Shaping a Way Ahead for Pacific Defense: The Evolving Role of the USAF


By Robbin Laird

During my recent visit to Hawaii, I had a chance to talk with Brigadier General Michael Winkler, Director of Strategic Plans, Requirements and Programs at the Pacific Air Force.

We discussed a wide range of subjects, but in this article, I will focus on our discussion of the way ahead for PACAF and the joint force in crafting a way ahead for Pacific defense.

The U.S. services and our allies are focused on shaping innovative ways to deliver effective warfighting and deterrent capabilities. For the USAF, a key focus is upon building out fifth generation airpower, leveraging that capability across the joint force, crafting, shaping and delivering a more distributed force labelled as Agile Combat Employment, and preparing the ground for the coming of the new bomber as a key weapon system for the Pacific.

BG Winkler underscored that PACAF is focused on the importance of operating as a joint force and doing so by learning from its ongoing operational engagements.

As he put it: “Our vision for the Pacific is to operationalize the Pacific AOR. In so doing, we need to take a proactive approach.  Too often we operate in the Pacific theater at the speed of staff. What we need to do in the Pacific theater is to act at the speed of operations.”

With the current force, a key path to unleash enhanced capabilities is being able to leverage airpower in enhance the capabilities of the air-maritime force, up to and including the role of the USCG. The presence force throughout the Pacific, whether American, partner or coalition provides the baseline for engagement with competitors and adversaries.

Leveraging presence to connect to a wider integrated force is a key way ahead to deal with the challenges in the Pacific.

BG Winkler put it this way: “A United States Coast Guard National Security Cutter might be facing a challenge.

“And because we haven’t fully integrated their sensor suite in with the rest of the DoD capabilities, they aren’t going to be as informed as they need to be because we haven’t made those connections or able to leverage the full range of U.S. combat power.

“We are working towards enhanced integratability in the force. A game changing capability is based on ensuring that every sensor out there is connected to a network, and that network shares information with everybody that we allow access to it.  And we would want to make sure that all of our allies and partners have access to that network.

“Certainly, all the U.S. forces forward deployed would have access to that network, as well.

“We’ve got a lot of work to get from where we are today to actually being able to build that capability, but that’s one of the things that we need to redouble efforts on. Access to the right information  is going to be the key to the next conflict. I also think that both parties in the next conflict will probably be trying to prevent the other country from being able to have an information advantage. “

Throughout the discussion he highlighted the importance of what I have referred to as full spectrum crisis management capability.

The USAF needs to be able to contribute across the conflict spectrum, precisely because deterrence works only if demonstrated power is engaged from the lower to higher ends of conflict.

BG Winker argued: “The more we build out our phase zero peacetime capabilities, the more we organize, train and equip our force right now to be able to have that information advantage.

“We need to continue to practice those tactics, techniques and procedures in phase zero, as we’re doing normal training operations, or even normal real-world operations in phase zero.

“Every single HADR event is an opportunity to shape a mixed force that can then share that same type of data. I think that using those training reps as an opportunity to better build our joint interagency situational awareness is definitely a step in the right direction.

“We have tools to do that right now. We don’t have to wait for a 5-year, or 10-year advanced battle management solution. We’ve got Link 16 networks, we’ve got radios, we’ve got a lot of different ways that we can communicate information.  To the degree that we can do that more machine to machine, I think that’ll be a more efficient way of doing it, because we’re going to start to develop large amounts of data.

“So much data that the human that’s trying to assimilate all that data now becomes the choke point in the process. So, the more that we can get the machines and the artificial intelligence finding the anomalies in the normal activity for us, the easier it will be for us to be able to process that data and start to capitalize on information advantage.

“But we certainly don’t need to wait for future capabilities; we can enhance joint capabilities across the spectrum of warfare now by working more integration with the key elements of air, sea and land power.”

PACAF is working the agile employment concept as a key part of shaping the ability of the Air Force to operate across the expanse of the Pacific and to do so in a more survivable mode.

When I met the current PACAF Commander in Australia, he was the commander of 11th Air Force. And during a 2018Williams Seminar, he discussed the need for what would now call Agile Combat Employment. I wrote about his assessment in my book on the evolution of Australian Defence strategy published earlier this year.

