After a week of discussions with Pacific Air Forces staff, Robbin Laird sat down in Hawaii with Hawk Carlisle, their commander. The conversation took place just after the North Koreans had fired missiles into South Korean waters during an allied exercise for the defense of South Korea. Laird, a member of our Board of Contributors, is now in Australia, where he’s interviewing a range of senior Australian defense officials.
The US is shaping a deterrence in depth strategy in the Pacific to ensure that the US national command authority has options to deal with threats in the region and allies can have confidence in the viability of a vibrant US combat force across the Pacific.
The first strand is clearly better integration of air and missile defense systems throughout the Pacific, between US and allied systems. This is designed to shape a force that can deal with a wide range of missile threats.
The US Army’s role is particularly important in this. “The role of having active defense or an interceptor force is to buy time for [Lieutenant] General [Jan-Marc] Jouas (7th USAF Commander in the Pacific) or General [Hawk] Carlisle (the PACAF Commander) to more effectively determine how to use their airpower,” Brig. Gen. Daniel Karbler, 94th Army Air and Missile Defense Command, said in an earlier interview. “It also allows the National Command Authority to determine the most effective way ahead with an adversary willing to strike US or allied forces and territory with missiles.”
General Carlisle outlined how the theater command is pursuing the objectives Karbler outlined. “We are pursuing an approach that combines better integration of the sensors with the shooters with command and control. Command and control are two words. The way ahead is clearly a distributed force integrated through command and control whereby one develops distributed mission tactical orders (with well understood playbooks) reflecting the commander’s directions, and then to have the ability to control the assets to ensure that the sensors and shooters accomplish their mission.”
The future fleet of allied and US F-35s should help bolster those efforts. “We need to get better at attack operations to take out the shooter. How do we do that better?” Carlisle asked rhetorically. “It is clear that an F-35 fleet coupled with the new long-range strike systems will play a key role in that function. We also need to shape game changers in terms of the missiles used to intercept missiles. The current generation is expensive and we need to drive down the cost point for interceptors. SM-6 is coming, which is an important asset, but DoD is working hard on ways to drive down the cost of future interceptors. And we are working the passive defense piece of the puzzle as well including hardening, concealment, dispersal of assets, rapid runway repair and support for a fluid force operating in a distributed manner.”
Here’s what some of our Pacific allies are doing as part of a more closely integrated missile defense capability. A recent US-Japanese joint exercise, which worked directly on the integrated piece for air and missile defense, is an obvious step forward.
And the South Koreans are obvious players as well with their Patriot and Aegis systems. Add the Australians who are buying Aegis and F-35; they will be players as well in the future.
The roll out of the sensor-shooter C2 approach for an integrated air and missile defense system also lays down a capability that a decade from now when the fleet of allied and American F-35s is operational can leverage as well.
I asked General Carlisle what impact a fleet of F-35s (allied and US) would have in a decade. “It will be significant. Instead of thinking of an AOR (Area of Responsibility), I can begin to think of an American and allied CAOC (Combined Air Operations Center). By sharing a common operating picture, we can become more effective tactically and strategically throughout the area of operations.”
A key initiative of General Carlisle’s is to find ways to disperse aircraft and to land aircraft on airfields from which they did not take off in the enormous distances of the Pacific theater. The Rapid Raptor concept where four F-22s are supported by a C-17 at an airfield different from where they took off is a clear indicator of the projected trend line.
General Carlisle has coined the term “places not bases” as to describe how he’s working with partners and allies throughout the region to provide logistical support and coordinated capabilities which allow the US and those partners to work together. A series of regular international exercises is clearly part of this effort, as they provide the opportunity to test and enhance logistical and support approaches, as well as to shape convergent con-ops where appropriate.
New equipment is coming into play in those exercises because the Pacific is an expanding defense aviation market, Carlisle said: “This AOR is the most rapidly growing military aviation market worldwide. Investments are being made and the willingness of our allies to work with us in rolling out a common fleet of F-35s is a key common investment which will significantly enhance our collective ability to provide for effective Pacific defense.”
In addition to F-35s, several allies are building “a more robust tanker fleet,” which Carlisle said, “is a hugely positive development.” He cautioned that to get the full benefit of more allied tankers would require working with those allies to shape effective concepts of operations so an allied fleet can work together.
We then discussed the new air battle management system bought and developed by the Aussies, called the Wedgetail.
“I have been on the aircraft and it has just recently participated in Red Flag 2014 It is a very capable aircraft, but when it first showed up at an allied exercise in 2010 it had serious challenges with regard to interoperability. There have been huge strides with regard to its capable to be interoperable.”
There are two dynamics at work. The first was “the working relationship between the Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the USAF in focusing upon better integration of our various air battle management systems.”
The second is simply that the Wedgetail is a software upgradeable aircraft. The ability to evolve the capability of a software upgradeable aircraft (the F-35 is one as well) was highlighted in one of the RAAF interviews conducted by the Australian defense journalist Ian McPhedran in his book Air Force:
‘Someone asked me, ‘When will we get the full technical maturity out of Wedgetail?’ I answered ‘never’ because it will just continue to grow and the capability will be far greater in 30 years than what it is now.’
On top of that, translating Aussie working relationships with allies into software code is part of the process of enhancing capability over time. General Carlisle closed the interview by highlighting what he saw as a unique American Air Force opportunity within the evolving Pacific Defense.
“The USAF is the only service in the US with decades of experience with stealth aircraft, with regard to how they work, how they change the operational reality for pilots and how they are sustained. Within the region, we can help allies to avoid paths which will not be optimal for their emerging fifth generation fleet of aircraft,” he said.
Carlisle cited one example from the F-22.
“We have tested an F-22 with its sensors teeing up a T-LAM strike from a submarine against a moving target,” he said. “This is the future, whereby the weapons on target are not simply carried by the aircraft but the forward-based sensor can provide the moving target and, over time, those forward sensors can have the ability to direct that weapon to the target.”