Four F-15C Eagles refuel with a KC-135 Stratotanker Jan. 10 during Exercise WestPac Rumrunner out of Kadena Air Base, Japan. Aerial refueling magnifies the reach of military assets. Senior Airman Matthew Seefeldt
Photo Caption & Credits

ACE-ing the Test

May 1, 2020

WestPac exercise stresses Agile Combat Employment.

The idea was straightforward: Use what you have, where you have it, for a realistic training scenario that meets commanders’ objectives and falls in line with the National Defense Strategy.

“The old way of doing exercises is take everything­—build a requirement—and move it to a spot, all one spot,” said Capt. Brian Davis. But WestPac Rumrunner—Davis’s brainchild—was different. Forces from around the region converged here at Kadena Air Force Base, Japan, for one day, acting as adversary air, while the 18th Wing defended its home turf. 

The exercise incorporated forces from the U.S. Navy, Army, Marine Corps, and Air Force and involved 53 aircraft. While the focus was a base defense scenario, WestPac Rumrunner also tested Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, a Pacific Air Forces concept for sustaining combat operations in an anti-access, area-denial threat environment. 

“ACE combines adaptive basing, the operational maneuver of air forces, assured command and control, mission-type orders, and other elements to ensure [the force] can generate and sustain combat sorties,” explained Mark Gunzinger, director of future aerospace concepts and capabilities assessments for AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

By reducing the Air Force’s dependence on its main operating bases in the Pacific, ACE makes the Air Force less vulnerable to Chinese air or missile attacks.

“The Air Force understands that it cannot generate air combat power as it has in the past,” Gunzinger said. “ACE and other concepts like it take advantage of the flexibility and maneuverability of air power to counter these threats.” 

PACAF first validated the ACE concept in 2017, when China was ramping up military activity in the South China and East China seas, North Korea was aggressively testing new ballistic missile capabilities, and Russia was beginning to fly more long-range aircraft in the area. Today, the command incorporates elements of ACE into every exercise or event, said PACAF spokeswoman Lt. Col. Megan Schafer.  

Brig. Gen. Joel Carey, commander of the 18th Wing, said the Air Force has no choice. “We’ve got to become harder targets, we’ve got to be more agile, we’ve got to, in some ways, be able to go back to our roots in working not just in our main operating bases and out of our main operating bases, but in other more expeditionary, dispersed locations.”

ACE combines adaptive basing, the operational maneuver of air forces, assured command and control,” and more to ensure USAF  “can generate and sustain combat sorties.Mark Gunzinger, Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies

WestPac Rumrunner took that concept and ran with it, Carey said.

Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. C.Q. Brown Jr. explained the intent to make PACAF “light, lean, and agile” during an all-call at Kadena in November.

“In order to operate, all you need is a runway, a ramp, fuel bladder, a trailer full of munitions, a pallet of MREs, and some multifunctional Airmen. We should be able to operate from anywhere, any location in the world,” Brown said.

In order for ACE to work, the service must rethink the way it operates. Traditionally, Airmen have a single Air Force Specialty Code and perform only those tasks and functions defined by that AFSC. With ACE, however, Airmen must be ready and able to perform other tasks as well. 

As with the Air Force’s Contingency Response Groups, which employ small teams of multi-capable Airmen, Agile Combat Employment demands flexibility, Brown told Air Force Magazine in a February interview, just a few days before he was nominated to succeed Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

Not every Airman will need to take on additional roles, Brown said, but for those who do, the change will be akin to adding a secondary specialty. Brown does not anticipate consolidating AFSCs.

“It gets rid of some of the ‘union cards’ [that say], ‘You can’t do this because you’re not fully trained,’” Brown said. For example, “If we go into conflict, and we start losing people, and I need somebody to go refuel an aircraft or help load or unload a C-130, we’re going to … [find] someone who actually is trained [and put them in charge] with some other Airmen to go, ‘Here’s what I need you to do: You stand here and you do this.’”

During WestPac Rumrunner, Airmen with the 18th Maintenance Group tested the concept by relocating to Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, which is also on Okinawa.

The Airmen were told on a Wednesday night that they were going to another location, but then told the aircraft was “delayed” until Friday. They didn’t know where they were going or how many aircraft they would be working on until they were picked up Friday morning, said Lt. Col. Johnny West, deputy commander of the 18th Maintenance Group.

Once in the new location, Airmen had to launch and recover aircraft in an unfamiliar location, which “presents a challenge in and of itself,” West said. “Whether you’re ready or not, the aircraft are coming.” More to the point, fewer people, with less equipment, are on hand, so getting aircraft refueled and back up in the air is more difficult. 

