Lead Wing in the Pacific

  • Published
  • By 1st Lt. Christian Little
  • 23rd Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs

The 23rd Air Expeditionary Wing, Air Combat Command’s first certified Lead Wing, traveled from Moody Air Force Base, Georgia, to the Pacific Air Force’s domain to conduct exercise Operation Iron Thunder to share knowledge, hone logistics and operational expertise, and ensure a free and open Indo-Pacific, Oct. 20, 2022.

Between Oct. 31, 2022, and Nov. 11, 2022, the 23rd AEW, with support from Yokota Air Base’s 36th Airlift Squadron, employed approximately 408 personnel and 15 aircraft to establish a main operating base at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, a forward operating site within the Republic of Palau, and three contingency locations within the Federated States of Micronesia, the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, and Guam. The 23rd AEW also partnered with Philippine officials to refuel three aircraft at Mactan-Cebu International Airport, Philippines.

During this time, the 23rd AEW demonstrated how, with the assistance of our partners and allies in the region, a Lead Wing can deploy to an unfamiliar area, integrate into local support structures, push out to temporary operating sites, and provide the capability to generate combat airpower from these sites which provides combatant commanders greater flexibility and power projection.

Lead Wings are teams of rapidly deployable, trained, and equipped Airmen capable of conducting command and control as well as agile combat support for force elements at multiple locations which enables operations away from standing bases on a timeline that is responsive to theater and combatant commander requirements.

“One of the top things the 23rd Wing has brought to the table is ACC’s Lead Wing concept,” said Capt. Jeff Browne, PACAF A3 operations planner. “Having a Lead Wing available really reduces the amount of effort the PACAF staff as a whole has to put into each one of these events, so having Lead Wing personnel here when they come stand up really increases the capability and capacity to operate, especially in dislocated areas throughout the area of responsibility.”

Lead Wings employ their own Air Staff, also known as an A-Staff, which is comprised of a full spectrum of military specialties including communications, logistics, operations, planning, intelligence, and multiple other functional area experts.

“What we have been able to do from the PACAF side is provide guidance and advising to the 23rd Wing while they carry out the execution portion,” Browne said. “It has been helpful to have every numbered construct in the Air Force staff reach out directly to the PACAF A-Staff for guidance, but then we can rely on the 23rd Wing to carry out execution.”

Operation Iron Thunder provided the 23rd AEW an opportunity to exercise how effective a Lead Wing would be at providing capabilities to a combatant commander and provided valuable lessons learned for the next Lead Wing deployment.

“Our intent for Operation Iron Thunder was to integrate ACC's Lead Wing capability with the PACAF ACE concept to ensure we are creating the right capability needed for the combatant commands,” said Col. Russell Cook, 23rd AEW commander. “Two critical elements we had to simulate in the past - working with partners and integrating with a component staff - were key objectives for us during Operation Iron Thunder; PACAF provided us the opportunity to do both and validate what we got right and adjust where we needed for our next deployment.”

These Lead Wing capabilities resulted in lower task-loads at the PACAF-level which enabled a greater amount of operations in the region.

“During execution, it has really helped to have a Lead Wing here to carry out execution of this agile combat employment event, and that frees up space for the PACAF staff to focus on operations as a whole in the theater while the Lead Wing executes this specific operation,” Browne said.

Agile Combat Support

“I think it’s super important to talk about, in the agile combat employment environment, just how important the logistics and readiness side of the house is to actually employing in this environment.” Browne said. “We like to talk about what the fighter missions are executing out here, but it’s really all about the logistical side of the house, and moving everything and figuring out how we’re going to get it from place to place, dealing with the limited resources on these islands and overcoming those challenges that present themselves throughout each one of these events.”

The 23rd AEW, with substantial contributions from the 36 AS, transported 310,000 pounds of cargo to establish and break-down their main base and temporary operating locations.

The Indo-Pacific region's island geography meant that a majority of the cargo moved would have to be transported via airlift.

ACE relies heavily on Agile Combat Support which involves transportation of personnel and cargo, negotiating host nation and mission partner support, accountability of personnel and assets, and much more.

