Paul Dunn continues our look at USAF F-16 operations, with a report on the strategically significant Pacific region, where F-16s form a large proportion of the air power available to Pacific Air Forces (PACAF).
The Pacific region has long been an area of great strategic importance for the US, but with recent increased tensions with North Korea and the rise of China as a regional (and global) power, it has achieved even greater significance. The branch of the USAF with responsibility for this vast region is Pacific Air Forces (PACAF), and F-16s make up a large part of its equipment.
The PACAF area of operations is huge, and actually encompasses two US States, Alaska and Hawaii. PACAF has aircraft based in these two states, and also overseas in South Korea and Japan. US forces are based in those countries to assist in their defence and also to project American power in the region. The F-16 part of PACAF consists of aircraft assigned to four separate wings, based in South Korea, Japan and Alaska.
In South Korea, the largest unit is the 8th FW, the famous Wolf Pack. This unit became legendary during the Vietnam War, under the command of World War Two ace Col Robin Olds. Under his exceptional leadership, the 8th TFW became the outstanding F-4 Phantom II unit of the USAF during the conflict, and achieved several victories, with Olds himself shooting down four MiGs.
After the conflict, the 8th TFW remained in Asia and was assigned to Kunsan AFB, Korea, operating F-4Ds. In 1981, as the first F-16s were finding their way to European based units, the 8th TFW began its conversion to the F-16, receiving at first Block 15 F-16A/Bs and later (1987) the Block 30 F-16C/D. Today the wing is still based at Kunsan AB and consists of two squadrons operating the Block 40 F-16, the 35th and 80th FS.
Also based on the Korean Peninsula is the 51st FW at Osan AB. Currently the wing consists of an A-10 squadron (25th FS) and an F-16 squadron (36th FS), but it was recently announced that the 25th FS will disband shortly and return its aircraft to units in the US, leaving the 36th FS as the sole unit permanently based at Osan AB.
The squadron converted from the F-4E in 1988 and currently operates the Block 40 F-16, tasked with both air defence and attack missions.
In Japan, F-16s are assigned to the the 35th FW. The 35th was actually established as an F-16 unit at Misawa AB in 1985, and initially received Block 15 F-16A/Bs. It wasn’t long, however, before newer Block 30 F-16C/Ds arrived, and the squadron was assigned to both air defence and attack duties.
In 1994, the 35th FW received its first Block 50 F-16s, and with them a new role, that of Suppression of Enemy Air Defences (SEAD). The wing’s aircraft had previously carried the tailcode MJ; with this new role it reinstated the famous WW (for Wild Weasel) tailcode last carried when the 35th operated in the SEAD role using the F-4G.
The 35th consists of two squadrons, the 13th FS and 14th FS; both primarily perform the SEAD mission, but are capable of conventional attack and air defence missions also.
The final F-16 unit within PACAF is the 354th FW, based at Eielson AFB. This wing currently has a single F-16 unit assigned, the 18th Aggressor Squadron (AS). Initially receiving F-16s in 1991, the forerunner of this unit was the 18th FS. In its previous incarnation, the squadron flew Block 40 F-16C/Ds, however, in 2005 it was announced that it would disband. A reprieve of sorts was granted shortly afterwards; Eielson AFB is home to the PACAF sponsored Red Flag Alaska series of exercises, and the 18th FS was to re-emerge as the 18th AS in 2007.
The 18th AS operates the Block 30 F-16C/D, having traded its Block 40 jets with the 80th FS at Kunsan AB, Korea. Its aircraft are painted in several different camouflage schemes, and were the first to appear in the ‘arctic’ scheme, which has since appeared on Nellis based jets.
Red Flag Alaska missions are flown from both Eielson and Elmendorf AFBs, and are run several times during the year, attracting participants from the not only Pacific region, but also the ‘Lower 48’ States and Europe. Aircraft from the 18th AS support all these exercises, and also occasionally deploy further afield, for example in 2009 when the squadron supported Red Flag at Nellis AFB.
In the next installment in the series, we will return to Europe to look at the only ‘former’ F-16 operator, the Italian Air Force (AMI).