KADENA AIR BASE, Japan — For the U.S. Air Force’s largest base in the Asia-Pacific region, location is everything. Situated a mere three hours of flight time from Beijing, Seoul and Taipei, Kadena Air Base would be key to any military engagement with Russia, China or North Korea.
That proximity breeds complications, especially as rhetoric between U.S. and North Korea burns hot. Leaders at the base must straddle a difficult line — projecting combat readiness, one of the base’s core missions, while at the same time downplaying the potential for regional tensions to lead to actual conflict.
“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,” said Brig. Gen. Case Cunningham, who as commander of Kadena Air Base’s 18th Wing oversees the Air Force’s largest combat wing worldwide.
“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,” he added.
Defense News visited Kadena Air Base from Feb. 12 to 14. During that time, the Olympics were taking place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and North Korea used the opportunity to mount a charm offensive and tamp down its bombastic talk. On Monday, U.S. President Donald Trump responded to overtures from the North Korean government, saying that he is open to talks “under the right conditions.”
During Defense News’ interviews at Kadena, the words “North Korea” often seemed like the elephant in the room. Leaders shied away from talking about the country, and when asked explicit questions about North Korea, avoided mentioning the country by name in responses.
The intention, Air Force officials said afterward, was to follow Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’ example and give Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the time and political headway needed to push through new economic sanctions or, eventually, broker a diplomatic solution — something to which Cunningham alluded during a Feb. 14 interview.
“Diplomacy is in the lead in many of these increased tensions that you talk about,” he said. “Our job in uniform is to make sure we’re as ready as we can be so that we can provide the credibility.”
At the same time, he acknowledged that when North Korea launches a ballistic missile, it’s not just “business as usual” at Kadena.
“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,” he said.
Kadena Air Base is one of the Air Force’s most diverse installations. The 18th Wing supports squadrons of F-15 Eagles, KC-135 tankers, HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopters and E-3 airborne early warning planes. The base is also home to several tenant units, such as the 82nd Reconnaissance Squadron, which operates several obscure, special-mission aircraft that have been temporarily deployed to Kadena in the wake of increased missile testing.
Cunningham declined to detail how operators at Kadena respond — or prepare to respond — when North Korean missile launches occur. However, these special-mission aircraft could potentially play a role in the wake of North Korean weapons testing activity.
The WC-135 Constant Phoenix, known as the “nuclear sniffer,” has been flying out of Kadena since September. Constant Phoenix is a modified Boeing C-135 that has been used by the Air Force since the 1960s to monitor radioactive activity. By collecting and analyzing air samples and debris, the onboard crew determine whether a nuclear warhead has been detonated nearby and can gather information about the weapon.
When asked if he could share how the Constant Phoenix is being used, Cunningham said, “I can’t, and you knew I couldn’t,” with a laugh.
The 82nd also flies several other C-135 derivatives, like the RC-135V/W Rivet Joint, which collects intelligence, and the RC-135U Combat Sent, which locates and identifies foreign radar signatures.
The capabilities of all these aircraft are highly classified, which is why the Air Force denied Defense News’ requests to interview WC-135 and RC-135 operators based at Kadena. Cunningham also declined to comment on what the Air Force is learning from its Constant Phoenix flights.
Despite the hesitation to talk about current and future threats, reminders of Russian, Chinese and North Korean advances are plastered around base, making it evident that the military is constantly thinking about how it could potentially respond to a contingency.
For instance, unclassified intelligence digests about Russia, China and North Korea can be found taped inside every bathroom stall.
In the building currently occupied by Hill Air Force Base’s 34th Fighter Squadron — the first active-duty F-35 squadron, which is currently operating from Kadena — Defense News saw a fact sheet about North Korean S-200 surface-to-air missiles taped on a wall. When asked about that, an F-35 pilot declined to comment.
The fact that airmen are talking and learning about North Korean capabilities doesn’t portend that war is imminent, or even likely. The stated vision of Pacific Air Forces is to provide “combat-ready American airmen,” which involves preparing military options, including for worst-case scenarios.
Those options could include anything from increasing engagements with partner nations — like the Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand this February — to Pacific Air Forces commander Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy’s threat of “rapid, lethal and overwhelming force” made this summer in response to a North Korean intercontinental ballistic missile launch.
Leaders at Kadena prefer to speak about the former, softer types of activities. All of the leaders and squadrons interviewed by Defense News took care to talk about partnerships with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force and other militaries.
When asked about how the activities of Russia, China and North Korea affect Air Force special operators in the Asia-Pacific, Col. Jason Kirby, commander of the 353rd Special Operations Group, spoke about the importance of being able to rapidly respond to a crisis.
He then quickly pivoted to talking about relationships with foreign militaries.
“I think the other key piece is the relationship that we have with the governor of [Okinawa prefecture], Japan,” he said. “This is the ideal location for us to operate from and work with all our partners across the region.”
And even when tensions rise, for the most part, training and operations go on as usual, airmen reiterated.
“From a day-to-day basis or day-to-day perspective, we’re basically doing the exact same thing,” said Lt. Col. Nicholas Register, who commands the 44th Fighter Squadron, one of two F-15 squadrons on base. “It really doesn’t affect us that much. We have an open dialogue. I talk to the squadron regularly about what we’re seeing in the news. But honestly it doesn’t change what we do every day.”
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and 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.