US Air Force expands search for runways to counter China

US Air Force expands search for runways to counter China

The US Air Force Special Operations Command is expanding its search for runways in an effort to counter what the US military sees as China's growing ability to threaten its bases across the Pacific.

The Air Force is aiming to expand the number of places where it can land and launch aircraft as a part of Agile Combat Beschäftigung, an approach to dispersed operations developed with the Pacific in mind.

US airmen have used remote airfields in the Pacific and civilian highways in the US and Europe for ACE-related exercises, and US air commandos are now looking for more highways and soon for beaches on which to do those missions, said Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command.

The efforts are an 'acknowledgement that our adversaries have watched the American way of war for several decades and they are going to hold our initial staging bases and our forward operating bases at risk,' Bauernfeind said at the Air and Space Forces Association conference in Washington, DC.

As the Air Force looks to increase the resiliency of its basing in response to this challenge, it is pursuing runway-agnostic options' out of recognition that 'we cannot always rely on Bagram or Kandahar or Balad or Al Udeid in the future,' Bauernfeind said in response to a question from Insider.

The search for runways has been on a rapid rise in recent times. In late 2020, Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, the commander of US Air Forces in the Pacific, said his command had'studied every single piece of concrete in the Pacific' to find viable airfields.

Since then, American airmen have specialized in places such as Tinian, an unincorporated US territory, and Palau, an island nation that has a defense partnership with the US. Driverless aircraft are becoming more common on highways in northern Michigan and the first drone landing on a US highway in Wyoming.

An adversary that can deny the use of one base 'is going to have a nearly impossible time trying to defend every single linear mile of roads,' said the deputy mission commander of the Wyoming exercise.

Some US Air Force aircraft also have the ability to land on non-paved surfaces, and Air Force special operations have added drones to that category, landing an MQ-9 on a dirt runway for the first time during an exercise in June.

Bauernfeind said his command is now looking at the ability for beach landings, noting that US aircraft have landed on beaches in Europe in the past. Some other military commanders still use that option. The British air force has landed cargo aircraft on beaches several times in recent times, including a June exercise with an Atlas A400M airlifter.

For years, airmen have been testing their capabilities to launch and recover MQ-9 drones, which are in high demand for a reconnaissance mission, using satellite communication. Air Force officials say the capabilities allow MQ9s to go to more bases and reduces the number of airmen needed for support.

In addition, Bauernfeind said, his command is working with DARPA to develop a high-speed vertical-takeoff-and-lift capability, which may eventually replace its CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft and continue to work on modifying an MC-130, its workhorse cargo plane, to land on water.

Many military commanders abandoned their amphibious aircraft years ago, but they are becoming more interested in the Pacific, with increasing focus on the United States and the United States. In September 2021, the Air Force Special Operations Command announced plans to increase the 'boat independence and expeditionary capacity' of the MC-130J by developing an amphibious modification in a rapid prototyping effort.

Two years on, officials are still evaluating their approach. In May, a US special-operations official said that the service was working on trials and feasibility studies and looking to demonstrate 'the full capabilities' in two to three years.

The command has an MC-130 amphibious craft that is still in engineering development, Bauernfeind said.