“We have exercises here at Kadena where we simulate another location, but it’s too convenient,” he said. “It’s too easy. So, putting them in a different location inhibits and limits the amount of equipment they have available.” 

U.S. Air Force Airmen from the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron discuss locations and strategies to maintain air superiority aboard an E-3 Sentry during WestPac Rumrunner. Photo: Staff Sgt. Daniel E. Fernandez

Capt. Jessica Abbott, the maintenance lead for the exercise, said the challenges begin the moment Airmen get the order. 

“They had to start thinking about, how can they operate creatively from the locations in PACAF?” she said. “How can we prepare ourselves to best work out of those places with what we have?” Then, once they learned where they were going, that helped define who needed to go and what equipment they needed to bring.

By pre-positioning commonly used supplies at smaller locations throughout the theater, PACAF Airmen can leave much of their equipment at home, and just fall in on gear where that’s possible. This helps shrink the bull’s-eye on some of the bigger bases in the region, Brown said.

“I’ve spent the better part of a year trying to work through certain aspects of this,” Brown said. “Even when you talk pre-positioning, there’s the aspect of, where are you going to put it? Do you have access yet? Well, OK, if I wait until the day I get access … it’s gonna be late. … So, why don’t we just go ahead and start down this process of getting this stuff stored in a location, so we can practice actually moving it?”

Brown has also been refining what he called the “Amazon Prime concept,” combining artificial intelligence technology with USAF planning to try to predict when certain parts are likely to fail or how much fuel and food Airmen will need based on where they are deployed and what they are doing. Then, he said, “You could actually just keep pushing stuff to them,” but limit the amount of supplies they need to take with them. If plans change, then the shipments of food, parts, and supplies would change, too. 

Staff Sgt. Thomas Parris runs preflight checks on an MC-130J Commando II in preparation for a sortie during WestPac Rumrunner. The exercise gave the 18th Wing an opportunity to hone critical expeditionary skills with joint partners across the Indo-Pacific area of responsibility. Staff Sgt. Benjamin Sutton

Meanwhile, at USAFE … 

U.S. Air Forces in Europe is also building an ACE-like concept of operations. The deputy commanders of USAFE and PACAF have been meeting regularly to identify those aspects of the concept common to both theaters and those that are not.

“We’ve charged the wings to go look at and operate out of some of the airfields that they would expect to operate at if we had to do this in a live operation,” said Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, USAFE commander, in an interview. “So, we’re doing that incrementally over time and allowing the wings the leverage to work together.” Harrigian said USAFE has shared a basic concept of operations, but his goal is for the effort to be driven from the bottom-up. “Those guys are getting out there learning, and there will be things that we may have felt were a reasonable idea, but they’ll uncover—‘OK, that doesn’t work exactly like that. Here’s what we would suggest you do ” instead. 

For now, USAFE’s plan is classified, but Harrigian said, “We’re trying to get it releasable, because I want the partners to see it so that they’ve got skin in the game with us.” 

While partner support is key, ACE also looks to incorporate the joint force. The Rumrunner exercise gave USAF maintainers a chance to work with Marine Corps maintainers, and to support a mission, which they don’t get to do every day, Abbott said.

“I think there’s just excitement in the wing for ACE,” West said. “We’re excited for the opportunity. Frankly, we’re excited that we’re in on the floor of this thing, at the very start. When I came in, the new thing was, ‘the Air Force is expeditionary in nature.’ [Now] we’re getting better at it.”

Abbot said the one-day Rumrunner exercise “instilled a lot of confidence, especially in maintainers,” and “proves we are combat-capable and we can do this—we can do ACE.” 

Capt. Harrison Paull, the ACE and Forward Area Refueling Point lead for WestPac Rumrunner, said the exercise began with an MC-130 giving fuel to a Navy E-2 on the tarmac at the “remote” base.

“Both aircraft are engines running,” he said. “It’s not a hot pit or cold fuel or a fuel truck hooking up. … [It’s] one of the more dangerous things” Air Force special operators do. 

“Even though the aircraft aren’t [flying], they’re moving on the ground in close proximity to each other and the fuel’s transferring while the engines are running, so if things do go wrong, [they go] wrong fast,” he said.

The exercise was also a change for the AFSOC participants, who typically train only with other special operators.

