Cooperation and conflict define the new strategy guiding U.S. Pacific Air Forces as the air element of the U.S. Pacific Command adjusts to the strategic pivot to that vast region. The former aspect includes efforts with many regional allies as well as closer activities with the U.S. Navy. Meanwhile, the latter element entails power projection to be able to respond to crises whenever they emerge, including those over water.
The U.S. shift in defense balance to the Asia-Pacific region means activity levels will increase at a time when budgets are decreasing. Leaders need to make the most of the people and other assets they have to overcome the tyranny of distance in an area of responsibility that is home to large, powerful militaries and strong treaty partnerships.
The Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) 2013 strategy document serves as the command’s strategic framework outlining the vision, mission, tenets and lines of operation of its commander, Gen. Herbert J. Carlisle, USAF. Its thrust is timely both in terms of the rebalance of power to the Pacific and with the organization’s new role as a component major command, meaning it is now the air component commander for the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM). With the change comes a consolidation of operational response, organization, training and force-equipping activities. The change transforms PACAF into more of a warfighting headquarters than it was before.
Some thrusts driving the strategy may appear to conflict. The Asia-Pacific region long has been one of partnerships, filled with bilateral and multilateral relationships and humanitarian assistance missions. Col. Stephen Kornitzer, USAF, chief of PACAF’s International Affairs Division, explains that the document is about achieving common understandings among the nations in the region as well as promoting peace and stability there.
However, at the same time, the goal of the Air Force is to protect and defend the people and territory of the United States by force as necessary. Five of the United States’ seven defense treaties involve nations in the Asia-Pacific. Col. Mark Harysch, USAF, PACAF’s strategy and plans division chief, explains, “We have an obligation to defend those countries. And the U.S. has enduring interest in access to global commons.”
The 2013 strategy gives guidance to the airmen having to balance the dual nature of the region as the country turns more attention to it while resources become more limited. It helps to outline the activities in which they should engage while clarifying objectives. Airmen will work even more closely with the U.S. Navy, for example, to navigate operations in this largely maritime domain successfully. “This is a recognition that we have limited dollars now so we need to have a strategy,” Col. Kornitzer says. “Everything we do has a purpose and is marching toward an effect and end state.” Personnel do not have the luxury of pursuing all tasks, so they need to prioritize where they will take action. Col. Harysch sums it up by saying the strategy allows Air Force staff to decide where to spend funding because, “We know we don’t have an unlimited supply of future dollars.”
Despite all the talk of relationship building, the PACAF strategy does not shy away from pointing out the real kinetic dangers in the Asia-Pacific region or that the Air Force has to prepare to use force as necessary. One element of the document centers around projecting power. Steps are planned to increase the technological and maneuver edges enjoyed by U.S. and allied forces. According to the document, PACAF will stress the importance of several burgeoning platforms such as the long-range strike bomber and all-aspect strike munitions, the new F-35 and F-22, and the new KC-46 aerial refueling tanker. Other important capabilities include command and control (C2), electronic warfare, and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.
With the rebalance toward the East, some focus is shifting from the Air Force as a force provider supporting land counterinsurgency efforts to one engaging with maritime forces. “We don’t foresee fighting a large ground battle in Asia,” Col. Harysch says. U.S. personnel instead must be effective in the air and maritime domains, which is reflected in part in the Air-Sea Battle Concept. That document addresses operating well in both sectors. Col. Marc Caudill, USAF, chief, Exercises and Readiness Division, illustrates the importance of interservice cooperation, stating that 70 percent of the area is water; 100 percent has air.
The size of the area of responsibility coupled with the lack of plans to build more bases and financial constraints make partnerships imperative to effective operations. By working together, nations in the region help maintain the rule of law and that highly important access to the global commons.
The U.S. approach to relationships is to be open to working with all countries within certain legal limitations. In the area reside several nations with large, capable, well-resourced militaries, a far cry from the government-sponsored forces in recent conflicts. However, PACAF officials are careful to label no one in their region as an enemy. They instead use the term potential adversary. Col. Caudill explains, “We are not focused on any one country. When we look at the Asia-Pacific, we look at security at large. What’s of interest to us is what’s of interest to allies and partners. We want to be as inclusive as possible. We want to open opportunities for China and Russia to participate with us.”
All the colonels state that none of the strategic tenets in the strategy—expand engagement, increase combat capability, improve warfighter integration—apply to any specific nations, but that the tenets explain the “how” of achieving the commander’s goals. Col. Harysch adds, “Each line of operation is the what, or the area where we’re going to try to do those things. But the why gets back to, ‘What is our enduring Air Force mission?’” The answer to that question is to defend the United States and carry out engagement activities. The lines of operation that make up the what are: theater security cooperation; integrated air and missile defense; power projection; agile, flexible C2; and resilient airmen. Again demonstrating that none of those are actions directed against another country, Col. Harysch explains that expanding engagement is about helping militaries work together while increasing combat capability. He says the integrated missile defense, power project and flexible C2 lines deal with how to field an effective Air Force and essentially protect U.S. interests in the air domain, adding that they show how to really deploy and operate in the area of responsibility.
PACAF and all of PACOM exercise at high tempos to ensure readiness at many levels. High-end combat exercises with partner nations help ensure aggression deterrence. Other events lead to enhanced humanitarian assistance. The Air Force almost always rehearses with its joint and multinational partners, regardless of the objective of the event. Col. Caudill says, “It’s not through isolation, but through transparency, that you’ll be able to achieve peace and stability.”
Air Force officials are working with and want to expand engagement with China, a country that receives a few mentions in the strategy. North Korea receives only one real mention, noting that it is an evolving threat. Potential dangers from the isolated nation cause the colonels minimal concern overall, though PACAF and other U.S. services are taking actions such as a missile defense war game with the Japanese Self Defense Force earlier this year.
By the end of 2013, Col. Caudill estimates, PACAF will have had 200-plus official engagements ranging from subject matter expert exchanges to large formal exercises. PACAF is working with the Pacific Fleet on a number of events, with the two having established liaisons between their organizations. Col. Harysch will be the leader of a blue forces team in an upcoming Navy-led exercise, the first time an Air Force officer will perform such a duty. “It’s all about how do we work better across the services,” he says. The two groups have to integrate communications and training to carry out their missions.
Throughout all these interfacing experiences, including those in the real world, arises another point in the strategy—every airman is an ambassador. Col. Caudill explains, “We have the best trained airmen on the entire planet.” But while that applies across the force, “when they get out here to the Asia-Pacific and perform missions, they learn firsthand as young airmen or officers what it means to be an ambassador.” Through the more prioritized missions already heading their way, these personnel will have additional chances to expand diplomacy and international relations. The Air Force overall is putting increased emphasis on language training in part through its Language Enabled Airman Program. The language efforts are part of a larger push to improve overall cultural awareness.
Cyber is another important component of the strategy, as the command works to leverage cybercapabilities along with traditional ones. One focus is reducing vulnerability, much of which has to be coordinated with coalition partners. PACAF is preparing to send communications airmen along with some Marines to the Philippines to work on network defense and security. Internal education activities continue to inform airmen how to maintain safe networks, and such efforts extend to contractors working for the command. Col. Kornitzer says, “The bottom line is the Air Force is certainly a high-tech service and many things are network-centric. So it’s obviously in our best interest to defend our networks to the maximum extent possible.”