Japan. Misawa Air Base. Part One. The American Forces

For the past 45 years, USAF units have been based in Japan. Robert Francies visits Misawa, a base on the ‘cutting edge’ of the Pacific defence theatre.

NEARLY 50 YEARS ago young pilots took to the skies in wooden gliders above Misawa Air Base in northern Japan — they were practising for their single suicidal Kamikaze mission to sink American warships. Today, two mighty Japanese and American air wings share that same base in friendship and co-operation. Misawa has come a long way since the dark days of the 1940s.

The base is situated about 400 miles (640km) north of Tokyo in the Aomori region at the tip of Honshu, Japan’s main island. The area is mainly agricultural and, though not economically vital, the location has always put it at the ‘cutting edge’ of the Pacific defence theatre. Misawa is closer to the Russian air base at Burevestnik in the Kurile islands only 325 miles (520km) away, than it is to Tokyo.

The importance of Misawa was not lost on the Cold Warriors and it was developed into a formidable facility. It is not only dual nationality (US and Japanese), but also dual service (Air Force and Navy). Its 3,865 acres swallow up some 8,000 personnel, around 90 jet fighters and the largest electronic listening post of its type in the world. Misawa is not shy of proclaiming its view that this base is: ‘The point on the tip of the spear.’

But the fires that forged that weapon died down with the fall of communism in the former Soviet Union. With a less clearly defined threat, a base like Misawa enters an era of greater for the spear could mean that Misawa ceases to be ‘the point on the tip’.

This is the context for the base, so let’s look in detail at the varied air assets that use the facility. The Americans still retain overall control of Misawa, so in this first part of the base tour we will examine the US forces there.

US presence since 1945

Following its destruction by US carrier fighter-bombers and B-29s at the end of the war, the base was rapidly rebuilt by US Army engineers. First flying unit to arrive was the 49th Fighter Group that located there in 1948 with the F-80 and F-51. The F-80s subsequently deployed to take part in the Korean conflict.

Following a period of flying inactivity in the early 1950s, F-84, F-86 and F-100 interceptors were operated at Misawa up until 1960. The 1960s saw a scaled down mission. Fourteen squadrons rotated through and this was followed by a brief spell as a Phantom base during the Vietnam conflict. Meanwhile, the resident 6920th Electronic Security Group had grown in importance and became host unit.

The US Navy took over the flightline in the early 1970s and established the still-resident P-3 Orion anti-submarine operations. In the late 1970s the base became a support facility for the new Cope North exercises until the arrival of the 432nd TFW with its F-16s in 1984.

The 432nd Fighter Wing

In its short life since activation in 1958, the 432nd FW has operated in the varied roles of reconnaissance, fighter and drone group. The fighter operations were established during the Vietnam conflict, in which the Wing saw distinguished service with 36 MiG victories.

The 432nd was inactivated in 1979, the same year that a decision was made to put fighters back into Misawa — possibly a wing of A-10s. However, South Korea was eventually deemed to be a better home for the tank-busters, opening the way for the reactivated 432nd and its new F-16s.

The 432nd assumed control of the flightline in early 1985 and the 13th TFS was soon operating its F-16As and ‘Bs in earnest. Barely a year had passed before the changeover to the new F-16C and F-16D (dual-seat model); these types are still in operation. The 13th TFS was joined by a second squadron, the 14th TFS, on April 1,1987.

Since the activation of the Wing, an all round up-grade of facilities at Misawa has taken place. The base was clearly not in a fit state to fight a modern war with the Soviets, being highly vulnerable to air attack. A drastic building programme was required to substantially beef up defences and facilities.

Looking across Misawa today, the results of this massive effort are obvious. The landscape appears to be sculpted for attack survivability — the contours and trees are not just there to be pretty. The north side, once swathed in pine forest, has now sprouted new fourth-generation hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). Each of these formidable structures is designed to withstand a hit by a 2,000lb (900kg) bomb and its massive doors can close in one minute. In addition, there are back-up generators and the Halon fire suppression system — so sensitive that a camera flashgun can set it off. The appearance of a photographer in a HAS can make crew chiefs very jumpy!

There are two variants of HAS: the conventional type with one set of doors and the ‘flow-through’ variant with doors at either end. A F-l6 can roll straight in and out of the latter type, thus speeding up the refuelling and re-arming process. These high-spec shelters do not come cheap — a conventional HAS costs $4 million and the ‘flow-through’ a whopping S6.5 million.

