The US Air Force’s plan to dodge Chinese missiles means new jobs for airmen who keep fighters flying

Air Force Cope North Guam
An eight-plane formation over Guam during exercise Cope North 21, February 9, 2021.

The US Air Force's efforts to disperse its forces have gained new urgency as the Chinese military grows in size and reach, but operating from far-flung, often austere airfields creates new logistical challenges. To overcome them, the service is asking its airmen take on new tasks.

Expeditionary operations are getting special attention in the Pacific, where important facilities, like Anderson Air Force Base on Guam, are within range of Chinese missiles.

The Air Force has spent more time refining a concept known as Agile Combat Employment, which pairs bases like Anderson, or hubs, with remote airfields, called spokes. To support operations at those spokes, the service is looking to "multi-capable airmen," who have been trained do tasks outside their assigned specialties.

Both concepts were on display during Cope North 21, an exercise conducted with Japanese and Australian forces in the Pacific between February 3 and February 19.

"Every year, we try to expand the envelope of what we can do," Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, head of US Pacific Air Forces, said of Cope North during the Air Force Association air-warfare symposium last week.

Air Force F-35 C-130J Guam
Two F-35s wait to refuel from a C-130J at Northwest Field in Guam as part of Agile Combat Employment multi-capable airmen training during Cope North 21, February 16, 2021.

During the exercise, F-35s from Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska flew to Guam. During the drills, the F-35s landed in the island nation of Palau, refueled without shutting down their engines, and, after less than an hour, took off again to continue training, Wilsbach said.

That demonstrated "the ability to get back and forth to Palau, which is a very long distance, and the ability to refuel on the ground," which requires multi-capable airmen, Wilsbach added.

"One of the things that we were doing at Cope North was expanding this notion of multi-capable airman," Wilsbach said. "We train airman in generally one specific area, like, for example, a security forces member ... but what if a security forces member could also refuel an aircraft or reload an aircraft or work on communications gear at those outstations?"

In addition to airfields on Palau, US and Japanese airmen conducted training at the rugged Northwest Field on Guam.

Pacific Air Forces is implementing a syllabus to teach airmen skills from outside their assigned career fields, Wilsbach said. "This gets us more capability with fewer people, which reduces the logistics requirements at some of those spoke locations."

Able to pick up a weapon

Air Force C-130J Palau
A US Air Force C-130J lands at Angaur in Palau during Cope North 21, February 11, 2021.

Air Force personnel around the world, including in the US and Europe, are practicing ACE and related concepts, and Pacific Air Forces includes an ACE component in most exercises, Wilsbach has said.

In the days after Cope North, the 18th Wing, the host unit at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan, held its first multi-capable airman training course.

"Prior to this - or even historically - some airmen made it through their whole career without really touching an aircraft," Senior Master Sgt. Frank Uecker, ACE superintendent for the 18th Wing, said in a release.

The service's Advanced Maintenance and Munitions Operations School, based at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, is also trying to spread lessons from airmen who have led development of ACE among the maintenance, munitions, and logistics experts it trains.

What the school "is really trying to codify is what is the supply chain, what's the logistics look like for that, what capabilities do you need in a multi-capable airman to be able to minimize the footprint and stay agile," 57th Wing commander Brig. Gen. Michael Drowley, who oversees the school, said last month.

Air Force airman fuel F-16 Guam
A US Air Force airman pulls fuel lines to an F-16 during an agile combat employment scenario at Northwest Field during exercise Cope North 21, February 15, 2021.

"Right now, they're really in the tabletop exercise, red-teaming aspect of looking at some of those operations and what the requirements would be and then what do they need to train their instructors to be able to do, so that way [instructors] can go back out to the units and now provide that training," Drowley added.

The new tasks for airmen aren't limited to the maintenance and logistical support. They may also have to help defend the base from missiles, enemy aircraft, and other incoming threats.

"We're looking at acquiring some additional light capability to go out primarily to the spokes, because our hubs are pretty well protected with things like" Patriot missiles and the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense weapon system, Wilsbach said.

"Who's at the base and what they can do to help you defend the base goes back to that multi-capable airman," Wilsbach added. "There will be expectations that they will be able to add to the defense of the base, regardless of whether they're a security forces member or not. They've got to be able to pick up a weapon that can help defend that location until you leave or until such time as the threat has been abated."

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