As the U.S. builds its presence in the Pacific, the Air Force is looking back to the Cold War for managing deployments.
The top Air Force commander in the region said the service is moving back to the “Checkered Flag” model that the service’s tactical forces used in the Cold War, in which units based on U.S. soil were each assigned to European bases for training. That means more U.S. fighters, bombers and mobility crews out to the Pacific, and not just in Korea and Japan, but also to assignments in Australia, training in the South Pacific and permanent spots in Guam.
These moves are in addition to the placement of F-35 and CV-22 squadrons in the region, said Gen. Herbert “Hawk” Carlisle, commander of Pacific Air Forces.
“Back in the late, great days of the Cold War, we had a thing called Checkered Flag: We rotated almost every [U.S.-based] unit to Europe every two years. Every unit would go and work out of a contingency operating base in Europe,” Carlisle said. “We’re turning to that in the Pacific.”
The Cold War system brought tactical units to Europe regularly, taking all their people and equipment to sister bases to plan and exercise contingency missions.
Under the system, which lasted from 1978 to 1997, active-duty squadrons typically deployed at least once every two years, according to Air Combat Command. Checkered Flag would involve 15 fighter deployments and four bomber deployments per year. Meanwhile, Guard and Reserve units were required to deploy once every four years.
The deployments typically involved squadron-level units, which had about 24 airplanes, said retired Gen. Charles Horner, who led the air war during Operation Desert Storm.
Checkered Flag was the brainchild of Gen. Wilbur “Bill” Creech, who was in charge of Tactical Air Command at the time, Horner said. His idea was that squadrons would become acquainted with the layout of overseas bases before deploying there.
“When I was in the 4th Wing, we did our Checkered Flag deployment to a base in Norway,” Horner said. “And so, we knew about the runway, where the airplanes were hangared. We knew what the local approaches were.”
The preparation required for a Checkered Flag deployment really paid off, he said.
“When you landed, you knew where to go to park your airplane, for example,” he said. “And some of that is difficult because, like, the Norwegian base had lakes between the runway and the taxiways, it had underground parking.”
By requiring tactical air squadrons to become familiar with overseas bases ahead of deployments there, Creech drastically increased readiness, Horner said.
The Checkered Flag deployments would be just as critical to the Pacific as they were to Europe, with recent conflicts showing how important it is to have air units train on a “force on force” basis in the environment they could actually fight in, said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“The same is true of exercises including partners and allies, and particularly if air-sea operations are involved,” Cordesman said. “You cannot have an effective partnership if you do not partner; you cannot fight an effective air war or air-sea battle unless you practice it realistically.”
Some of the Air Force’s movement to the Pacific has already started, with the deployment of 12 F-22s to Kadena Air Force Base, Japan, on four-month rotations and an additional 24 F-16s at Kunsan Air Force Base, Korea, on three-month rotations. The Air Force will not build any more bases in the region, but will instead focus on “faces not places” and ramp up the amount of temporary duty assignments to the Pacific Command area of operations, and even add more permanent change of station moves, Carlisle said.
The move is important for the Air Force, if it can accomplish it within the current budget situation, said Mark Gunzinger, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments and former senior adviser to the Air Force for the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review.
“The concept is perfectly sound; we’ve used it in the past,” Gunzinger said. “It’s a better approach than building a bunch of new bases, which can be very expensive. A rotational approach to sustaining a presence in the Pacific, hopefully at a broader array of airfields, could be something that would help maintain that stable posture as well as giving airmen experience operating in those areas.”
Bombers on Guam
The Air Force already maintains a permanent rotation of B-2 Spirits and B-52 Stratofortresses at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. These operations will see an increase in activity, and the service will move beyond sending airmen there on TDYs and begin permanent change of station moves, Carlisle said. The bombers, however, would not stay on a permanent basis.
The base hosts the B-2s deployed from Whiteman Air Force Base, Mo., and B-52s from Barksdale Air Force Base, La., and Minot Air Force Base, N.D. A regular deployment of B-52s from Barksdale includes six bombers, 70 aircrew and more than 200 maintenance and support for a six-month stay in Guam, according to Andersen officials.
