Comeback in the Pacific

July 1, 2007

The United States Air Force is expanding its capabilities throughout the Pacific, and its power there soon will be stronger than in any other region. Commanders are reasonably confident that the enhanced power can deter major conflict for years to come.

In addition, USAF is working to improve its military-to-military relations with Pacific nations. The service hopes that these ties will reduce suspicion and the danger of miscalculation.

These officers are wary of China’s broad-based military growth and North Korea’s belligerence and erratic behavior. They are mindful that the world’s biggest military powers—the US, China, Japan, and Russia, not to mention North and South Korea—come together in Northeast Asia.

Even so, commanders believe the Pacific has a better-than-even chance of evolving in a peaceful way.

The Air Force’s best fighters of several different types, regular contingents of bombers, and new intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, as well as factory-fresh transports, are all being deployed to the Pacific region, creating the most capable presence the US has enjoyed there in decades.

“Our own readiness … to do whatever we are called upon to do is essential,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, deputy commander of US Pacific Command, said in an interview.

“Without that, our efforts would be … meaningless. We have to have a foundation of strength—and we do—in the Pacific.”

While joint exercises and developing close relationships between the US military and those of other countries help build understanding and aid in problem solving, Leaf said, there is another dimension of mil-to-mil work, as well.

“When we bring any military representative from any nation to see our forces—our commanders and leaders, right down to our NCOs and enlisted members [and] our hardware—we also endeavor to show them our strength and readiness. And that has a deterrent side to it,” Leaf asserted.

He went on to explain, “It’s not just that we want to be friends, but also, we are a strong and prepared military with close relationships to our allies, and we’re prepared to do what’s necessary.” That is true, he said, even though “our goal is to build a peaceful and stable future in the Pacific.”

The Air Force is in the midst of a five-year effort to put its prime combat aircraft in the Pacific region, and it will continue to deploy additional fighters and bombers there on a rotational, “temporary-permanent” basis. Airlift assets will also be modernized.

This summer, USAF will introduce the first F-22s into Alaska, noted Gen. Paul V. Hester, head of Pacific Air Forces. In a March interview, he explained that the first permanent Raptor contingent at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, will number a half-dozen airplanes, building up to a full squadron of 18 by January 2008.

A dozen F-22s were deployed to Kadena AB, Japan, early this year as part of an Air and Space Expeditionary Force (AEF) package.

Plans call for initial operational capability to be declared with the first squadron of F-22s at Elmendorf in mid-2008, Hester said, and a second squadron should reach initial operational capability a few months later. By late 2008, Elmendorf should have a permanent complement of 36 Raptors.

In just three years, the Hawaii Air National Guard will trade in its F-15s for F-22s. The squadron will be an all-Guard unit, and its aircraft will be “worldwide deployable” and full participants in the AEF structure, Hester reported.

When not deployed, the F-22 unit will be responsible for the air defense of the Hawaiian islands and Guam. When the squadron does go to a forward location, it will be backfilled by another unit.

“We will always have either F-22s or other deployed fighters in here that will continually stand alert for the air defense of Hawaii and Guam,” Hester explained.

Under current Air Force plans, the Pacific Theater will be the only region outside of the continental United States to have permanently based F-22 squadrons.

Many Fighter Upgrades

Hester detailed other combat upgrades. At Kunsan AB, South Korea, the Air Force’s Block 30 F-16s will be swapped for Block 40 models, making Kunsan an “all-Block 40” unit. The Block 30s will move to Eielson AFB, Alaska, where they will form the core of an Aggressor unit that will routinely train with US and foreign air forces in Red Flag-Alaska exercises.

Older-model F-15s at Kadena Air Base, located on the Japanese island of Okinawa, recently have been replaced by USAF’s hottest F-15s—those which have been fitted with active electronically scanned array radars, helmet-mounted weapon cuing systems, upgraded engines, and similar advances.

The Air Force has also upgraded its F-16s based at Misawa AB, Japan, in the northern part of the country. They are now Block 50 models, with the best air-to-air and air-to-ground suites in the US fleet, as well as capabilities to conduct suppression of enemy air defenses missions. Even Yokota Air Base, near Tokyo, has traded up its C-130E tactical airlifters for C-130H models.

Hester said that, at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, one sees lots of new “concrete” on the airlift side of the base, to accommodate eight new C-17s permanently assigned there and to sharply increase the base’s ability to transship air cargo bound for the western Pacific. Beginning this summer, eight more C-17s will be based at Elmendorf, giving PACAF 16 C-17s that will serve both Air Mobility Command and PACAF assignments. The eight at Elmendorf will associate with the Guard.

