Uniting the Indo-Pacific under the Strategic Airlift Coalition: A Blueprint for Future Security Assurance

By:  Jennifer Miller                                                                           
Approximate Read Time: 10 Minutes  

Abstract: Imagine a strategic network of Indo-Pacific nations empowered and capable of rapidly supporting each other in devastating situations of crisis and chaos. Natural disasters threaten survival at the highest level of national interests.  The Pacific Strategic Airlift Coalition (PAC SAC) offers an airpower blueprint for future security assurance in the Indo-Pacific.    

Why?  Strategic Networks are Needed Amid Great Power Competition
The 2017 United States National Security Strategy outlines imperative shifts of global great powers amid China’s hegemonic vision for the Pacific, and Russia’s incursion into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) periphery.  As China and Russia disrupt the unipolar world order that originated from the post-World War II Bretton Woods OTH, emerging security environment, multi-domaininternational security agreements, the US defense outlook drives the need to prepare a wide range of military capabilities to preserve national interests abroad.  Policymakers must effectively synchronize all military options with diplomacy, information, and economic actions to shape global outcomes and achieve national interests.  Strategy-to-task planning now embodies an entirely different meaning in recognition of emerging great power competition as each state chases fast changing capabilities within multi-domain militaries.  Specifically, information and cyber warfare are shaping global engagements into “grey zone” environments, or hybrid warfare as proposed by General Dunford in the National Defense Strategy.  This concept refers to state-actors manipulating the boundaries of traditional warfare from a military versus military conventional contest to one of blurred lines leveraging all instruments of power – often done without attribution so actors may influence obscure objectives.

Airpower Partnerships Fill a Void
Extending this complicated global environment further into the context of military capability, a call for “full-spectrum” readiness has been echoed among senior military leaders.  Warfighters must exercise to sustain all response options on the table, encompassing the total range of military operations (ROMO).  ROMO includes military actions as non-threatening as humanitarian assistance on the far left of the spectrum, to total war on the far right.

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Conversely, the Department of Defense (DoD) is challenged by limited resources which are spread between the competing priorities of geographic Combatant Commands. This comes after a decade of high-cost modernized production plans, an enduring counter-insurgency fight in the Middle East, and record low manning strength.  Strategists must look for smart solutions and process improvements to amplify the DoD’s capacity and capability readiness.  A starting point is to build networks where multilateral agreements lag behind strategic needs: for example in the Indo-Pacific.  Several bilateral treaties and multilateral defense agreements have advanced alliances over the past six decades; however, they fail to encompass a wider, more inclusive international structure to effectively address emerging threats.  Properly implemented partnerships can supplement high costs for security and moderate uncertain outcomes in this region’s struggle for power.  An effective alliance can utilize multiple actors to “introduce unpredictability to adversary decision makers,” as proposed in the National Defense Strategy.  Further assessing the global threat of China, the clear need for strategic progress is where a void of policy manifests into high risk for decision makers.  Specifically considering the Indo-Pacific, a missed opportunity for regional leadership will create a vacuum to be filled by an unwanted presence or power: China.  That vacuum is most vulnerable in moments of crisis – which is inevitable in the Indo-Pacific region as it is constantly plagued by natural disasters.

Threat in its Most Natural Form

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Photo Credit: Odd Andersen / AFP / Getty Images. Typhoon Haiyan in 2013 destroys the coastal homes of Tacloban, Philippines.

According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, natural disasters are significantly more likely to occur within the Indo-Pacific theater than anywhere else on the planet.  Due to shifting tectonic plates, colliding extreme weather systems, and vast areas of open water mixed with extreme temperatures, the Indo-Pacific region is inundated with catastrophe on an annual basis.  For Oceania neighbors, it is not a question of if, but a question of when and who is next.  According to the 2019 United Nations Global Humanitarian Overview Report, from 2014 to 2018 alone, over 650 million people were affected by tragedy inflicted by tsunamis, flooding, typhoons, drought, heavy rains, earthquakes, and volcanic activity.  This number does not reflect the 2004 most deadly tsunami in recorded history, which tragically hit the Indonesian coastline of Sumatra and killed over 230,000 people.  In some cases populated areas are able to evacuate, but sadly many are caught off guard and devastatingly unprepared.  Critical infrastructures are left in ruin and the ability to provide for one’s citizens can become impossible for a state to fulfill depending on the entirety of circumstances.  Also not reflected in the report timeframe, is the 2011 calamity when the world shockingly witnessed destruction brought to the modernized country of Japan.  A 9.0 earthquake generated a tsunami off its east coast, killing over 18,000 people and displacing almost half a million.  By linkage of unpredictable and misfortunate events, the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant was damaged and leaked radioactive materials, causing total disaster damages to surpass $235 billion, as estimated by the World Bank.

