Pacific Air Forces Commander Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach takes part in the panel “China: The Pacing Challenge” during the AFA Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla., March 3, 2022. Mike Tsukamoto/staff
Photo Caption & Credits

Q&A: PACAF Readies for New Threats

Aug. 12, 2022

Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces Commander, has delivered two decades of experience to lead the Air Force’s most geographically dispersed major command. Wilsbach sat down with Air Force Magazine at his office at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, in a building whose pockmarked outer walls from Imperial Japanese air attack are a constant reminder of the vital importance of air power and readiness.

Q. What is PACAF’s role in great power competition?

A. Our forces need to be ready for any eventual conflict or crisis that we might have. There’s a broad range of missions that we can do, from humanitarian assistance all the way up to full-spectrum conflict. The PACAF requirement is to provide those capabilities to the INDOPACOM commander Adm. [John C.] Aquilino, and so, on a day-to-day basis, we have our folks training to be able to accomplish those objectives.

The strategic objective for the United States is a free and open Indo-Pacific, … through working with allies and partners in the region, working with our joint partners, every single day. I’ve been in PACAF for a lot of my career, and it hasn’t always been that way. But I can tell you that we’re about as jointly integrated as I’ve ever seen, right now.

We’re also competing with some folks in the region that don’t necessarily want a free and open Indo-Pacific, like China. … And then Russia, while they are pretty well preoccupied with what’s happening in Ukraine, they haven’t stopped operating in this theater. So, we pay attention to them as well.

Q. How has INDOPACOM developed plans for a joint fight in the Pacific? What is working and what is not working?

A. The good news story is a lot is working … we just demonstrated this to Admiral Aquilino [June 3] by putting together a completely joint exercise where we integrated simulated joint fires in our air operations center.

What we’re working on is this notion of joint, all-domain command and control, JADC2, and being able to pull that together so that the fires are integrated on a scale and at a pace that makes the response very difficult for your adversary. All of the services are working on technology to be able to realize JADC2. But in the meantime, none of the components out here are waiting on that, we’re going ahead and frankly, executing JADC2 with the technology that we already have, knowing that there’ll be future technology that will help us to do this better.

Q. What resources do you need for ACE and pre-positioning to execute your mission?

A. With respect to ACE and why we do ACE,  I think it’s important for the readers to understand that because it’s not efficient. It’s expensive. .… The reason why we need this is because heretofore we would build up these very large bases, albeit a small number of them.

China has really built up their surface-to-surface capability, and they have the capability of shutting down that [small number] of very large bases. And so, … in order to create a targeting problem for them, we disperse. That’s what agile combat employment is about, creating a targeting problem so that even if you get attacked at one of your bases, your other bases are able to continue.

In the budget for 2022, and what we think we’re going to get for a budget in 2023, we’re getting a decent amount of funds to be able to do things like pre-positioning. … We’re beginning to buy those kits, we’re beginning to put that stuff out in the field. And we’re also doing some construction this year, mostly in the way of runway and ramp extensions, fuel storage, munitions storage.

Q. How do you plan to disperse ACE exercises more broadly?

A. We’ve actually been doing quite a bit of ACE in Japan, in other parts of Japan like our folks at Yokota and Misawa and Kadena have been doing. And even the Japanese have been doing ACE.

Even in Korea, our forces are practicing ACE. Not in the full spectrum of ACE, like you’ve seen around the Marianas Islands, but at least part task trainers. The ACE aspect of perhaps taking off out of Osan, landing at another base, getting a quick turn, and getting airborne again; some multi-capable Airmen skill sets in Korea, in Japan. ACE for the entire Air Force [was] started in Alaska. Our forces in Alaska have been doing ACE now for coming up on five years.

Really, all the bases in the Pacific are doing ACE as a component of their day-to-day training. When we first started this, we’d set out, ‘Okay, we’re going to do ACE for two weeks.’ That’s not how it works anymore. Now … we’re doing something about ACE every week

We’ve also had some ACE-like operations in Australia. We’ve had some ACE operations in the Philippines and Palau. So, there’s been quite an expansion of where we do this.

Q. What ACE lessons have been learned so far with command-and-control and hub-and-spoke operations?

A. The command-and-control aspect of ACE is also something that all the wings in PACAF are working through, and finding out what the challenges are, and tackling those challenges with new innovations and new communication kits, and ways of making sure that, for example, an aircraft that needs maintenance comes back to the hub where the main maintenance is. If you’ve got one that’s good to go, you might send that one out to a spoke, so it can do a quick turn and launch again. That command and control while ACE is happening in multiple places is another thing that everybody’s working on.

Q. Has PACAF declared IOC yet for ACE?

A. We haven’t. But I mean, we’re in a good spot, we’re in a good spot. And I’m very confident that ACE is something that we can do if the wings get called to do ACE right now. We’re working, we’re continuing to expand that ACE envelope every single day.

