When one travels across the vast Pacific region, the special factor working against combat preparation of Pacific Air Forces becomes fully apparent. Command readiness has risen to a peacetime high, but PACAF will always have a long way to go.
Literally. The immense Pacific theater, an endless maritime expanse covering twelve time zones, confronts PACAF’s war planners with the need to overcome distances far in excess of those that would face military men in a war in Europe or elsewhere. Consider the realities:
In contrast with locally concentrated US Air Forces in Europe, PACAF in a war emergency would find its 296-plane force spread out over 2,700 miles from Japan to the Philippines. A gap of 7,500 miles—twice the breadth of the US—separates the command’s forward tactical fighter bases from CONUS sources of resupply. Distances from bases to targets in the Soviet Union, North Korea, and Vietnam stretch up to 750 miles.
These distances, say experts, are sure to affect airpower in significant ways. Deployment of fighters would tie up a large portion of the US tanker fleet. Ordnance loads might be reduced to give attack planes longer legs to reach faraway targets. Air-lifters would probably ferry fewer parts and munitions in order to accommodate heavier fuel loads. The list goes on.
In consequence, officers in PACAF headquarters at Hickam AFB, Hawaii, are striving to surmount these limitations with a Pacific style of combat preparation aimed at minimizing distance. Weapons, logistics, and training have distinctive features. Even PACAF’s concept of force employment is different from that in other theaters.
“We look toward very large force employment,” explains Maj. Gen. Michael Kerby, Vice Commander in Chief of PACAF. “You really have to marshal theater forces to have an impact over here. We would have to concentrate large force in a small area and gain local air superiority to employ airpower effectively in the Pacific.”
On attack missions, for example, PACAF pilots could not afford to burn precious fuel searching for holes in Soviet air defenses, a tactic more suitable for Europe. Instead, the US would be more likely to get through that net by putting together a big strike package and blowing a hole in the net.
The demands of the Pacific present a formidable readiness challenge for Gen. Merrill McPeak, PACAF’s Commander in Chief since the retirement of Gen. Jack Gregory this summer. His forces, relatively few in number, must rely on superior training, coordination, and flexibility.
Much to Build On
There is much in PACAF to build on. The peacetime force that General McPeak inherits has seldom seemed better prepared for war. There can be little doubt that it is superbly equipped and trained. The question is whether such readiness can be sustained in austere budget years to come.
For a major combat command, PACAF is small. Its 296 warplanes, organized into only fourteen squadrons, are deployed in three air forces at different locations: Fifth Air Force in Japan, with 14,000 personnel at three major bases; Seventh Air Force in Korea, with 10,000 personnel at five major bases; and Thirteenth Air Force in the Philippines, with 8,000 personnel at Clark AB.
All told, there are 60,000 Air Force officers, airmen, and civilians in the Pacific, only about half of whom are directly assigned to PACAF. The remainder includes crews associated with Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers and tankers, Tactical Air Command E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System aircraft, and Military Airlift Command C-5, C-141, and other lifters.
In PACAF’s preparations for combat in the Pacific, few matters receive greater attention than the quality of its aircraft.
Because the PACAF force is small, the Air Force is working hard to provide it with superb mounts. Results of USAF’s fighter modernization, in full swing in the Pacific since 1985, can now be seen—a force of warplanes that is not only more sophisticated and effective but more reliable and easier to maintain than previously.
All fighters in both squadrons of PACAF’s 432d Tactical Fighter Wing (TFW) at Misawa AB, Japan, have been converted from the F-16A model to the more advanced F- 16C, which has more powerful engines and better avionics. In May, PACAF completed a similar conversion at the 8th TFW located at Kunsan AB, Korea, exchanging its forty-eight F-1 6A aircraft for an equal number of F-16Cs.
This comes on the heels of the earlier deployment of USAF’s premier air-to-air fighter, the sleek F-15, into the Pacific in large numbers. Three squadrons of the advanced F-15C model, totaling seventy-two aircraft, now are on hand at Kadena AB on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
Also available are twenty-four tank-killing A-10 jets in Korea, twelve F-4G Wild Weasel planes in the Philippines, and eighteen RF-4C reconnaissance craft in Japan.