A Nexus of Disaster Threat with Global Trade Implications
Historical evidence tells a story influencing life and death among thousands, and as seen in Japan, levels of destruction cannot easily rebuild without overwhelming collective support.  Most critical to assess is the looming threat of regional natural disaster, overlapped with the trade infrastructure of the global commons.  Approximately $5.3 trillion of global economic trade transitions the Indian and Pacific Oceans.  Food, essential natural resources, and general commerce are transported through this regional conduit, and in addition to cataclysms, trade routes are challenged by the nature of geographic restraints and the Pacific Ocean’s tyranny of distance.  The risks associated with the nexus of disaster threats with significant global trade cannot be overlooked or gambled with in today’s interconnected web of global markets and interdependent cross-national economies.

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Global Ports and Trade Routes / Nathan World Map of Natura Hazards. Photo Credit: Kontrolling, Munich RE

Should a critical area of concentrated relevance be demolished by disaster, like the infrastructure surrounding the Straits of Malacca or Singapore, it would expose an opportunity for China to assert influence and lingering control.  It is time for the Indo-Pacific to convene in building a coalition to improve capabilities and position infrastructure so that a reliant response may restore strength in moments of desperation.  Global security assurance cannot afford to miss this opportunity.

A Needed Network of Assistance
Imagine a strategic airpower network of Pacific nations capable of rapidly supporting each other in devastating situations of crisis and chaos threatening national interests.  Mother Nature’s destruction is an unparalleled threat to Indo-Pacific nations:  she is not rational, cannot be deterred, persuaded, or forced to change her course.  Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HA/DR) is a mission of hope ranging from the individual’s wellbeing to societal rebuilding. A greater hope can become a new reality to aligned partners and committed nations under the new Pacific Strategic Airlift Coalition (PAC SAC) concept.  Collective airlift capabilities paired with robust logistical centers adjacent to strategic ports, can expand current standing systems and amplify the impact of assistance.

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Map of ASEAN nations. Photo Credit: Kameonline 4988708.

Observed Versus Desired Systems
In addition to US led efforts, existing organizations are attempting to address the issue.  Among several, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) has an Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ASEAN-ERAT) structured to deliver assistance in coordination with the ASEAN Humanitarian Assistance Center located in Jakarta, Indonesia.  This small 100 member team, while minimal, strives to offer a united “One ASEAN, One Response” vision for relief efforts.  While productive in its own capacity, the team has deployed on over twenty missions since 2008 but is simply overwhelmed by assistance demands without organic airlift capability.  Additionally, the United Nations (UN) established the Pacific Humanitarian Team (PHT) in 2008 under the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).  OCHA’s focus is to “ensure that regional responders work together to deliver timely and appropriate humanitarian assistance to disaster-affected people across the Pacific.”  The 2017 summit hosted in Fiji for Pacific Humanitarian Partnerships, collaborated efforts between the PHT, OCHA, and major entities involved in humanitarian assistance.  The resulting summit guidance asked for actors to align with the World Humanitarian Summit for localized aid and self-reliant community preparedness.

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An Australian C-17 uploads humanitarian aid headed for Burma. Photo Credit: The Queensland Times.

While developing localized resilience is critical, an overlaid system of transport capability is required to amplify rapid response, which the above organizations do not own.  Rapid response by airlift can ensure immediate aid within hours of a devastating event, but this responsibility currently falls on the shoulders of those with the capability to do so.  These countries are non-ASEAN nations who possess the most capable platforms in their respective airpower inventories. A RAND Corporation study found that one measure of a Pacific nation’s ability to commitment and provide resources in HA/DR efforts, is to assess their air mobility fleet.  Range and load capacity of airframes in the respective inventories was the largest delineator.  More advanced transport airframes can fly further and provide more aid by tonnage while also carrying oversized equipment and cargo due to the shape and dimension of the cargo bay.  Additionally, the countries with higher GDP can afford the more advanced airframes:  the US, Australia, and India all own the C-17 Globemaster III.  Smaller nations with no requirement for global reach, possess airframes such as the C-130 or A400M, both with a much shorter range and less than half the cargo capacity of the C-17. The Pacific Strategic Airlift Coalition offers a shared responsibility for nations within the Indo-Pacific to contribute by the most appropriate means, producing a new system enhancing security assurance.