Improved accommodation for the jets has been matched by new homes for personnel. The host nation has demonstrated its commitment to the American presence by expending billions of yen on support facilities. The new hospital, hardened and portly underground, cost over $30 million to build. In these days of budget deficits and cutbacks, the USAF is doing a lot of belt-tightening, so the Japanese contribution of 75% of development costs is crucial to Misawa’s modernisation.

The F-16 Squadrons

The 432nd Operations Group is responsible for two squadrons of 24 F-l6s: the 13th and 14th Fighter Squadrons. They train for air-to-ground interdiction, with a secondary role of air superiority.

The 13th FS is known as the Panther Pack and its jets are identified by a red fin stripe. The 14th Fighting Samurai carry a yellow stripe, but the keen-eyed will spot one more difference between the two squadrons. A Panther jet has a smaller engine inlet with a pronounced ‘upper lip’ or boundary splitter plate, whereas a Samurai inlet has a bigger gape with no lip. Being activated a year after the 13th, the 14th acquired a slightly later F-16C model that incorporated a larger intake to give greater thrust to the General Electric G110 powerplant. It also has improved avionics and chaff/flare dispensing.

All the F-16Cs are Block 30 aircraft that incorporate the APG-68 radar and fire control system, giving sophisticated data processing for multiple target tracking, ship detection, high resolution mapping and AMRAAM capability. Other weapons include the AIM-9, Maverick, HARM (in certain modes) and conventional bombs. ECM is provided by an up-graded ALQ-119pod.

There are 32 mission-ready pilots in each squadron. The expression ‘mission-ready’ indicates that a pilot has completed his first two months’ training with the squadron. Experienced pilots (over 500 hours) do 15 or so sorties per month — that’s a couple more than their greener counter-parts. This might seem illogical, but it reflects the fact that the experienced pilots receive extra up-grade training and hence, fly more.


Aside from times of actual conflict, the raison d’etre of any combat aircraft base is training. One could be forgiven for assuming that a small, highly-industrialised country like Japan would be less suitable for flight training than the wide open spaces of North America. In fact, the reverse is true.

US airspace is heavily congested, its flying routes clogged with international airliners, myriad domestic flights and thousands of light aircraft. The skies over Japan are altogether less busy. Private flying, for instance, is almost unheard of. Thanks to this, a military flying map will show a few restricted areas and certain towns to avoid, but generally, accessibility is superb. A structure like a large building or dam can be designated and used for simulated bombing — more realistic than flying the same old route to the same old target.

Col Sonnenberg, commander of operations, appreciates this freedom: «Every day here is a challenge. Before I go to a flight briefing for an attack, I have no idea where the target will be… In the States, you are told where you can fly, in Japan, where you cannot.»

There is one drawback to training at Misawa and that is the weather. For much of the winter, freezing air flows across from Siberia and dumps 20-30 inches (500-760mm) of snow on the runways. And as if that is not enough, in June and July thick sea fogs envelope the base — very restricting when flying parameters are 300:1 — that’s 300ft (90m) ceiling and 1 mile (1.6km) visibility. It is to the credit of the Wing that it can maintain an annual sortie rate of 12,500, involving 17,000 flying hours.

New pilots arriving on base will have already checked out on the F-16 at their replacement training unit, but there are times when they will still require supervised flying instruction. And this doesn’t just apply to the brand new shining lieutenants, there are experienced pilots who require up-grade training or might have lost landing currency, perhaps through sickness. Instructors can keep a closer eye on pilots either in the dual seat F-16D or on the ultra high-tech simulator, acquired in 1985.

The F-l6 simulator might superficially appear to resemble an arcade video machine, but at a cost of $30 million this is obviously no simple game. Not only is the cockpit an exact replica of the real thing, but it duplicates the functions too. The real wizardry appears in the 270° panoramic video ‘view’ from the cockpit; this generates the landscape surrounding Misawa and also salient features such as bridges, rivers, roads etc.

A particular value of the simulator is in practising EPs (Emergency Procedures) — difficult scenarios to recreate in an actual aircraft. For instance, a pilot might get ‘airborne’ in the simulated fighter and the programmer will generate an emergency such as an engine fire with all the appropriate warning lights etc. The airman must carry out the correct procedures to rectify or alleviate the problem.

A pilot will generally fly his real jet three times a week, but each one-hour sortie will actually involve six to seven hours of related activity. Technology has shortened some tasks. For instance, pilots can now type mission details into a data transfer cartridge (DTC) at Base Ops and then use the DTC to transfer them straight into the F-16’s computer. In contrast, clambering into the uncomfortable, rubberised poppy suit, vital for survival in the cold waters here, gets no less tiresome.

