Improved Airpower in a Big Ocean

April 1, 1983
Russian aircraft and ships now operate routinely out of the old US base at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam.

The Soviets have deployed a third of their new SS-20 medium-range nuclear missiles in the Far East. The largest of their four naval fleets is home-ported at Vladivostok on the Sea of Japan.

The Backfire bomber has begun flying from Asian bases, and can reach Midway, Guam, and the Philippines and return home without refueling.

The Soviets have been steadily strengthening their forces on several islands they occupy just north of Japan.

And with some 2,500 combat aircraft an at least forty-six Army divisions in Asia, the Russians are flexing their muscles at every opportunity in hopes of intimidating US allies in the region.

When Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone spoke in January of building defenses against Backfire incursions and of seeking to protect nearby sea-lanes, the Soviets conjured up visions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by warning Japan of “a national disaster more serious than the one that befell it thirty-seven years ago.”

Soviet forces in Asia have improved in quality as well as in numbers.

“In the past three years, they have replaced more than 600 of their older fighters in the Far East with new first-line aircraft,” says Lt. Gen. Arnold W. Braswell, Commander in Chief of Pacific Air Forces. “That’s about three times the total number of fighters we have in PACAF.”

New Attention to Asia

All this has created a resurgence of US concern about the Pacific, at least among policymakers. In peacetime, the American public tends to ignore military matters in Asia, even though the nation’s two most recent wars were fought there and despite the importance of the area to US interests. Trade with the Pacific-Asia community exceeds total trade with Western Europe, and accounts for twenty-eight percent of all US foreign commerce. Asia is an important source for sixteen strategic materials needed by this country. Moreover, two American states extend for out into the Pacific, and five of the seven collective defense treaties to which the US is party are with Pacific nations.

“During the years following the Vietnam War, we understandably gave a great deal of attention to Europe,” says General Braswell. “Now the Administration has concluded that we need to place greater emphasis on the worldwide problem and, as a result, the Pacific is getting appropriate attention.”

That attention, he says, is coming in the form of new aircraft, construction money for much-needed housing and facilities, and in relief from shortages in spare parts and expendables.

F-16 aircraft have replaced F-4s at Kunsan Air Base in Korea, and A-10 attack aircraft are in place at Suwon AB. Misawa AB, Japan, will get two squadrons of F-6s, the first to be in place by 1985. The F-15 Eagle and the E-3A AWACS are now operating out of Okinawa. The remaining F-4s in PACAF will gradually be replaced with more modern equipment.

Air defense in the Pacific has been significantly enhanced. AWACS can detect hostile aircraft at either high or low altitudes from hundreds of miles away. It can direct intercepts by the F-15, which can take on anything in the sky, and which will add to its already impressive range when it is equipped with conformal fuel tanks next year.

“The spare parts situation has been improving for the past year or so, and continues to improve,’ General Braswell says. “We, along with the rest of the Air Force, have some shortages of spare parts for our newest aircraft, and there are some shortages in certain types of modern munitions, mainly because they haven’t been in production long enough for us to build up our stockpiles.”

An Unfavorable Balance

Soon after the Vietnam War ended, PACAF forces were drawn down to roughly the same levels at which they stand today. The command has 230 fighters and reconnaissance aircraft, plus about 100 theater airlifters and support aircraft. Manning stands at 27,000 active-duty military members. In addition, some 19,000 USAF people from other commands are stationed in the Pacific. SAC has B-52s on Guam and furnishes tankers for aerial refueling in the theater. The E-3A AWACS is a TAC asset under PACAF control, and long-haul airlift in the Pacific is performed by MAC.

“I would anticipate that long-range airlift will turn out to be our greatest limiting factor in a crisis,” General Braswell says, citing a concern shared by operational commanders almost everywhere in the Air Force. Recent actions to expand the airlifter fleet will help considerably by the end of this decade, he says.

