- The vast distances of the Pacific region and the growing reach of the Chinese military has led the US to look for ways to disperse its forces and their bases.
- For the US Air Force, that means scouring the region for runways and facilities that can support its aircraft as they try to spread out and sustain potential combat operations.
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The prospect of a war with China, which has a rapidly modernising military that can reach farther and farther across the Pacific, has the US military looking to spread out.
For the US Air Force, that means scouring the region for new places to operate, but rather building new bases, it’s working with what’s there, according to Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
“What we’re doing is taking advantage of airfields that already exist,” Wilsbach told reporters last week. “If you’re going to put [in] an F-22 or an F-15 or a C-130, the airfield has to have certain criteria, and so we’ve actually studied every single piece of concrete in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific … for whether they would meet our criteria.”
Air Force brass developed plans for expeditionary basing in the 1990s, and the strategy is getting renewed attention.
“We actually started working on this pretty diligently probably about four to five years ago,” Wilsbach said. “I was the commander in Alaska at the time … we really started getting into this in Alaska at first and then it’s expanded throughout all of the Indo-Pacific.”
The 2018 National Defence Strategy cited Russia and China as the US’s main strategic rivals â€” the latter, it said, “will continue to pursue a military modernisation program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States … in the future.”
The kind of conflict described in that document “may not have fixed bases, infrastructure, and established command and control,” meaning the Air Force needed to return to its “expeditionary roots,” Gen. David Goldfein, then the Air Force’s top officer, said in a 2018 speech.
That ambition is reflected in Agile Combat Employment, in which aircraft from major bases, or hubs, would operate from austere locations, or spokes, without an established support network to refuel, rearm, and relaunch in a relatively short period.
“The premise behind ACE is instead of having a few … really big bases, we disperse the forces and we become a lot more agile and a lot more mobile,” Wilsbach said, adding that “audibles” would allow aircraft and aircrews to come and go with what would seem like randomness to an adversary.
ACE has been around for some time, and “almost every exercise” the command does now has an ACE component, Wilsbach said. During exercise Valiant Shield in September, airmen augmented it with additional duties.
“We had F-22s going to, we call it base X, so not one of the hub bases … [to] get refueled, and they also practiced what we call multi-skilled airman,” Wilsbach said. “You can send a smaller team to one of the out-bases and instead of having an airman that all they do, say, is refuel an aircraft, we asked them to learn multiple skills.”
Being able to do multiple tasks means fewer people would be needed at the spokes, but being flexible can also mean roughing it, Wilsbach said.
“When I was in Alaska, we did this at, literally, a bare base, and everybody was camping in” store-bought tents and eating MREs next to the runway, Wilsbach said. “We operated from that bare base for two weeks.”
‘A lot of competition’
The US has territories in that area â€” such as Guam, which has a major Air Force base, and the Northern Mariana Islands â€” but some countries there are also eager to play host.
Palau’s outgoing president has repeatedly encouraged the US military to expand facilities there. Wilsbach has expressed a “desire to increase the options” in Palau, where airfields are well situated but would take “quite a bit more work” to expand.
Palau, along with Micronesia and the Marshall Islands, have Compacts of Free Association with the US, under which their citizens get benefits in the US and the US military gets sweeping rights to operate on their territory.
Pacific Air Forces “regularly assesses locations” in the Indo-Pacific region for “operational, training and exercise objectives” and “routinely” trains and operates in and around the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, a public affairs officer for the command told Insider.
Interest in the region is growing because of its amenability to such a hub-and-spoke model and proximity to either side of the Pacific, according to Derek Grossman, senior defence analyst at the Rand Corporation think tank.
“You want to be able to project power into the potential theatres of combat â€” South China Sea, Taiwan Strait â€” and as China develops its ballistic and cruise missiles and other capabilities to attack farther out, you’re going to want to be able to disperse a bit,” Grossman told Insider in an October interview.
That is not lost on China, which has courted countries there to advance its own military and diplomatic goals.
“That’s why there’s been a lot of competition recently between the US and China in this area,” Grossman said.