To minimise the time carrying the 25lb (11kg) smoke charge practise bombs over land, a sortie will commence with a visit to the small Ripsaw Range ten miles north of Misawa. After bombing and a couple of strafing passes with the Vulcan cannon, the jets follow navigation routes to an isolated structure like a bridge or a pier. This is a ‘dry’ surface attack with no weapons, its effectiveness being recorded on a video of both the HUD (head-up display) and radar image. The bomb release point appears on the tape as a ‘witness mark’. Pilots review their efforts later over popcorn and Pepsi back at Base Ops.

In addition to ground attack, 40% of training involves practise of air-to-air skills. Misawa F-16s frequently engage in dissimilar air combat training (tactical intercept against aircraft with different characteristics from one’s own) against F-1s and F-15Js of the Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF).

On a larger scale, several Cope North exercises are held every year to test the area’s defence capabilities. This time the F-l6s and JASDF F-1s from Misawa are on the same side, pitting their wits against USAF F-l5s from Kadena AB, Okinawa.

Since the demise of the Philippines Clark base in a volcanic ash cloud, the big twice-yearly Cape Thunder exercise has moved from there to Elmendorf AB, Alaska, under the new name Cape Thunder North. The Panthers and Samurai each spend a month there, two weeks on exercise and two just flying. This bumps up their flying hours and maximises a sortie rate that is adversely affected by the summer fogs at Misawa.

Associate units

The most important other USAF unit at Misawa is the 6920th Electronic Security Group, which has been at Misawa, in various guises, since the arrival of the USAF Security Service in 1952. The most significant operational development in its history was the completion in 1965 of the massive circular AN/FLR-9 antenna, popularly known as the elephant cage.

The mission of the Group is to provide rapid radio relay, secure command and control communications and countermeasures to ensure that friendly communications remain free from interference and intrusion. Misawa’s strategic location also makes it an important ‘listening post’ and gatherer of signal intelligence. In addition, it studies electronic phenomena and provides navigational aid, particularly to the rescue services.

More than 900 personnel in the 6920th make it the largest facility of its kind in the world. With a new space tracking station operating here too, you can be sure that if anything is out there on the air-waves Misawa is going to hear it.

Another addition to the base is the 39th Air Rescue Squadron with its MG-60G Black Hawk helicopters. The 39th fulfils a brief of aircrew rescue and other humanitarian missions that, until recently, was covered by the Japanese.

Though rare, accidents do happen here. One particularly dramatic incident involved a Misawa F-l6 having its nose sliced off by a tanker boom during refuelling. F-16s always fly in two-ship formation for safely, but pilots must be pulled out of those cold northern waters in double quick time. The highly capable Black Hawk is specially adapted to ensure that this happens. Two are currently operating and at least two more are on the way.

Naval aviation

The flightline may seem busy enough at Misawa with USAF and JASDF aircraft crowding the ramp, but such is the strategic importance of this base that the US Navy has, for many years, also had a strong presence here.

The most important permanent unit is the Naval Air Facility (NAF). NAF’s primary mission is to provide support for Naval aviation at Misawa, in particular, the operation of the Lockheed P-3 Orion long-range maritime patrol and anti-submarine warfare (ASW) aircraft.

The P-3 Orion

Developed at the end of the 1950s in response to the massive expansion of the Soviet Navy, the Orion was a military development of the Electro turboprop airliner. The most distinctive change to the original airframe was the tail-mounted magnetic anomaly detector (MAD) that could ‘look’ for large sub-surface metal masses, ie, submarines.

MAD or not, the aircraft still looks like a 1950s classic, but the P-3 has kept pace with the times through a series of upgrades — mainly in the avionics department. There have been A, B, modified B models and then the computerised P-3C. The latter initially featured a 64K system and tape recorder, then moved up to hard drive and increased sensitivity of its acoustic receivers, ECM, data processing and radar.

The next up-grade was to have been a radical change to a P-7 model with more range, stealth, crewmen and sonobuoys — plus five-bladed props and the Update IV avionics package. Budget overruns have put paid to that, so Update IV, with its new acoustic processing and tactical ESM equipment, will go into existing P-3C types.

The P-3C is a truly multi-mission aircraft: anti-submarine, anti-surface, aerial mining, reconnaissance, patrol, surveillance and search and rescue. To this end, it can carry a varied array of ordnance. In the bulged bomb bay and on the ten wing pylons there is the facility for two depth bombs and four Mk 46 homing torpedoes or eight Mk 54 bombs. In addition, there might be mines and the sea-skimming Harpoon missile.