A deployment of the 96th Expeditionary Bomber Squadron that concluded earlier this year included a total of 275 sorties, with 1,566 flight hours and 839 weapons releases on training sites — a combined weight of 182,923 pounds.
The bomber presence in the Pacific has seen an increase in attention in recent years, culminating this past March when a B-2 conducted a round-trip training mission from Whiteman to South Korea on March 28 as part of the Foal Eagle training exercise. As a part of the mission, the B-2 dropped inert munitions and returned to the U.S.
Fighters Down Under
The Air Force has already sent construction equipment to help build up the infrastructure at bases in Australia, following the Marine Corps with deployments to the country.
The Air Force’s presence will begin with fighters and tankers at Royal Australian Air Force Base Darwin in the country’s Northern territory in the next year or two. Later, U.S. aircraft and crews will begin rotations to RAAF Base Tindal. Carlisle said first deployments could be any units based in the continental United States, as well as F-16s from Misawa Air Base, Japan, or F-15s from Kadena Air Base.
Eventually, the service will begin rotating bombers to Australia, similar to current operations at Andersen where B-2s and B-52s deploy to the island on a rotational basis. Last summer, the service sent a B-52 and a KC-135 Stratotanker from Guam to train in Australia for short-term training of about a week. Officials at the time said the training flight could lead to more trips for short-term training by U.S. forces, including pilots and maintenance crews.
Carlisle said more movement toward Australia will begin next year and in 2015.
A home for Ospreys
A decision on where to place a squadron of CV-22 Ospreys, the tiltrotor aircraft in use by Air Force Special Operations Command, could come as soon as the beginning of next year. Speculation has centered on the Ospreys heading to Kadena Air Base, Japan, where the local Okinawa community has opposed the aircraft. The Corps has a squadron of MV-22s at Marine Corps Air Station Futenma. In addition to Kadena, the Air Force is looking at stationing the CV-22s at Yokota Air Base, Japan.
“There’s some issues with Kadena and Okinawa,” said Carlisle, highlighting recent Japanese political pressure on the basing of the aircraft following local elections.
PACAF is “working through” a strategic basing review and talking with local officials before a decision is made, Carlisle said.
First to get F-35s
The Air Force has decided to send its first operational squadron of F-35As to the Pacific, following a decision by the Marine Corps to send its F-35Bs to Air Station Iwakuni in Japan. The service expects to have its decision on basing in 2014, but the process is beginning to take shape, Carlisle said.
The current leader is Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska. The base, which has been fighting possible plans to remove its F-16 aggressor squadron, is primed to receive F-35s because of its ample range space, the ease with which Korean and Japanese crews can visit and existing infrastructure.
There are nine bases assigned to F-35s, and some are out of the running immediately, Carlisle said. Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, and Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, already haveF-22 squadrons. Andersen does not have enough air space, and Yokota already has C-130s. That leaves Osan Air Base, South Korea, Kadena andMisawa as possible alternatives. The bases in Japan and Korea face space and range limitations, Carlisle said.
“Eielson fares vary well,” he said, highlighting the range and infrastructure. “It’s part of the Pacific and they can get to Northeast Asia rapidly.”
Carlisle said he is confident in the F-35 for its missions in the Pacific, even though the service announced that the aircraft will reach initial operating capability in 2016 at a diminished software capability.
Widening the reach
Carlisle said the Air Force is also going to send aircraft for training to places such as Singapore, Thailand, India and possible spots in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.
The U.S military and the Philippines have recently been in talks to bolster the military presence in the country. In a recent letter to Philippine congressional leaders, the country’s secretaries of national defense and foreign affairs said that American forces will have an “increased rotational presence” to guard its territory.
“The Philippines will shortly enter into consultations and negotiations with the United States on a possible framework agreement that would implement our agreed policy of increased rotational presence,” the secretaries wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Associated Press.
Hundreds of American counterterrorism troops have already been in the Philippines since 2002 to train Filipino soldiers, but this increase could bring more U.S. aircraft along with warships to the region.