When top Air Force leaders graced the stage at a senior noncommissioned officers’ summit Aug. 1 to urge attendees from 65 nations to collaborate with the United States, one region was noticeably underrepresented: the Indo-Pacific.
Of the 39 partner nations that Pacific Air Forces identifies in the Indo-Pacific region, only eight were represented at the summit. Most there, such as Japan and Australia, were longstanding allies. At a similar event as part of the September 2021 Pacific Air Chiefs Conference at PACAF headquarters in Hawaii, only 13 Pacific partner nations sent their senior enlisted leaders to attend.
Pacific Air Forces is hoping an effort to create an Inter-Pacific Air Forces Academy for regional NCOs will help strengthen relationships and enhance interoperability in the region defined as the most important according to the National Defense Strategy.
“We have many regions that are here today,” including South America, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, and Africa, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne S. Bass told Air Force Magazine before the start of the weeklong event.
“What all of those nations will come together and see is kind of that shared purpose and that shared commitment that we have to one another,” Bass said. “Relationships aren’t built overnight. And so, we have to have touch points like this, where we come together and forge the relationships and trust that we’re going to need for years to come.”
Asked if she will be reaching out to new INDOPACOM partners, Bass said the ties already existed.
“I don’t think they’re new ties,” she said. “The ties have already been there with a lot of our INDOPACOM nations. We’re continuing to strengthen them.”
But Command Chief Master Sergeant of Pacific Air Forces Sergeant David R. Wolfe told Air Force Magazine that outreach to the region hasn’t been that easy. Especially for smaller nations dependent on their economic ties to China, fostering a security partnership with the United States could come with costs.
“Every country in the world has economic ties with China,” Wolfe said. “What we need from our partner nations is to communicate the value of the enlisted force, to their success in integrating militarily with all of the partnerships that we have out there already.”
Wolfe said the U.S. goal is for partner nations in the Pacific to value their enlisted corps in a way that will make them “relevant, ready, trained” with a level of competence on par with long-standing American partner nations in the region.
The eight attending states were Japan, Australia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Mongolia, Singapore, Thailand, and a representative from the island of Taiwan.
Together they represent a selection of U.S. partners in the Pacific that already have long-standing defense and security ties. They buy U.S. defense equipment, or in the case of Mongolia, they represent a country where PACAF intends to increase its defense assistance in coming years.
“We’re missing way more than I would like to,” said Wolfe, noting the absence from the summit of quad member India and growing defense partners Indonesia and Vietnam. “We did everything that we could to get as many countries as we possibly could here.”
Notably, none of the smaller Pacific nations were present. Recently, PACAF held the Valiant Shield exercise in the South Pacific nation of Palau and has been competing fiercely with China for defense relationships on smaller islands that would be valuable for employing the agile combat employment concept, whereby aircraft can land and quickly depart in austere environments with minimal equipment.
Wolfe said the lack of Indo-Pacific attendance at the NCO event was less a matter of countries being concerned about what China thinks than their own lack of investment in their NCO corps.
“The main reason is that there is a variable level of commitment to the enlisted force in our partner nations,” he said. “An event like this sends the message to our [partners]—we just had the Secretary and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force here spending an hour with just us.”
PACAF’s main objective for the senior enlisted summit was to take the steps to establish an Inter-Pacific Air Forces Academy for NCO training. Wolfe later said that an Aug. 2 PACAF breakout session discussed the fundamentals of the future school and what manpower and resources other nations might be able to contribute.
The academy is more than U.S. altruism—it’s about alignment with National Defense Strategy objectives.
“We can’t go into a partnership with a country that doesn’t at least have some terms of reference that are similar to ours for interoperability,” Wolfe said.
An example would be a country that also flies the F-35. To be interoperable with the United States, that country must be able to “do things like we do,” such as maintenance, launching, and turning the aircraft after landing to launch again the next day.
“It’s only a few countries in this room that could do that because they don’t have the workforce, the enlisted corps, to be able to be a 24-hour operation,” he said.
Interoperability enhances integrated deterrence as well, the concept promoted by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III whereby all the levers of national power are used to deter an adversary such as China.
“Integrated deterrence isn’t integrated if you don’t have countries that can do like things,” Wolfe said.
While only the eight nations present unanimously supported moving forward with the Inter-Pacific Academy, notably Canada and the United Kingdom indicated they wanted to have a role as well.
“Everybody’s worried about China—it doesn’t matter where you’re at on the globe,” Wolfe said, noting that many European nations are sending aircraft to joint exercises in the Pacific as competition with China steps up.
The academy idea builds on the successful National Guard State Partnership Program to train partner nations in the Pacific and a PACAF program that dispatches mobile training teams for professional military education and for sergeant training.
Wolfe cited the Philippines as PACAF’s most aggressive partnership at the moment. He said that even with a recent political change of government that has indicated a willingness to cooperate militarily with China, the Philippines is still deepening its integration with the United States.
Wolfe said Bass is working with the Philippines to help establish an NCO first sergeant position that would be proposed to the country’s military leadership.
“I would say small forward progress with the new government,” he said of the Philippines, adding that Singapore was also a “stalwart partner.”
PACAF views Brunei, India, and Sri Lanka as additional Pacific countries where it can deepen its NCO partnerships, the PACAF command chief indicated.
“We have a program to evaluate where everybody’s at kind of on the spectrum,” Wolfe said. “All we’re trying to do is help every country take whatever the next step is.”