“The ability to rapidly and simultaneously generate combat-ready aircraft from multiple locations lives or dies with effective, agile, and adaptable logistics,” said 1st Lt. Cody Templeton, 23rd AEW A4 logistics lead. “Iron Thunder tested our ability to utilize non-traditional means of logistics to deploy to and operate out of new and unfamiliar locations across the Pacific theater.”

Lead Wing logistics involves taking advantage of whatever is available within an operating location to maximize capabilities while reducing logistical strains.

“Integration with host nation and mission partner support functions and capitalization of existing transportation channels is essential to successful operations,” Templeton said. “By utilizing host nation support, we are able to drastically minimize our total footprint of personnel and cargo leading to a lighter, more agile force while maintaining the same level of effectiveness and lethality.”

Integrating into existing support frameworks enabled the Lead Wing to produce effects while minimizing manpower and resources expended.

“We relied solely on host nation and mission partner entities across five different locations for refueling support, ground transportation, material handling equipment, and several maintenance support items which allowed us to completely eliminate the need to organically provide the personnel and equipment for those support functions,” Templeton said.

Contingency locations, closer to the fight

Throughout Operation Iron Thunder, the 23rd AEW established a forward operating site and several Contingency Locations (CL). These locations contain airfields that are strategically positioned closer to enemy fighting positions than traditional bases and provide a location where air assets can refuel and rearm to strike further and more frequently.

The 23rd AEW used CL teams that are designed to provide combatant commanders with a highly mobile, rapidly employable team capable of opening an airfield for combat air force and joint air assets.

“Contingency Locations are critical in Agile Combat Employment and Dynamic Force Employment operations to rapidly enable the opening of airfields to support the maneuver of joint air assets around a theater without the need of enduring, large-scale infrastructure and traditional bases,” said Maj. Justin Bateman, 822nd Base Defense Squadron commander.

Transitioning to smaller operating locations involves assessing risk, mitigating risk and balancing that risk with mission accomplishment.

“By designing a team that is tailored, lean, and cross-functionally air-minded, combatant commanders can make a sound tactical risk decision that can dramatically reduce the operational risk to theater air forces by enabling dispersed, resilient, and agile schemes of maneuver across a theater against any adversary,” Bateman said.

Opening and operating CLs requires extensive planning and involves multiple different functional area experts.

“Planning for CL operations cannot be done along functional stovepipes,” Bateman said. “By planning, training, and working together, CL teams are able to build a mutual understanding and respect for all key functions and work together on any task. Key to this is the idea that ‘it's not my job’ can never be said in a CL team.”

Previously established relationships with allies and mission partners eased the difficulty of successfully opening and operating contingency locations.

“Building and sustaining relationships throughout the theater with our allies and partners is crucial for ACE,” Bateman said. “From coordinating access to support and integration on the ground, it’s extremely difficult to go into a contingency location cold - relationships built in advance through exercises and operations allow you to say ‘nice to see you again’ instead of ‘hello’ for the first time.”

Flying Tigers return to the Pacific

“Returning Claire Chennault's Flying Tigers to the Pacific was an emotional event for the 23rd Wing,” Cook said. “As we worked with partners to enable fighter operations using new tactics, just as the Flying Tigers had done 80 years prior, we felt a strong tie to our legacy. Ensuring the Flying Tigers were once again capable of defending our partners in the Pacific against any adversary is a charge that drove us every day.”

Retired Maj. Gen. Claire Chennault established the original Flying Tigers with 100 members of the American Volunteer Group in July, 1941. The original Flying Tigers were charged with protecting essential supply routes in China from Axis forces. On Dec. 20, 1941, 13 days after the Pearl Harbor attack, these volunteers protected their area of responsibility by shooting down nine out of 10 Axis bombers that were attempting to bomb Kunming, China. This was the group’s first engagement with Axis aircraft, but they would continue on to have a 15 to one kill ratio throughout their time in the war. The original Flying Tigers lost men and aircraft in their conflicts, but they remained dedicated to their mission of protecting our allies in the Pacific.

“The Flying Tigers have a legacy as innovative warfighters who will always get the mission done - this deployment is one more chapter in that history,” Cook said.