While much of its work is cloaked in secrecy, the C-146, which is a militarized Dornier Do 328, is also known to operate from austere locations with some regularity, fulfilling tasks such as discrete movements of special operations forces teams in different hotspots around the world. It is not clear if the two types will be operated independently, or if the C-146s will be used in support of the Warthogs, for example bringing in maintenance personnel and flight-line equipment. In the past, AFSOC MC-130J Commando II special operations tankers have been used to set up forward arming and refueling points (FARPs) for tactical fighters, so this kind of synergy is not altogether new.
It’s also not clear how much preparation work will need to be done to the highway itself before it accepts these jets, but, as we have explored in the past, standard highway strips sometimes require fairly significant changes to be made, such as removing crash barriers, power lines, signage, and lighting.
We do know that to facilitate the exercise, traffic will be detoured, with route signs to help redirect road traffic. The electrical power supply will also be temporarily shut down for residences immediately surrounding the landing area.
The highway exercise is certainly in keeping with the Air Force’s emerging operational concepts, especially Agile Combat Employment (ACE), which aims to ensure that airpower can be sustained even without access to regular airbases, which are likely to be high-priority targets for the enemy in any peer conflict, whether in Europe or the Pacific. While both these areas of operation have hosted ACE exercises, sometimes including the use of austere airstrips, practicing for these contingencies in the Continental United States is new.
Interestingly, just last week we reported that the United Kingdom was considering undertaking snap exercises in which its fighter jets operate from civilian airfields and perhaps even stretches of highway. This is all part of a move toward dispersed operations in times of tension, moving precious aircraft away from vulnerable established airbases. For the U.S. Air Force, this kind of approach could also be relevant, especially in Europe and Asia, where aircraft are increasingly concentrated on a small number of sprawling airbases.
Other aspects of this year’s Northern Strike exercise also stress some of the tenets of ACE, including the rapid insertion of an Air Expeditionary Wing (AEW) into a bare-base environment, testing the ability to move airpower assets rapidly and then set up operations in an unfamiliar setting. In this case, the 127th Wing will deploy from Selfridge ANBG to the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center.
Once at Alpena, the 127th Wing will “establish logistics and communications in order to receive follow-on forces, generate mission employment including the austere landing on M-32, and project combat power across all domains,” said U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Bryan Teff, Michigan Air National Guard adjutant general for air.
“Michigan’s NADWC is uniquely postured to provide ample training airspace and facilities to accommodate training for the future high-end fight,” Teff added. “Michigan is integral to the joint fight and future warfighter. The joint force cannot execute without training as we fight.”
While ACE concepts, including highway operations, might be becoming more commonplace across the Air Force, there’s no doubt that having jets land on Michigan State Highway M-32 will be a unique milestone for the service, in the CONUS at least. We will continue to bring coverage of this historic training event once it kicks off next week.
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