Air Force commandos are preparing for war with Russia or China by rethinking what a 'runway' really is
An A-10 takes off on a freeway in Alpena, Michigan on August 5, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Scott Thompson
The US military is preparing for a possible conflict for a capable adversary, namely Russia and China.
Part of this preparation is finding ways to distribute the forces so they can continue to operate when the fighting begins.
For the Air Force, this means using new airfields, and their special operators have been critical to that.
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In a conflict with an equal power like China and Russia, the US military would be challenged by the size of its rivals' arsenal and the range of their weapons.
China is now seen as the "rising and falling threat" to the US, and the sheer size of its workforce and arsenal requires careful distribution of forces to avoid a nightmare scenario in which one strike wipes out large numbers of troops or weapons.
For example, the Air Force has trained to distribute its forces to non-traditional and sometimes improvised airfields. The special forces of the Luftwaffe were crucial for this preparation.
America's air commands
US Air Force pararescuemen aboard a US Army CH-47F helicopter after a training exercise at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, March 14, 2018. US Air Force / Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook
As an air component of the US Special Operations Command, the Air Force Special Operations Command provides air transport; Close air support; Precision impact; and intelligence, surveillance, global access and reconnaissance capabilities to special forces.
AFSOC also oversees highly trained combat commandos who join other special operations teams and combine air and ground forces.
These battlefield commandos work in four major professions: pararescuemen, who are elite medical professionals and experts in personnel recovery; Combat Controllers, who coordinate airfield operations and close air support; Tactical Air Control Party Airmen, commandos specialized in intercepting air strikes; and Special Reconnaissance Operators, the newest profession specializing in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.
Although they are an important part of SOCOM, Air Commandos are often overlooked because they support other special forces. Combat Controllers and Pararescuemen are often affiliated Navy SEAL platoons or Army Special Forces departments. They work in their own teams, but not that often.
However, AFSOC is also active in the air. It operates multiple rotary and fixed wing platforms, such as the MC-130 Commando II transport aircraft, the AC-130 Spooky fighter aircraft, the CV-22 Osprey tilt rotor aircraft, and the MQ-9 Reaper drone.
Winds of Change
A C-146A Wolfhound prepares to land on a freeway in Alpena, Michigan, August 5, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Scott Thompson
Air Commandos recently conducted a unique exercise reflecting shifts in thinking about military operations.
During Exercise Northern Strike 21 in northern Michigan in early August, Air Commandos enabled a modern aircraft to land on a US public road for the first time. The aim was to prepare pilots and commandos for spontaneous missions in barren places.
During the exercise, Air Commandos practiced infiltrating and securing the highway and then setting it up as an airfield.
Planes A-10 and C-146A landed and then took off from the runway. In a real-life scenario, especially on expedition missions, the highway that has become an airfield would ideally be close to the front line to provide fast and accurate logistical and close-air support for conventional and special operations troops.
"We are working on agile deployment concepts for combat that essentially make the troops more flexible and agile and pose challenges for our opponents in different environments," said Lt. Col. Jeff Falcone, Air Commando in charge of the exercise, in a press release.
"It also increases the survivability of the US armed forces as we can move to more unpredictable locations for supplies, refueling, or anything else we might need," added Falcone.
In addition to the combat pilots performing air traffic control, pararescuemers were on standby to provide medical care to the forces on and near the highway, as they would during a real operation.
An A-10 lands on a freeway in Alpena, Mich., Aug. 5, 2021. U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Scott Thompson
The US military isn't the only one training for such contingencies. Taiwan's military operates aircraft on a specially designed public highway as part of exercises to simulate defense against a Chinese invasion.
During such an invasion, China's military would already know where Taiwan's military and civil airports are and would attack them accordingly. Conducting aerial operations in non-traditional, harsh environments makes it difficult for an enemy to target your aircraft.
Airfield Operations Combat Controllers "the bread and butter," a former combat controller told Insider.
“People often mistakenly think that our only job is to sit next to the SF [Army Special Forces] or [Navy] SEAL ground forces commander and call air strikes on bad guys, but that's really only a very small part of our job “The former controller said, adding that not all combat controllers qualify as common terminal attack controllers, which enables them to launch air strikes
"A key aspect of our work is airfield operations - identifying, evaluating, marking and operating airfields, often in barren surroundings. We are the first to create the conditions for subsequent forces. It takes years of training to achieve this." Place, "added the former combat controller.
This exercise in Michigan showed that AFSOC is adapting to the new challenges of great power competition.
Lt. Gen. James Slife, commander of the AFSOC, acknowledged earlier this year that Air Commandos must adapt and evolve to remain relevant, calling the current period a "turning point" for the command.
ACE and FARP
F-35s wait to refuel from a C-130J during Agile Combat Employment Training at Northwest Field, Guam, Feb. 16, 2021. US Air Force / Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo
For example, instead of relying on an F-35 squadron - two squadrons of about 50 aircraft - to operate from a large island in a war with China, the Air Force would deploy a single or even half a squadron on a smaller island Island.
Agile Combat Employment (ACE) and Forward Arming and Refueling Points (FARP) are not entirely new operations, but AFSOC is investing more in them as tensions with Russia and China have increased.
ACE aims to enable larger air forces at the operational level to operate in smaller units at the tactical level in the event of a conflict between their peers. In this way, the Air Force makes it harder for opponents to target their planes and personnel.
ACE surgeries also make them a more unpredictable and therefore more effective force.
Special Operations Airmen refuel an F-22 from an MC-130J during exercise for the Forward Area Refueling Point, Alaska, Jan. 30, 2020. U.S. Air Force / Staff Sgt. Ridge Shan
F-35s conducted one such exercise earlier this year, moving from their main base in Alaska to their main U.S. base in Guam, from where they were relocated to a barren airfield on the small island nation of Palau for refueling.
FARP goes hand in hand with ACE. Aircraft have to be refueled and upgraded everywhere, especially if they have to be deployed to remote, barren bases at short notice.
The "Nightstalkers" of the US Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the entire US Special Operations community have used FARP for decades to support operations in unfriendly territory or behind enemy lines. In early 2020, Special Tactics Airmen practiced refueling fighter jets for the first time in the extreme cold of Alaska.
Stavros Atlamazoglou is a special operations defense journalist, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service at 575th Marine Battalion and Army Headquarters) and a graduate of Johns Hopkins University.
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