The Air Force is mulling a major overhaul of how it deploys fighter jets and other combat planes overseas, in an effort that could eventually expand to its entire inventory.
Over the next two years, the service plans to hold a series of exercises that will help it decide how to bring that vision, known as “lead wing,” to fruition.
Last year, the Air Force released a directive to rethink how the service heads overseas — specifically, to mature new air expeditionary task forces that can smoothly jump around the world as threats arise. The lead wing concept is part of that broader effort.
Paired with the agile combat employment initiative — which aims to send smaller, multiskilled teams into combat rather than rely on a massive manpower footprint — the Air Force aims to become more effective and stop cherry-picking units to go to war.
Put simply, a lead wing would deploy as the main organization in charge of a set group of aircraft from different bases and wings. It could piece together F-22s from Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia; F-16s from Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina; and F-15Es from Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina, into one consistent package for a regional commander.
A lead wing would also oversee setting up in austere, remote locations, away from key regional installations like Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar or Andersen AFB in Guam.
Lt. Col. Douglas Kabel, ACC’s leader on agile combat employment planning, likened it to the Navy’s carrier strike groups, which rotate through deployments on a more certain schedule. The Air Force hopes adopting lead wings will help boost its preparedness for war and help the service avoid burning out certain on-demand units.
Bringing different kinds of aircraft together into combat groups ahead of time can let them regularly train as one force, rather than waiting for a major exercise like Red Flag.
That would get airmen comfortable with each other “before we get to the line of scrimmage in a major combat operation where we’re getting targeted by our theater enemies,” Kabel said.
The components of a lead wing won’t be set in stone — the Air Force could switch out units as needed for others that are rested and ready, he added.
“We aren’t hard-linking those together because there are so many variables in the different requirements,” Kabel said. “What we have done, though, is build a scheduling process that is approximately two years out … based off of deploy-to-dwell requirements from the [defense secretary].”
Once in the field, airmen will be expected to prepare for their next mission on a quick turnaround that could be as fast as one hour, then leapfrog around a region without relying on established American bases or a large maintenance workforce. (It typically takes about three hours to get ready for flight, including loading munitions and fueling the aircraft.)
As units return from deployment, they will take about two years to rest, train and get back up to speed for the next dispatch.
“Clearly, things still shift here and there,” Kabel said. “An example is Russia putting a bunch of folks on the border of Ukraine, so now we start rethinking about what we’re doing with stuff.”
ACC hasn’t yet decided which wings will become its official lead wings. But at least one is already vying for that responsibility.
“Based on the number of aircraft, people and capabilities we have, I think we would be a great choice,” said Col. Kurt Helphinstine, commander of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB, North Carolina. “We run the installation and the fighter wing, and we’re blessed to have the 916th Air Refueling Wing here with us … and the 414th Fighter Group.”
The idea could eventually pull in other types of Air Force assets, like tankers and bombers, as well as foreign military assets. Once ACC leadership signs off on a way forward, the Air Force will decide how to reorganize to make it work.
The first Agile Flag brought units to Florida’s Tyndall Air Force Base, Eglin AFB and Hurlburt Field last October, with the 366th Fighter Wing from Mountain Home AFB, Idaho, acting as lead wing. That included eight F-15Es Strike Eagles with maintainers from the base’s 339th Fighter Squadron, Air Force Special Operations Command MC-130s for refueling, and a C-130 from the 19th Airlift Wing at Little Rock AFB, Arkansas, for transporting troops.
The second exercise, held April 26-May 7, cast the 4th Fighter Wing and its F-15Es as lead wing. Nearly 200 personnel from five ACC bases joined the event, as well as 12 F-15Es, four F-22 Raptors, C-130Js and an MC-130. In a first for the lead wing project, Seymour Johnson sent its own base support staff to establish ops rather than relying on personnel already onsite.
Tyndall served as the main operating base, while Naval Outlying Field Choctaw in Florida acted as the makeshift deployed location. Training missions launched from Choctaw, then landed at Eglin and Hurlburt for quick refueling and rearming before taking off again. Ground convoys brought fresh supplies to troops as they leapfrogged across Florida, and airmen looked at cyber threats that could stymie their movements.
“The 27th Fighter Squadron from Langley will be a non-organic [unit reporting] to the 4th Fighter Wing, so again, first time we’re doing that at Agile Flag,” Kabel said ahead of the exercise. “The 19th Airlift Wing is actually going to be up at Alpena in the Midwest, flying C-130 sorties down … [and] liaising with a liaison officer in the 4th Fighter Wing headquarters there at Tyndall to help manage that process.”
It’s the paradox of practicing to be unpredictable.
“If you give us a two-mile, straight stretch of concrete, we can land aircraft, we can refuel and rearm rapidly and get them back into the air,” Helphinstine said. “We’re not recovering jets continuously to the same location that we have been at the last two decades, parking them in the same spot.”
The exercise ran smoothly for the most part, he said, and airmen benefited from teaming, convoying and bunking with people from other parts of the Air Force. But the combat assets need to practice working with C-130Js more often to handle cargo more easily.
“We generally, in combat, don’t move our folks around and our equipment around on C-130Js. We move into country off of C-17s and off of 747s that have been leased, and we show up at a base and we stay there,” Helphinstine said. “We’re just now starting to regularly move around inside of [U.S. Central Command or U.S. European Command or U.S. Indo-Pacific Command] by using [tactical aircraft]. So, I think there’s definitely room for improvement.”
The plan is ideal for the Middle East and Europe, where the military doesn’t have to account for such a vast area without a place to land, like in the Pacific. But Helphinstine believes that in wartime, U.S. troops would be able to rely on its Asian partner countries as lilypads.
Lead wing still needs some tweaks. For example, ACC is working through red tape that requires several levels of commander approval for something as basic as trying new ways of loading munitions onto a C-130.
There’s plenty at stake to get right: achieving a better-prepared, more responsive force that is better suited for future conflicts; revamping combat without breaking the service; learning from the past to avoid further attrition.
“We want airmen to stay in past their commitments and re-up,” Kabel said. “Burning them out doesn’t facilitate that.”
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.