Where The Raptor Starts Its Day

By Eric Hehs Posted 3 March 2010

"Where America Starts Its Day." This slogan, appearing on T-shirts sold in tourist shops all over Guam, highlights the island’s distinction as the westernmost US territory and, hence, where day first breaks on America. Guam’s proximity to Japan, about a two-hour flight south from Tokyo, makes it a popular destination for Japanese tourists, who can be seen wearing the aforementioned T-shirts at local beach resorts and outlet malls, where they take advantage of warm weather and favorable yen-to-dollar exchange rates. Location explains Guam’s attraction to Japanese tourists. Location also explains the reason military officials view the island as a strategic asset for the United States.

Location, Location, Location

"Location and sovereignty," stresses Brig. Gen. Philip Ruhlman, commander of the 36th Wing that operates from Andersen AFB on the northern tip of the island. "Guam’s location shrinks the tyranny of distance in the Pacific. The fact the island is a sovereign US territory means we don’t have to get anyone’s permission to land here. More importantly, we don’t need permission to operate from here."

Tyranny of distance can easily be understood by studying a map of the Pacific. US Pacific Command’s area of operations runs from the west coast of North America to the east coast of Africa. The area encompasses almost sixty percent of the world’s population, more than fifty percent of the earth’s surface, the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and sixteen time zones.

Just finding Guam in this expanse can be a challenge. The island is relatively small—only about thirty miles long and twelve miles across at its widest point. Its proximity to the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan Strait, Southeast Asia, and vital sea lanes near Singapore and Malaysia underscore its strategic significance.

The significance is further highlighted by a continuous US Air Force bomber presence. "We have had bombers at Andersen twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and 365 days a year since 2004," Ruhlman says. "This is PACAF’s bomber base. I cannot let one bomber unit leave before another one is on station."

The bombers rotate in and out of Andersen on regularly scheduled four- to six-month intervals as part of the Air Force’s Air Expeditionary Force, or AEF, deployments. The aircraft typically come from three bases in the US. Minot AFB, North Dakota, and Barksdale AFB, Louisiana, send B-52s; Whiteman AFB, Missouri, sends B-2s. Approximately 300 personnel accompany each rotation.

"Deterrence didn’t go away with the Cold War," Ruhlman says. "The bomber presence sends a strong message. It deters adversaries. It assures our allies."

In addition to the bombers, the 36th Wing hosts a year-round expeditionary air refueling force provided by the Air National Guard or Air Force Reserve Command. "We have a substantial flying operation at Andersen," Ruhlman explains. "This is not Sleepy Hollow."

The continuous bomber and tanker presence on Guam has been supplemented more recently by regular fighter deployments called theater security packages. "The theater security package is a Pacific Command initiative," Ruhlman continues. "Up to nine months out of the year, we are going to have US Air Force or US Navy fighters here to augment our continuous bomber presence on the island."

Raptors Deploy

The fighter role was elevated from non-stealthy fourth generation to stealthy fifth generation in January 2009 when twelve Raptors from the 90th Fighter Squadron at Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, landed at Andersen. Initially, the F-22s from the 90th were deployed with B-52s from Minot AFB. With the arrival of B-2s in April, the Air Force’s premier stealth assets were working together for the first time at a forward deployed operating base.

"This deployment is historic," says Lt. Col. Orlando Sanchez, 90th FS commander. Sanchez flew one of the dozen Raptors in the initial group deployed from Elmendorf to Andersen. "This is the first time the United States has deployed the B-2 and the F-22 to a forward base location together. The B-2 has been here before many times. F-22s came to Andersen from Elmendorf for the first time last July for about a week. But this is the first time both aircraft have operated together."

The previous deployment of F-22s was to ensure that the 90th could fulfill obligations related to its initial operational capability, or IOC, status. The fighter squadron had to show that it could deploy and function as a fighter squadron. In the latest deployment, a four-month stint, the 90th is fulfilling a real-world role as part of a theater security package.

