In a region still fraught with tension, Misawa AB continues to serve as the staging post for US Air Force projection should instability rock the Asia-Pacific's delicate power balance Andrzej Jeziorski/MISAWA AB, JAPAN

The sea temperatures are falling as winter closes in around Misawa air base, and the pilots will soon have to start wearing their rubber 'poopy suits' again.

Properly called anti-exposure suits, the euphemism arises from the personal hygiene consequences of the suits' non-permeability. The pilots tolerate this, however, since the water off the coast of northern Japan can get as cold as 7°C (45°C) or lower in the winter months, and can quickly incapacitate a downed flyer. The anti-exposure suit gives him a little more time to reach the safety of his life raft.

Misawa AB is the northernmost outpost of US air power in the western Pacific Ocean, and home of the 35th Fighter Wing of the US Pacific Air Forces (PACAF). Situated on the shores of Lake Ogawara at the northern tip of Japan's largest island, Honshu, it has to contend with an average 3m (10ft) of snowfall annually, as well as occasional earthquakes, like one in 1994 which peaked at 7.5 on the Richter scale.

US Air Force personnel at Misawa say they are "at the point of the tip of the spear", less than 1,300km (800 miles) from the North Korean capital Pyongyang. The armed border between South Korea and the communist North is still considered "the frontline" of operations here, despite continuing efforts at a rapprochement between the two nations' governments.

As the most northern US base with a "significant" runway - about 3,000m (10,000ft) long - Misawa makes a significant staging post for access to the north-west Pacific. It is the only operationally combined, four-service installation in US Pacific Command and houses units of the US Air Force, Army, Navy and Marines, as well as Japan Air Self-Defence Force (JASDF) units and civilians, giving it a population of about 13,000.

The USAF contingent makes up the largest chunk of this population, totalling about 6,800 - of whom 2,600 are military personnel under the 35th Fighter Wing. The Wing includes the 35th Operations Group, which comprises two squadrons of Lockheed Martin F-16CJ/DJs - the 13th "Panthers" and 14th "Samurai".

On this rainy morning, all the flying units at the base are active. Lockheed Martin P-3 Orion maritime patrol aircraft, deployed to Misawa in support of the US Navy's Seventh Fleet, line up alongside permanently stationed EP-3 Aries electronic reconnaissance aircraft of the USN's VQ-1 squadron, and Japanese Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes. Ahead of them, Mitsubishi F-1s and McDonnell Douglas F-4s of the JASDF's 3rd Air Wing thunder down the runway. Behind them taxi a flight of four F-16s from the 14th squadron, led by squadron commander Lt Col Jeffrey Lofgren.

Changing times

On the visor housing of his helmet, Lofgren has attached a patch bearing the Japanese naval ensign - a red rising sun with 16 rays radiating from it on a white background. This same symbol was once a favoured adornment on bandannas worn by Japanese pilots attacking US warships during the Second World War, and the flag was subsequently banned for a period under the Treaty of San Francisco. It is a sign of how relations between the former adversaries have changed, that USAF pilots now decorate their own flying suits with the symbol.

Much has changed in the Asia-Pacific during the last half-century. Japan has found its feet industrially after its post-war "economic miracle", although today its economy is shaky, and the Japan Defence Agency's procurement plans show a tendency towards greater independence in its defence capabilities, and towards increasing the reach of its forces.

War has divided Korea much more effectively than the Berlin Wall did Germany. But South Korean president Kim Dae Jung's stubborn adherence to his "sunshine policy" towards the North has created a remarkable thaw, and there is optimistic talk of eventual reunification barely two years after North Korea traumatised its neighbours by launching a ballistic missile which overflew Japan.

The launch of the Taepo Dong 1 missile on31 August, 1998, did much to stimulate the subsequent, controversial, joint study between Japan and the USA of a ballistic missile defence system. North Korea has consistently claimed that the incident was an unsuccessful satellite launch, announcing on the 21 September that year that the payload had "ceased transmitting patriotic hymns". No new satellite transmissions had been detected by anyone else in this period, and international tensions heightened.

Once-isolated China is now joining the World Trade Organisation, while building up its own military with the acquisition of technology from Russia. At the same time, tensions across the Taiwan Straits ebb and flow, and US loyalties are divided. While Washington recognises Beijing as the only legitimate government of China, it continues to sell weapons to Taiwan - most recently a $1.2 billion package including the promise of supplying Raytheon AIM-120C AMRAAM beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles - if a crisis should flare up.

South-East Asia also offers its share of potential hot spots, with political unrest in Indonesia and the Philippines. Against this unpredictable background, all the USA wants is to help maintain stability, say senior officers at Misawa. And its military's forward-deployed units in Asia-Pacific are crucial to that task.