Much is yet to come. For one thing, there will be more F-16Cs to replace the seventy remaining F-4E fighters in the inventory. The 51st TFW at Osan, Korea, will trade its twenty-four Phantoms for twenty-four F-16Cs early next year. Similar changeouts will take place elsewhere in PACAF over the next five years. The biggest advance, however, will be the appearance of the new F-15E strike fighter.
The F-15E, with unparalleled ground attack prowess, will go far toward supplying the long-range interdiction power that PACAF has been sorely lacking. Says General Kerby: “That’s an ideal piece of equipment for this part of the world.”
Two other forthcoming systems will help magnify the power of the tactical fighter wings in PACAF. They are the Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night (LANTIRN) system—it enables jets to fly low-level attack missions in darkness and poor weather—and the AIM-120A advanced medium-range air-to-air missile.
High Mission-Capable Rates
At least as impressive as the sophistication of PACAF’s modern fighters are their high mission-capable rates, which PACAF reports to be higher than at any time in recent years. Typical of the situation throughout PACAF are the mission-capable reports from one recent month: Of all units, only one failed to meet PACAF’s operational-readiness standard.
The situation stems from a number of factors. A major one is increased reliability of PACAF’s F-16Cs and F-15s over the planes that they have replaced. Break rates and maintenance hours are down.
Equally important are strides that the command has made in providing the spare parts, repair equipment, and supplies necessary to maintain advanced aircraft in top shape. Fatter budgets in the first part of the 1980s had helped fill some parts bins. Officers report that PACAF is benefiting from USAF’s Critical Item Program, which identifies items contributing to high mission capability and moves them swiftly through the system. Under the Combat-Oriented Supply Organization system, established at seven bases, spares and war-readiness stocks are located closer to users.
The biggest contributing factor, however, may be the higher caliber of worker maintaining PACAF aircraft. PACAF’s enlisted force, officers make clear, is in great shape. Virtually all first-termers in the ranks hold high school degrees and are eminently trainable. What’s more, the force is older and more mature than that of previous years. Of all PACAF enlisted personnel completing first tours of duty thus far in 1988, nearly seventy percent elected to reenlist. In 1980, the rate was forty-seven percent. The result, in maintenance no less than in other areas, is more experience on the job.
Equally important in US preparations for combat, Pacific style, is the heavy emphasis that PACAF places on training throughout the command.
Execution of intricate wartime operations in the theater, involving repeated midair refueling, coordinated strikes, marshaling of forces, and the like, would require great skill and expertise. As a result, PACAF forces train incessantly in air-combat operations.
One measure of the activity is the high number of flying hours attributed to PACAF. In Fiscal Year 1987, the most recent for which statistics are available, pilots in the Pacific wrung out a total of 105,792 flying hours from 77,150 sorties. This year, despite the fact that PACAF’s operations and maintenance budget was slashed by eleven percent, the command was able to protect its flying program from deep cuts. Individual PACAF crews are flying virtually the same number of sorties per month as in 1987. The level of activity remains higher than it was in the early 1980s.
Awesome Exercise Schedule
PACAF’s exercise schedule is awesome. Each year, PACAF forces take part in sixty field training and command post exercises. More than sixty percent of these involve operations with Pacific allied air forces. Ninety percent include US Navy or US Army units. Some are huge.
Team Spirit, a large-scale field training exercise held every year in Korea, regularly employs up to 17,000 USAF personnel and all types of planes. Probably the biggest exercise of its kind outside the Warsaw Pact, Team Spirit brings together air, land, and sea forces of the US and Korea.
There are others. Orient Shield, held annually in Japan, has brought USAF A-10s from Korea to participate in close air support drills. PACAF F-1 6s participate in Cobra Gold, an exercise designed to enhance cooperation of US and Thai air forces. Cope Max, held twice a year in the Pacific, helps PACAF train to launch, assemble, and direct very large packages of aircraft for theater war.
PACAF’s most realistic exercise is the Cope Thunder sequence, held in the Philippines. If today’s PACAF crews are better trained than ever in peacetime history—and senior officers insist that that is the case—Cope Thunder probably is the biggest reason.
