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.
Even so, commanders believe the Pacific has a better-than-even chance of evolving in a peaceful way.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Older-model F-15s at Kadena Air Base, located on the Japanese island of Okinawa, recently have been replaced by USAF’s hottest F-15s—those which have been fitted with active electronically scanned array radars, helmet-mounted weapon cuing systems, upgraded engines, and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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
All in all, so much USAF firepower has been dedicated to the Pacific that Hester saw fit to back some off.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Getting to Know ThemDeptula 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.”
“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.”
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
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