“We’ve been in the counterterrorism, counter-violent extremist organization fight for the past 20 years,” Paull said. “So starting to work more with partners within the Air Force itself, that’s really valuable for us, because it is so different from our day-to-day. I’ve been here about three years, and this is the first time I’ve seen all of us working together to affect training, simulating a fight.”

Davis, who directed the exercise, said the scenario showed just how important it is to rehearse joint operations. “The combined joint force was successful at defending Kadena Air Base, and it took the entire team to do it.”

He added that the exercise proved ACE is the right approach: “The ability to plan and execute a mission on this scale across these distances by using in-place assets is a testament to the ACE concept of operations.” 

The idea for WestPac Rumrunner started on a Navy ship “somewhere in the South China Sea,” Davis said. “We were planning Valiant Shield, and I sat down with a couple friends there, and I said, ‘What if we do a Defend Your Base Friday?’ … That was a year and a half ago,” he said. “It was just, what do we have, who can I find, and let’s make something that’s tactically relevant, operationally sound, and effective for everybody.”

 Carey embraced the idea as soon as he heard about it, he said.

“The exercise was designed as a defensive counter-air scenario … and we also integrated these expeditionary, Agile Combat Employment” concepts, by having maintainers and aircrew operate at other locations, Carey explained.

“For decades, we have operated in this part of the world in a way where we would build power in a particular location, and then we would employ from that main location,” he said. “And that’s still going to be part of the concept of operations into the future. That’s why bases like Kadena are so important and will continue to be for stability in this region and our continued relationship with our Japanese partners.”

The U.S. and its allies must develop a capacity to challenge competitors with complex operations that make it harder to counter allied strengths. “We have got to continue to cause them—or develop capabilities that cause them—problems,” Carey said. 

One way to do that, Carey said, is to “increase expeditionary capability, to increase dispersed operations in different locations … and the logistics, the communications, the command and control—everything—that is involved with developing those capabilities.”

A KC-135 from Kadena Air Base, Japan, refuels a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet from the USS Ronald Reagan over the Philippine Sea during Exercise WestPac Rumrunner. Jennifer Hlad

The exercise included two airborne C2 battle management platforms: An AWACS and a Navy E-2 Hawkeye. Maj. Alex Demma, an E-3 AWACS mission crew commander and director of operations for the 961st Airborne Control Squadron, said the exercise “allowed us to coordinate the battle from assets that were coming from different locations, coalesce in one place, and then execute the mission.”

Integrating this way is unusual. “These are rare opportunities that you don’t get unless you are traveling to another place,” he said. “So, to be able to do this organically, home station, is really the benefit.”

Without cargo being shipped, advance teams, and prepping the environment at Kadena, Davis said, the event was more like a real ACE scenario. “You’re going to drop into somewhere that’s not your home field, that’s set up by somebody else,” he said. “That was a huge, huge win for us to be able to do that.”

Another part of the exercise involved simulating the loss of communication links back to higher headquarters.

“In a perfect world, we still keep [communications] back with the Air Operations Center and the higher headquarters, so they can direct the pieces and make the war effort happen,” Davis said. But cutting off that link forced Airmen to make decisions and come up with solutions under pressure. 

The exercise was a real opportunity to “lean on our junior NCOs, lean on our younger officers, to make important decisions, and now to make sure that aircraft generation and regeneration machine continues,” West said. 

For some Airmen, WestPac Rumrunner was their first time in that type of situation, he said. It went well enough, however, that the next exercise will be a little more difficult. 

Indeed, the next iteration is already in the planning stages, said Capt. Shawn Storey, an air battle manager on the E-3 with the 961st Airborne Air Control Squadron and a member of the WestPac Rumrunner planning cell. 

“Our intent is to execute Rumrunner once a quarter and to move the host base around the AOR as much as we can,” he said. “This will be impacted by mission and exercise schedules, as well as real-world events, such as COVID-19, but that is the guidance we are planning with right now.” 

Doing that in addition to an already busy exercise and deployment schedule may be a challenge, but Davis said that ACE will eventually work its way into those larger events. In the meantime, the service is pulling from lessons learned with ACE as it works through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

“COVID is merely just another challenge to the world order,” said Maj. Gen. Scott Pleus, PACAF’s director of air and cyberspace. By pushing the decision-making authority down to lower-level commanders through ACE, commanders have had “to be creative in how they maintain the readiness, deploy their force, protect their force. I see this as a real-world execution of the Agile Combat Employment in action, against a real threat. … I’m super proud of the commanders and our supervisors at all levels that they’ve been able to rise to the challenge and fight their way through this just like any other contingency operations.”