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Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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Places, not bases.

For an Air Force tasked with rebalancing to the Pacific, that ever-present phrase is more than a slogan. It’s the reality on the ground and in the skies.

Bases are great. They’re secure, efficient and they ease logistics. But they also centralize assets—Air Force gear worth billions—which makes them static targets for America’s foes. These massive facilities are expensive to build and maintain and, in an era of shrinking defense budgets, that may be the prime reason the Air Force isn’t interested in pouring concrete foundations all over the Indo-Asia-Pacific region.

“In all this talk of rebalancing, even if we bring more forces out here, it’s unlikely that you’ll see a lot of new Air Force bases springing up,” said Brigadier General Jeffrey R. McDaniels, the director of air and cyberspace operations at Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) headquarters at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii. “There’s just no money to do that around the world.”

Air Force Master Sergeant Erick Lizarraga entertains local children at a school in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, during an engineering project in March. Air Force photosAir Force Master Sergeant Erick Lizarraga entertains local children at a school in Quang Ngai province, Vietnam, during an engineering project in March. Air Force photos

He added that while the Air Force doesn’t have a desire to put bases everywhere, it would like to have access to a lot of places. Natural disasters are a major concern in the region and McDaniels said increased engagement with partners could prove beneficial when the Air Force is asked to respond in an emergency.

“The most likely event here in the Pacific is a natural disaster. So having access to places … may be the key to helping another country that’s faced some sort of disaster,” he said.

Widespread access is also vital to deterring aggression in the region. In addition to adding manpower and equipment to the theater, part of the Air Force’s rebalance strategy is centered on spreading assets out across a wider array of locations—some of them owned and operated by partner nations like Thailand, Australia, India, Singapore and others. Part of the rationale behind the strategy is to dissuade potential adversaries from striking by decentralizing Air Force capabilities.

“If we have the ability to disperse our assets around, maybe that would—if tensions were heightened—make it less likely for another nation to attack us,” said McDaniels. “Now we’re not just a target sitting in one place.”

While these plans envision a doomsday scenario, anticipating threats and carrying out operations at a moment’s notice is what the military prepares for. Any foe that seeks to strike U.S. interests in the region will have to face some of the Air Force’s newest and most advanced weapons systems.

Twelve Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers taxi onto the runway April 1 during Exercise Forceful Tiger on Kadena Air Base, Japan. Twelve Air Force KC-135 Stratotankers taxi onto the runway April 1 during Exercise Forceful Tiger on Kadena Air Base, Japan.

Increasing combat capabilities is a priority for PACAF and the Air Force, but modernizing its fleet of aircraft is only part of the equation. The U.S. deployed a second ballistic missile defense radar to Japan in December. The transportable system, first deployed to Japan in 2006, is capable of tracking and identifying small objects at long distance and at very high altitude, including space, according to the U.S. Missile Defense Agency. Those early warnings and enhanced tracking capabilities would be crucial if North Korea or another state launched a missile directed at American or allied targets in the region.

Additionally, a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THADD) missile defense system was deployed to Guam in 2013 and there is a U.S. proposal to place another THAAD battery in South Korea. The system in Guam, manned by soldiers deployed from Fort Bliss, Texas, has added to America’s air defense capabilities in the Indo-Asia-Pacific. McDaniels said he believes our regional allies view the deployment of cutting-edge missile defense systems as a firm commitment to the rebalance and the security of U.S. interests.

“I think [our military partners] probably recognize that maybe more than just your [typical] civilian,” he said. “I think they recognize that we’re putting some of our front-line stuff here.”

The Air Force is also projecting air superiority with the advanced aircraft it’s sending to the region, which is home to the only F-22 Raptor squadrons based outside the U.S. mainland. McDaniels, who logged more than 3,200 hours in the F-16 during his flying career, calls the stealth aircraft “the best fighter in the world right now.”

When the Air Force’s version of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is introduced, the service has said it is considering basing the first Pacific squadrons at Alaska’s Eielson Air Force Base, but a final decision is not expected until 2016. PACAF also hosted a deployment of three B-2 Spirit bombers to Guam last year and is pushing to get its hands on the KC-46 Pegasus, the newest tanker and transporter, when it becomes available.

“I hope our partners see that [we’re placing our best assets in the region],” McDaniels said. “I think it’s a combination of some of the most advanced weapons systems we have and the increased numbers [of personnel] coming here.”

Air Force Staff Sergeant Justin Price, left, speaks with Bangladesh Air Force members in January during Exercise Cope North. Air Force Staff Sergeant Justin Price, left, speaks with Bangladesh Air Force members in January during Exercise Cope North. The Air Force has to be in a lot of places to cover 13 time zones and 100 million square miles of airspace, so the service’s renewed focus on the Indo-Asia-Pacific has meant more rotational deployments to the region. As the overall number of airmen has been reduced by budget cuts, staffing levels in the Pacific have stayed at 100 percent despite falling numbers elsewhere. 

So what does all this mean for your average airman? So far, not a whole lot, according to McDaniels. But he mentioned that changes could be coming for some airmen, specifically those with families.

“There’s been talk about trying to change some of the short tours where people don’t normally bring their families,” he said. “If we had the money and we could make it more family-friendly, maybe we could have more dependents here (in the Pacific).”

He also said a resurgence in foreign language training is possible, along with an increase in cultural education and awareness. McDaniels, whose Air Force career has taken him to South Korea, Italy and all over the U.S., said the opportunity to serve in the Pacific can be personally and professionally rewarding.

“Most people that travel (in the military) may have been to Western Europe. But to be able to go to Thailand, Singapore, Japan and even China is a neat thing to be able to do. I think it will be an exciting thing for most airmen.”

Despite all the talk about air power and ballistic missile capabilities, the key to the Air Force’s success in the region lies with its airmen. The service has its share of large-scale, multinational exercises, but it also deploys its personnel to much smaller engagements—sometimes as few as two or three airmen—on a regular basis. Using a real-world example, McDaniels explained how a force of resilient, culturally aware airmen will help create the environment of trust and cooperation that is needed to maintain peace and stability in the region.

“When I send two airmen to the Philippines or Singapore, those two airmen could be 21 years old and they represent PACAF,” he said. “To the people of Singapore, they represent the Air Force and the United States. Those two airmen are the face of [America], so we need them to … make the best influence possible when we send them out.” 

Chad Stewart is the senior editor of ON★PATROL.