The F-22s were flown nonstop from Anchorage to Guam in a ten-hour flight. "Flying 4,000 miles from Anchorage to Guam made me appreciate the scope of the Pacific theater," says Lt. Col. Chris Niemi, director of operations for the 90th. "The F-22s flew along the Kamchatka peninsula and then along the coast of Japan, over Iwoto, and on to Guam.

"We kept busy during the flight refueling and keeping track of the nearest divert runways," Niemi continues. "We came with three four-ship formations, and then we brought two more Raptors about a month later to maximize our sortie rates."

The pilots exercised as much as they could during the extended flight. "We can’t get up and walk down the aisle in an F-22, so we run the seat up and down several times during the long flight to stretch the legs," explains Niemi.

Before the Raptors left Alaska, the temperature dropped to minus forty-five degrees Fahrenheit. "Then the temperature went up and it rained," Sanchez adds. "We had freezing rain and sheets of ice under the aircraft. But we took all twelve aircraft in one shot. When we landed in Guam, the temperature was eighty degrees. The crew rested one day, and then flew fourteen sorties the next day. We were up to a full schedule that first week, and we haven’t slowed down since."

Operational Tempo

"All of the jets have held up quite well," explains Capt. Mary Lent, maintenance chief for the 90th. "We have had a few flight control issues. But other than that, maintenance has been fairly routine." Aircraft take about one week to acclimate to a new environment. The F-22 is no different from any other fighter going between climate extremes of cold Alaska to warm tropics. "The low-observable coatings require a little more maintenance because of the tropical environment," Lent adds. "So we rinse the F-22 with clear water daily to prevent corrosion.

"The operational tempo here is about the same as Alaska," Lent continues. "The nice weather is conducive to hot pit refueling." Hot pit refueling involves flying a mission and then refueling the aircraft on the ground without shutting down the engine. Because pilots don’t exit the aircraft during hot pit refueling, the technique allows them to fly two missions in rapid succession. Maintenance crews can hot pit refuel eight F-22s in less than one hour. "Cold temperatures at Elmendorf make hot pit refueling difficult between November and March," explains Lent.

The 90th brought its entire maintenance team to Guam. Many are fairly new to the squadron and to the F-22. "They are getting a lot of hands-on experience here," says Lent. "I am immensely proud of their performance. These are some of the best maintainers I’ve worked with. Further, they are generating some excellent sortie rates."

"We have done phenomenally," adds Sanchez. "We have lost no flights to weather. Flying can be such a struggle in Alaska regardless of the airplane."

The 90th brought about 250 personnel, including twenty pilots, four of whom are Reservists. About a dozen Reservists are supporting the maintenance side as well.

"The airfield at Andersen is not quite as busy as the airfield at Elmendorf," Sanchez explains. "We have more competition for resources at home. We have the other F-22 squadron, an F-15 squadron, C-17s, and AWACS—all competing for the runway and airspace." Flight schedules at Andersen can be more flexible allowing the pilots to fly day and night missions. "We typically fly seven or eight jets, hot pit refuel, and fly seven or eight again," continues Sanchez. "Then we fly once again in the afternoon. With that process, we fly twenty or more sorties some days."

Team Stealth

Several of the deployed F-22 pilots have worked with B-2s before at Nellis for Weapons School and Red Flag exercises. "Nellis offers an awesome opportunity," Sanchez explains. "The downside is that the exercise is for a short period making aircrews run hard to keep up with their own training and mission objectives. The B-2s also fly into the Nellis ranges from their home bases, so we don’t interact with them directly in Nevada."

At Andersen, F-22 pilots can work directly with the B-2 crews. "We see them every day. We share the same locker room. We go to their briefings if we want. Our intel officers interact with their intel officers," continues Sanchez. "Although we may actually only fly once or twice a week with them, we interact with them every day. We can work on how we plan missions together toward an objective that is more like a Global Strike scenario. Such opportunities are rare."

