U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs rest on the flight line with a coalition partner’s aircraft as the sun rises during Mobility Guardian 23 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, July 14, 2023.

U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster IIIs rest on the flight line with a coalition partner’s aircraft as the sun rises during Mobility Guardian 23 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, July 14, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Tech. Sgt. James Cason

How Air Mobility Command is prepping for possible conflict in the Pacific

The command tested new concepts in this year’s edition of its largest exercise.

The Air Force’s mobility command is thinking more than ever about how it will operate closer to a future fight in the Pacific. 

Mobility Guardian 2023, a two-week exercise ending on Friday, practiced tactics for operating across vast distances during a conflict, said Maj. Gen. Darren Cole, operations director for Air Mobility Command.

Cole said his command has always had a combat role, but there’s potential for AMC to expand into other mission areas, including firing weapons off of aircraft long regarded as unarmed cargo haulers.

In November, the Air Force test-fired one of these “palletized effects”: Red Dragon, a missile launcher that dropped from the cargo ramp of an MC-130J Commando II, then launched a Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile in midair.

“That's a very easy thing for us to do. We're naturals at dropping things out of airplanes. And there are lots of different effects. It could be munitions, things like that. We're pretty good at dropping food and humanitarian assistance,” Cole told Defense One on Thursday. 

AMC commander Gen. Mike Minihan has been very blunt in his prediction that a war with China is imminent. Earlier this year, in a memo to his airmen, Minihan said that his “gut” tells him they will fight in 2025, and he instructed AMC commanders to report all major efforts to prepare for war. 

Throughout the ongoing exercise, the Air Force has practiced its Agile Combat Employment concept, or ACE, which was created to make the service more mobile in the Pacific. They demonstrated “tanker ACE” and had a KC-46 tanker fly a 35-hour sortie, Cole said.

“We found out we can sustain more aircraft airborne by keeping the tanker airborne longer. That proved to be really useful, so we were able to actually provide fuel across three entire days with the same tanker,” he said. 

The Air Force is looking to buy an all-new tanker that can fly deeper into contested airspace and plug into next-gen battlefield networks, called the next-gen aerial refueler, or NGAS. Cole repeated what other Air Force officials have said: future tankers must have more endurance and automation, and be able to stay connected. 

“If you can be a forward node for the distribution of fuel, but also data and increasing everybody's situational awareness, you can be more agile,” Cole said. 

The command also practiced “flushing” airplanes from an airfield during the exercise—essentially dispersing aircraft in case of an emergency. 

“It was basically practicing a procedure that we could see using under a kinetic threat or in anticipation of kinetic threats that we need to practice now, before we actually have to execute it in wartime, so it's really mitigating risk in wartime by practicing in this exercise,” Cole said. 

In recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. Air Force did not face much opposition in the air. But in a conflict with China, AMC would need to consider how to conceal its movements—especially those of large cargo planes, like C-17s. Cole said the service tries to stay aware of what an enemy could see, and also acknowledges it may lose planes in a future conflict.

In “future warfare, definitely, we're going to have to consider attrition. It can be attrition from kinetic effects or non-kinetic effects and then there's just, when you're dealing with airplanes, there's a natural attrition rate on maintenance, on the corrosive environment that I talked about,” Cole said.

To prepare airmen to fight in a new environment, AMC experimented with its “aircraft battle damage capability,” Cole said. 

The command also practiced how it would preposition supplies throughout the Pacific to sustain a fight. Storing ammo and equipment is difficult because of the Pacific’s harsh environment, where sea salt, air and high humidity can corrode supplies, Cole said. And AMC practiced how it can reduce their “logistics tail” while prepositioning, he said. 

“If I'm going to move one unit that might require five C-17 aircraft but if I don't want to endure so long, it might not be five C-17 loads. There's maybe a way to pare that down and get there with just one C-17, so we've done some experimentation on that,” he said. 

Cole’s command has been involved in several high-profile missions in recent years, including delivering support to Ukraine and evacuating troops and refugees from Afghanistan. 

The evacuation of Kabul demonstrated the need for agile communications, Cole said, a lesson they’ll bring to the Pacific. 

The Air Force has tested a new “agile communications system” that combines satellite communications with a Wi-Fi network to transmit and act as a command and control mechanism across long distances, he said.  

“It makes them much more agile, keeps them in that shared awareness network, keeps the leadership and the decision making process and all the Air Mobility assets that can flow into a place like Kabul and if they need a call for help, it's right at their fingertips,” Cole said.