More US Air Force jets are expected to operate in the Pacific next year as China continues to flex its muscles in the South China Sea with its continued build-up in disputed islands in the region.

Pacific Air Forces, headquartered at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, plans to expand their campaign from Islands to Pacific Island next year – known as the Agile Combat Job, or ACE. – to give Airmen the skills they need to operate from anywhere at any time, said General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, Commander PACAF.

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“We will continue to expand the ACE envelope and be able to add aspects and capabilities to be able to perform on a much larger scale, and we will continue to work with our allies and partners,” Wilsbach said in an interview with Military. com this month.

“One of ACE’s goals is to be very agile, very mobile. And from the point of view of those observing it, it will seem random,” he said, referring to the service’s efforts to make travel more difficult for observers like Russia and China. to interpret.

PACAF designed the ACE Concept, an initiative to build small hubs to house rapid reaction forces from austere locations around the world. The concept has gained ground in Europe in recent months.

The Main Command is part of the larger U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, which oversees operations from the west coast of the United States to the west coast of India, and from the northern Arctic to south Antarctica. In total, its area of ​​responsibility covers approximately 52% of the Earth’s surface.

Being agile is the only way to function on its millions of miles of terrain, which is why “almost every exercise we do now has an ACE component,” Wilsbach said. “Our intention with ACE is not to build these mega-bases which require a huge amount of infrastructure, which translates into a lot of costs.”

Since the start of the National Defense Strategy in 2018 under the leadership of then Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, the Air Force has worked on new concepts that could potentially deter a potential enemy, especially if the United States can make China worried about an ever-changing array of locations – – an island-hopping concept that the Marine Corps is also practicing to improve ship-to-shore capabilities in remote conditions.

On a call with reporters last month, Wilsbach said the command had “studied every piece of concrete in the Pacific and Indo-Pacific” to judge where it could land everything from its most advanced fighters. heavy cargo planes.

“We could be there for an hour, we could be there for maybe a few days… and you can present dilemmas that come from multiple aspects at the same time,” he said in the interview.

The ACE initiative continues to travel to several small islands in the Pacific, including Tinian Island, just north of Guam, which the Air Force has selected as an alternative exercise training island by 2016. F-15 Eagles were seen training on the island last year, according to a report from The Drive.

Wilsbach also explained in detail how the F-22 Raptor stealth plane – which was deployed to Andersen Air Force Base in Guam in November – landed on the island of Palau in the western Pacific later this month. -there and was greeted by a C-130 Hercules and its hot-refueling crew, a technique in which the engines remain on to save time. The training run took off from PACAF’s previous “Rapid Raptor” concept to fly hunters beyond traditional fixed installations, an effort that began in late 2013.

“It was certainly the first time that we have hosted an ACE combat event in Palau,” the general said. The F-22s first flew to Palau for landing and take-off exercises in 2019.

Wilsbach cited the recent training with Palau as an opportunity to make inroads with new allies as part of a larger Pentagon goal.

For example, then Defense Secretary Mark Esper insisted on visiting Palau in August on one of his last trips before President Donald Trump sacked him in November. Esper was the first US Secretary of Defense to visit Palau, the Pentagon historian’s office told The Associated Press.

“We continue to work alongside our allies and partners to protect the international system threatened by China and its ongoing destabilizing activities in the region,” Esper said on the trip, according to a Pentagon transcript.

“Palau [is] asking us to do more events with them, ”added Wilsbach. “And so we took advantage of their request. … it reminds me of that when I go out and on this … allies and partners in the region want to partner with us. They want to be interoperable with us. “

As the ACE continues, Wilsbach said the Air Force has discussions “at the classified levels” regarding base defense systems that can support what the forces do during these movements designed to be unpredictable.

This would vary depending on the schedule: longer rotations would require more sophisticated basic defense measures, ranging from early warning for the arrival of ballistic or cruise missiles to the need to accompany special operations forces, did he declare.

“The aim is to provide some measure of defense which maybe only needs to be temporary, and to include some agility so you can get in and out very quickly,” Wilsbach said.

The command must also balance its other missions, including at the North and South Poles.

Wilsbach said the increase in military and commercial activity in the Arctic is worrying, while “adversaries have mainly scientific enterprises” in the Antarctic, at least for now.

“There are just a lot more major league players who are interested in the Arctic. But one thing that bothers me militarily is that there are countries that are developing capabilities in the Arctic. the Arctic, which are very offensive, and could be described as aggressive, ”he said.

For example, the Russian state-run news agency TASS reported in August that Russian forces carried out amphibious landing exercises on the Taimyr Peninsula in the Arctic Ocean.

Wilsbach questioned the motives of the country.

“What are amphibious forces used for?” [this] land by [way of] the sea, ”he said. “The Arctic has so far been a peaceful place where disagreements have been settled through dialogue and diplomacy, and our goal is to keep it that way. The Air Force launched its own Arctic strategy earlier this year.

Officials also fear that the melting ice could give adversaries, including China, a reason to increase the use of underwater and aerial unmanned weapons, as well as intelligence-gathering platforms, in the areas. newly opened arctic areas. For example, in September, the US Navy launched Exercise Black Widow to detect and track submarine ships to test its high-end anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

With the help of Northern Command in the United States and Canada, PACAF wants to defuse aggressive behavior “or any type of conflict or combat in the Arctic,” Wilsbach said.

“But when you have other countries that are developing that kind of capacity, I recommend, ‘Let’s keep an eye on these countries. “”

– Oriana Pawlyk can be contacted at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @ Oriana0214.

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