a nation that can do the high-end work. If we do, we’ll leave a partner on the sidelines, and that’s not my intent. My airmen are not going to get a whole lot of readiness training in some places, but it’s about building a relationship. That leads to access—basing and overflight—which are important to be able to operate.
Q. How is USAF responding to Chinese and Russian long-range missiles?
A. The ability to disperse—historically, we’ve gone to places where we’ve got a big base with a big footprint. But I need to be able to go someplace that simply has a runway, a ramp—a place that I can put fuel bladders, some munitions trailers, and some airmen. They can operate that airfield and also bring in folks to reload, rearm, and move on.
We’ve been working on … a hub-and-spoke concept. I’ll disperse over a number of different airfields, over a number of different islands, and work the command and control between those to create a little more flexibility.
The more airfields I prove I can operate from, the more airfields our adversaries have to account for. We need to shift and move. At the same time, I want to do some counter-ISR and deception to make it more challenging for the adversary. It’s all about affecting their decision-making cycle [and] where they might target us. I want to spread out, so if we do get attacked, we’re able to recover very quickly, and still put pressure on our adversary.
Q. What are your biggest investment requirements for PACAF?
A. Multi-domain operations and command and control—I need a robust way to push information.
Tied to that, a long-range kill chain. It’s good to have long-range weapons, but also to have the supporting ISR to target the right locations. As our ranges and speeds increase, we start going down the path of hypersonics. In command and control, I need a self-healing network; it’s going to be contested.
The last piece is fifth-generation capability. Our partners, and we are bringing F-35s [to the Pacific]. We’ll get the first of ours here at Eielson [AFB, Alaska] next spring. But it’s also how we take advantage of that capability and think differently about how to do things. Since Desert Storm … we’ve had a fairly permissive air environment, and now the dynamic is changing. We’re going to have to take a few risks here and there, and we’ll probably take some losses. But a different mindset is important. We have to counter the advanced capabilities that our adversary has.
Q. How do you counter the stealth capabilities China and Russia are beginning to field?
A. Infrared search and track is one. The AIM-260 missile with increased ranges is good. But it’s also how I take information off an F-35 and push it to my other assets or platforms.
We’re using the Loyal Wingman concept and others to advance our thinking on how we would employ. Because, again, I want to create dilemmas.
It’s not just the F-35 or F-22 or B-2 or B-21, it’s how do we bring the team together so that our adversary has to consider all the different platforms. And we have to take advantage of those capabilities today, and not just hope [a conflict] will kick off in the future. Because it could kick off sooner than later.
Q. The “tyranny of distance” means you need to increase the range of your platforms. Do you need more tankers?
A. Tankers are high on my list. This is another reason why the “hub-and-spoke” approach is helpful to me, because I can do drop-ins at different locations. This is why ISR is so important, so we can have a good understanding of where we can get tankers a bit closer to the threat and also areas where we have to pull the tankers further back, which may change our scheme of maneuver.
Q. With the return of great power competition, do you think a dedicated electronic warfare aircraft is needed?
A. Of some sort: I’m not sure whether it’s a dedicated machine, but it’s broader than just a particular platform. A lot of work has been done in the last year to really look at EW, but we haven’t been focused on it for a while.
We’re picking back up on this because the electromagnetic spectrum will be contested. Our adversaries have the capability to make it difficult, but I also want to make it difficult for them. Whether it’s a specific platform, or pods on aircraft, or ways that we use deception and some other means, nonkinetic, we want to drive doubt in the mind of our adversary.
Q. A shortcoming of fifth-generation aircraft is their limited number of shots. Are you interested in an arsenal plane?
A. It gives us more options. We’re going to test the concept, and it shows a bit of promise, and that will help us in the long run.
This goes to the whole concept of innovation. We want to get ahead and test this and figure out what works and what doesn’t. Various options are in play. We just had this test with the XQ-58, the Valkyrie, that’s starting us down a path a bit faster to some new platform, whether it be an arsenal plane or a Loyal Wingman.
Q. You’ve sounded the alarm about Russia and China being more aggressive in the Arctic. Does that suggest that US combatant command boundaries in that region should be redrawn?
A. No, not really. In the past, a map of the Unified Command Plan would show dark, solid lines between commands. I think those lines are a bit more dashed now. What I mean by that is, the dialogue between combatant commands has only increased, and it has to.
The problems and crises we face, the adversaries we deal with, they don’t stop when they get to a combatant command line, or slow down so we can hand off from one to another. We have to have a bit more flexibility between our leadership teams and operations centers so we don’t drop the ball on something. Q. What should people know about USAF’s security posture in the Indo-Pacific Theater?
A. It’s big. Sixty percent of the world’s population is here; 40 percent of the world’s trade goes through here. The threat in the Pacific isn’t the same as in NATO with Russia, or in the Middle East. I would make this point: The Chinese are not the Russians. Whatever model we used for the Russians and the Cold War may not be the same model that we would use with the PRC. And we have to stay engaged. We want to be the partner of choice in the Pacific.
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