U.S. Pacific Air Forces 15th Wing guardians of the
Article: Jaryd Stock
Imagery: Jaryd Stock & Joel Thomas
The Hawaiian Island chain is known to most as an ideal holiday destination with its beautiful beaches, stunning weather and the relaxed lifestyle of its local residents. But worldwide it’s all known as the place for one of history’s most divisive world changing events in recent history.
Watch the Full Interview with Colonel Michele A. Lo Bianco below-
Hawaii’s strategic importance was never fully realised until December 7th 1941, and highlights the
why the U.S. Government invested in constructing various bases especially on the Island of Oahu,
Hawaii’s most populous island in the early 1900’s.
After showcasing its importance in every war Hickam Air Force Base and U.S. Navy’s Pearl Harbour merged with each other in 2010 forming a single command under the U.S. Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure commission which started in 2005.
Today Joint Base Pearl Harbour Hickam (JBPHH) provides host to various commands from the U.S. Navy and U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) and is the most strategic base the United States has located anywhere in the world. The base’s location provides the U.S. Government a place to monitor and support the country’s interests in the Far East and a place utilised as a strategic launching pad for the projection of American Airpower throughout the Indo-Pacific Area of Responsibility.
Apart from the numerous PACAF and Hawaiian Air National Guard units located at Hickam, the base plays host to the PACAF’s 15th Wing, which has been stationed at Hickam since the Vietnam War when it was then known as the 15th Air Base Wing back in 1971, and today is responsible for overseeing three flying squadrons each operating the C-17A Globemaster, F-22A Raptor and the C-37A Gulfstream in the VIP role. The 15th Wing also serves as the Air Force lead
that partners with the Commander of JBPHH to provide mission support to all other Air Force entities on base.
Current Commanding Officer of the 15th Wing (15thWG) is Colonel (Col) Michele A. Lo Bianco leads her team at JBPHH and is rated on KC-10, C-17, KC-46 and C-31 aircraft with over 3000 flying hours and has logged 900 combat hours.
As the commander, Col Lo Bianco serves as the senior airfield authority on Hickam Field and is responsible for 80 support agreements that the 15thWG look after and overlooks the airfield’s safe and effective operation. With Hickam airfield playing a pivotal role within the Pacific theatre Col Lo Bianco details the history and why its so important too look at where you come from to see where you’re going into the future.
“We lived and worked on a national battlefield, back then (1941) we watched the Japanese aircraft raid Pearl Harbour and kill over three hundred airmen trying to defend this base, and the infrastructure here reminds us of our past as we continue look towards the future, Col. Lo Bianco states.
“As you walk past these buildings that we are now located in, you will still see the original bullet holes from Japanese aircraft, We haven’t tried to cover any of that up because we need to be reminded everyday that this happened and can happen again, and we need to know if it does happen again, are we ready for what comes next.”
That preparedness is drummed into the crews attached to the 15thWG daily and its something that the Colonel has been, in her words, preaching to the men and women in the Wing since she was made Commanding Officer of the 15thWG in July 2022.
Crews assigned particularly to the F-22A Raptor Squadrons from the 15thWG and also Hawaii Air National Guard are constantly training everyday honing their skills in defending Hawaii but also growing their interoperability with national and international partners.
When APD were in Hawaii in late October, it was noted that the 199th Fighter Squadron and 19th Fighter Squadron trained alongside units from the U.S. Marine Corps VMFA-211 “Wake Island Avengers” at Hickam as well as working alongside Gulfstreams from the American Missile Test Agency in some exercises for a week or so.
The Hawaii Air National Guard takes the lead for the the two F-22 squadrons based at JBPHH, with the 199thFS assigned to the Hawaiian ANG and the 19thFS assigned to the 15thWG. There are over 30 F-22’s assigned to both the 19th and 199th fighter squadrons, it was noted that in 2019 there were 20 Raptors on the ground at Hickam, and with consolidation of assets after Hurricane Micheal that battered Florida in 2019, several F-22 airframes and over three hundred
airmen were reassigned from the 325th Air Wing based at Tyndall Air Force Base to PACAF bolstering the F-22 presence in the Pacific.
Being the current premier fighter aircraft in the U.S. Air Force inventory certainly has its advantages, but its constant training of crews is what really sets the USAF up for success in any sort of conflict or contingency.
