KADENA AIR BASE, Japan — Kadena Air Base is the largest U.S. military installation in the Asia Pacific, and is home to the Air Force’s largest combat wing, the 18th Wing. Every day a dizzying array of aircraft — from F-15 Eagles, KC-135 Stratotankers, and HH-60 Pave Hawks to planes from tenant units that fly F-35As and Navy P-8s — can be seen in skies over the skies of Okinawa as pilots train.
As commander of the base and the 18th Wing, it’s Brig. Gen. Case Cunningham’s job to ensure that this strategically critical hub is ready for any contingency. Defense News, which toured the base early this month, sat down with Cunningham on Feb. 14.
The goal of Pacific Air Force’s mission statement is to deliver combat-ready airmen. What’s the 18th Wing and folks here at Kadena Air Base doing to fulfill that mission?
[For] the amazing airmen at Kadena, readiness is at the top of our list. So honing our readiness to its finest edge and just making sure that we’re ready to execute all of the missions that we’re called to execute, and then the other piece of that is that this particular base is a key power projection platform in the Indo-Pacific, so that’s another responsibility that we have here at Kadena.
Readiness has been a problem across the entire military, and across the Air Force as well. How are you doing?
I feel like we’re doing really well. That’s the amazing part of what our airmen contribute to this mission set. They’re working very, very hard at making sure that they’re flying the missions that they need to fly, and maintaining the aircraft that they need to fly those missions, and we’re really doing well on that front. I think our readiness is at the highest level that it’s been in quite some time.
That’s crazy. Why and how? At a time where so many other parts of the military are struggling to meet their goals, what’s enabling Kadena to have the highest readiness it’s ever had?
When you talk about readiness, it’s an interesting question. What we have been doing as Secretary Mattis has come on and especially been focused on that readiness piece, is we have been deliberately focusing our efforts on exactly that. And I think with that deliberate focus of efforts, it’s produced results. So whatever the equipment is that we’re using to produce those results, it’s the efforts of our airmen with that focus that’s really paid off.
The other thing you hit on is power projection. One thing we keep hearing about from operators here is how Kadena’s location is a key enabler for that. You’re right in the thick of things. At a time where there seems to be so much tension, how do you project power without exacerbating those tensions?
I think you just heard Secretary Mattis talking about this recently with the release of the defense strategy. Our job in uniform is to make sure that we’re as ready as we can be so that we can provide the credibility, as diplomacy is in the lead in many of these increased tensions that you talk about. But I also want to emphasize that because of where we are located, it provides us the opportunity to engage in partnership building and alliance strengthening in a way that is incredibly powerful as we look to the future here in the asia pacific.
So for the examples of that, right now, as we sit here, we’re engaged in Cobra Gold, an exercise with Thailand. We’re also engaged in Cope North, which is not only a joint [exercise] with our Marine Corps and Navy partners, but also with Australia and the Japanese Air Self Defense force, in Guam in that exercise.
Your job is to be as ready as can be. Does the current threat environment change Kadena’s posture, its op-tempo, the kinds of missions that are being trained for here?
The environment is as complex as it has ever been. You don’t have to read a paper for very long to recognize that fact. But I will tell you that the missions that we execute are the same ones that we’ve been executing for many, many years from this particular location. Certainly the focus is sharp, but the missions remain the same.
It sounds like you are confident in the combat capability of your airmen if called to do that.
Yes, extremely confident. Honestly I couldn’t be more confident. As you’ve noted, we have some aging aircraft. I think on average, you’d find up to 38 years old. But our airmen are doing amazing things with those aircraft every single day.
I think when there are reports of North Korea getting ready to launch a missile, it’s very opaque to the American people what the U.S. military may be doing in response to do that. When there are those kinds of reports, what is happening here?
For operational security concerns, I can’t go into all of the details of that, but what I would say is the level of readiness that we have attained here at Kadena through the deliberate efforts of our airmen, leave us in a place that we’re very well positioned for any contingency. So it’s not business as usual, but I feel very confident in our readiness to respond should that call be required.
Could you go a little further? What operations are heightened in the moments when there is a North Korean ballistic missile launch?
We watch those instances very closely. And processes are in place by which we could respond appropriately, should that be required. We do not go into any panicked mode, when there is a launch from [North] Korea.
I think that gets lost in translation, that the U.S. military is prepared in that way when we see those reports.
Yeah, and that’s what’s so critical about the readiness and how much we’re focused on that particular edge. Again, I’m not going to say that it’s an everyday activity, because clearly it isn’t. But when they do occur, then we’re ready to respond.
One of the platforms that we didn’t get to see out here that I’m very interested in is the WC-135 Constant Phoenix, which can sniff out particles connected to nuclear weapons. How are you using it? What are you learning from it? Can you say anything—
I can’t, and you knew I couldn’t. [laughs]
Ok, had to try. So let’s talk about the budget situation. There’s a continuing resolution still in effect, even though the next budget request for fiscal year 2019 has just been released. How does that effect Kadena?
A lack of budgetary stability has real implications for our readiness. If you just take a look at the constant CR environment that we’ve been through recently. That uncertainty has a lot of impact, one just from the focus of our airmen as they see that in the news, but two, there are many efforts that we have to execute at the wing level to be ready for the potentinal of a government shutdown each time one of those occurs. So that does have real impact to our readiness out here in the Asia Pacific.
Can you give an example?
For the recent government shutdowns, and I think these are well documented all the way up to the secretary and to the chief, the activities that have to go on. The canceling of temporary duties for our airmen who are out and about doing some of these partnership building activities. Those are canceled. Airmen are brought back home. That requires the chaos of bringing the travel system to bring everyone back from something that was well planned for.
Our civilian employees, who will show up to work to get furlough notices. [...] Just a lot of those activities create extra and additional work on top of the work that we’re already very heavily engaged in, which is being as ready as we can be as a military force in the Indo-Pacific.
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.