US Air Force special operators' search for new runways is expanding from highways to beaches

  • The growing reach of the Chinese military has the US Air Force worried about its bases.

  • In response, it's training more often at remote airfields and on alternative runways, like highways.

  • Air Force special operators are widening the search, seeking more roads and even beaches to land on.

US Air Force Special Operations Command is widening its search for runways as it seeks to counter what the US military sees as China's growing ability to threaten its bases across the Pacific.

The Air Force as a whole is working to expand the number of places where it can land and launch aircraft as part of Agile Combat Employment, an approach to dispersed operations developed with the Pacific in mind.

US airmen have used remote airfields in the Pacific and civilian highways in the US and Europe for ACE-related exercises, and US air commandos are now looking for more highways and soon for beaches on which to do those missions, Lt. Gen. Tony Bauernfeind, the head of Air Force Special Operations Command, the Air Force component of US Special Operations Command, said this month.

The efforts are an "acknowledgement that our adversaries have watched the American way of war for several decades and they are going to hold our initial staging bases and our forward operating bases at risk" in a war, Bauernfeind told reporters at the Air and Space Forces Association conference near Washington, DC, on September 12.

Air Force C-130J Tinian
US, Japanese, and Australian airmen with a US C-130J during an exercise on Tinian in February 2018.US Air Force/Airman 1st Class Christopher Quail

As the Air Force looks to increase the resiliency of its basing in response to that challenge, it is pursuing "runway-agnostic options" out of recognition that "we cannot always rely on Bagram or Kandahar or Balad or Al Udeid in the future," Bauernfeind said in response to a question from Insider, referring to major bases used by the US during its wars in the Middle East.

The search for runways has ramped up in recent years. Gen. Kenneth Wilsbach, commander of US Air Forces in the Pacific, said in late 2020 that his command had "studied every single piece of concrete in the Pacific" to find viable airfields.

Since then, US airmen have trained more often in places like Tinian, an unincorporated US territory, and Palau, an island country that has a defense partnership with the US. Highway landings are also increasingly common, including first-of-their-kind landings by piloted aircraft on highways in northern Michigan and the first landing of a drone on a US highway in Wyoming.

An adversary that can deny the use of one base "is going to have a nearly impossible time trying to defend every single linear mile of roads," the deputy mission commander of the Wyoming exercise said afterward.

A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper conducts the first ever MQ-9 Reaper landing on a dirt landing zone during a training exercise near Fort Stockton, Texas, June 15, 2023.
A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper in a dirt landing zone during training Texas in June.US Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Alysa Calvarese

Bauernfeind said his command has been returning to the "tactics, techniques, and procedures to find out where all of the 3,000-foot straight highways in the world" are and recently demonstrated a "C-130 seizing a 3,000-foot strip on a Wyoming highway, calling in an F-35 and an MQ-9 and fueling both and then launching them on follow-on missions."

Some US Air Force aircraft also have the ability to land on non-paved surfaces, and Air Force special operators have added drones to that category, landing an MQ-9 on a dirt runway for the first time during an exercise in June.

Bauernfeind said his command is now looking "at the ability for beach landings," noting that US aircraft have landed on beaches in Europe in the past. Other militaries still use that option. The British air force has landed cargo aircraft on beaches several times in recent years, including a June exercise with an Atlas A400M airlifter.

"We'll work with our engineering teammates to understand if the engineering in the Pacific beaches, can that enable us to do similar-type capabilities like we have done in the European theater?" Bauernfeind said. "We don't know yet, but we're getting the engineers looking at it, because there's a lot of 3,000-foot straight beaches that we could bring our C-130s and CV-22s in to."

British Royal Air Force Atlas A400M beach landing
A Royal Air Force Atlas A400M lands on a beach during at Pembrey Sands in Wales in June 2023.Royal Air Force

New technology and eventually new aircraft are also helping to expand Air Force Special Operations Command's "runway-agnostic options."

Airmen have for years been testing their ability to launch and recover MQ-9 drones, which are in high demand for reconnaissance missions, using satellite communications. Air Force officials say that capability allows the MQ-9s to go to more bases and reduces the number of airmen needed for support.

Bauernfeind said the use of automatic takeoff and landing with satellite communications in one combat theater "has extended on-station time by over 35%."

"Automatic takeoff and landing capability has been around for quite a while, and we made the decision that we're going to accelerate and get out of the takeoff and landing business" and use automation, Bauernfeind told reporters, adding that doing so "is vastly increasing our combat capability."

AFSOC MC-130J Commando II float amphibious plane rendering
An illustration of an MC-130J with an amphibious modification.US Air Force Special Operations Command

Bauernfeind said his command is working with DARPA "to develop a high-speed vertical-takeoff-and-lift capability," which may eventually replace its CV-22 tilt-rotor aircraft, and continuing to work on modifying an MC-130, its workhorse cargo plane, to land on water.

Many militaries gave up their amphibious aircraft decades ago, but they are receiving more interest amid growing focus on the Pacific. In September 2021, Air Force Special Operations Command announced plans to increase the "runway independence and expeditionary capacity" of the MC-130J by developing an amphibious modification in a rapid prototyping effort.

Two years on, officials are still evaluating their approach. A US special-operations official said in May that the service was doing tests and feasibility studies and looking to demonstrate "the full capability" in two to three years.

The command has "an MC-130 amphibious craft that is still in engineering development," Bauernfeind said. "We're still continuing to resource it. It is a tough challenge, but we have to continue to understand that."

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