After decades of relying on major military hubs from Hawaii to South Korea, the Pentagon is laying the groundwork for more dispersed operations in the Pacific region.
Prison. Quarterback Mike Zuhlsdorf is a key player in those discussions. He serves as the deputy director for resource integration in the Air Force’s logistics, engineering and force protection branch.
As other defense officials negotiate with foreign leaders for access to bare airfields and more established bases overseas, Zuhlsdorf’s team is figuring out how to turn these sites into valuable Air Force lilies in a sea-dominant region for the next decades.
Zuhlsdorf spoke to Air Force Times at the Pentagon on Dec. 15. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Is the Air Force discussing with other countries the use of foreign bases that already exist or are you considering establishing new locations?
We are not breaking new ground. These are bases and airfields we’ve had since World War II where we could hops in the Pacific to finally get close enough to Japan. There are many such airports, whether in the first island chain – Japan to the Philippines – or the second island chain, near Guam and Tinian.
We are talking about renovation, renewal and restoration. We’ll make sure the pavement is still viable, we’ll cut back the vegetation where the jungle has encroached on the runway, and we’ll build the essentials we need in case we need to flush aircraft from a hub on these radii, keep them safe and then turn them over.
What we need? Things like fuel; large aircraft components that six to 12 airmen may be able to fix there; maybe some ammo [and airfield repair resources]; the necessary lighting or navigation systems for night operations. A little air base defense might be part of it, or camouflage, concealment and deception. Almost all nodes will have a command, control and communication system flying with them so that we can maintain connectivity with the mothership at all times.
We work with allies and partners. Pacific Air Force has identified airfields we want to invest in, and they will work with the Philippines and Australia To do this. We’re working with them on some projects that will allow us to get fuel out there, some munitions capabilities, and other long-range transport aircraft that will come in and could be refueled.
Which existing airports are currently on the list?
There’s more to the second island chain we spot. There are additional airports located on Guam and a few on the first island chain that we will eventually reach.
What we’re trying to do is remove access and overflight before an official announcement comes out. The ones that have been published in the press are the ones where we have already worked with these countries. We are working with other allies and partners in the region to secure this very critical access, overflights and base.
[Editor’s note: A spokesperson for the Air Force’s international affairs branch declined to provide specifics about which countries the U.S. is in talks with to host air operations abroad.]
Will the Air Force expand Andersen Air Force Base to Guam or other areas of the island?
We have plans for a couple of hangars located in Andersen and some of the select hubs we want to operate from, maybe a radius or two — wherever we decide is optimal. We are looking to create a shelter system that will allow us to protect critical equipment. We have to consider the maintenance of all this equipment that we’re pre-installing, so we’ll want to put it in a controlled environment facility so that when we need it, it works as advertised.
We’re also thinking about protecting those hubs and spokes so that the airmen, soldiers, sailors, marines and rangers we’re going to send out there are as safe as possible. There is a major threat from ballistic missiles and hypersonic missiles. We strive to ensure that these pilots can fly these aircraft as advertised.
None of us who wear this uniform are looking for war. Our job is to be wise with taxpayer dollars, and what the American people want from us is to plan.
What is the timeline to open these sites? How do you introduce them gradually?
Defense plans of two to three financial years. We are working [which sites should be prioritized].
Is 10-15 years too long?
We will see specific things in one [five-year] Defense Program of the Future Year and will continue to manifest during this period of time. We have some weapons systems in the queue — Next Generation Air Dominance, cooperative fighter jets. It will happen in this window.
What are you learning from the Air Force beams across Europe that you have used in partner countries since Russia’s full invasion of Ukraine in February 2022? How do you apply these lessons in the Pacific?
This is a unique opportunity for us. We were in US Central Command and being able to move pieces, parts, munitions, aircraft, personnel and anything like that was relatively uncontroversial. Yes, the military had some challenges there when you talk about the main supply routes, but overall it was not a contested environment. Ukraine is a contentious environment and the logistics lessons we learn are invaluable.
What are the critical parts and components needed? How did these parts get from location X to location Y? Did they use this system or that system? How did they get the data? We are quickly arriving at a data analytics framework that will allow us to visually see what supplies and equipment we need. We’ll be able to drop that into a basic data analysis and logistics environment that will allow us, as stewards, to figure out where we need to put the next aircraft part or the next load of fuel.
Russia and Ukraine have several small unmanned aerial systems that impede each other’s progress. How do they monitor these systems? How do they break these systems? How do they do air defense for air bases? These lessons are concentrated.
What is the proposed cost for Pacific-based projects in fiscal year 2025?
We are working till FY25. This is some of the resources our senior leaders have at this time.
There hasn’t been a profound change in drone technology in recent years. Where is this skill located and what would you like to see?
We are probably still newborns. We’ve literally just had conversations about this – in the last four or five months – about expanding and investing more in this very important battlespace. There is a lot of research and a lot of dollars being applied to this set of problems. You see that coming into play not only in the Ukraine-Russia war, but now with Hamas and Israel.
Are small drones a threat in the Pacific, despite the region’s considerable size?
These are all islands and all have an indigenous population. You can be sure there are probably people who don’t like the United States on these islands. Some of these smaller systems could definitely affect an air shipment order. To protect the integrity of this air mission command, we have to think about how we can deal with this small threat while other people are thinking through these ballistic missiles and these hypersonic missiles.
It’s a full-spectrum air defense platform for an air base that we’re looking at, along with the camouflage, concealment and deception program, electronic warfare, and all those pieces.
What are the main obstacles to achieving this vision?
One of the big problems is the lack of budget. When you think about the supply lines that we need to support and invest in, we absolutely need the help of Congress to pass a budget so that we can get the capabilities that we know we need.
There is always the common piece of interoperability that we long for and the ability to share information with our allies and partners. We’re trying to work a little more aggressively on what information we can share with them and what tactics, techniques and processes we could share. We have recently had success in Australia in some refueling efforts with the F-35 fighter jet. This is a great success.
We break down barriers where we can to make sure we have the necessary capability and that everyone understands what it is. We are sending people to Japan right now to work with them even closer on exercises and on different weapons systems. These are big obstacles, but we are overcoming them.
The threat posed to us over the past three or four years by the People’s Republic of China has mobilized many allies and partners of the US Indo-Pacific Command. There is an impetus for us to work even more closely together going forward.
What short-term expenses are on the horizon?
We invest in pre-positioned assets. This includes the tool kits and equipment necessary for maintenance on these aircraft. We invest in fuel bladders, airport refurbishment and airport breakdown and repair equipment.
Consider heavy equipment — mobile aircraft capture systems. Some of these things we haven’t put on the production line in a long time. We are investing in production lines to build and implement them as part of this Next Year Defense Program. We are investing in communication equipment that will allow us to command and control.
We invest in our airmen with multi-capability aircraft training. The Air Force Expeditionary Center at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, is putting together the curriculum necessary to train our Airmen and prepare them to have a civil engineer not just for civil engineering work, but maybe change a tire or load a bomb or refuel a jet or protect the base. It’s about investing in all those things that are necessary to deal with a threat that, frankly, we haven’t had to think about that much in the last 30 years.
When I came in, it was the Soviet Union, protecting the Fulda Gap in Germany. We learned a lot of skills that were multiple in the late 1980s that we are now dusting off. We will apply this to this near peer match.
Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.
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