Mission radius with a three-hour loiter on station is roughly 2,000 miles (3,200km). With its four engines being turboprops, the P-3’s best fuel economy is obtained by flying at 500ft (150m) over the wave-tops. To track down its quarry on its long, lonely patrols over the ocean, there is an addition to the normal flying crew of a five-man tactical team — the eyes and ears of the plane. Consequently, this is one of those aircraft where the pilot has his leg pulled about being ‘the bus driver’.

At the Orion’s ‘ordnance station’ the operator can select the appropriate weapon for the target and is responsible for deploying the correct sonobuoys. There are up to 84 air-launched sonobuoys that tap into the superb sound transmitting properties of the ocean. Once deployed, the information they transmit is monitored by the two acoustic operators using IBM Proteus acoustic processors.

At the ‘non-acoustic station’ other important information is handled, such as radar and electronic warfare.

The navigator/communicator sits at another station with keyboard, print-out and CRT. He has the important job of keeping on course while liaising with base, battle group and other units during the arduous 8-12 hour sorties.

At the ‘tactical co-ordinator station’ this flood of data is put together into cohesive mission strategy. The P-3C crew all work towards giving this operator what he needs to know.

P-3 Patrol Squadrons

Due to the ‘long legs’ of the P-3, its Pacific basings are pretty remote: Adak (Alaska); the Aleutians; Misawa and Kodena (Japan); Diego Garcia; Cubi Point (the Philippines). Down-sizing has seen the closure of Guam and there have also been reductions at Kodena, Adak and Cubi Point.

P-3 squadrons occur at Misawa in two forms: VP and VQ. The VP squadrons operate the P-3C for ASW, anti-shipping training and reconnaissance — as previously described. The VQ squadrons operate another variant of the Orion, known as the EP-3E. This is an ELINT (electronic intelligence) version that is packed with specialised equipment for gathering naval signals intelligence.

Although there are always P-3s on station at Misawa, they are not permanently assigned to the base. This might seem unusual compared to Air Force practice, but it reflects the traditional naval approach to deployment. Ships, subs and carrier aircraft are generally stationed on a system of one year at home base and six months away; this practise also extends to units like the P-3 squadrons that are firmly based on terra firma. Out of roughly 400 visiting naval personnel at Misawa, 300 will be VP and 100, VQ.

Misawa is one of the major P-3 bases and will commonly be host to six to nine aircraft, although there have been as many as 11. As well as operating independently and with surface action groups, a great deal of VP training will be in conjunction with that centrepiece of naval operations — the carrier battle group. The resident group in Japan is the USS Independence battle group, home ported at Yokosuka on Tokyo Bay.

In its role of battle group support, the P-3C can function as an air notification unit — that is, being the ‘eyes’ of the group and supplementing the snips’ own radar and carrier-based aircraft like the E-2 Hawkeye.

ASW operations are the responsibility of the Anti-Submarine Warfare Operations Centre (ASWOC) at Misawa, where Patrol Wing One provides command and control for patrols over the Northern Pacific, Sea of Japan and Sea of Okhotsk. As well as seeking out non-Allied submarines, VP squadrons carry out tactical training with US and Japanese craft.

Anti-submarine training was always the primary mission of Misawo based P-3Cs but the fading of the Soviet threat has shifted the emphasis somewhat. However, a wary eye is still kept on all submarines — be they Russian, Chinese, North Korean or whatever.

The Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force also operates the P-3, the type being made under licence by Kawasaki. Two squadrons are based at Hochinohe, 25 miles (40km) south of Misawo and there is a great deal of co-ordination between the US and Japanese units. Having much the same capabilities, they can support each other’s missions, for instance, relieve one another on station. Exercises like Annual Ex and Team Spirit provide the opportunity to apply this kind of co-operation on a grand scale.

NAF Misawa

The very nature of P-3 operations demands top quality support and so when a unit deploys to Misawa from a home base like Moffet Field, California, it arrives totally ‘intact’. In other words, it comes with its own yeomen and ratings who are specialists in pay, dispersal, medicine, mechanics, electronics and the whole gamut of support jobs.

NAF, which constitutes the resident half of the 800 or so Navy staff at Misawa, provides ‘senior support’ — an infrastructure that a permanent unit would take for granted. Facilities include large-scale maintenance to engines and electronics; supply, weather facilitator, ops for fuelling and launching, sonobuoy warehousing and an assigned flight surgeon at the hospital.

