BY MAUREEN N. MARATITA
Journal Staff

Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, commander of Pacific Air Forces, told the Journal on Sept. 10 (in his first interview since he took command two months ago), that there is no doubt of the importance of the Air Force presence in Guam and the strategic importance of the island.

It is a message Wilsbach underlined in various ways, not least that Guam and the wider region will continue to be important in the future.

Wilsbach

In April the continuous bomber presence at Andersen Air Force Base transitioned to what Wilsbach called the Bomber Taskforce. While there will be gaps in bomber presence with the Taskforce, he said, “They will be pretty short gaps.” In addition, he said, “We’ve seen quite an increase in the effect that the bombers can create, because they’re so unpredictable now. Our adversaries when they see us come and go … they’ve got to figure it out. It created maybe a bit of a stir with our adversaries in the Indo-Pacific. That’s been a positive,” he said.

While routes, departures, flight paths and even call signs can be varied for the planes, he said, “Frankly, we don’t always want to be moving around the globe clandestinely or covertly.” The U.S. Air Force has capabilities that other countries do not, he said such as long-range bombers and its tanker force that allow it to consistently stay mobile.

On the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense or THAAD anti-ballistic missile defense system which has been at Andersen since 2014, Wilsbach said, “I think the THAAD is going to stay for a bit. I’m not sure how long, but there’s no talk of pulling the THAAD out.”

There has been discussion that the U.S. will deploy the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System in Guam, particularly to protect it from regional threats, which Wilsbach addressed. “We’re talking about that because of the capability … the back system gives you — even advanced of what the THAAD can do,” he said.  

Defense of Guam is not only because of its strategic location, he said. “Guam is our homeland and we feel very empowered to protect it.”

As to the Northern Mariana Islands, the Tinian Divert Airfield there is proceeding slowly, with components still in the bidding process (See various unique stories on mbjguam.com).

Wilsbach clarified the role of the divert airfield as the Air Force sees it now.

“We don’t have any plans to station airmen or assets at the Tinian divert location, but we do want to build it out such that we can use it for divert — primarily for tanker aircraft and mobility aircraft,” he said. “We also want to be able to use it in the event we have some humanitarian assistance or disaster response.”

Tinian can play a role in Agile Combat Employment or dispersing assets so an adversary does not know the destination or where they are coming from, Wilsbach said. “A Tinian runway would allow us to perhaps instead of landing at Andersen you could land there, maybe refuel; take off again very quickly.” The Agile Combat Employment concept is expanding throughout the Air Force, he said.

“A Tinian runway — as well as runways all over the Indo-Pacific theater  … we’re using them if they’re already there; we also have plans to renovate and construct some other airfields so that we have many, many options with respect to refueling, rearming and supplying.” That would be in a wartime scenario, he said. “But it also gives us a lot more options for training with allies and partners and other components like the Army, the Navy and Marines, but it also gives us options for humanitarian assistance,” the general said.  

As the Journal reported on Sept. 7, (See www.mbjguam.com) 150 personnel from the U.S. Army’s Defender Pacific 20 Exercise were due to arrive in Angaur in Palau Sept.4, to conduct more improvement work in the state.

The troops were scheduled to be in Angaur for five days for airfield improvement work and to assist the state government in the removal of a barge that was a hazard in the area.

Vice President Raynold Oilouch in a press conference on Sept. 2 said a C130 flight was to drop off the personnel and leave the same day, returning to collect the soldiers on Sept. 8.  

The deployment of more U.S. troops came a week after the visit of Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, who stressed the importance of the relationship between the two countries.

President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr. also wrote to Esper inviting the U.S. to station more bases in Palau. “I did see the note from Secretary Esper on the request from the Palau government to increase the number of airfields,” Wilsbach said.

“We haven’t really started much more than the airfield … but we do have desires to increase the options there in Palau. It’s a pretty good location to operate out of, although the airfields wouldn’t accommodate much more at this point besides C130-type aircraft.” In order for us to get fighters, or heavy lift or tankers in there, we’d have to do quite a bit more work.”

The Air Force was looking toward that, he said.

The encouragement to develop the relationship is noteworthy, he said.

“We so appreciate the government of Palau asking us to come in,” he said, also saying there is likely to be a reaction from the People’s Republic of China. “The countries that ask us to come in and expand our capabilities in their country know that there will probably be some kind of coercion or pressure from the PRC to stop that.”

The PRC already moved to reduce the number of its visitors to Palau, due to Palau’s commitment to relations with Taiwan, according to Journal files.

A U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules delivered U.S. Army soldiers onto the newly renovated Angaur Airfield for training exercises in Palau.
Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army

 Speaking of Guam, Hawaii and Alaska, Wilsbach said, “I call that the strategic triangle … because it is the most forward deployed you can deploy air power from without being in a host country.” While Alaska’s airbases offered reach to the Northern hemisphere, Wilbach said, “Guam is so close to our adversaries there and even to the Indian Ocean we can get there in a single flight.”

On COVID-19’s effect in general, he confirmed to the Journal that although it has impacted the Air Force to a degree, personnel are continuing with changes of station, despite allowance for COVID-related restrictions such as testing and quarantine. Use of teleworking and such technology keeps productivity high, Wilsbach said. However, he said, “Clearly you can’t telework changing the engine on a jet; you’ve got to go to work.” As in the private sector, the Air Force keeps groups isolated. “My headquarters right now and almost all of our bases are on some kind of a split shift,” he said.  Referencing the Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier, which saw continuous COVID infection and came into port in Guam, he told the Journal, “We’ve learned a lot since then on how to keep that from happening.”