At the Williams Foundation Seminar in Canberra in March 2018, the 11th Commander, Lt. General Kenneth Wilsbach, highlighted the nature of the challenge requiring the shift to mobile basing as follows:

“From a USAF standpoint, we are organized for efficiency, and in the high intensity conflict that we might find ourselves in, in the Pacific, that efficiency might be actually our Achilles heel, because it requires us to put massive amounts of equipment on a few bases. Those bases, as we most know, are within the weapons engagement zone of potential adversaries.

“So, the United States Air Force, along with the Australian Air Force, has been working on a concept called, Agile Combat Employment, which seeks to disperse the force, and make it difficult for the enemy to know where you are at, when are you going to be there, and how long are you are going to be there.

“We’re at the very preliminary stages of being able to do this but the organization is part of the problem for us, because we are very used to, over the last several decades, of being in very large bases, very large organizations, and we stove pipe the various career fields, and one commander is not in charge of the force that you need to disperse. We’re taking a look at this, of how we might reorganize, to be able to employ this concept in the Pacific, and other places.”

Now PACAF Commander, Wilsbach has made this a core effort.

And this is how BG Winkler underscored the effort: “PACAF has done a pretty decent job over the last three years of getting the Air Force to embrace this idea of agile combat operations and to export it to Europe as well.

“The whole idea, if you rewind the clock to the mid 80s, early 90s, was that  every single base in the United States Air Force that was training for conflict would do an exercise where you’d run around in chemical gear.

“At that point in time, there was a large chemical biological threat, and the Air Force recognized that it needed to be able to survive and operate in that chemical threat. So, we trained to it.

“I think the new version of that chemical biological threat is the anti-access area denial umbrella. The idea of agile combat employment is our capability to survive and operate and keep combat momentum underneath the adversary’s anti-access area denial umbrella.

“Basically, we are focusing on our ability to survive and operate in a contested environment.

“PACAF has taken a realistic approach that is fiscally informed because it would be very difficult for us to go try to build multiple bases with 10,000-foot runways, and dorms, and ammunition storage all over the Pacific.  ”

“What we’ve done instead is concentrated on a hub and spoke mentality, where you build a base cluster. That cluster has got a hub that provides quite a bit of logistic support to these different spoke airfields. The spokes are more expeditionary than most folks in the Air Force are used to.

“The expeditionary airfield is a spoke or a place that we operate from. It’s not 10,000 feet of runway, it’s maybe 7,000 feet. We’re probably not going to have big munitions storage areas, there’s probably going to be weapons carts that have missiles on them inside of sandbags bunkers.

“And we’re going to look a lot more like a Marine Expeditionary base than your traditional big Air Force base. It’ll be fairly expeditionary.”

We then discussed the challenge of reducing the number of USAF personnel necessary to sustain air operations, along the lines which the Marines have focused upon.  “The MOS challenge is a very real problem for us. And I think we’re starting to figure out how we’re going to get around that. We’re calling it multi capable airman, where we do some degree of cross training. So, your average crew chief now can actually do other flight line tasks like load missiles, and vice versa, your fuels folks actually can do some minor maintenance tasks. It is very much more along the lines of the USMC model.

“The goal is to have airmen do more things, which then means we don’t need to deploy as many of them to one location to still get the job done. And then, we’ll work a logistics schema maneuver from the hubs to the spokes to do the things you’d mentioned previously, the fuel resupply, the munitions resupply, any other expendables.”

We then focused on  the shift of ISR from intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance to information, surveillance, reconnaissance, and the shift to decision making at the tactical edge.

As BG Winkler underscored: “Our allies and partners are a huge part of everything that we’re going to end up doing out here in theater.  We like to think that they are an asymmetric advantage, and the more that we can get the coalition plugged in. It’s not just U.S. sensors that are out there feeding the rest of the joint coalition force, but it is important to tap into the allied and partner sensors.

“I do think that we’re at a precipice for information warfare, and the fact that some of the forward based sensors that we have like the F-35, can generate way more intelligence data then our traditional ISR fleet, like the E3. Australia’s flying the E7, fairly modernized, very robust ISR capabilities on those.