Besides new and improved fighters, PACAF has been beefed up with a bomber contingent it hasn’t maintained since the 1960s. The heavyweights are based at Andersen AFB, Guam, in the western Pacific.

“For the past three years, we have had a continuous bomber presence,” Hester noted. He added, “Our expectation is that the … bomber presence will continue.”

He said that squadrons of B-1s, B-2s, and B-52s have been deployed to the island on a rotational basis, conducting not just in-area operations but long-distance missions to exercises in Alaska, Australia, Hawaii, Japan, South Korea, and Thailand.

Guam is sovereign US territory, offering an array of military options not available on foreign bases. Guam provides the ability to fly missions “in times of anger,” without the need to gain the approval of a foreign government.

Guam is “the furthest tip of American sovereignty into the western Pacific,” Hester observed.

Even fighter squadrons deploy to Guam as part of the AEF system. Dual-role F-15Es deployed last year, and F-16s from Cannon AFB, N.M., are there this summer. Hester noted that the US Navy, US Marine Corps, and services of allied nations also use the sprawling runway complex at Andersen, which, during the Vietnam War, hosted up to 170 B-52s at a time.

Allied nations have been invited to use Guam’s ranges for training, said Hester, “and that’s been expanding.” Even Japan has dispatched aircraft to perform bombing runs.

All these measures, however, don’t “fill up the ramp” at the large island base, so PACAF is moving some functions such as security forces training to Andersen. Moreover, Hester plans to bring Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles to Guam.

He notes that the first of these high-flying aircraft will arrive in 2009, while the last—there may be as many as 10—would arrive around 2014.

Hester has been touting an arrangement wherein a number of regional air forces could cooperatively view RQ-4 Global Hawk intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) data, the better to keep watch on danger zones like the Strait of Malacca, through which a sizable portion of regional maritime traffic moves and which has been plagued by piracy.

At the Air Force Association’s Air Warfare Symposium in February, Hester said he hopes to begin a multinational program in which representatives from Pacific nations could jointly use data from Global Hawk operations. (See “The Risk Goes Up,” April, p. 34.)

Notionally, Hester said, the aircraft could launch from Guam, fly over the region for 28 hours, refuel in Thailand, fly over the Indian Ocean and return, paying special attention to areas where friends “need our assistance with the persistency of this ISR platform.”

In exchange for the information, and a chance to pick the routes and targets, partner countries could offer rights to overfly their territory and provide alternative landing strips.

Hester went on to say the program could help solve problems related to “piracy [and] sea lines of communication” before a crisis breaks. Foreign representatives could watch the data come in at Hickam’s air operations center, Hester said.

Surfeit of Firepower

Hester has also told Air Force headquarters that he needs to have in the PACAF area two squadrons of MQ-1 Predator aircraft; one detachment in South Korea; and one in Hawaii or Guam. Moreover, he is pushing to have aircraft shelters built on Guam that can serve any aircraft now in the inventory, or planned.

All in all, so much USAF firepower has been dedicated to the Pacific that Hester saw fit to back some off.

Note, for example, that those newer F-15s at Kadena offer such an improvement over previous versions that one of three F-15 squadrons has been given back, a move Hester said will have no impact on capability. Even with threatening moves from North Korea, USAF doesn’t see “a necessity to put … more firepower … into Okinawa at all.”

Another big boost for USAF is the air and space operations center (AOC) at Hickam, which collects information from “airborne, surface, subsurface, and national platforms,” according to Col. Michael R. Boera, commander of the 613th Air and Space Operations Center.

“This is a weapon system,” Boera declared in a March briefing at the facility, and personnel who “crew” the AOC must pass “check rides”—analogous to those taken by flight crews—in order to be certified in AOC functions.

The AOC at Hawaii is connected to other Falconer sites around the world, and in time of a Pacific war outside of Korea, it would manage all the aspects of air and space power being brought to bear. In quieter times, it runs regional Operation Noble Eagle air sovereignty missions, tracks aircraft, and builds the daily air tasking order for the Pacific, while planning operations “about 96 hours out,” Boera said.

A good chunk of the AOC’s attention is also devoted to planning and monitoring ISR flights in theater. The AOC provides warning to ISR aircraft when foreign aircraft approach them and keep the ISR flights apprised of changing tasks and weather.

