Massive Exercises And New Investments Speed Pentagon’s Pacific Shift
The Boeing C-17 with call sign Reach 105 was packed full of U.S. Marines, tons of fuel equipment and vehicles plus a commander’s entourage as it touched down at Clark air base in the Philippines in a moment that exemplified U.S. and allied plans for—and readiness in—the Pacific.
The Globemaster III deployed from South Carolina to the Asia-Pacific region for the U.S. Air Force’s Mobility Guardian 2023 exercise, the largest of its kind in the service’s history, designed to practice airlift and refueling across the region and into the first island chain near China. The Philippine base already had U.S. A-10 attack jets, Lockheed Martin F-22 fighters, U.S. Marine Corps helicopters and a U.S. Navy Boeing P-8 on the flight line for a separate exercise, which kicked off just as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reached an agreement with the Philippines’ new defense minister, Gilberto Teodoro, to increase U.S. and allied deployments to other locations in the country.
- Aeromedical evacuation will need an overhaul
- Maritime targeting and strike capacity are concerns
This series of exercises and new basing agreements showcases how the U.S. and its partners are preparing to fight a new type of war in the Pacific and are working to identify capability gaps they want to address quickly.
“We cannot figure this out on the run. We have to do it now,” says U.S. Air Force Gen. Mike Minihan, commander of Air Mobility Command (AMC) and an outspoken advocate for preparing for a potential conflict as soon as possible. “There’s no doubt in my mind that we will, and there’s no doubt in my mind that we would be successful tomorrow. But the point is not to be comfortable with where we are. The point is to keep driving improvements so that we adopt that deterrence model. We have that deterrence, [and] we need to maintain it so that any potential adversary wakes up and looks at us and says, ‘I don’t want a piece of that.’”
The U.S. and its allies have been fighting for decades in environments in Middle East where surveillance assets could loiter above targets on land before tracking and striking at them. They relied on large, fixed bases that for the most part did not require heavy defenses. Airlifters and refuelers could fly wherever they wanted and did not need increased situational awareness. None of that would be the case in a potential Pacific conflict, and this series of exercises is showcasing what the Pentagon must do to be prepared.
Minihan, who made headlines by predicting in a leaked memo that the U.S. could go to war with China in 2025, warned the Air Force early in his tenure that it is not ready for a fight in the region. The joint force cannot operate in the first island chain, but it would be ready by a self-imposed deadline of August 2023, he contended. Mobility Guardian was the test of that readiness, and Aviation Week embedded with Minihan and AMC for a week of the gigantic exercise.
About 70 aircraft from the U.S., Australia, France, Japan and the UK operated from dozens of bases ranging from Australia to Alaska for Mobility Guardian. Participants focused on deploying aircraft, materiel and personnel over long ranges as well as command and control, refueling, aeromedical evacuation and operating from austere locations. The tankers connected with fighters operating as part of the Cope Thunder exercise in the Philippines and Northern Edge in Alaska, along with other real-world events. All told, more than 200 aircraft from at least six nations trained together in the series of events.
Minihan says the first challenge is also the most obvious for any operation in the Pacific: distance. The vastness of the ocean poses problems in every mission—referred to by a phrase that has become cliche, “the tyranny of distance.” This challenge was seen in his own 24-hr. direct deployment from Virginia to Japan on a C-17, while another C-130J was cleared for a 44-hr. nonstop mission to the Philippines, unprecedented for the type. Mobility Guardian spanned several time zones over the international dateline.
A critical mission that needs to change in the Pacific is aeromedical evacuation (AE). For decades, AE has focused on groups of highly specialized medical teams working on a small number of aircraft—flying hospitals with a full cadre of doctors and nurses and high-tech operating rooms—to bring relatively small numbers of injured troops back to higher echelons of care quickly. That would not happen in a fight in this region, Minihan says. There would be far more casualties spread across a far larger area, meaning dispersed care at several locations and quick-reacting aircraft outfitted with improved communications systems are required.