What we’ve been working on pretty aggressively over the last few years is providing every single wing some foundation of ACE capability. Every wing is a little bit different as to where they go, how they disperse, how much multi-capable Airmen capability they actually have. Certainly, Korea is a little bit different because they’re very focused on the North Korean threat [when] everybody else [is] primarily focused on the Chinese challenge. Everybody’s also got a little bit of Russia in the back of their minds as well. Every wing applies how they employ ACE just slightly different, but everybody’s got a foundation.

Q. Can you talk about the timeline shift for China’s capability to take Taiwan from 2030 to 2027, and what lessons might China be gleaning from the ongoing war in Ukraine?

A. We detect the shift. You know, there wasn’t any magic. That’s Xi Jinping in public telling his commanders to be ready to take Taiwan by force by 2027. That’s what he said in public. So that seems completely unacceptable to me and to a lot of the region.

“What I think that China should take away as parallels from the Russia-Ukraine fight, there’s a couple of things I think that they should pay attention to: The tactical/operational problem that Russia had with Ukraine, which was, in the big scheme of things, a relatively easy problem. Drive across the border and take territory. The terrain is not that tough. It’s not a long distance … it’s right there. Yet, they struggled. And why? Well, one of the reasons they struggled is because they didn’t really have a good sense of their own capabilities. What I think, and what China should probably pay attention to, is in authoritarian systems, the senior leadership—in this case Putin—didn’t get the truth from his generals. And I suspect there’s a similar problem in China. So, they might not actually know what their actual capabilities are. That’s one parallel.

Another one is … the simple tactical problem. China trying to invade and take Taiwan by force is the most difficult military problem there is, which is an amphibious landing, and/or an air assault. And the amphibious landing isn’t crossing a river, it’s a 100-mile strait. That’s dangerous waters, so that’s not a freebie. You don’t just get to sail across, there’ll be some combat in that strait. That’s a very difficult task to accomplish.

The other thing that’s a parallel is you have a nation that, in Ukraine, that’s very motivated to defend themselves. And you also saw an international community who did not take kindly to an aggressor nation attacking … unprovoked. Russia has talking points, predominantly made-up talking points to give them [a] rationale to do the invasion. But, frankly, [they] were complete bunk. The world realized that, and they supported Ukraine, and started sanctions. I would think that China should expect massive sanctions if they were to ever do a similar attack against Taiwan. You have quite a bit of military aid going into Ukraine, from all over the world. I think China should expect something like that for Taiwan. And Taiwan is a fairly well-equipped military. They’re [also] fairly well-trained.

Q. There has been some talk of a NATO of the Pacific. Do you think this is necessary?  

A. You know who’s talking about NATO in the Pacific? The Chinese. Nobody else is talking about NATO in the Pacific, and the Chinese talk about it because they think that it’ll create a wedge with our allies and partners. I certainly pick up on that. In my discussions with fellow air chiefs around, they’re all picking up on that. They’re considering it chaff by the Chinese.

Many countries say to me, ‘You are our partner of choice, we want to train with you, we want to be interoperable with you, we want you to come to our country and fly with us, we want to come to your country and fly with you, and we want to go to a third country and fly with all three of us. So, that’s constantly happening, day after day after day.

They see China as a challenge and could possibly be threatening their way of life, and their objective to have a free and open Indo-Pacific, and so that’s why they want to train with us, and that’s why they want to interoperate with us.

Q. How are bomber task force missions going? How will B-21 long-range strike capability fit into PACAF plans?

A. The B-21 will be a much larger fleet. Having the ability to have more tails that can be in more places at the same time and create a lot more effects. … It will give us a tremendous capability to get to places that perhaps we can’t get today. And to have effects that can be created by that platform.

The bomber missions have been going pretty well. We can do the bomber task force missions from Guam, .. we can do them from other places, like Australia. 

I’m very happy about the joint training that we get done mostly with the Navy, but also with allies and partners. We do a lot of bomber missions with the Japanese. We’ve done some bomber missions with other countries, and we’re trying to expand that.

Q. What is being done to promote information sharing, and what needs to be done for better interoperability with U.S. F-35s?

A. We’re constantly exchanging information on F-35,  with both Korea and Japan as well as Australia. We’re flying together regularly with all three of those countries. … That’s sharing the best way, … in training where you’re working, almost interoperably so that you can refine your tactics, techniques, and procedures.

Q. Can you tell me about an artifact here in your office?

A. I absolutely love Alaska. The last time I was there, I got to be really close with the Alaska Federation of Natives, … and we actually collaborate on a lot of things. They gave me some of these. This is a petrified orca tooth, and this is an eardrum of a bowhead whale, and this is the cross section of the spine. I got to go on a whale hunt. I wasn’t able to be on the boat where they harpooned, like Captain Ahab-style, harpooning. The boat’s barely bigger than my table, and they harpoon this 30-foot-long whale and then they tie it to the boat.

They killed this whale, and they bring it in, and they butchered it. They use every bit of that. All the soft tissue they consume.

Q. Did you have any of it?

A. I did.

Q. What’s it taste like?

A. Wasn’t good. Wasn’t good [laughing]. I didn’t care for it, maybe it was an acquired taste.