Pacific posture

PACAF has three bases in Japan: Misawa, Kadena and Yokota. There are also two bases in South Korea: Osan and Kunsan. According to Col Michael Lepper, commander of the 35th Operations Group and former chief of US Pacific Command's North-East Asia Policy Division in Hawaii, Washington remains committed to keeping a forward deployed force of about 100,000 personnel from all services in the Asia-Pacific region. This is about the same as the US is maintaining in post-Cold War Europe, says Lepper.

"We talk to so many countries that say they would prefer the US to maintain a presence. We are a Pacific country [and] there are countries that look to us as a stabilising force. We would all prefer that the future remain stable. It would help rebuild the economies that have had a little bit of a stumble in the last decade or so, but we can't be sure [of that stability]," says Lepper. He adds that recent unsettling events in Fiji, East Timor, North Korea and Russia all emphasise the need for vigilance.

The Pacific forces' area of responsibility is huge. Col Jeffrey Blanchette, vice-commander of the 35th Fighter Wing, says: "Our responsibility of contact, co-operation and military readiness goes from the West Coast of the United States all the way to the east coast of Africa, and then to the North and South Poles. Without having forces deployed forward - like here at Misawa, Yokota and Kadena - we would not be able to respond fast enough with a force that is adequate, so it is critical that we are forward deployed."

Blanchette says that the forces' location places them "far enough forward to respond to US political requirements, which may be to show the flag". For the fighter wing, attending international trade shows and local military air shows is an integral part of its duties, to "have a presence of the USAF and a formalised demonstration of the F-16's capabilities", says Blanchette. The wing has the operational duty, however, of helping to defend Japanese territory under a joint defence treaty signed by the two countries, as well as responding to other crises in the region.

"If the threat area is South-East Asia, we can get to Singapore in a day, with tanker support. If it's the [Korean] peninsula, I can do that without tanker support," says Blanchette. The 35th could, potentially, operate combat missions over North and South Korea directly from Misawa, says Blanchette, although politics would prevent it from doing so without a change to the US remit in Japan.

Defence suppression

The primary role of the 35th's two squadrons is suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD). The Wing is one of only three within in the USAF equipped with the Raytheon AGM-88 HARM anti-radiation missile - the others are based at Shaw AFB in South Carolina and Spangdahlem AB, Germany.

Each of the Wing's two squadrons comprises 18 aircraft, including a pair of two-seat F-16DJs for training. The aircraft are Block 50 F-16s, powered by General Electric F110-129 engines and optimised for the SEAD role, but capable of taking on "just about any mission that the F-16 in general can handle", says Lepper.

"The whole concept of providing a credible air defence for Japan is that we have to be able to swing to numerous roles. So we could be tasked to provide suppression sorties, we could be tasked to provide air defence, air-to-ground capabilities, any one of those roles. The only thing the Japanese Government has stated formally and publicly is that it would not allow the storage or use of nuclear weapons, and of course we don't have an issue with that," says Lepper.

For the air-to-air role, the aircraft are armed with medium-range AIM-120s for BVR engagements and short-range infrared-guided Raytheon AIM-9M Sidewinders for dogfighting. When equipped with HARMs, a small, cylindrical pod is attached low on the starboard side of the aircraft's chin intake - the Raytheon HARM Targeting System.

For ground attack, the aircraft can drop general-purpose bombs or precision-guided munitions, and fire all standard US air-to-surface missiles. But the squadron is not equipped with Lockheed Martin LANTIRN or similar targeting pods on cost grounds, says Lepper.

The F-16s replaced the McDonnell Douglas F-4G Wild Weasel aircraft that the 35th Fighter Wing flew over Iraq during the Gulf War in 1991, launching 905 missiles at Iraqi radars. The wing was de-activated with the closure of its long-standing home, George AFB in California, but was re-activated six months later in Keflavik, Iceland, before moving to Misawa in October 1994.

The Wing's F-16s have flown "about 2,000h" on average, and are still young airframes, so the question of replacement or upgrade will not arise for a long time yet. Some pilots comment that the US Pacific Forces have, in any case, traditionally been one of the last sections of the US military to receive new technology.

This may have been true in the past, says Lepper, "but I believe the tide has changed somewhat". In Cold War days, US attention was focused more on Europe as a potential flashpoint. Now, however, Lepper believes that with the reduction of US forces in Europe to 100,000 personnel - the same number the USA is committed to keeping deployed in the Asia-Pacific - more balance will prevail.

Serious consequences

The consequences of a flare-up in Asia "could be more serious for the US, because here we have fewer co-operative partners that are actually capable of extending their capability out of their own borders", says Lepper. In Europe, there are numerous NATO allies with considerable power-projection capability, but in Asia-Pacific, the USA's allies lack either the capability or the will, or usually both, to go beyond their own borders.

