How the Air Force Will Expand Its Pacific Island-Hopping Campaign in 2021
More U.S. Air Force aircraft will be deployed in the Pacific next year as China continues to build muscle in the South China Sea and evolve on the region's contested islands.
The Pacific Air Forces, headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, plan to expand their Pacific island hopping campaign - known as Agile Combat Employment or ACE - to give Airmen the skills they need to operate from anywhere in a nutshell, said General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, PACAF commander.
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"We will continue to expand the ACE area and be able to add aspects and capabilities to be performed on a much broader scale, and we will continue to work with our allies and partners," Wilsbach said in an interview with Military .com this month.
"One of ACE's goals is to be very agile and mobile. And from the observer's point of view, it will look random," he said, referring to the service's efforts to make movements difficult for observers like Russia and China to interpret.
PACAF designed the ACE concept, an initiative to build small hubs that can accommodate fast-reacting forces from rigorous locations around the world. The concept has found its way to Europe in the last few months.
The main command is part of the larger United States Indo-Pacific Command that oversees operations from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India and from the north of the Arctic to the south of the Antarctic. Overall, his area of responsibility covers around 52% of the earth's surface.
Being nimble is the only way to operate over millions of miles of terrain, which is why "almost every exercise we do now has an ACE component," said Wilsbach. "Our intention with ACE is not to build these mega-bases that require an immense amount of infrastructure, which means a lot of costs."
Since the National Defense Strategy debuted in 2018 under then Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, the Air Force has been working on new concepts that could potentially deter a potential enemy, especially if the U.S. has China worried about an ever-changing number of locations. - An island hopping concept also practiced by the Marine Corps to improve ship-to-shore skills in remote conditions.
Speaking to reporters last month, Wilsbach said the commando had "examined every single piece of concrete in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific" to assess where it could land everything from its most advanced fighters to cumbersome cargo planes.
"We could be there for an hour, we could maybe be there for a few days ... and you can present dilemmas that come from several aspects at the same time," he said in the interview.
The ACE initiative continues to shift to several small islands in the Pacific, including Tinian Island north of Guam, which the Air Force selected as an alternative training island in 2016. F-15 eagles were spotted on the island last year. according to a report by The Drive.
Wilsbach also explained how F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft stationed at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in November landed on the west Pacific island of Palau later that month and were too hotly hit by a C-130 Hercules and crew -fuel them, a technique that leaves the engines on to save time. The practice run built on the earlier "Rapid Raptor" concept of PACAF to fly the hunters beyond the traditional fixed installations. These efforts began in late 2013.
"This was definitely the first time we held a fighter ACE event in Palau," said the general. The F-22 flew to Palau for the first time in 2019 to land and take off.
Wilsbach cited recent training with Palau as an opportunity to find new allies as part of a larger Pentagon goal.
For example, then Secretary of Defense Mark Esper visited Palau in August as one of his last trips, before President Donald Trump fired him in November. Esper was the first US Secretary of Defense to visit Palau, the Pentagon historian's office told The Associated Press.
"We continue to work with our allies and partners to protect the international system threatened by China and its ongoing destabilizing activities in the region," Esper said during the trip, according to a Pentagon protocol.
"Palau is asking us to do more events with them," added Wilsbach. "And so we took advantage of your request. ... I'll be reminded when I'm on the road ... Allies and partners in the region want to work with us. They want to be interoperable with us."
As ACE continues, Wilsbach said the Air Force is having "classified level" discussions about basic defense systems that can demonstrate what the armed forces are doing during these unpredictable movements.
That would vary depending on the timing: Longer rotations would require more sophisticated basic defense measures, ranging from an advance warning of incoming ballistic missiles or cruise missiles to the need to escort special forces, he said.
"The goal is to provide some level of defense that may only need to be temporary, and to include some level of agility so you can get on and off very quickly," said Wilsbach.
The command must also balance its other missions, including the North and South Poles.
Wilsbach said that increased military and commercial activity in the Arctic is a matter of concern, while "opponents in Antarctica have mostly scientific endeavors, at least for the time being".
"There are just a lot more major league players interested in the Arctic. But one thing that bothers me from a military point of view is that there are some countries that are developing skills in the Arctic that are very offensive and as such could be called aggressive, "he said.
For example, the state-run Russian news agency TASS reported in August that Russian forces had conducted amphibious landing exercises on the Taimyr Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean.
Wilsbach questioned the country's motives.
"What is the purpose of amphibious forces? To take this land by sea," he said. "The Arctic has been a peaceful place where differences of opinion have been resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, and our aim is to keep it that way." The Air Force presented its own strategy for the Arctic earlier this year.
Officials also fear that the melting ice will give opponents, including China, a reason to step up the use of unmanned underwater and air forces and intelligence-gathering platforms in the newly opened Arctic areas. For example, the U.S. Navy launched Exercise Black Widow in September to detect and track submarine vessels to test their high-end anti-submarine capabilities.
With the help of Northern Command in the US and Canada, PACAF aims to de-escalate aggressive behavior "or any kind of conflict or struggle in the Arctic," said Wilsbach.
"But if you have other nations developing these kinds of skills, my recommendation is, 'Let's keep an eye on these countries.'"
- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at @ Oriana0214.
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