Given the unfavorable military balance in the Pacific, PACAF is working in closer cooperation these days with the Navy, as well as with allied air forces. Six US carriers, with some 430 carrier-based aircraft, operate in the Pacific, covering the vast stretch between California and the Indian Ocean. In crucial Northeast Asia, the Republic of Korea has about 400 combat aircraft, and the Japan Air Self-Defense Force has 470.

In the event of hostilities, PACAF would call upon augmentation forces from the United States. The capability for rapid reinforcement is demonstrated each year in Exercise Team Spirit, in which PACAF units and Stateside squadrons deploy to Korea. “Team Spirit,” General Braswell says, “is the free world’s largest combined training exercise – and in many ways the most productive.” Between big exercises, PACAF practices reinforcement on its own. “We periodically deploy a squadron or two, for example, from Okinawa to Korea, set them up at their deployment base, have them exercise at high sortie rates, and evaluate their performance,” General Braswell says.

Korea, where a testy armistice has been in effect for thirty years, has long been regarded as the most likely setting for the next war in Asia. Together, the US and the Republic of Korea have about 500 combat aircraft in place. The North Koreans have around 700, but many of those are older MiG-17s and MiG-19s.

“We would expect a lot of armor in any initial attack in Korea.” General Braswell says. “The new A-10 squadron at Suwon would help us stop that armor, and we’re prepared to deploy additional A-10s to Korea. Moreover, our F-16s are equipped with maverick missiles and are capable of assisting in the role.”

At Osan, Korean and American officers work together daily on a combined planning and control staff. Integrated operations plans are in the hands of unit commanders from both nations, so they would be ready to work as a team from the first day of the war. “American and Korean aircrews fly together regularly in air exercises and operate from the same bases daily.” General Braswell says. “Korean and American air unites in South Korea, including Navy and Marine units, are prepared to fight as a single combat air force.”

US airmen also train regularly with the Japan Air Self-Defense Force. Cope North, an air defense exercise, is conducted quarterly from Misawa AB, Japan.

The United States has long urged Japan to assume a greater role in its own defense, but building up the military remains a hot political issue in Japan. Prime Minister Nakasone has taken heavy criticism for his proposals to increase defense efforts.

“They’re making significant progress,” General Braswell says of the Japanese. “They are modernizing their naval and air forces in particular, and they are strengthening their ground forces as well. We, of course, would be glad to see their rate of buildup in those forces accelerate.”

In the past, the Koreans and the Japanese have worked more closely with US forces than they have with each other. “There are some encouraging signs that defense officials in Japan and Korea see the importance of cooperation with each other, in air defense for example,” General Braswell says. “I’m hopeful that some arrangements for closer cooperation will develop, but it’s too soon to speculate on what forms that cooperation might take.”

The Maritime Mission

PACAF’s first mission is to defend against air attack on friendly installations and forces. Next, it would be required to gain air superiority over local battle areas, provide close air support for ground forces, and interdict an enemy’s rear echelons and lines of communication. In the past year, PACAF has been giving serious attention to improving its capability for maritime operations – this coming prior to the agreement in Washington last fall for joint air training and greater cooperation worldwide between the Air Force and the Navy.

Over the past two decades, the Soviet Navy has been transformed from a basic coastal defense role and is now a blue-water force, ready to assume power-projection and sea-control missions. Today, it has about eighty major surface combatants and 130 submarines in the Pacific. It is now in a position to disrupt US use of sea-lanes. The Air Force has had a collateral mission to help protect the sea-lanes since 1947, but until recently had not been very active in that role.

“Operations at sea may be required of us if the Pacific Fleet is stretched thin, with carriers deployed as far away as the Indian Ocean,” General Braswell says. “With the cooperation of the Pacific Fleet, we are regularly working with Navy forces, in fleet air defense exercises, and in conducting simulated attack operations against naval formations.”

General Braswell says that last year’s war in the Falklands illustrated a point already well known by military professionals. Aircraft armed with modern long-range missiles can be deadly against ships and “modern naval forces must have effective long-range detection and air defense capability. The British did not have this in the Falklands. Our Navy has it in the form of their E-2C warning and control airplanes and their F-14A fighters with the long-range Phoenix missiles. Fortunately, from our viewpoint, the Soviet Navy is still deficient in this capability.”

