The U.S. Air Force on April 22, 2019 practiced spreading out its warplanes across the Pacific region in order to make it harder for Chinese forces to target them.
Actually, preparing for bad weather was the main official justification. But the “dispersal exercise” also is part of an evolving Pentagon plan for waging high-tech war against China. American forces would spread out to dodge Chinese attack, then gather to conduct their own attacks.
(This first appeared in April 2019.)
“Pacific Air Forces airmen and aircraft from across the command joined together at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam ... to participate in a dispersal exercise throughout Micronesia,” the Air Force reported.
The exercise, named Resilient Typhoon, is designed to validate PACAF’s ability to adapt to rapidly developing events, like inclement weather, while maintaining readiness in support of allied and partner nations throughout the region.
The exercise tests PACAF’s ability to execute flight operations from multiple locations in order to maintain readiness and involves airmen and aircraft concentrated in one place – Andersen AFB – separating via a dispersal, recovering and then rapidly resuming operations at airports and airfields in: Guam, Tinian, Saipan, The Federated States of Micronesia … and Palau.
A wide range of aircraft participated in the exercise, including F-16s from Misawa air base in Japan, F-15Cs from Kadena, C-130Js from Japan’s Yokota air base and C-17s and F-22s from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
A separate but parallel Air Force concept helps squadrons quickly to move small groups of warplanes.
“Operational environments and global threats evolve rapidly,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Winkler, PACAF director of strategy, plans and programs. “We must ensure that all forward-deployed forces are ready for a potential contingency with little notice and that we can move more fluidly across the theater to seize, retain and exploit the initiative in any environment.”
In 2013, the U.S. Air Force’s Alaska-based 3rd Wing devised a new way to deploy its 40 F-22 Raptor stealth fighters in order to make the most efficient use of the limited overall number of Raptor airframes -- just 120 or so of the roughly 180 F-22s in service are "combat-coded" and equipped with the latest software and weapons.
Instead of always painstakingly deploying entire 20-plane squadrons or even the whole 40-jet wing , as custom dictated , wing officers wrote new procedures for sending a quartet of F-22s plus a single supporting C-17 cargo plane practically anywhere in the Pacific region possessing a suitable airfield, all within 24 hours of the word "go."
The 3rd Wing gave the idea its "Rapid Raptor" name and proudly briefed the concept to the Air Force’s then-chief of staff Gen. Mark Welsh. The aim was for the 3rd Wing, during wartime, to quickly disperse its F-22s across many bases instead of concentrating them at just one facility where they might be vulnerable to, say, a Chinese ballistic-missile barrage.
Soon the whole six-squadron front-line F-22 force adopted the Rapid Raptor concept. In April 2016 the Florida-based 95th Fighter Squadron sent a pair of F-22s on a quick-fire tour of Eastern Europe as part of the U.S. military plan for deterring Russia in the aftermath of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
The concept caught on. In July 2017, Air Force commandos in the United Kingdom practiced deploying to an austere airfield to quickly refuel and rearm F-15s from the 48th Wing. It was the first time that Air Force special operators and their MC-130 transports had teamed up with F-15C fighters at a so-called forward arming and refueling point, or FARP.
Air Force officials said they would to adapt the Rapid concept to other warplane types. "We’re working on 'Rapid Next,'" Gen. Herbert Carlisle, then commander of the Air Combat Command, said in September 2015. In 2017 the Air Force folded the Rapid scheme into its "agile combat employment" doctrine.
The U.S. Marine Corps meanwhile is developing its own concept for “distributed” operations in the Pacific region. On Dec. 7, 2018, Marines with Marine Aerial Refueler Transport Squadron 352 hauled two M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System launchers from Camp Pendleton in California to Dugway Proving Grounds in Utah, where a war game was underway.
At least one of the 12-ton HIMARS, a wheeled vehicle that fires a variety of surface-to-surface rockets, rolled off its KC-130J transport, quickly fired a training rocket, then loaded back into the KC-130J for its return flight.
There's a name for the practice of deploying a rocket launcher via aircraft, promptly firing then redeploying. The U.S. Army, which pioneered the method, calls it "HIMARS Rapid Infiltration" or HIRAIN.
Combined with other new tactics and new rockets, HIRAIN could allow U.S. force to quickly position long-range artillery, frustrating an enemy's own movements. The method might even allow American troops to impede China's expansion in the western Pacific.
Imagine a Chinese flotilla sailing toward some remote island group near Japan or The Philippines during some near-future war. A Marine rocket battery could quickly deploy to one island aboard Marine or Air Force transports and lob a few rockets at the Chinese ships while the transports idled nearby. "After firing each volley, the missile battery would move to a new hide site and await orders to fire again," the California think-tank RAND explained in a 2017 report.
The Marines similarly are beginning to spread out their growing force of F-35B stealth fighters across a large number of U.S. and allied ships. U.S. Navy amphibious assault ships have embarked wings of up to 10 F-35s. The Corps also has considered flying stealth fighters from South Korean and British ships.
Whether it’s Air Force warplanes dispersing across Micronesia or Marine rocket batteries and stealth fighters deploying across island chains and ships, the underlying principle is the same.
Spreading out your forces makes them harder to target. That concept could prove decisive in the event the United States and China ever go to war.
Image: U.S. Department of Defense