As far as exercises with partner nations, the general said rather than cancel due to COVID outbreaks dates have been changed. “If we have to scale it down, we still try to get some of the training objectives accomplished,” he said. “We’ve implemented a number of measures to be able to retain readiness, not only of our force, but our allies and partners.”

Wilsbach talked during the interview of areas he wants to focus on in his time as commander, which he shared with the 46,000 airmen under his command, he said. These are guaranteeing the readiness of forces as well as resiliency. “That by itself is a big task,” he said. “Put COVID on top of that, and it becomes a lot harder. … I’m quite pleased with the readiness of our forces, despite the fact that we’ve had to reshape a lot of our training.”

He said he is also pleased with the resilience of his forces, given COVID restrictions. “We don’t get a pass for not having to do our mission because we have people in quarantine and isolation, so we figured out how to do that, but it has taken a toll … but the morale’s pretty high considering.”

Integration with allies and partners is another area of focus, he said. “If you think about the Indo-Pacific, our partners are a great advantage that we have over our competitors and our adversaries in China and North Korea. If you look at people that want to be our ally and partner — we are their ally of choice, and our list is long.” The People’s Republic of China, as well as North Korea have a list that is short, he said.

Integration with other service components is part of that focus, he said. “We don’t do anything in a vacuum; with respect to the Air Force, we rely on our component brothers and sisters and they rely on us.”

Wilsbach also emphasized that the Air Force must “accelerate change in order to improve our forces capability, or our adversaries will pass us and we will lose.” The Air Force’s ability to innovate in various ways is important he said.

Joint All Domain Command and Control — a way to incorporate the joint forces … “in a way that creates dilemmas for your adversary at an amplitude and a pace that they are not capable of handling” is an example of that innovation, he said. Implementation was at the beginning stages he said.

Wilsbach told the Journal, “For the Valiant Shield exercise, we’re actually doing a JADCC, which I’m very proud of.”

Valiant Shield — one the biggest military exercises to be held in the Marianas — is about to get underway in Guam on Sept. 14, until Sept. 25.

In 2018, the exercise involved more than 160 aircraft, 15 surface ships and 15,000 personnel.

Due to the current spike of COVID-19 in Guam, Wilsbach said there was some uncertainty if the Air Force would participate. “The discussion here in our headquarters just a few days ago was, ‘Should we do Valiant Shield?’ I decided we wanted to do it, for a number of reasons,” Wilsbach said.

While none of the personnel will be taking liberty this time they are being lodged in hotels on-island, bringing some much-need dollars to the tourism industry.

Valiant Shield is also scheduled to be an annual exercise from now on, according to the U.S. Navy.

As to Air Force personnel stationed on-island, the number of active duty personnel at Andersen has become increasingly robust in the past 20 years (See Chart).

The tax dollars of all active personnel on-island are transmitted to the Government of Guam through Section 30 Section 30 of the Organic Act of Guam, which reverts income taxes paid by military personnel and federal civilian employees in Guam back to the island, when Guam is listed as their state of legal residence. In fiscal 2019 that was worth $77.04 million to the general fund.

According to Journal files, Section 30 revenues for Guam have increased from averaging around $45 million to $50 million before fiscal 2013, to around $70 million to $75 million in the past several years, but that has also been due to better reconciliation and the addition of certain federal agencies.

U.S. bases contribute to local economies. Andersen recognizes that and prepares an economic impact assessment, though the last was in 2014. It calculated the total economic impact value at $646 million for fiscal 2014, which included payroll, construction, services, indirect jobs created and retiree payroll.

Wilsbach was named commander in July, He is also executive director for Pacific Air Combat operations staff at the Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii, where Wilsbach is based. He was previously deputy commander of U.S. Forces Korea and commander of the Air Component Command in Korea.

The general has been to Guam “a number of times” he said.

According to Journal files, he visited Andersen Air Force Base on Oct. 27, 2016, when he was commander for the 11th Air Force, at that time overseeing training and readiness for five wings and Air Force installations in Guam, Hawaii and Alaska.

During the interview, the general talked about his familiarity with the Indo-Pacific region. He has had four assignments in Hawaii, he said. “Two of them have been here in the PACAF headquarters — two of them have also been in the Indo-PACOM headquarters.” Assignments have also taken him to Alaska twice, Japan twice and Korea. Assignments and missions took him to Afghanistan and Iraq. “I’ve spent a lot of time overseas,” he said.

The commander holds a 1985 bachelor’s of science in broadcast communication from the University of Florida in Gainesville, Fla., a 1997  master’s of aerospace science from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Daytona Beach, Fla.; a 1998 master’s of science, national securities and strategic studies from the Naval Command and Staff College in Newport, R.I., and a 2003 master’s in  national security strategy from the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.

He graduated Squadron Officer School in 1990 from Maxwell Air Force Base, Ala., and since then his varied appointments have taken him in an upward trajectory to commander. mbj

Air Force personnel and family members in Guam

2000 to 2020

Year20202015201020052000
Active duty2,0602,0742,0711,8441,752
Dependents2,5301,8472,4422,104             1,973
Note: 2020 figures are as at Sept. 8.
The Air Force at Andersen currently has about 460 civilian employees.
Sources: 36th Wing, Andersen Air Force Base; Government of Guam; Joint Region Marianas