This summer, the US Air Force conducted a first-of-its-kind test on a Michigan highway.
A-10s and other planes landed, refueled and rearmed, and took off from the road during an exercise.
The drill reflects the Air Force's focus on countering the Chinese military's growing reach.
The US Air Force conducted a first-of-its-kind exercise this summer in which A-10 Warthogs and other aircraft landed on Michigan highway, refueled and rearmed, and then took off.
The exercise, and others like it in recent years, was meant to test elements of agile combat employment, which the Air Force has embraced as it focuses on dispersed and austere operations amid rising geopolitical tension, particularly with China.
Air Force aircraft landed on a civilian roadway for the first time during a similar exercise in August 2021. The drill this June went further, making history by having aircraft perform integrated combat turns in addition to landing and taking off.
Integrated combat turns are meant to save time by allowing aircraft to rearm and refuel quickly at improvised or temporary airstrips.
As China's military has rapidly expanded its operational reach, experts and officials in the US have warned that Beijing would likely target major bases and other military infrastructure early in a war, making temporary or improvised landing zones vital to sustaining air operations.
This summer's exercise, called Northern Agility 22-1, took place in northern Michigan and involved personnel and aircraft from the Air National Guard, Air Force Reserve, and Air Force Special Operations Command.
'We own airfield ops'
The success of the exercise in Michigan hinged on a little-known career field in the US special-operations community: Combat Controllers. These highly trained Air Commandos are proficient in surveying, setting up, and controlling landing zones for air-assault and aviation operations.
"Setting up an airstrip is one of the most important skill sets" that Combat Controllers have, a former Air Force Combat Controller told Insider.
"It's not as sexy as calling in airstrikes on bad guys (although we can do that too), but in many ways, it enables the fight to happen in the first place," the former commando said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren't authorized to speak to the media.
Combat Controllers first have to infiltrate the area and survey the potential landing zone. The infiltration can happen in a number of ways, including by driving, parachuting, or even scuba diving.
Once at the prospective landing zone, the Air Force special operators have to ensure there are no obstacles on the airstrip that would prevent a landing and set up the infrastructure necessary to support aircraft.
"You have to make sure that the terrain is suitable for aircraft to land. Not all aircraft are equal when it comes to landing. An MC-130 can land in crazy places, including desert and even beaches, but an F-22A Raptor is more limited, and you have to account for that," the former Air Commando told Insider.
Combat Controllers have been behind some of the most important missions of the last 20 years. When US Army Delta Force operators and Rangers struck deep inside Taliban territory in the opening days of the war in Afghanistan, they did so after Combat Controllers had gone in to make sure aircraft their could land and refuel.
"Airfield operations is what really differentiates us from other" special-operations units, the former Combat Controller said. "There is no one else who can do that. We own airfield ops."
The exercise in northern Michigan highlights the role of agile combat employment and forward arming and refueling points, which are quickly becoming two of the Air Force's most important concepts.
ACE and FARPs, as they're known, have been used in the past, but the US Air Force has put more emphasis on them amid growing threats from China and Russia.
With ACE, the Air Force wants to enable aircraft to sustain operations in environments where adversaries can contest or deny its ability to use established facilities.
For example, if Beijing chose to initiate a conflict, it could seek an advantage by launching an opening strike on US air bases in the Pacific.
By quickly dispersing squadrons, or even half-squadrons, of F-35 and F-22 stealth fighter jets around the Pacific, the Air Force could mitigate or negate altogether the threat posed by China's long-range ballistic and cruise missiles.
Forward arming and refueling points go hand-in-hand with ACE. Dispersed aircraft can survive an enemy's first strike, but they can't continue operating without munitions and fuel.
Well-trained teams of troops — often airmen but also others, including the "Night Stalkers" of the US Army's 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment — can set up to refuel and rearm aircraft very quickly, operating from improvised airstrips or captured airfields.
As with ACE, Air Commandos are pushing the boundaries on FARPs. In February 2020, Special Tactics Airmen conducted a simulated FARP in extreme cold weather for the first time by refueling F-22s from an MC-130J during an exercise in Alaska.
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