WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Air Force prepares for the possibility of a future conflict with a near-peer adversary, it has run into a massive logistical problem: In a time where Russia and China are investing in layers of air- and ground-launched missiles that threaten American air bases, how can the Air Force ensure it will be able to get its planes off the ground?
The answer — which the Air Force calls Agile Combat Employment — calls for the service to be able to launch, recover and maintain planes away from its main air bases and instead at unorthodox locations like partner nations’ military airfields or civilian airports.
Specifically, the large, geographically dispersed terrain of the Asia-Pacific region generates unique challenges, said Maj. Gen. Brian Killough, deputy commander of Pacific Air Forces. “We’ve got to respond to that requirement to move everything by either air or ship across the theater” he said in a Jan. 29 interview. “We don’t have the very efficient rail lines and highway systems that Europe does to move those things around, so we’ve got to get lighter and leaner.”
One issue is the weight and quantity of support equipment needed to maintain aircraft and prepare them for takeoff, he added. Each aircraft type has its own specialized support gear, such as unique test stands or munitions-loading equipment. As a solution, the Air Force wants to field common support equipment that can be more easily deployed.
“We are putting stress on the system to develop new support equipment,” said Killough, adding that Air Materiel Command is looking into options. “The support equipment we use right now is basically the same as in the 1960s. It’s heavy. … We’ve got to make it lighter and more efficient, more effective.”
In the meantime, one technology that could help airmen work with heavy gear is a wearable exoskeleton designed to allow the user carry up to 250 pounds without assistance, said Col. Daniel Lockert, chief of Pacific Air Forces’ logistics plans division.
The Air Force is also considering placing regionally based cluster pre-position kits across the Asia-Pacific region, which would reduce the need for airlifting some equipment needed for training or operations, Lockert said. Similar to the deployable air base kits used in Europe, the RBCP kits would include equipment supportive of expeditionary operations, such as rapid runway repair material, power generators and communications gear.
The RBCP kits would be easier to transport than the deployable kits, allowing for multiple small deployments of two to four jets across different operating locations. They would also be put together in a more modular fashion, allowing the user to ditch equipment for mission sets that might not be needed, such as a force-protection element.
“We could have a central hub location, and then from there we can disperse [the equipment] out,” Lockert said. “That central location would have a majority of these pre-position clustered items, and then when we branch out to another location, we can peel parts of that pre-positioning kit out and move it forward.”
The Air Force has not yet fielded RBCP kits, but the service plans to put together some kits using equipment from its war reserve materiel stocks “until we can get the resourcing and the assets on hand,” Lockert said. It also plans to pre-position some equipment in Australia during the upcoming Pitch Black exercise this year.
“We’re going to set up a process by which we can go back into that country and take care of the care and feeding of the equipment we leave behind,” Lockert said. “So that equipment will be always in place at that location for the following exercises, and that equipment can be used by that host nation for any of their exercises.”
Big bases, big targets
Over the past decade, Russia and China have each invested in a network of technologies — such as integrated air defense systems, ballistic and cruise missiles, advanced aircraft, and hypersonic weapons — that allow for power projection beyond their respective borders.
“I do believe if we ever went to conflict, we would be at risk for sitting static in certain locations,” Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Charles Brown said in September, Stars and Stripes reported.
“We have to be able to disperse. We can’t all be sitting on big bases and being big targets,” he said. “The ability to move around — and have the flexibility to pick up and move fairly quickly — I think is important.”
Brown isn’t alone in his concerns.
Should China and the United States go to war, it is “highly likely” that U.S. air bases will be subject to kinetic and non-kinetic attacks, the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments said in a 2019 report, which advised the U.S. Air Force improve the defenses of air bases and seek additional investments.
In a separate assessment that year, the research firm MITRE urged the Air Force to develop and deploy large magazines of long-range standoff weapons to bases within range of adversarial threats.
“It’s hard to take down an air base and keep it down, and suppress operations at an air base for a long period of time. But the fact of the matter is, the best place to kill an enemy’s air force is on the ground,” said Mark Gunzinger, the director of government programs and war gaming for the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “Especially if that air force is postured in bases that are few in number and lack passive defenses — such as shelters and decoys — and active defenses such as kinetic and non-kinetic interceptors, electronic warfare, and directed-energy weapons that can help counter these air and missile threats. That is exactly where we are in the Pacific.”
Over the past couple of years, the Air Force has integrated elements of its Agile Combat Employment concept in most training exercises across the Asia-Pacific region, Killough said.
“We are a good way down the road. By no means have we got into a complete capability yet, but we are definitely in the process of being able to employ these technique, tactics and procedures in our theater,” he said.
For example, during the WestPac Rumrunner exercise held in January, Air Force maintainers from Kadena Air Base were deployed to nearby Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, allowing the Air Force to refuel and resupply jets in two locations on the Japanese island of Okinawa.
An April 2019 exercise called Resilient Typhoon required aircraft gathered at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam to rapidly disperse to other airfields located on the islands of Guam, Tinian, Saipan, the Federated States of Micronesia and Palau, allowing for more distributed footprint.
During the Polar Force 20-1 exercise, held in October at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Alaska, airmen were cross-trained to carry out tasks beyond the purview of their normal day jobs, such as supplementing base security, refueling aircraft and setting up camp. A simulated attack on an airfield culminated with an explosion of 400 quarter-blocks of C4 plastic explosive. Engineers will have to carry out rapid airfield repairs in the next iteration of the exercise this spring.
On the materiel side, there may also be some relief coming in the fiscal 2021 budget. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Dave Goldfein has said the service plans to invest $3 billion on logistics needs across the globe. However, it is unclear whether requirements such as RBCP kits will be included in the funding request.
Gunzinger noted that while the Air Force is taking the right steps by refining its training, investments in pre-positioned items like fuel bladders, runway repair materials and other equipment are also imperative.
“This is not going to be a short-term process,” he said. “We divested almost all of our capability to do distributed operations after the end of the Cold War. It’s going to take 10 years or longer to really recapture that capability.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.