The facility at Hickam is named after Maj. Richard I. Bong, the top Army Air Forces ace of World War II. The Bong AOC is part of the Kenney Headquarters warfighting center. If the facility were to be hit by an enemy, it will soon be possible for another Falconer to take over, almost without missing a beat, Boera reported.

The AOC underwent an upgrade in March, providing operators with larger workstations and greater connectivity to the rest of the Air Force and the other armed services. The Hickam AOC has 61 “T1” lines connecting it to other elements of the armed forces. A T1 line can carry 24 digital channels of data. By comparison, US Central Command’s AOC has 13 T1 lines; an aircraft carrier has just two.

Sometimes it’s hard to gauge the AOC’s effectiveness, Boera said, noting that the facility’s management of tsunami relief is still being studied. However, few deny the value of having a centralized facility that has near-total visibility into the functions of nearly every aspect of PACAF, he said. About 50 people crew the AOC on a 24/7 basis, but the facility in wartime could be augmented by up to 629 persons or more. Part of the facility is given over to liaison officers from, for example, Australia, to coordinate joint operations and exercises.

The 613th is also the lead for joint personnel recovery in the Pacific Theater, because of its ability to marshal and coordinate assets from multiple services and, at times, nations.

The unit is also the control mechanism for the region’s likely wartime joint force air component commander and head of 13th Air Force. Lt. Gen. Loyd S. Utterback, Hester’s deputy and 13th Air Force commander, said his job is to be the wartime air coordinator in the theater.

“I would bring the operational punch and capability, because we here in Hawaii, through our air operations center, have the ability to command and control joint forces. And we practice that every day.”

Utterback said there are about 25 exercises per year that refine the AOC’s ability to command and control forces across the Pacific Theater, and “it’s going to go up to 30 next year.”

Safe Harbors

PACAF is developing a plan that would put the Hickam AOC in control of ballistic missile defense for the entire Pacific, Utterback said. While in peacetime he has no control over Navy ships or Marine aircraft, if he was “so designated” as the JFACC in wartime, the other services’ air assets would “chop” to his command.

For ballistic missile defense, Utterback does not order Navy ships to conduct operations, but directs them to areas where the “effect” of BMD is required, “and at that point [the 7th Fleet commander] moves his ships and puts them where they need to be.”

While the Hickam AOC wouldn’t “run” a war on the Korean Peninsula, it would be in charge of “the time-phased deployment process for Korea,” Utterback noted.

“There’s not a single plan in Korea that’s not written in coordination with us. Because you can’t fight Korea in isolation.” The Hickam AOC would also take over if “connectivity” to the AOC at Osan was lost, Utterback noted. As the ISR clearinghouse for the Pacific, the Hickam AOC collects “all source” information from US assets and allied nations with whom the US has an intelligence sharing agreement.

“We have not been too surprised in the years that I have been out here when something happens,” Utterback reported.

He said the US closely monitors situations of tension in the region and has commitments to honor if things go bad. Some of those commitments are complicated.

For instance, he said, there are “coordination and deconfliction challenges if we were asked to defend Taiwan”—namely, the US can’t send flag officers to Taiwan to coordinate its defense—“but we have thought through those challenges.” He said he couldn’t explain further, but added he is confident that “we could stand up to whatever we’re tasked to do out here.”

Utterback said PACAF is working to engage military forces throughout the region, toward building lines of communication that smooth the way for coalition-building in times of crisis.

India’s air force, he noted, is one with which the US now has a budding relationship of joint exercises. (See “Aerospace World: Cope India Wraps Up,” January 2006, p. 12.) He called the Indian Air Force a “capable and professional air force.” USAF has twice exercised within India’s territory and has offered a reciprocal visit to its Red Flag event. India may send Su-30 Flankers to Red Flag Nellis next year, Utterback reported.

Australia represents the best possibility to be a US ally on the order of Japan or South Korea, Hester observed. The US has full intelligence sharing with Australia and Britain—“a pretty strong statement about the relationship between America and those two countries.” And although Australia has struck its own military cooperation deals with China, he doesn’t see it as a shift in Canberra’s attitudes.

“The relationship [with Australia] is as strong as it ever was; in fact, it’s stronger,” Hester asserted.

He noted that Australia is partnered with the US in development of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter and ensured that its new AWACS-type aircraft would be compatible with US systems for future coalition work. Australia has also recently purchased four C-17s, and USAF embedded Australian crews on its own C-17s for their training in the airlifter.

