The Lift-Tanking Dynamic in the Pacific AOR: A Discussion with Col. Minihan


2014-03-18 During a visit to PACAF at the end of February, Second Line of Defense had a chance to talk with General Hawk Carlisle and members of the PACAF staff about the evolving approach to the Pacific Area of Operations.

Lift and tanking assets are key elements of the flying infrastructure for global reach. The growing contribution of allies to flying infrastructure both for themselves and others is an important development as well.

It is clear that lift and tanking are high demand assets, and the delayed replacement of U.S. tankers places a strain on the Pacific AOR.  But allies are adding new tankers to the mix in the Pacific. For example, the Aussies and Singapore are adding 11 new Airbus tankers to the mix.

With the USAF focusing on shaping distributed operations and the necessary support, the demand signal on C-17s as key enabling aircraft clearly will go up.

The Rapid Raptor approach is a clear statement of one element of a way ahead.

We discussed some of these issues with Col. Mike Minihan, Deputy for Operations and Communications. Col. Minihan has a C-130 background and extensive airlift experience.

Col. Minihan Bio

As the Deputy Director of Operations, Headquarters Pacific Air Forces, Joint Base Pearl Harbor – Hickam, Hawaii, Col. Minihan is responsible for ensuring PACAF provides ready air, space and cyber space power to promote United States’ interests in the Asia-Pacific region during peacetime, crisis and war.

In this capacity, Colonel Minihan oversees operations for three NAFs and 10 wings.

C-17 over Hawai'i (Credit Photo: Defense Industry Daily)
C-17 over Hawai’i (Credit Photo: Defense Industry Daily)

SLD: How do you view the lift and tanking fleet in PACAF operations?

Col. Minihan:  They are indispensable.  The Pacific AOR is characterized by a tyranny of distance and time.  The lift and tanking fleet provide enablers to manage both the tyranny of distance and the challenge of time to operate in the area of interest.

The two key lift assets under constant priority pressures are the C-17 and the C-5.  The C-17 is a very versatile asset under priority pressures on a regular basis:  it can be used to support such a wide variety of missions that a key task is to put the asset up against evolving priorities.

The C-5 is a unique asset as well but has had its reliability challenges.  The upgrade known as C-5M is an important improvement on its reliability but the importance of the asset is clear in terms of the kinds of loads which it can carry at long distances.

(For a look at the impact of modernization on the C-5 see the following:

SLD: Can contracted air meet the gap?

Col Minihan: To some extent; the challenge is what kind of mission you are undertaking.  If it is a kinetic one, then contracting out is not a realistic option and you need your own organic airlift asset.

SLD: You were involved in Operation Damayan.  What was your experience?

Col Minihan: I was in the first U.S. C-17 which arrived at Tacloban which brought the Crisis Response Wing to the airfield.  The CRW and the Marines on site worked hand in glove to stand up the relief operation.

But the experience demonstrated airlift operations are not simply about loading airplanes and taking off and landing at a new airfield.  The infrastructure to support the offloading and distribution challenges are essential elements for an airlift operation seen from its core perspective; which is delivering support to the persons on the ground doing the operation.

SLD: It is the Fed Ex experience?

Col. Minihan: It is.  The focus has to be upon the velocity to move the equipment to the point of need. We have to think of the entire system from load to delivery and how that airlift asset can be best utilized in a velocity to move operation.

The analogy, although not perfect…works for me.  The CRG brings the mobility expertise and C2 into field conditions and easily integrates with any component or ally to increase velocity.

We need to identify the likely choke points in distribution and to anticipate how best to open up those choke points for mission success.

SLD: With the new emphasis on distributed operations, the C-17s seem to be in greater demand, to support the approach.

Col. Minihan:  They are.  The Rapid Raptor concept optimizes the ability to exploit the F-22 throughout the Pacific AOR.  It is like the focus on the air combat cloud where you are leveraging a diversity of assets to deliver an effective outcome: you are seeking to free up assets and to reduce the opportunity cost to carry out your mission by the most effective means possible.

SLD: The allies are adding new tanker assets, the Aussies have procured 5 new KC-30As and the Singaporeans are buying several as well. What impact will this have on air operations in the Pacific?

Col. Minihan: It is important but to get the full value of the new tankers in supporting the coalition, the procedures and approaches need to be shared and worked.

The walk-off home run is to get to the point that an allied aircraft operating with common procedures can come in and tank off of those KC-30s in a situation where those procedures are embedded in the operational thinking of the allied fleet.

The challenge will be if this doesn’t happen, and the tankers are simply configured for a national solution set.

It is not simply about supporting one’s fighters to get to the fight; it is about how to integrate and support the fight.

That is the clear objective of working through the evolving tanker enterprise.

The video above  shows a C-17 being loaded up with equipment, by airmen on JBER, to set up a mobile F-22 launch site as part of a Rapid Raptor Exercise. 

This exercise was used to determine weight restrictions and time limits.

According to General “Hawk” Cariisle:

The idea is to take four Raptors and deploy them with a C-17 and to rotate across the Pacific to go to the point of need for implementing missions. This provided both a tool for enhanced survival and an enhanced capability to apply the force associated with a fifth-generation aircraft as well.

Credit:Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson Public Affairs:1/23/14