Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller meets with 100th Air Refueling Wing in Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, UK, 12,21,20.

Acting Secretary of Defense Chris Miller meets with 100th Air Refueling Wing in Royal Air Force Base Mildenhall, UK, 12,21,20. Patrick Tucker

In Europe, US Air Force Brings Back Cold War Mobility Concept

The shift from countering terrorists to Russia is also bringing cutting-edge fighter-jet simulators.

RAF MILDENHALL, UK—For the 100th Air Refueling Wing, pivoting away from counter-terrorism to great power competition means reverting to Cold War concepts such as highly mobile command centers.

Wing members tested their ability to move command posts among bases — a concept now dubbed Agile Combat Employment, or ACE, during September's three-day Wolfpack exercise. They flew their command-and-control element forward to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, gaining “some redundancy, some dispersed capability,” said Lt. Col. Rich Winfrey, the Wing’s Chief of Plans and Programs. “We had not done that before, so that was new.” 

Dispersal among several bases was standard operating procedure during the Cold War, but two decades of largely counter-terrorism work pressed the air wing to become more “efficient,” said Maj. David Nan, Chief of Wing Plans and Agile Combat Development Lead. That efficiency is why the air base plays a key role in missions reaching into Africa and the Middle East. In October, they flew MC-130J airlifters to help special operators rescue hostages in Nigeria

But efficiency has downsides. “What that did is create more of a hub and a spoke where you put a lot of things at central locations, so now we’re trying to mitigate that risk,” said Nan. You do that by improving your ability to move command centers, communication nodes, and other wing pieces to friendly bases faster.

Since 2001, the wing has been flying KC-135 tankers out of Mildenhall. Set amidst rolling green English fields, locals will often set up step ladders just outside the base fence to watch U.S. jets and planes take off and land. Defense One visited while part of a delegation with Chris Miller, the acting secretary of defense. The weather was gray with a cold, subtle but persistent rain, weather one shopkeeper on base described as “good.” 

“We know going into the future we have an adversary that knows how we operate, so we have to change the game. So we have to change the game,” said Lt. Col. Ryan Ferdinandsen, who leads the 351st Air Refueling Squadron. “We can’t always operate out of Mildenhall Hall. We will confuse the calculus of our adversary whoever that may, might be… They will never know where we’re going to be next.” It could be from a base from Spain to Portugal to Iceland.

The new concept adds logistics and planning work, Ferdinandsen said. “When things go wrong and aircraft break and need parts and things like that — we have to figure out how we’re going to do that.”

The nearby fighter wing at Lakenheath is also adapting to better face off against Russia. The first F-35 stealth fighter jet is to arrive in November, with 53 more to follow by the end of 2023. They will join F-15s that have been flying missions into the Middle East against adversaries that, for the most part, lacked high-end radar.

Facilities to house the new squadrons are currently going up around the base, including a large hanger bay that will hold six F-35 simulators.

The simulation center will play a big role in preparing future F-35 pilots in Europe, in part because there are so few places to fly realistic training missions with the highly-advanced, secretive aircraft. “For Europe, realistically, the best place to get that training is here in our sims,” said Lt. Col. Ajax Syswerda, 48th Fighter Wing director of staff. We will obviously fly the jet a lot and train against representations of that. But to put up the numbers of adversaries you want to fight against… the best place to do that and way less expensive is in the sims.”

So while the future of command and control will be more mobile, some things, like advanced training, stay in one place.