Moreover, US aircraft have been permitted to train on ranges in northern Australia, and Hester expects that when the F-22 is based at Hickam, it will go to those ranges for exercises “more frequently than we have in the past.”

Australia also played a key role in introducing US military officials to their counterparts in Indonesia during the tsunami relief efforts of 2004. For a decade, US policy prohibited official mil-to-mil contacts with Indonesia. The restriction has since been lifted.

Lt. Gen. David A. Deptula, deputy chief of staff for ISR, previously held Utterback’s job. He said operations such as the massive tsunami relief effort in Indonesia and neighboring countries provide huge dividends for the US.

Getting to Know Them

Deptula said friends in Indonesia’s air force told him that their country’s military textbooks “warn against allowing America in,” because the US will “never leave.” For that reason, US forces were given a time-certain when they had to be out of Indonesia, even though the relief operation was not yet over.

On the day US forces had to withdraw, “there was a picture on the front page of the Jakarta newspaper of a woman in full Muslim dress, holding a sign that said something like “ ‘I heart America, America not go,’ ” Deptula related. “You can’t buy that kind of goodwill.”

Leaf said the tsunami relief was an example of something that doesn’t “fit into the traditional view of military operations.” However, there are two important points to make about it, he said.

“One is, somebody’s got to do it—somebody’s got to work to alleviate the human suffering, and two, … the United States armed forces do it well and respond rapidly and do it with a great deal of compassion,” Leaf noted. Such operations “are very efficient in returning a positive and appropriate image for the United States of America. And by doing the right thing, and providing relief, we also engender more credibility, more acceptance in the region.” He added, “That’s not why we do it, but it certainly happens.”

Leaf said he’s optimistic about the Pacific region.

The progress of the six-party talks with North Korea, a new wave of exchanges and exercises with China, success in partnering with the Philippines to capture or kill terrorists, re-establishing mil-to-mil relationships with Indonesia, and expanding cooperation with India are reasons to be upbeat, Leaf asserted.

However, he warned that such a situation has come about because of diligence, attention, and patience and could be undone if those things are lacking.

“If there is anything that would worry me, it would be any party, any country, taking the progress that we have made in the Pacific for granted,” Leaf said.

“Overmatch” in the Pacific

The US is “well-postured” in the Pacific region to repel an attack by North Korea or any other nation. So said Adm. William J. Fallon, in his last testimony to the House Armed Services Committee as head of US Pacific Command in March. Fallon is now head of US Central Command.

“The Asia-Pacific area is primarily a maritime and air region,” because of its vast expanses of ocean, he told the HASC. Particularly in airpower, Fallon said the US has an “overmatch” capability versus any other nation in the Pacific Theater and will enjoy regional air superiority for the near term, he asserted.

If war did come to the Korean Peninsula, Fallon said, it would fall to the Air Force and Navy to carry the brunt of the fighting for the US at first, since US ground forces are heavily engaged in Afghanistan and Iraq. However, the combination of US airpower with US ground forces and South Korea’s 500,000-man army would make a Korean campaign brief and successful, though costly in the damage inflicted by the North Koreans, he asserted.

In fact, Fallon reported, PACOM depends on air and naval assets as its principal method of dealing with the North Korean threat day to day. The US air component is extremely capable against a North Korean Air Force that has mostly older aircraft and aircrews that only get a tenth as many flying hours as American pilots do. North Korea has not purchased any new combat aircraft for many years, but they do upgrade what they have, he said.

Is Long-Range Strike the Answer

Is the “tyranny of distance” in the Pacific, coupled with fewer bases, the military rise of China, and tensions on the Korean Peninsula reason enough to put huge new resources into long-range strike systems? Congress has been debating that issue for the last several years. The answer, according to Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, deputy commander of US Pacific Command, is to find a balance between aircraft and bases.

Long-range systems “are very responsive,” Leaf said, and offer the advantages of speed and being able to operate from the continental US. Forward bases, on the other hand, “offer and maintain access, but more importantly, provide direct interaction with other Pacific nations.” However, “bases are expensive.”

A balanced approach to “systems and basing is essential, and we’re pursuing that,” Leaf said. He maintained that the US has “good, affordable access” in the region. That access is not just in permanent locations such as Japan and South Korea, but on a visiting basis with Singapore and other countries.

Once the US and South Korea resolve their plans to have joint but not unified command over the next four years, and after the realignment of forces in and around Japan and to Guam, “it’ll probably be time for another look” at the US basing structure in the region, Leaf suggested.