"The only ally here which has any capability to project forces - but they're very small in number - is Australia," says Lepper.

New pilots arriving at Misawa can be "anything from a brand new pilot out of the training unit at Luke [AFB], to one with 2,000h experience," says Lepper. The posting normally lasts two to three years, and begins with intensive area orientation training and briefings on local operations and procedures. "We get them in the air as fast as we can, into a fairly fast-paced qualification programme," says Lepper.

The programme includes air-to-air training over the sea, ground attack training at a target range about 20km north-east of Misawa and a number of SEAD training missions. This is followed by a check flight to certify the pilots as mission ready, before moving on to continuation training.

Unit trainers

Some of the training is done in the Wing's two fixed-base simulators - known as unit training devices - manufactured by L-3 Communications. Fixed-base devices were chosen over full-motion because the purchase and maintenance costs of the hydraulic motion simulation were thought to outweigh the benefits.

"Mostly what we use the simulators for is habit patterns, developing 'switchology'. We say flying the F-16 is like playing the piccolo, because you have so many switches on the stick and throttle," says Lepper. Sidestick switches control the displays, targeting, weapons, electronic countermeasures, chaff and flares. The throttle switches control communications, radar tilt, radar gain, the speed brake, missile cage/uncage functions, slewing the radar and operating the datalink. Remembering how to manipulate all this without practising on the ground at 1g is "very difficult", says Lepper.

"I have flown F-16 Block 10s, 15s, 30s, 32s, 40s, 42s and now the 50, and I couldn't begin to tell you how to start a Block 10 any more because things have changed so dramatically," he says.

The Wing regularly participates in bilateral exercises supporting the defence of Japan treaty, such as exercises Keen Sword and Cope North. Keen Sword is a large, two-week, multi-service air defence exercise held every other year, focussing on the northern half of Japan. Boeing F-15s from Kadena are flown up to participate, and the USAF also involves tankers and Boeing E-3 Sentry AWACS aircraft. The JASDF contributes its F-1, F-4 and Boeing F-15J fighters, as well as its E-2Cs. "If the Seventh Fleet's available, we invite the USS Kitty Hawk," says Blanchette.

Blanchette says that Cope North, held three times a year, is usually only air force-to-air force. The Wing also participates in Commando Sling - an air defence exercise in airspace between Singapore and Malaysia which gives the 35th the opportunity to train jointly with the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) - Cobra Gold in Thailand, and Cope Thunder - a predominantly US exercise held in Alaska.

Four years ago, Misawa's 35th Fighter Wing became the first PACAF unit to deploy to Saudi Arabia to support Operation Southern Watch, and the first PACAF F-16 unit to fly in the Iraqi "no fly" zone. Such operations are increasingly expected of a global military power, and the USA, as the world's only remaining "superpower", takes on the bulk of such duties along with its allies in NATO.

Japan is also beginning to make tentative steps to acquire such a force projection capability, most obviously with its long-standing plan to buy a tanker aircraft. But it still faces strong opposition both domestically and internationally to any moves which could violate the nation's post-Second World War constitution, which renounces war and restricts Japanese forces to domestic defence only.

Japan has played a role in some international relief operations. Blanchette cites flood relief in South America last year, but adds that Japan "found it very expensive and very difficult", and "had to rely on the US forces to shore up their supply line". But, he says, Japan seems to be stretching the role defined for its Self-Defence Forces in the constitution, and is likely to continue to do so.

"Yes, I think the [Japanese] constitution will change, but I think it will be many, many years before it does," says Blanchette. For the moment, Japan is trying to strengthen its capabilities within the constraints imposed on it, for instance with the recent entry into service of the Mitsubishi F-2 support fighter, the first of which has been deployed in Misawa after repeated delays connected with cracking in composite components.

The F-2 is a means for Japan to develop advanced aerostructures and avionics experience, with the help of the USA - the aircraft is a derivative of the F-16 with larger composite wing and locally developed phased-array radar. There are already discussions about developing a more powerful, dedicated air-superiority version of the aircraft.

In the USA, there are lobby groups which argue that Japan's reliance on US forces to shore up its defences is tantamount to freeloading. But any military build-up in Japan would not only require constitutional change, but also trigger fears among its Asian neighbours which could lead to a new regional arms race and further upset the balance of power.

For the foreseeable future, Blanchette thinks the US military bases in Japan will remain to serve as a stabilising force. "I think it's more of a benefit to Japan to have a US presence here, to ease the fears of neighbouring nations. It's a message to the neighbours that Japan is prepared to step back from a full military capability," says Blanchette.

Source: Flight International