“I think there’s been some discussion within the United States Air Force about whether or not we need to up the game and maybe make an E7 purchase, as well.

“But we are getting to that point where the forward base fighters actually are so much more technologically advanced than our ISR fleet, that it makes you question where the ISR node should be. I agree, it doesn’t necessarily need to be all the way back in Hawaii. It could be somewhere else in the theater.

“But the Air Force, as you’re aware, has traditionally operated with AOC as the central node for command and control in the Pacific.  We’re trying to figure out as an Air Force what the future looks like.

“But I don’t think that future is going to be five years from now. I think it might be 10 years from now.

“And in the short term, what you’ll probably see is a something that allows us to operate from the AOC, protect our capabilities to operate from the air operation center, to be able to help synchronize fighters throughout the entire AOR, but then set up subordinate nodes that are probably forward of the AOC.

“If the AOC does get cut off or shut down, for some reason, you do still have subordinate C2 nodes in the theater that can keep the continuity of operations, and keep some battlefield momentum up, to continue to take the fight to the enemy.

“And I think we’re all getting more serious about electronic warfare.

“I’ll be interested to see how those capabilities mature over the next 10 years. I think we’re at a situation right now, where electronic warfare a lot of ways still is a supporting force to the kinetic stuff.

“The big question in the electronic warfare is, knowing you’ve got a limited number of assets that can do it. Where do you want to prioritize that?

“And that question drives you back right to, who is doing the command and control? How are you integrating the most effective electronic warfare to support the highest priority kinetic warfare?

“That’s a commander’s decision, so the important part of that is the Joint Force Commander or the Joint Task Force Commander, or whoever is running the fight, needs to very clearly articulate to his subordinate commanders, who is the supported  commander for synchronizing those joint fires?

“Because without knowing that ahead of time we may possess all of the capability in the world as a joint force but we will never employ it as effectively as we could.”

We then discussed training.

And with the coming of the B-21 in the mid-term, preparing for the coming of the B-21, not as a platform, but a weapons system, notably integrated in the air-maritime fight is a key consideration. The role of an expanded ability to work in the synthetic environment is important, but BG Winkler felt that progress has not been rapid enough in this domain, and live training is critical and to do so in ways that better emulate the Red side threat.

Here he noted that building new capabilities in Alaska, on the U.S. side, and in Australia, on the Australian side, were key ways ahead. And, although we did not discuss this, in my view, being able to operate the new bomber from these two trajectories as an air-maritime asset, or one that can work with the tactical air forces, or the fleet is a key leverage for the mid-term for the United States and the allied forces.

BG Winkler closed by linking the training discussion with where we had started the conversation, namely, working from operations to con-ops evolution. “Admiral Aquilino, INDOPACOM commander, believes that entire Pacific Ocean right now should be our training space.  Every single time that China sails a Surface Action Group, out here into the Philippine Sea, we ought to be working as a joint force to integrate and bring in additional assets that maybe we haven’t used in the past.

“For example, maybe that’s an opportunity for us to partner with the Coast Guard to figure out how we can get them added into a Link 16 network to share situational awareness.

“But we need to take advantage of the opportunities our adversaries provide us by getting out and about in the Pacific.

“And that’s how you get that training level down to the operators that are going to be pulling triggers, and assimilating information in a combat environment as you let them train.  

“Do it every single day in their weapons platform. I think any situation in this theater is an opportunity for us to practice.

“It’s just a matter of us taking the same mentality that we have in the CENTCOM AOR, where you are operating every single day and driven by what is going on in the theater and putting that into practice.”

Featured Photo: U.S. Air Force F-15C Eagles assigned to the 44th Fighter Squadron, Kadena Air Base, Japan, fly in formation during RED FLAG-Alaska (RF-A) 21-3, near Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, Aug. 23, 2021. RF-A is the world’s premier tactical joint and coalition air combat employment exercise, designed to replicate the stress that warfighters face during combat sorties. (U.S. Air Force photo by Senior Airman Aaron Larue Guerrisky).

A recent example of expanded exercises with allies in the Pacific has been the “Heifara-Wakea” engagement with the French Air Force.

US And French Air Power ‘’Plug And Fight’’ Capability : Bearing the Fruit of Centuries of Cooperation