Exercise Northern Edge 23-2, which was held from July 2-21, gave US forces an opportunity to practise and rehearse Agile Combat Employment (ACE) capabilities from dispersed locations, and to integrate with the Japan Self-Defense Forces, French Air and Space Force and other allies and partner nations.
ACE is intended to allow US forces to operate from more dispersed locations, even where there may not be a lot of established infrastructure or in the face of a contested environment and is a response to the rapidly changing and evolving threat in the Indo-Pacific region. China’s increasing military activity in the South and East China Seas, and its anti-access area denial (A2AD) strategy have made the US’s reliance on large, fixed bases along the first island chain (which includes Japan and Okinawa) and even the second island chain (including Guam) increasingly untenable and making the maintenance of air superiority (let alone air dominance) problematic.
North Korea’s increasingly aggressive ballistic missile posture, and Russian long-range aviation activity in the region further complicates the picture. One answer is to deploy to smaller, less predictable locations, though naturally this places a heavier burden on existing logistics and command and control infrastructure, demanding greater agility and responsiveness, and – in some cases – a more intelligent use of pre-positioned materiel.
For Northern Edge 23-2, US forces staged out of Kadena Air Base on Okinawa, the so-called “Keystone of the Pacific,” though the more than 5,000 personnel, 90 fighters and 20 tankers involved actually operated from ten locations across the region, while working through interoperability challenges across joint, multinational and multi-domain operations.
Personnel deployed to different locations, often with little more than a backpack and a sleeping bag, operating with less than they might have at a larger, more established base. The force conducted distributed operations through a centralised hub at Kadena and dispersed spokes at (for example) Hyakuri and Tsuiki Air Bases in Japan, validating new tactics, techniques and procedures. The aim was to demonstrate greater agility in order to outpace an adversary’s actions and complicate his targeting cycles through rapid movement across a wide area, and to operate with partners as a truly interoperable, joint and multinational collective force.