A U.S. Air Force pilot assigned to the 3rd Air Expeditionary Wing flies a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 15th Wing, Joint Base Pearl-Hickam, Hawaii, over the Northern Mariana Islands during Exercise Agile Reaper 23-1, March 4, 2023.

A U.S. Air Force pilot assigned to the 3rd Air Expeditionary Wing flies a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to the 15th Wing, Joint Base Pearl-Hickam, Hawaii, over the Northern Mariana Islands during Exercise Agile Reaper 23-1, March 4, 2023. U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Julia Lebens

Air Force clearing out jungles in Pacific to bolster airfield options

But additional funding for these efforts may be held up by budget impasse on Capitol Hill, Pacific Air Forces commander says.

The U.S. Air Force is finding ways to increase the number of airfields it can take off from in the Pacific—and wants more money to build out airfields and rebuild overgrown WWII airfields.

Adding bases is key to the service’s Agile Combat Employment concept, or ACE, which aims to keep combat aircraft flying despite enemy attacks, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, Pacific Air Forces Commander, told reporters Monday at the Air & Space Forces Association’s annual Air, Space & Cyber conference. 

The Air Force is currently clearing out a jungle on Tinian, a small island near Guam that was home to the largest B-29 bomber base during World War II and more recently has hosted ACE exercises.

“We're going to be clearing out the jungle [and] we're going to be resurfacing some of the surfaces there so that we will have a fairly large and very functional Agile Combat Employment base, an additional base to be able to operate from and we have several other projects like that around the region that we'll be getting after. That takes resources to be able to accomplish and so those are some of the resources that I argue for when I go back to the headquarters,” Wilsbach said.

The service has requested additional money for ACE construction in its 2024 budget request, Wilsbach said, but Congress is unlikely to pass the defense bills before the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1. Even if lawmakers approve a continuing resolution to avoid a government shutdown, the CR is unlikely to allow the new spending. 

“There's additionally new munitions that I'm very interested in that we're purchasing in the [20]24 budget if approved. And then modernization—there's some modernization for some of our current platforms that are very critical for maintaining dominance in some of our mission areas because while we have been doing a lot of things in the Middle East in the last 20 years, China's been resourcing for near-peer competition,” Wilsbach said. 

China has been building up its own Pacific airfields, practicing to repair runways damaged by air strikes, and sharpening its ability to disrupt U.S. logistics and communications.

Wilsback said the Air Force is working on how it can harden comms and logistics and is forming backup plans in case, he said.

The additional U.S. bases will be part of a “hub-and-spoke” system, he said.

“A year ago we had fewer options for hubs and spokes than we do today. And so it's it's slower than I'd like it to be, but it's still expanding and every single additional airfield that I can operate from is another in a contingency or crisis or a conflict is another airfield that China has to put into their targeting folders and, and then allocate resources toward them, which dilutes their ability to shut us completely down,” he said. 

On Monday, Wilsbach released “PACAF Strategy 2030: Evolving Airpower,” —which outlines four operational priorities for the Pacific: “enhance warfighting advantage; advance theater posture; strengthen alliances and partnerships; and shape the information environment.”

“We want to continue to evolve so that we enhance our warfighting capabilities with the primary objective of being to deter violence in the Indo-Pacific, but if that deterrence doesn't work, we have to be ready to be able to win. And so the way that we will be doing that is modernizing our force,” he said. 

Wilsback said China’s 5th-generation Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter would be of limited use in a Chinese attempt to invade Taiwan. Taipei should be more concerned about China’s H-6 bombers that can drop weapons on Taiwan, as well as PLA ballistic and cruise missiles, he said.

He added that while China has done “good work” at stealing technology from the West and putting it in its J-20, Chinese fighter pilots so far lack “prowess like an American fighter pilot.”

“That being said, they are improving. They've proven they've improved a lot over the last few decades. China writ large is trying their best to improve themselves by improving their training scenarios,” Wilsbach said.

The general also mentioned China’s attempts to hire Western pilots and air crews to train them. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. CQ Brown recently released a memo warning airmen that “foreign companies are targeting and recruiting U.S. and NATO-trained military talent across specialties and career fields to train the PLA abroad to fill gaps in their military capabilities.”

“They're reaching out to try to improve themselves and so they are getting better,” Wilsbach said.