The Soviet Navy is also lacking in the Pacific bases, and its exit to the sea from Vladivostok is through straits adjacent to Japan. That is one reason the Soviets get so agitated when the Japanese talk about defending their home waters.

The US Air Force is considering the utility of equipping some bombers and fighters with the Harpoon anti-ship missile, or something similar, with which enemy vessels could be attacked from standoff range. More immediate is the requirement for USAF assistance in air defense of the fleet or sea-lanes.

“For example, F-15 aircraft deployed in small detachments to such places as the Aleutians can range out today as far as 1,000 miles to engage enemy aircraft threatening our ships,” General Braswell says. “With air refueling – or with new external fuel tanks – they can go much farther than that.”

A Theater of Distances

The United States does not have enough forces in the Pacific to cover every location that might need to be defended. Consequently, PACAF must be ready to deploy fighters for air defense of Guam, Diego Garcia, and other island bases. When the Soviets field their new long-range Blackjack bomber, even more US installations will be within reach of air attack, so the air defense task will increase.

The huge size of the theater affects airpower requirements in various ways.

“The distances in the Pacific are great, so we need longer range aircraft.” General Braswell says. “For example, from available bases to many locations we might need to reach, the distances are greater than 500 nautical miles. Our current aircraft, operating from either Japanese or Korean bases, are in many cases not quite capable of reaching distant targets unless we use aerial refueling, which might or night not be available to the extent we would need.”

The F-15 with conformal fuel tanks will have impressive range, of course, but General Braswell says, “The F-15 is our principal air-to-air aircraft. We need it in that role, and we don’t wish to divert it to air-to-surface missions if we can avoid doing so. What we need is longer range air-to-surface aircraft than we now have, with night delivery capability.”

Excellent for those purposes, he says, would be the forthcoming E model derivative of either the F-15 or F-16. “We’re also looking forward to the day when the B-1 will be available and some of those can be tasked to support us in the Pacific,” he adds.

Preparing to Fight

“Today,” General Braswell says, “our combat aircrews are better and more thoroughly trained for combat than they have ever been in the history of our peacetime Air Force.”

A major reason is the Cope Thunder training program PACAF runs at the Crow Valley range near Clark AB in the Philippines. Modeled after the highly realistic Red Flag exercises held in Nevada, Cope thunder seeks to have every PACAF aircrew fly between eight and ten mock combat missions a year.

The number is significant. Analyses show that most combat losses occur during an aircrew’s first ten missions. Today, less than a third of the Air Force’s primary fighter crews have seen actual combat. Cope Thunder is designed to give an aircrewman the closest thing possible to ten missions’ worth of lifesaving combat experience.

When Cope thunder began in 1976, it was strictly an Air Force affair. Now, Navy and Marine flyers participate regularly, and periodically so do allied airmen from the Philippines New Zealand, Australia, and Thailand.

The exercise is held seven times a year and lasts for two weeks each session. Crews go against every possible combat threat that can be duplicated or simulated, including electronic jammers and such “enemy” aircraft as those of the PACAF aggressor squadron, whose F-5E aircraft emulate MiGs in many respects.

PACAF ground crews are improving their combat skills, too.

“In the past few years, we have doubled or in some cases tripled the number of sorties per day that we expect our airplanes and our aircrews to fly in wartime,” General Braswell says.

Contributing to this is a procedure called “integrated combat turn,” in which all the actions necessary to turn a fighter around – such as rearming, refueling, and maintenance checks – are done at the same time rather than one after another. A fighter can be airborne again in about half an hour instead of the two- or three-hour intervals that elapse when sequential procedures are followed.

A Long Way From Home

About sixty-percent of PACAF’s enlisted people are in grade E-4 or below. Fifty-four percent of PACAF officers are captains and lieutenants.