The exercise is held seven times each year at the sprawling Crow Valley range near Clark AB—each session lasting two weeks. Aircrews, flying against dedicated “aggressor” planes, are presented with every combat situation that the imagination of a planner can devise. What’s more, Navy and Marine Corps crews take part, as do pilots from Thailand, Australia, the Philippines, and other allies and friends in the region. When the intense exercise is over, participants have flown a combined total of some 1,000 combat sorties and picked up a great deal of experience. PACAF’s goal, crimped somewhat by budget constraints, is to put each of its crews through ten Cope Thunder sorties each year.
Ground crews are also kept in constant motion. Before 1985, PACAF logistics units carried out peacetime operations while the fighter forces trained for war. No longer. For the past three years, logistics outfits have been put to the test in Cope Thunder and other exercises. They are called on to conduct aircraft battle-damage repair on the spot, rearm and refuel aircraft, reprogram aircraft software, and carry out rapid maintenance and checkout procedures.
As part of its strenuous exercising, PACAF is now paying serious attention to cooperation with the US Navy. The Pacific Fleet’s 300 warships, including seven aircraft carriers, make it an imposing military force in the region. PACAF is sharpening its ability to conduct maritime operations. Moreover, the degree of cooperation between the services in strike planning is probably unprecedented.
“We do an awful lot of exercising with the Navy,” says General Kerby. “In the Pacific, we can’t operate effectively without the Navy, and they can’t function without us. That’s why we are working as hard as we can to equip F-16s and B-52 conventional launch platforms with a Harpoon [antiship missile] capability. Flying Air Force missions in support of maritime operations is a necessity in the Pacific.”
Mushrooming Joint Efforts
Exactly six years ago, in October 1982, Navy and Air Force leaders approved a memorandum of agreement aimed at expanding interservice cooperation. Since then, joint efforts have mushroomed.
Use of AWACS surveillance planes and land-based F-is and F-16 fighters, service leaders maintain, could make a big difference in defense of US carriers from Soviet bomber and cruise missile attack. They also look for Air Force help in the form of early warning, command and control, electronic warfare, and aerial refueling.
PACAF planners look to combine Navy and Air Force strike and defensive operations. USAF Wild Weasels might support Navy strikes. Air Force tankers would support Navy aircraft. AWACS will work with Navy aircraft.
Apart from top-flight weapons and well-trained crews, another major PACAF priority focuses on bringing its logistics support up to the standard required for war in the Pacific environment.
Logistics support is viewed as the cornerstone of a credible deterrent force in the Pacific. Without it, the fighting power of PACAF units would be sapped by shortages of everything from replacement bombs to aircraft maintenance. Initiatives are many and varied.
To ease pressure on airlift, PACAF has prepositioned munitions in Japan to support US-based forces that would deploy to forward operating locations. About 711 short tons of USAF weapons—equivalent to twenty-eight C-141 sorties—are in storage at the US Army’s Akizuki munitions complex in Japan.
Introduction of the Rapid Assembly Munitions System (RAMS) gives arms technicians a system on which to assemble large quantities of weapons for high-rate sortie generation. The system consists of two gantries, four ten-foot-long assembly conveyors, hoists, an air compressor, and a lighting system. Each RAMS will produce, every hour, at least sixty Mk 82 GP bombs, twenty Mk 84 GP bombs, thirty cluster bombs, and eight guided bombs.
PACAF does not have to go it alone. Under a formal wartime support program, Korea is pledged to provide PACAF with the use of civilian airliners, storage facilities, maintenance shops, and surface transport vehicles. The US and Thailand have begun preparations for stockpiling war reserve materiel in that Southeast Asian nation.
To improve the survivability of intermediate-level aircraft maintenance, PACAF is decentralizing functions of its Pacific Logistics Support Center (PLSC) at Kadena AB. The deployment of long-range Soviet bombers in the theater makes concentration of such a critical operation in one place too risky. Plans call for each flying organization to provide its own intermediate-level maintenance next year. Osan AB, Korea, and Misawa AB, Japan, each will receive two F-16 avionics shops, while Kunsan AB, Korea, and an unspecified location will each receive one. With jet-engine shops, the story is the same. PLSC’s A-10 engine shop goes to Suwon AB, Korea. All F-16 engine shops will eventually move to the F-16 wings.
