ACE operations, short for Agile Combat Employment, require a unit to quickly mobilize and deploy its fighter jets across a region, such as the Indo-Pacific area of operations.
Having the ability to present a flexible theater posture that isn’t tied down to a few major bases but that can move fluidly and be adjusted depending on the operational circumstances on the ground is paramount for a lethal force that seeks to counter a near-peer adversary in the 21st century.
The National Defense Strategy that came out last year specifically mentions the need for the Pentagon to develop a lethal and agile force posture. U.S. ground, naval, and air forces need to be able to deploy rapidly in an area and conduct dispersed, sustained operations if need be. That means conducting operations from what would normally be considered austere locations and airstrips, as large military bases would quickly become targets in a near-peer conflict.
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For example, in the event of a conflict with China, Air Force units operating in the Indo-Pacific would need to disperse their aircraft to prevent a catastrophic scenario in which a Chinese missile attack or an air raid takes out a large number of aircraft on the ground. Such an attack doesn’t necessarily even have to destroy the aircraft themselves to render them combat ineffective.
A few well-placed munitions can seriously damage or destroy the runways that the aircraft need to take off from and land on, making the aircraft useless without the need for a direct hit. Although the Air Force is seeking ways to minimize the repair time on damaged runways, a partially or completely destroyed airstrip would most likely ground any aircraft on the base until those repairs could be made.
This concern is nothing new, and in fact, the the U.S. military once pursued the development of tail-sitting fighters that would take-off and land in a nose-up position, using their massive props to hover like helicopters, thus eliminating the need for runways. This approach proved impractical, but the likelihood of attacks on airbases in the initial volleys of a new World War have only gone up since then.
By dispersing aircraft and quickly moving them around a theater of operations, the Air Force is increasing their survivability and making it harder for an adversary to take them out. This approach is both more cost effective and practical than developing specialized aircraft with no need for airstrips.
But aircraft need more than just an airstrip. They also need ammo and fuel to operate, and that’s where the FARP concept comes in.
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