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A HA/DR Solution and Blueprint for Future Airpower Capabilities
PAC SAC’s nascent structure should be one employing proven and capable airlift.  A working example and one to model, is the basic structure of NATO’s C-17 Strategic Airlift Capability unit. It showcases how a multinational squadron can succeed at employing the many missions of the C-17 throughout Europe.  This aircraft is a standout option providing the global reach of 2,400 nautical miles, not including its extended range with inflight refueling capability.  Additionally, it is the only option able to land on short dirt runways, airdrop materials, and also maximize its payload up to 170,000 pounds.

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The C-17 lands on a dirt runway. Photo Credit: Defense One, US Air Force

Increasing its significance for HA/DR missions, it can turn the cargo compartment into a specialized flying hospital if teamed with Aeromedical Evacuation personnel.  If evacuation is the requirement, look to the 2013 Philippine assistance effort following Typhoon Haiyan when US C-17 aircraft demonstrated the capability to floor load over 600 people in an emergency evacuation scenario. The countries who own the C-17, and are best suited for this partnership are India and Australia.  They would most appropriately provide two to three essential C-17s each, while the US provides partial leasing options for New Zealand, Japan, or South Korea for one additional aircraft.

The current US Mobility workload assessment justifies this proportional split of aircraft assets so that the US may organize and train the unit while also balancing the heavy demands they fulfill worldwide.  Aviators will be provided by the US, those in ownership of the airframes, and those that wish to enter a lease program through US Foreign Military Sales (FMS).  The Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and other Pacific Island Nations (PIC) can help provide the bed-down basing and aerial port hub-and-spoke infrastructure based on strategic geographic location.   It must be acknowledged that basing locations with access to strategic deep water ports add efficient lines of resource transportation, but all will require improved infrastructure.  Clark Airbase, in the Philippines is an excellent option and example for PAC SAC basing as it has a footprint where operations can be rebuilt to a modern mobility hub.

A collective funding partnership will grant nations relief rights and operational inclusion (one of the most complicated issues to negotiate for the program’s development).  Command and Control will be coordinated through the Movement Coordination Center-Pacific (MCCP) for the fulfillment of logistical planning and operational execution. The goal is to build upon the ASEAN structure with additional countries who are interested in partnership but also add valuable functionality to the program.  The whole becomes bigger than the sum of all its parts by this Indo-Pacific air-presence and alliance enterprise.  The MCCP is provided an efficient means of execution to fulfill its mission, and is fortified by improved infrastructure and partner nations’ deeper commitment.  The end state system is one where employment reaches strategic implications by providing united security assurance and a blueprint for a future network of interoperable airpower presence.

Historical Relevance Links Application

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Families cheer for a US aircraft flying in support of the Berlin Airlift. Photo Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Airlift provides direct influence to strategic objectives as showcased in the monumental Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949 which nullified the Soviet blockade of West Berlin.  Some historians claim the operation was the most strategic use of airpower in the Cold War.  When no other options existed to circumvent Soviet strangulation during the winter months in northern Germany, Allied Forces orchestrated an air bridge of humanitarian assistance.  The campaign delivered over 2.3 million tons of coal, food, and sustenance in under 300 thousand flights so that 2.23 million people of West Berlin would survive without succumbing to the Soviet blockade.  When asked if air assets could execute what then seemed to be an insurmountable task, General LeMay’s famous words were, “Sir, the Air Force can deliver anything!” This statement meant more than just carrying livelihood to a starving city.  It meant Western political presence held true against Soviet expansionism into Western Europe.  A very different world would undoubtedly exist had West Berlin fallen to the Soviets, and Communist expansion continued deeper into Europe – but such a world did not become a reality, thanks to the strategic Berlin Airlift led by General Tunner.