The difference between two stealth platforms working together and one stealth platform working with non-stealth platforms is significant, according to Sanchez. "We have a much greater ability to project power into denied access environments," he says. "We magnify the B-2’s capabilities, and it magnifies ours. The B-2 carries a lot of ordnance to the fight. The F-22 offers speed, sensors, and agility. These two platforms will likely work together in future contingencies, so this experience may prove invaluable."

Mixing It Up

The 90th also got the chance to work with the B-52 Stratofortresses before those bombers redeployed to Minot. "In a higher-threat scenario, the B-52 can be a real challenge to defend," says Sanchez. "They are much larger and have less ability to defend themselves. The tactics we use for the B-2 and the B-52 bombers are not the same."

Raptor pilots are also getting exposed to other assets in the theater. "We flew with F/A-18Es from VFA-27 last week," says Capt. Patrick Williams, a pilot with the 90th. "That was my first time to fly with Super Hornets. The experience was a great opportunity to share tactics and capabilities. It was also a great opportunity to share techniques for working together."

"Some Navy pilots have had some experience with the Raptor," adds Niemi. "One pilot with VFA-27 flew with the F-22 at China Lake. But this deployment is the first time I escorted Super Hornets. We focused on joint integration. We also acted as Red air for the Navy Hornets or they played Red air for us. The Navy is starting to understand what we can do.

"The Navy rolls through Guam with an entire carrier group," Niemi continues. "We don’t get carrier groups at Elmendorf. The experience working with a carrier group is worth its weight in gold. We may deploy somewhere and fight in the future with a unit that has never flown with us. So this experience exposes us to the questions we may face when we have to bring another fighter unit up to speed on our capabilities and the best way to coordinate missions with them."

Just Visiting

Bringing units up to speed is the name of the game at Andersen as the base has no permanently assigned Air Force flying units. "My biggest challenge is to learn all the missions of the various aircraft as they come through Andersen," explains Col. Tod Fingal, commander of the 36th Operations Group at Andersen AFB.

Fingal, who took over the operations group three weeks before the Code One visit, deployed to Andersen in 2007 as part of a theater security package. At the time, he was with the 522nd Fighter Squadron from Cannon AFB, New Mexico. "We brought eighteen F-16s and stayed four and one-half months," he recalls. "Now I am here for the long term as the operations group commander. Seeing the base from the deployed commander’s perspective certainly helps."

The infrastructure at Andersen is growing to keep up with the base’s accelerating operational tempo. That tempo may never reach the levels seen during World War II, when twenty-four squadrons of B-29s were stationed at Andersen. Or reach the activity during the Vietnam War, when more than 100 B-52s filled the ramps for Operations Linebacker and Arc Light.

"We are receiving funding to build facilities to meet our latest warfighting needs," Fingal says. "We have several major projects under way. The south runway is under construction. The north runway was completed in 2007."

"Guam is all about those two huge 10,000-foot runways," adds Ruhlman. "All we have is Hangar 1, a thoroughly modern hangar built to withstand typhoon season. In fact, everything built on the base has to withstand 170 mph winds and Category 4 earthquakes. Because of those requirements, construction that costs $1 in the United States costs $2.64 here."

The base is also completing work on two new hangars to support the RQ-4 Global Hawk high-altitude UAVs that will be stationed at Andersen in early 2010. A lot of the improvements are designed to meet the needs of emerging technologies in the US Air Force. The deployment of stealth assets, as well as the investment in infrastructure, amplifies the island’s strategic significance.

"Andersen is a jewel in the Pacific," says Col. Damian McCarthy, deputy commander of the 36th Wing. "We are strategically located. Our base structure is very flexible. Our prevailing winds allow pilots to take off over the water and immediately climb to the altitudes they need to train. We have great and patriotic hosts and excellent community support. Guam is a great place to host a lot of people and partners in the Pacific."

Eric Hehs is the editor of Code One.