The U.S. Air Force is deploying a huge force of fighters—including a possibly unprecedented number of F-22s—to Guam to practice for war with China.
The 10 F-15Es from the 389th Fighter Squadron at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho already are on the ground at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
Twenty-five F-22s from two squadrons—the 525th Fighter Squadron at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, and the 199th Fighter Squadron, part of the Hawaii Air National Guard at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam—should arrive soon.
Two C-130J transports from the 374th Airlift Wing at Yokota Air Base, Japan are accompanying the fighters. The C-130s and other support planes are critical to what happens next.
Under the rubric of Exercise Pacific Iron 21, the fighters will spread out across four airfields. Three—Andersen, A.B. Won Pat International Airport and Northwest Field—are in Guam. One, Tinian International Airport, lies 120 miles north of Guam.
The plan, according to Air Force releases, is for the fighters to practice deploying to, and flying sorties from, austere airfields. The flying branch in recent years has grown increasingly worried that, in the early hours of a regional war, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force might fire scores of ballistic missiles at big U.S. bases, including Andersen.
Under the new “agile combat employment” concept, the Air Force would scatter its planes across dozens of small airstrips in the Western Pacific, all in the hope of complicating China’s bombardment. Some of the airstrips, such as Northwest Field in Guam, are leftover from World War II.
“ACE is the use of agile operations to generate resilient air power in a contested environment and is designed to organize, train and equip airmen to be more agile in operation execution, strategic in deterrence and more resilient in capabilities,” the Air Force stated.
The Air Force for years has been practicing this dispersal concept, but rarely with so many fighters—to say nothing of so many stealth fighters.
The F-22, like all low-observable warplanes, requires extensive maintenance between sorties. That can be hard to do at an airstrip without permanent facilities.
The presence of the C-130s in the force mix for Pacific Iron 21 is telling. It’s one thing to land a bunch of F-22s on some disused runway and throw up some tents for the crews and maintainers. It’s quite another to keep the planes and airmen supplied with food, fuel, parts and ammunition.
To keep the austere bases combat-ready in wartime, the Air Force would need to sustain a steady rhythm of resupply missions.
Moreover, many of the potential outlying bases the Air Force has identified for potential use during a crisis lie hundreds of miles from likely combat zones over the Philippine Sea and China Seas.
The fighters would need support from aerial tankers—lots of it. “Air refueling is critical to agile combat employment because it extends the aircraft’s range and duration of flight,” U.S. Transportation Command tweeted last month.
Those tankers are too big safely to operate from austere airstrips. While the Air Force might succeed in spreading out its fighters in order to protect them from Chinese rockets, the service could struggle to do the same for its tankers and transport planes.
Likewise, America’s heavy bombers depend on big air bases. At least three B-52s from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota arrived at Andersen last week. KC-135 tankers usually accompany these Guam bomber rotations.
The logistical demands of “distributed” air operations represent a major challenge. All those F-15s and F-22s dispersing around Guam should be impressive.
But it’d be even more impressive to see the Air Force support those scattered fighters in a way that the Chinese can’t shut down with a few rockets.
Courtesy – Forbes