General LeMay’s words still ring true in current applications of airlift addressing undesirable Chinese pressures encroaching upon the Indo-Pacific.  While the Berlin Airlift example is a very different scenario, the key principles do apply and flag strategic application in today’s continuum of conflict:  An expansionist threat is maneuvering to systematically control disputed territory to become a regional, if not global, hegemon.  An aggressive state is again using opportunistic leverage to gain systematic control over societies in moments of vulnerability.  Additionally, an alliance of airlift capability can be effectively used to rapidly respond with presence and protection supporting vulnerable populations, so adversarial power cannot violate their offered assistance with malicious agendas.  The dangerous void in the Pacific discussion is caused by natural disaster and not a blockade.  The most significant difference is that the Berlin Airlift relied on a preexisting WWII alliance with proven interoperability enabling the campaign execution.

Here lies the most significant takeaways — An alliance, the required infrastructure, and tested interoperability are exactly what the US must fortify now, so it exists when political decision makers need it most.  Exercises and cooperation will not suffice for this force projection challenge.  The time is now to shape and solidify a much-needed logistics blueprint by first implementing the PAC SAC concept.  A sound foundation can be laid, should it ever be needed for an engagement that falls further into the continuum of conflict.  The best wars are those that are never fought, and if the US can prolong or completely avoid a conflict, then what stands is a beneficial way to unite a region over the convergent interest of humanitarian assistance.

Parting Thoughts
Imagine within ten years, as a C-17 provided by India launches from the Philippines, flown by New Zealand and US pilots, loaded via a supply chain originating from Singapore.  As they approach the earthquake stricken coast of Vietnam the cargo bay releases a swarm of drones providing a direct feed of imagery thousands of miles away.  Uploading the data is the newly constructed assistance coordination center merging the imagery with Space Intelligence Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) for a clear assessment of infrastructure damages.  The jet turns back and lands to offload pallets of aid and evacuate the injured to Kuala Lumpur.  Equipped with a state of the art communications data link, the C-17 relays timely information to a formation of F-35s deployed nearby before they land back on the USS Wasp.  A multi-domain umbrella is established to provide security assurance, and assist a disaster ravaged nation within the South China Sea – the PAC SAC vision is a proven success.

This article strives to continue a discussion of ideas addressing global threats by virtue of the US’s greatest strength – partnerships.  The US and its allies should continue this conversation to carefully consider the details required to make the Pacific Airlift Coalition become a reality.  Barriers will be inevitable, but almost all can agree the US must find ways to alleviate an expensive security presence provided globally while still collaborating improvements for challenges that are projected to only become more complicated.

For the Indo-Pacific Theater, great power competition can be addressed with future combat capability advancements – however, possibly just as pertinent is to shape the future environment by simultaneously fortifying infrastructure and networks.  Alliances must be empowered to better anticipate, adapt, and respond to competition under the threshold of outright conflict.  A beneficial opportunity exists where US policy can employ strategic airlift to build a united enterprise that increases security assurance.  By aligning multiple state actors in a network that facilitates airpower operations, the first application is best suited where survival is inevitably threatened – during natural disasters.  Humanitarian assistance falls within the far left spectrum of ROMO and presents an opportunity for a non-threatening alliance to emerge.  Disaster’s chaos and associated vulnerability should be given the highest protection to prevent adversarial maneuver executing undetected behind the distraction of a natural disaster. The Pacific Strategic Airlift Coalition is a blueprint for Indo-Pacific partnerships to build a system to fund, equip, and organize an enterprise needed for the next near peer fight.   An asymmetric approach to global competition should leverage the strengths of alliances, against China’s weakness of authoritarian solidarity.  General Paul Selva, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and mobility exemplar said, “Coalition and alliances are the bedrock to the organized world.”

Jennifer Miller is a student in the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at the United States Air Force’s Air Command and Staff College and is a senior pilot in the United States Air Force. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the United States Government.
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One thought on “Uniting the Indo-Pacific under the Strategic Airlift Coalition: A Blueprint for Future Security Assurance

  • August 6, 2019 at 10:38 am

    Great article and thank you for calling attention to an extremely important topic! I would love to see solutions like this implemented in that region (along with others) for all the reasons you laid out. Well done.


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