Airmen from bases in the United States are bolstering U.S. visibility in South Korea at a time when tensions on the Korean peninsula seem to be rising.
In what’s called a Theater Security Package (TSP), F-16 Fighting Falcon pilots, maintainers and support troops of the 4th Expeditionary Fighter Squadron from Hill Air Force Base, Utah, are now flying at Kunsan Air Base, South Korea, where they’ve been on an extended deployment since October of last year. The 4th EFS is a combined unit that includes active-duty and Reserve members. While at Kunsan, the squadron becomes part of the base’s 8th Fighter Wing, the “Wolfpack” and its jet fighters practice in company with U.S. and Republic of Korea Air Force (ROKAF) combat units.
When Lt. Col. Jay “Fang” Sabia arrived at Kunsan with the squadron (12 aircraft, 18 pilots, and 230 airmen), North Korea had not yet detonated its third nuclear device on February 12 or issued its statement on March 11 declaring the Korean armistice invalid. “Their rhetoric is unfortunate and doesn’t lead to stability,” Sabia, the 4th EFS commander, told Defense Media Network in a March 14 telephone interview from Kunsan. “I stay focused on making sure we can do whatever [our] country asks.”
“Charlie Mike” Falcon
Airmen use the term F-16CM, or “Charlie Mike” for short, to refer to their F-16 Block 40 aircraft that have been modernized in the Common Configuration Implementation Program (CCIP). The update includes the HARM Targeting System (HTS), which enables Block 40 Fighting Falcons to use the AGM-88 High-speed Anti-Radiation Missile, designed to home in on enemy radar emissions. The “Charlie Mike” also introduces Link 16 datalink and a helmet-mounted cueing system, which permits off-boresight aiming of air-to-air missiles. “This is a mature configuration that has been operational since 2004,” said Sabia. F-16CMs routine use the Sniper advanced targeting pod.
The U.S. Air Force maintains four fighter squadrons permanently on the Korean peninsula — one with F-16s and one with A-10C Thunderbolt IIs at Osan and, two with F-16s at Kunsan. The ongoing presence of a deployed TSP at Kunsan provides a fifth squadron. “We’re in step with the 8th Fighter Wing,” Sabia said. “We’re part of the wing while we’re here.” He also emphasized that U.S. airmen enjoy “really close cooperation” with the ROKAF. All of the American F-16s on the peninsula are F-16CM Block 40s, while the ROKAF KF-16s are Block 52 models, which had advanced capabilities all along.
Eighth Fighter Wing commander Col. John W. “Yoda” Pearse told Defense Media Network that U.S. fighters in Korea have primarily an air-to-ground mission, while the ROKAF has air-to-air responsibility.
“The airspace and weather are an opportunity for decent training for the 4th EFS,” said Pearse, who added that his base and his airmen are ready to perform their missions in the event the unthinkable occurs. “We are primarily taking the fight up north, not just sitting around defending ourselves.”
The term “Theater Security Package” (TSP) refers to the additional fighter squadron and supporting people and equipment that bolster U.S. forces on a rotating basis. According to an Air Force press release, the TSP concept is an initiative by U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), which said that TSPs “signify a continued commitment to regional stability and security, while allowing units to train in the Pacific theater.” The command also deploys TSPs to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.
Officials admit to challenges when they bed down an additional F-16 squadron at Kunsan’s somewhat crowded airfield where apron space is nearly saturated. One recent TSP deployment to Kunsan, according to an official press release, faced “issues with facilities, housing, communication, and aircraft parking that was less than ideal.” Sabia and Pearse both said that life at Kunsan would get “cozy” if more reinforcements were brought in, but that they are ready.
The 4th EFS is scheduled to rotate home shortly. Leaders don’t know whether plans for a replacement TSP will survive the defense cuts now being made under the budget process called sequestration. Sabia said that the experience of spending six months in Korea has been “an especially good experience for our younger pilots” but that “whether a future squadron will fill in behind us is still to be determined.”