“AE is a contract. It’s a nonnegotiable part of our mission, and the way it will be executed will be much different than the last three decades in the desert,” he says. “I view that as one of our greatest challenges: How do I take something that was a few airplanes with a lot of expertise and make it a lot of airplanes with less expertise?”
The command currently has 11 people on a team doing AE on one aircraft. Mobility Guardian looked at bringing on smaller groups of medical personnel onto more aircraft. U.S. and New Zealand crews flew on a UK Airbus A400M in Hawaii to see how they could work together, in one observed example.
“In a peer-to-peer conflict, you are not going to be able to do that same level of care,” says Maj. Gen. Darren Cole, AMC director of operations. “It is going to be massive here, and what we are figuring out is what level of care we can provide and what capacity and how we can make more capacity.”
The headquarters for most of the mobility forces was Andersen AFB in Guam—a sprawling, fortified location that hosts strategic bombers along with scores of other aircraft. The base is a critical piece of the military’s presence in the Pacific and hosts large amounts of war reserve materiel in addition to aircraft and personnel. The island has become so important that the defense of Guam has become a top priority for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which has received billions of dollars of additional funding from Congress for things such as Aegis Ashore missile defenses.
The location is vulnerable, as evidenced by a May super typhoon that damaged the entire island and the base. The storm severely altered planning for the exercise, and Minihan’s orders were to treat it like an attack. Aircraft needed to be based elsewhere and play into operations differently to provide space for the island to recover.
This dispersal to other operating locations is the main goal of the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment doctrine, using small groups of aircraft and personnel moving quickly to complicate an enemy’s targeting plans. The Marine Corps is undergoing a similar shift to expeditionary advanced base operations, and the Army is experimenting with multidomain task forces.
Protecting these austere locations is compelling the Air Force to reconsider its defenses and call for a broader doctrine change. Current U.S. doctrine is for the Army to provide air base defense at a hub, but the Army will not protect aircraft that move out to protect maneuvering forces, says Col. Richard Tanner, deputy director of air operations for Pacific Air Forces.
“We put very scarce, hard-to-come-by and, at the speed of war, irreplaceable assets out into all of these little airfields,” he says. “And so we, the Air Force, are also recognizing a need to invest in modest integrated air and missile defense capabilities.”
Potential enemies have large arsenals and can target anything, “but they cannot persistently target everything,” so the Air Force needs to be able to move to avoid big barrages and be prepared to recover operating bases, he says.
Targeting is also a persistent problem for offensive operations, one that is growing more acute as exercises continue. At Northern Edge, more than 160 fighters and bombers came together in Alaska, bolstered by Mobility Guardian’s refuelers, to focus on this issue. “That’s one of the things we’ll have to do better as an Air Force. . . . We do not currently have a lot of abilities to prosecute maritime targets,” Tanner says.
An emerging problem in a China scenario is that Beijing’s ample fleet of destroyers can both target aircraft and protect themselves. In the Pacific, the Air Force cannot rely on having intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance aircraft up and ready to track these targets for fighters and bombers. This would mean more tactical reconnaissance from space providing targeting information. And in a Taiwan Strait scenario, aircraft would need to move beyond the destroyers and hit amphibious ships that could be part of an invasion force.
In addition, the Air Force needs more munitions capacity to strike these targets, due to the limited magazine depth of systems such as the AGM-158C Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile and Kongsberg Joint Strike Missile, which the service is buying.
“We’re trying to look at what the next generation of those capabilities is going to look like,” Tanner says. “How are we going to get the platforms that can deliver those capabilities into an area where they can actually engage? How do you get them escorted, refueled to those engagement locations?”
With mobility aircraft required to connect these fighters and bombers to targets across the region, Mobility Guardian’s leaders say their exercise showed that change needs to come, and progress is being made.
“We have a stark recognition that you have to change the way you operate. Anytime you build a plan, it’s built on certain facts and assumptions,” Cole says. “Those facts and assumptions don’t apply in this future fight. So it is absolutely critical that you practice what we think our new facts and assumptions are . . . and get ready for it as quickly as you possibly can.”