How the Air Force Will Expand Its Pacific Island-Hopping Campaign in 2021

An F-22 Raptor completes a hot refuel.
An F-22 Raptor completes a hot refuel from a fuel bladder carried by a C-130J Hercules assigned to the 36th Airlift Squadron, Yokota Air Base, Japan, during a Dynamic Force Employment at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Nov. 22, 2020. (U.S. Air Force/Senior Airman Michael S. Murphy)

More U.S. Air Force planes are set to operate in the Pacific next year as China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea with its ongoing build up across contested islands in the region.

Pacific Air Forces, headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, plans to expand its Pacific island-hopping campaign next year -- known as Agile Combat Employment, or ACE -- to give airmen the skill set they need to operate from anywhere at a moment's notice, said Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, PACAF commander.

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"We will continue to expand the ACE envelope and be able to add aspects and capability to be able to execute on a much broader scale, and we're going to continue to work with our allies and partners," Wilsbach said in an interview with this month.

"One of the objectives of ACE is to be very agile, very mobile. And from the standpoint of those observing it, it will look random," he said, referencing the service's efforts to make movements more difficult for observers such as Russia and China to interpret.

PACAF designed the ACE concept, an initiative to build small hubs to house quick-reaction forces from austere locations around the globe. The concept has made its way to Europe in recent months.

The major command is part of the larger U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees operations from the West Coast of the U.S. to the west coast of India, and from north of the Arctic to south of the Antarctic. In all, its area of responsibility covers roughly 52% of the Earth's surface.

Being nimble is the only way to operate across its millions of miles of terrain, which is why "almost every exercise that we do now has an ACE component to it," Wilsbach said. "Our intent with ACE is not to build these mega-bases that take an immense amount of infrastructure, which translates into a lot of costs.”

Since the 2018 debut of the National Defense Strategy under then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Air Force has been working on new concepts that could potentially dissuade a potential enemy, especially if the U.S. can make China worry about a constantly shifting array of locations -- an island-hopping concept the Marine Corps is also practicing to enhance ship-to-shore capabilities in remote conditions.

During a call with reporters last month, Wilsbach said the command has "studied every single piece of concrete in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific" to judge where it can land everything from its most advanced fighters to lumbering cargo planes.

"We might be there for an hour, we might be there for maybe a couple of days … and you can present dilemmas that come from multiple aspects at the same time," he said in the interview.

The ACE initiative continues to shift across multiple small islands in the Pacific, including Tinian Island, just north of Guam, which the Air Force selected as an alternative exercise training island in 2016. F-15 Eagles were spotted training on the island last year, according to a report from The Drive.

Wilsbach also detailed how F-22 Raptor stealth aircraft -- which deployed to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, in November -- landed in the western Pacific island of Palau later that month and were met by a C-130 Hercules and crew to hot-refuel them, a technique in which the engines remain on to save time. The practice run springboarded off PACAFs previous "Rapid Raptor" concept to fly the fighters beyond traditional fixed installations, an effort that began in late 2013.

"That was definitely the first time we've done a fighter ACE event in Palau," the general said. F-22s first flew to Palau for landing and takeoff drills in 2019.

Wilsbach cited recent training with Palau as an opportunity to make inroads with new allies as part of a greater Pentagon objective.

For example, then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper made a point of visiting Palau in August as one of his last trips before President Donald Trump fired him in November. Esper was the first U.S. defense secretary to visit Palau, the Pentagon historian's office told The Associated Press.

''We continue to work alongside our allies and partners to protect the international system that is under threat from China, and its ongoing destabilizing activities in the region,'' Esper said during the trip, according to a Pentagon transcript.

"Palau [is] asking for us to do more events with them," added Wilsbach. "And so we took advantage of their request. ... I get this reminded to me as I go out and about that ... allies and partners in the region want to be partnered up with us. They want to be interoperable with us."

As ACE continues, Wilsbach said the Air Force is having discussions "at the classified levels" regarding base defense systems that can back up what forces are doing during these designed to be unpredictable movements.

That would vary based on timing: Longer rotations would require more sophisticated base defense measures, ranging from advanced warning for incoming ballistic or cruise missiles to the need for accompanying special operations forces, he said.

"The objective is to provide some measure of defense that perhaps only has to be temporary, and to include some agility so that you get in and get out really fast," Wilsbach said.

The command must also balance its other missions, including at the North and South Poles.

Wilsbach said increased military and commercial activity in the Arctic is cause for concern, whereas "adversaries have mostly scientific ventures" in the Antarctic, at least for now.

"There's just a lot more major league players that have interest in the Arctic. But one thing that's disturbing for me from a military standpoint is there are some countries that are developing capabilities in the Arctic, that are very offensive, and could be described as aggressive," he said.

For example, Russian state-owned TASS news agency reported in August that Russian forces performed amphibious landing drills 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 [way of] the sea," he said. "The Arctic has heretofore been a peaceful place where disagreements have been settled by dialogue and diplomacy, and our objective is to keep it that way." The Air Force debuted its own Arctic strategy earlier this year.

Officials also worry that melting ice will give adversaries, including China, a reason to increase use of undersea and aerial unmanned weapons, as well as intelligence gathering platforms, in the newly opened Arctic areas. For example, in September, the U.S. Navy launched Exercise Black Widow to detect and track undersea vessels to test its high-end anti-submarine warfare abilities.

With the help of Northern Command in the U.S. and Canada, PACAF wants to de-escalate aggressive behavior "or any kind of conflict or combat in the Arctic," Wilsbach said.

"But when you have other nations that are developing those kind of capabilities, I recommend, 'Let's keep an eye on those countries.'"

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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