America's Pivot to Asia Has Wings

Many complain that America's "pivot" or "rebalance" to Asia is little more than hype. Tell that to the U.S. Air Force. 

For many of those who follow military and security developments in the Asia-Pacific, America’s much-talked about pivot (or rebalance) is little more than hype with little to show for it from a military perspective. With bloody armed conflicts bubbling in Syria, Iraq, Libya and eastern Ukraine, the Asia-Pacific looks to be an oasis of peace by comparison.

However, China’s rapid economic and military rise over the past decade, coupled with its increasingly assertive and sometimes belligerent behavior in its territorial disputes in the East and South China Sea, has made America’s friends and allies in the region increasingly nervous. Throw in regular bouts of erratic behavior from nuclear-armed North Korea and suddenly East Asia no longer looks as tranquil as first appearances may seem. A feeling that the United States, long seen as a guarantor of peace and stability in Asia by many countries, had seemed distracted or disengaged with the region, mainly as a result of its military entanglements in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early part of this century, only fuelled a feeling of dismay.

So it was with an almost-palpable sigh of relief when, during a 2011 visit to Australia, President Barack Obama announced that the United States would be expanding and intensifying its diplomatic, economic and military engagement in the Asia-Pacific. While much more than purely military effort, it is this aspect of the pivot, or rebalance, that has come into focus, given the underlying tensions in the region. Since then, continuing fiscal problems at home, coupled with conflicts rumbling on in the Middle East, have seemingly conspired to prevent the pivot from taking shape to any significant degree, once again raising questions about the commitment of the United States to the region.

Unsurprisingly, the U.S. Air Force (USAF), with its decades of experience operating aircraft in the Asia-Pacific, has been at the forefront of articulating its vision for the pivot. Centered on a philosophy of “places not bases,” the USAF envisages that instead of adding to its permanent presence in the region, there will instead be an increase in deployments of its aircraft to the Pacific in the coming years, building relationships with regional militaries such as that of Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand. And although hardly anyone noticed, the USAF might just have set those wheels in motion recently.

In June 2014, twelve Lockheed-Martin F-16C/D Block 30 Fighting Falcon multirole fighters, six each from the Air National Guard units from the District of Columbia and New Jersey, left their respective bases at Andrews Air Force Base and Atlantic City Air National Guard Base and flew across the Pacific to Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea where they joined up with the two USAF F-16 squadrons from the 8th Fighter Wing (FW) based there. Crewed by members of the New Jersey Air National Guard (NJ ANG), the F-16s deployed to the Korean Peninsula as part of a Theater Security Package (TSP). While deployed to Kunsan, the ANG F-16s, like all TSP units, became part of the 8th FW. The Wolf Pack is one of two USAF fighter wings permanently stationed in South Korea under Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), with the other one being the Osan-based 51st FW with one squadron each of F-16s and A-10s.

The TSP is a U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) initiative that brings additional fighter squadrons and personnel that bolster U.S. forces in PACOM’s area of operations on a rotating basis. Typically lasting between four to six months, TSP deployments started in March 2004 and “signify a continued commitment to regional stability and security, while allowing units to train in the Pacific theater” in the words of PACOM.

Unlike previous TSP deployments to Korea, however, this one soon came with a major twist. At the end of July, the NJ ANG personnel departed Korea and were replaced by 185 pilots and support crew from the 121st Fighter Wing, DC ANG. Instead of staying on the Korean Peninsula, the jets undertook a long journey to the south and arrived at Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) Base Tindal to take part in Exercise Pitch Black 2014. The eight-and-a-half hour, 3,500-mile journey was made nonstop, supported by USAF tankers who refueled the F-16s in midair several times throughout the journey.

Held between August 1 and August 22, Exercise Pitch Black is the RAAF’s premier multinational air-combat exercise, and is held once every two years over northern Australia. This year’s exercise comprised of up to 110 aircraft and approximately 2,300 personnel, and participants also included hosts Australia, Singapore, Thailand, the United Arab Emirates, France and New Zealand. Named after the moonless nights in Australia’s sparsely populated Northern Territory where the exercise takes place, Pitch Black is a Large Force Employment (LFE) air-combat exercise that encompasses a full spectrum of scenarios that make up modern air warfare, allowing participating air forces to use the opportunity to provide realistic, high-end air-combat training for their air crew.