“I often challenge my crews asking them will you be ready? Was the training good enough? Because when that no notice check ride from China comes we need to know did I do my job good enough and did the crews train well enough? And the answer I get back is a resounding yes we are prepared and we are planned out for the next two years- we are good to go! Sald Col Lo Bianco”
As always though and as the saying goes you’re only as good as your logistical networks, and that is certainly the case with the 535th Airlift Squadron assigned to the 15thWG. The squadron is the backbone of operations for the 15thWG supplying airlift operations to anywhere in the world.
The 535thAS nicknamed the “The Tiger Line” operate the C-17A Globemaster III aircraft with nine aircraft operated by the squadron. The squadron was activated on April 18, 2005 and was the first squadron to operate the C-17 outside of the continental United States, the unit conducts airlift and airdrop operations in support of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command operations.
The C-17 is ideal for operations in the Pacific with its capabilities of performing rapid strategic delivery of troops, cargo and equipment to main operating bases such as Kadena Air Force Base in Japan, or RAAF Base Richmond located in Australia. But the aircraft also has a niche role of being big yet nimble enough to operate into forward operating bases, and this is ideal especially for airstrips that maybe located on various small islands dotted in the Pacific.
As we were developing this article U.S. Army Pacific was conducting an exercise called JPMRC, which stands for Joint Pacific Multinational Readiness Center, the 535thAS was conducting airlift operations from Wheeler Army Airfield on the island of Oahu and flying out to the big Island of Hawaii. What was special about the exercise was Royal Australian Air Force No. 36 Squadron crews which operate the C-17 were also participating in the exercise.
What RAAF crews were training in was HIRAIN operations utilising the C-17 aircraft to deploy rapidly the HI-MARS missile platform. A tactic that has been noted recently especially in exercises such as Talisman Sabre and Cope North has been the HIRAIN mission set which has been undertaken.
Basically the tactic is to load HI-MARS truck operated by Army (Australian Army plan on obtaining 42 HIMAR precision strike platforms) onto a C-17 or C-130 and rapidly deploy from a main operating base to a certain forward operating area, with HI-MARS being offloaded, then fired and then hauled back on to the aircraft with the aircraft departing again back to the main operations hub.
It’s designed to keep opposing forces second guessing the whereabouts of main operating forces in an conlict, another skillset being learned is FRAP or forward refuelling and arming platform where the C-17 can act as big tanker refuelling various aircraft or land based assets.
Speaking on the 535thAS and working together with the Australians, Col. Lo Bianco states “ Its critical that we work side by side with that interoperability being the key. I ask my airmen if you show up to a location and see a Aussie maintainer what are going to do? He is going to fix my jet!
“We have to work side by side in order to grow our capacity and our effects in this theatre, and we can’t do anything without our partners. From basing to assets such as the Wedgetail (E-7A) the Australians have and we don’t yet, it’s key and it’s critical.
“So we work side by side whether it be Australia or New Zealand or Japan, there really are no gaps between us, and we hope to build on those relationships so when they are here in Hickam we know them and they know us and how we operate.”
For the future of the 15thWG and more so for JBPHH it will continue to evolve as time progresses as it always has done over time. Col. Lo Bianco states that even more training on a larger scale will take place in the future focusing particularly on the air component, and then evolve that to focus on how to expand and integrate with other units.
“Hickam has always been a critical node here in the Pacific and that won’t change, but maybe the roles of Hickam will change slightly, where we bring more partners and allies out here for more of an integrated training for operations within the Pacific similar to what we do in Las Vegas and in Alaska (think Red Flag) but doing those training events here in Hawaii.
“And you may see different weapon systems come through over the next couple of years, so we can provide that next generation of aircraft to combat future threats in the Pacific.”
Protecting paradise has always come at a cost as we’ve seen such as December 7th 1941, and those airmen and women currently a part of the 15thWG are keenly aware of the role they play in that protection of Hawaii and how the base plays a pivotal role in the defence of the Pacific if any major conflict was to start.
Col. Lo Bianco doesn’t mince her words and is forthright in explaining what the 15thWG’s role is and how the team fits into that role, to say that the 15thWG is ready for anything is an understatement!
Whether that be in helping partners in any situation on a humanitarian level or responding to aggression anywhere in the Indo-Pacific region the 15thWG are ready to defend paradise whether far afield or on their own doorstep. Hickam will always be that place that is critical to U.S. interests and to explain that we’ll let Col Michele A. Lo Bianco have the final word…
“Through every war Hickam is the place where people transverse through or we fight and we win!
We often say here as Hickam goes, so goes the war!”