PACAF’s stepped-up survivability efforts extend to its fighter bases, too. The command’s Air Base operability program, part of a broad campaign being pushed throughout USAF, is making progress. On tap are more extensive active and passive defenses of base infrastructure, chemical-warfare protection, and wartime base recovery measures.
Ferret robots are now in use by PACAF’s explosive-ordnance disposal units. In PACAF’s projected funding for Fiscal Years 1989 through 1994, $205 million is allocated for the hardening of aircraft shelters, command posts, and operations centers, among other projects.
For Pacific operations planners, however, the gut issue remains the staying power of the thinly supplied tactical units. They say that no matter how effectively PACAF fighters and crews perform in combat they eventually will run out of the munitions, parts, and fuel that are needed to keep them in action.
The current stockpiles are inadequate—especially war munitions. That was made plain in a report issued by Adm. Ronald Hays shortly before he retired from the post of Commander in Chief of the US Pacific Command (PACOM). Admiral Hays notes that, across the various service components of PACOM, the average fill rate for PACOM-preferred munitions—such as Maverick missiles and the 1-2000 bombs—reaches twenty-eight percent of objective.
“We need good standoff conventional munitions, and we don’t have those,” adds one Pacific planner. “There’s not a lot of prospect [for our getting them] in the near time frame. It makes our assets more vulnerable because we have to stick our neck out further to get to the objectives.”
The situation would be even worse were it not for large improvements in combat sustainability brought about by heavy outlays on these items in the early and mid-1980s. Admiral Hays points out that, due to substantial investment in spare-parts supplies, there has been a steady improvement in the number of days for which supplies would be available. At present, Pacific Air Forces has eighty-three percent of theater stock requirements.
Storage for 13,000,000 gallons of jet fuel and 3,000,000 gallons of truck fuel was added to the Pacific Command’s fuel reserves last year. Over the past five years, the Pentagon has purchased 5,400,000 barrels of bulk petroleum war reserves for PACOM.
Overall, however, the sustain-ability picture is not good. From Admiral Hays comes this assessment: “The Pacific strategy needs ready forces that can sustain a fight. Today our forces are ready, [but] not sustainable to the degree that I would like to see.”
Given the current level of budget-cutting fervor in Congress, PACAF will be hard pressed to maintain its current strength—much less expand it. The Air Force already has lost a total of $20 billion from the budgets it had expected to have in 1988 and 1989. More cutting is sure to come.
The impact on combat sustain-ability could be great, particularly in stockpiles of spare parts. The problem has not yet materialized because the tactical wings are living off prior investments. “However,” warns one PACAF report, “as we start to feel the effects of funding constraints, we can expect spares support to deteriorate in the near future with long-term effects.” For example, projected funding for War Readiness Spares Kits and Base-Level Self-Sufficiency Supply kits war-reserve materiel is “practically nonexistent.”
Nor will PACAF training and exercises be fully protected from the budget-cutting axe. Admiral Hays points out that, even though PACAF makes a major effort to protect its flying program, some exercises have been curtailed or canceled. PACAF’s FY ’89 operations and maintenance account will bring about even greater belt-tightening.
Unless the Air Force sees noticeable improvement in military compensation—an unlikely event in light of budget stringency—manpower problems are sure to emerge. The impact, say PACAF officers, would be felt most swiftly in the form of lower retention rates of personnel working in critical specialty areas.
PACAF, like every other combat command, sees its biggest problem in the potential exodus of pilots in the years ahead. Pilot retention for the Air Force as a whole has plummeted to forty-eight percent of those eligible—down from seventy-two percent only four years ago. As matters stand, the deficit of pilots could reach nearly 2,500 early in the next decade. The scarcity will be allocated evenly throughout the tactical air forces.
In this situation, PACAF’s task in the years to come will go beyond conquering the Pacific’s vast open spaces. It will also have to conduct a damage-control operation to prevent serious decline of its own military forces.