“Experience levels are lower than we would like,” General Braswell acknowledges. “That’s true with the aircrew force, but more especially with the maintenance force. I want to emphasize, through that these are extremely capable, hard-working people, even though they’re short on experience in some cases. I’ve been impressed with what they’ve been able to accomplish. If our retention continues at its present very satisfactory rate, our experience levels will improve.”

PACAF retention rates are higher than Air Force averages across the board. Command reenlistment rates last year: first-term airmen, fifty-nine percent; second-term airmen, eighty-nine percent; and career airmen, ninety-eight percent. Retention rates for officers in the key group with between four and eleven years of service: pilots, ninety-one percent; navigators, ninety-two percent; and support officers, seventy-seven percent.

People seem to like PACAF after they arrive and once they get settled in.

“Overseas duty is not as attractive as it was perhaps twenty years ago,” General Braswell says. “Many of our facilities in the Far East are better than they were then, but other factors are involved. People are more reluctant to move anywhere, partly because of the housing market. If they own a house, they don’t want to get rid of it, and they’re worried about having to acquire a house if they move.

“If they move to any base in the Pacific, they will expect to live in government housing in most cases. Unfortunately, they’ll have to wait for government housing and live on the economy for several months in some places.”

One of the command’s highest priorities, he says, is to fund additional family housing and bachelor quarters. He would especially like to see more family quarters in Korea.

“Korea is a modern nation, he says, “There’s no reason why we shouldn’t permit families to come there rather than continuing to depend principally on people serving remote tours, Korea today is not the country it was thirty years ago following the Korean War.

Surveys, he says, show that PACAF people enjoy the opportunity to travel and shop abroad, and they like meeting people from other cultures. They get satisfaction from performing an important mission. Overall, they find Far East duty interesting and exciting. However there are disadvantages.

“It’s a long way from hone,” General Braswell says. “They don’t have a chance to visit relatives very often. It’s difficult to get space-available travel, so it sometimes means traveling to the US at their own expense – and that can get very expensive.”

Surveys have identified other concerns of members and their families within PACAF. Topping the list are limited employment opportunity for spouses, availability of adequate housing on the economy in Japan, and a restriction on shipping late-model cars to Japan because of problems in complying with Japanese emission and safety standards.

PACAF, which reports more people on unaccompanied tours than any other command, is especially concerned that the family separation allowance for most of them – $30a month – has not changed since 1964.

To help relieve some of these problems, PACAF has proposed several improvements in benefits, including more housing, government storage of vehicles for Japan-bound airmen, and one funded trip a year so that student dependents in the States can visit their parents in the Pacific. The command also believes that a $100-a-month foreign-duty pay should be established to help offset unique expenses and lost income to spouses.

Looking Ahead

US forces in the Pacific are thinly spread against a relentlessly growing Soviet presence. Russian advisors and technicians are active on the Southeast Asian subcontinent, and the Soviet occupying force of 100,000 troops in Afghanistan is only 380 miles from the entrance to the Persian Gulf. Cam Ranh Bay is a convenient stopover for ships enroute to the Indian Ocean.

“It is no secret that they continue to seek additional basing arrangements in the region, and the growing number of independent small nations in the Southwest Pacific Presents potential opportunities,” General Braswell says.

Furthermore, the Soviets in the Pacific are now better organized than they used to be.

“Their Asian theater of operations – which encompasses all of the Soviet forces in the Far East – is now a unified command, and it is a more effective arrangement than they previously had in the region,” General Braswell says.

A great part of the Soviet Far East force is pinned down opposite China, of course, but the remaining numbers are certainly adequate to exert Soviet influence in East Asia.

While US Air Force and Army presence has remained fairly constant over the past decade, US naval forces have declined. Overall, American force levels in the Pacific are at their lowest in more than twenty years.

The improvements to PACAF’s combat capability are encouraging, as is the closer cooperation by the Air force with the Navy and allied air forces. Renewed attention to the Far East by American policymakers is a good sign, too.

There is no question of matching the Soviets there man for man and machine for machine, but US forces of reasonable size, well equipped and well supplied, are essential if the United States is to avoid loss to its national interest in the Pacific or else risk another war in Asia.