Jewel in the crown of NAF support is the aircraft intermediate maintenance department (AIMD), newfy built up and reflecting the pre-eminence of Misawa in P-3 operations. AIMD can service engines, oxygen facilities, auxiliary power units, block boxes and other computer-related hardware. A brand new facility is a test rig on which the P-3’s Allison turboprop engines can be run up and checked off the aircraft.

Transient naval units

The shell of support that visitors can occupy is not just the preserve of the P-3 squadrons, other more transient units pass through. Apart from other visiting carrier groups like the Midway, there are the tactical aircraft from the Independence Battle Group that disperse to Misawa, Iwakuni, Atsugi, Yokota and Iwo Jima. Iwo Jima is being expanded and it is hoped that this will lessen the pressure on the other facilities.

At Misawa the most important tactical training is fleet carrier landing practise — locally known as NLPs (night landing practise). Landing on a carrier essentially involves putting an aircraft down on a runway that is not only just 600ft (180m) long but is also moving up and down and sideways. A great deal of practise takes place on land to ensure that this difficult operation is carried out safely at sea.

Daytime familiarisation with catching the wire and fresnel lens recognition is followed by the aforementioned NLPs. These take place for three weeks in the year and on those nights the repetitive roar of jet engines certainly sets a few windows rattling around the base.

The subject of NLPs is a sensitive enough issue in the local community to cause complaints from the Japanese — a people normally renowned for their compliance with authority. Protest is fairly muted, compared with the likes of Greenhorn Common, but letters do regularly arrive on the commanding officer’s desk.

The base is not insensitive to the disturbance and flying is not allowed between 22.00 and 06.00 hours. CO Capt White has even seen to it personally that flying schedules are co-ordinated to avoid the milking times of a farmer who has cows at the end of the runway.

Change and the future

The winds of change have already dislodged many dead leaves in the USAF. The New Air Force’ is the catchphrase of the moment, reflecting the radically slimmed down command structure of today. USAF commander at Misawa, Col Latham, a former Vietnam PoW and crack Thunderbirds F-l6 pilot has seen changes during his career, but he says: «…now they’ve redrawn the whole wiring diagram». Gone are his deputy commanders, now there are four group commanders for operations, logistics, medical and support.

Take, for instance, operations. The fighter squadron commander is now responsible, not only for 24 jets plus their pilots, but also 250 maintenance men. That squadron is now in a position to just pick up and go to where it is needed — as a unit. This ‘war-fighting capability’ is the order of the day, even the general officers at Staff are being moved out into field. The 432nd FW itself can expect a GO to take overall command at Misawa in 1994.

The reduced threat and cutbacks have indeed led to this rationalisation in personnel, but in contrast there is the enlarged infrastructure, planned ten years ago and just now coming ‘on line’. As the Cold War fades, Misawa is assuming its status as a modern, self-contained facility with an excellent defensive capacity.

So while the base is still undoubtedly a strong card in the pack of PACAF forces, the nature of the game is changing. The expansionist, monolithic USSR has been replaced by on inward-looking, disparate CIS. In the light of this, it remains to be seen whether Misawa can still really claim to be ‘the point on the tip of the spear.’

For the present, however, Japan and its environs remain a strategic sector. Whatever their current intentions are, the Russians still had massive forces there. Coupled with this is the problem of the southern Kurile Islands — part of the ‘disputed territories’ that the Soviets grabbed from Japan at the end of World War Two. Japan has refused to sign a treaty ending the war with Russia until they are handed back.

Other neighbours include China and North Korea and there are even possible flashpoints with more friendly neighbours too. The Spratley Islands and their oil deposits are being claimed by many different Far Eastern countries — the scent of new oil is rarely conducive to good foreign relations. Economically, this region has been booming, but it is also hard to predict tomorrow’s friends and foes. Just look at Iraq.

Perhaps one day the security treaty that commits the USA to come to the aid of Japan will cease to be relevant and the Japanese will assume full responsibility for their own defence I asked one senior officer at Misawa to gaze into his crystal ball: «Put it this way», he said, «in 25 years I reckon there’s a 50% chance we won’t be here.»

Whatever the future, the Misawa of today — with its high-grade facilities, liberal flying rules and a welcoming Japanese host remains a highly popular posting among USAF personnel. This is well illustrated by the case of John Dolan. As a top performing pilot, under USAF’s ‘Constant Care’ programme he was rewarded with an offer to transfer to any base of his choice. And what did he choose?

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