Air Force commandos are preparing for war with Russia or China by rethinking what a ‘runway’ really is

An A-10 on highway in Michigan
An A-10 takes off on a highway in Alpena, Michigan, August 5, 2021. US Air Force/Master Sgt. Scott Thompson
  • The US military is preparing for a potential conflict for a capable adversary, namely Russia and China.
  • Part of that preparation is finding ways to distribute forces so they can keep operating if fighting starts.
  • For the Air Force, that means using new airfields, and its special operators have been crucial to that.
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In a conflict with a near-peer power, such as 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 US’s “pacing threat,” and the sheer scale of its manpower and arsenal demand prudent distribution of forces to avoid a nightmare scenario in which one strike takes out a large number of troops or weapons.

So the Air Force has been training to disperse its forces to non-traditional and sometimes improvised airfields. Air Force special-operations forces have been crucial to that preparation.

America’s Air Commandos

US Air Force pararescuemen board US Army CH-47F Chinook helicopter
US Air Force pararescuemen board a US Army CH-47F helicopter after an exercise at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, March 14, 2018. US Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Gregory Brook

As the air component of US Special Operations Command, Air Force Special Operations Command provides air transport; close air support; precision strike; and intelligence, surveillance, global access, and reconnaissance capabilities to special-operations units.

AFSOC also oversees highly skilled battlefield commandos who get attached to other special-operations teams, merging air and ground power.

These battlefield commandos work in four main career fields: Pararescuemen, who are elite medics and personnel recovery experts; Combat Controllers, who coordinate airfield operations and close air support; Tactical Air Control Party airmen, commandos who specialize in calling in airstrikes; and Special Reconnaissance operators, the newest career field that specializes in reconnaissance and intelligence gathering.

Although they are an important part of SOCOM, Air Commandos are often overlooked because they support other special-operations units. Combat Controllers and Pararescuemen are often attached Navy SEAL platoons or Army Special Forces detachments. They do operate on their own teams but not as often.

AFSOC is equally active in the air, however. It operates several rotary- and fixed-wing platforms, such as the MC-130 Commando II transport plane, the AC-130 Spooky gunship, the CV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, and the MQ-9 Reaper drone.

Winds of Change

C-146A lands on highway in Michigan
A C-146A Wolfhound prepares to land on a highway in Alpena, Michigan, August 5, 2021. US Air Force/Master Sgt. Scott Thompson

Air Commandos recently conducted a unique exercise that reflects the shift in thinking about military operations.

During exercise Northern Strike 21 in northern Michigan in early August, Air Commandos facilitated the first landing of a modern aircraft on a US public highway. The goal was to prepare pilots and commandos for impromptu operations in austere locations.

During the exercise, Air Commandos practiced infiltrating and securing the highway and then setting it up to function as an airfield.

A-10 and C-146A aircraft then landed and took off from the roadway. In a real-world scenario, especially during expeditionary operations, the highway-turned-airfield would ideally be close to the front lines to provide quick and accurate logistical and close air support for conventional and special-operations troops.

“We’re working on agile combat employment concepts, which basically makes the force more flexible, more maneuverable, and creates challenges for our adversaries in different environments,” Lt. Col. Jeff Falcone, the Air Commando in charge of the exercise, said in a press release.

“It also increases the survivability of US forces as we’re able to move around to more unpredictable locations to resupply, refuel, or anything else we may need,” Falcone added.

Besides the Combat Controllers who conducted air traffic control, Pararescuemen were on standby to provide medical attention to forces at and near the highway, as they would be during a real operation.

An A-10 on highway in Michigan
An A-10 lands on a highway in Alpena, Michigan, August 5, 2021. US Air Force/Master Sgt. Scott Thompson

The US military isn’t the only one who trains for such contingencies. Taiwan’s military operates aircraft on a specially designed public highway as part of exercises simulating defense against a Chinese invasion.

During such an invasion, China’s military would already know where Taiwan’s military and civilian airports are and target them accordingly. Conducting air operations in non-traditional, austere environments makes it harder 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 by the SF [Army Special Forces] or [Navy] SEAL ground force commander and call in airstrikes on bad guys, but actually that is a very small portion of our job,” the former controller said, adding that not all combat controllers are qualified as joint terminal attack controllers, which allows them to call in airstrikes

“A primary aspect of our job is airfield ops – identify, assess, mark, and operate airfields, often in austere environments. We are the first in to establish the conditions for follow-on forces. It takes years of training to get to that place,” the former Combat Controller added.

This exercise in Michigan showed that AFSOC is adapting to the new challenges of great-power competition.

Lt. Gen. James Slife, AFSOC’s commander, acknowledged earlier this year that Air Commandos need to adapt and evolve in order to remain relevant, calling the current period an “inflection point” for the command.

ACE and FARP

Air Force F-35 C-130J Guam
F-35s wait to refuel from a C-130J during Agile Combat Employment training at Northwest Field on Guam, February 16, 2021. US Air Force/Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo

For example, in a war with China, instead of relying on an F-35 group – two squadrons with roughly 50 aircraft – to operate from a large island, the Air Force would deploy a single squadron or even a half-squadron to a smaller island.

Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, and Forward Arming and Refueling Points, or FARP, are not entirely new operations, but AFSOC has investment in them more as tensions have risen with Russia and China.

ACE seeks to enable larger, operational-level air forces to function in smaller, tactical-level units in the event of a near-peer conflict. By doing that, the Air Force makes it harder for adversaries to target its aircraft and personnel.

ACE operations also make it a more unpredictable and thus more effective force.

Air Force F-22 refueling Alaska
Special-operations airmen refuel an F-22 from an MC-130J during Forward Area Refueling Point training in Alaska, January 30, 2020. US Air Force/Staff Sgt. Ridge Shan

F-35s conducted just such an exercise earlier this year, deploying from their main base in Alaska to the main US base in Guam, from which they redeployed to an austere airfield on the small island nation of Palau for refueling.

FARP goes hand-in-hand with ACE. Aircraft need to be refueled and rearmed wherever they are, especially if they have to deploy to remote, austere bases on short notice.

The “Nightstalkers” of the US Army’s 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment and the US special-operations community as a whole 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 in the extreme cold of Alaska for the first time.

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate.