Although the noise may have been unpleasant for some, and the quick appearance and disappearance of aircraft a bit surprising, it was vital operational training for fighter pilots stationed in Japan during the Cold War. Local Operational Readiness Exercises (LOREs), or ORE’s for some, are a staple of an Air Force combat wing’s training.
Between 16-18 November 1987, the Samurai of the 14TFS took to the skies over northern Japan along with the Panthers and a few visiting F/A-18 Hornets from Iwakuni MCAS, and headed for the big country, the island of Hokkaido to the north of Misawa, where the airspace was bigger, less constrained by air traffic, that would allow some maneuvering room for large force employment, for more than a routine training flight of two or four aircraft.
When one considers modern USAF training, it is clear that the American military experience in Vietnam, painful as it was at times, influenced the postwar training of the USAF in profound ways, as seen in the Red Flag air exercises that began in November, 1975, at Nellis AFB, Nevada. USAF Project Red Baron II studying Vietnam air combat determined that pilots stood a much better chance of survival after their first ten missions, and Red Flag was designed to give pilots ten missions under simulated combat conditions. These consisted of missions in large force employment scenarios with air and ground-based threats, providing a pilot or aircrew the best peacetime training short of war in order to keep them alive and accomplish their mission. This was especially important during the Cold War when hostilities with the Soviets could begin in short order at any time. One had to be ready at all times, and one had to train realistically in order to be ready.
Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) started a similar training exercise in 1976 at Clark AB in the Philippines with Cope Thunder, billed as the command’s “premier simulated combat airpower employment exercise.” Given the vast expanses of the Pacific and the cost as well as time to fly aircraft and personnel all the way to Nellis, it made economic sense, as well as military sense to keep the aircraft out in the western Pacific in case of crisis or war.
But a unit couldn’t just show up at a Cope Thunder or a Red Flag unprepared, unless they wanted to be humiliated by poor or inept performance, which no self-respecting squadron would ever wish to do. And this meant training well at home station with some solid flying hours enhanced by challenging and realistic tactical sorties.
Aside from a professional desire to perform well in the big exercises, a unit also had to periodically undergo and pass an Operational Readiness Inspection administered by the Inspector General (IG) team of the major command (MAJCOM) one was assigned to, in our case, HQ PACAF at Hickam AFB, Hawaii. A MAJCOM had to know the true readiness status of its subordinate units, and the ORI process ensured that assigned units were truly mission capable.
Building up to an ORI required quarterly, or more frequent when required, LORE’s, in which the entire wing exercised and performed its assigned mission. LORE’s involved realistic scenarios and often integrated other tenant units on the base (e.g. weapons controllers) and visiting air units to perform adversary air or perform specialized roles such as aerial refueling, airborne warning and control, etc.
And so it was at Misawa in the fall of 1987, with two F-16C squadrons in new Block 30 jets, and the Samurai working up as the newest squadron in order to pass their first ORI, that the 432TFW went through its paces in a LORE and the Vipers took off and headed north.
The exercise was picked up on by Japanese citizens on Hokkaido and the media as it was an uncommon occurrence at the time. USAF fighters were stationed in the region for many years until 15 March 1971 when the F-4 Phantoms of the 475TFW departed Misawa as part of the Vietnam drawdown. Before that, the USAF had also stationed fighters up at Chitose AB on Hokkaido until the 339FIS with their F-86D Sabre Dogs inactivated there 15 January 1958. But this was perhaps the first time both squadrons in the 432TFW conducted such flying up north. While many understood the nature of the event and the necessity for training, we could always count on left-leaning ragsheets to blow things out of proportion and sound the alarm bells announcing World War III.
Witness this rather exciting report from the Asahi from that time period:
ASAHI EVENING NEWS, MONDAY, NOVEMBER 23, 1987, PAGE 3
U.S. F-16s Buzz Hokkaido
In Surprise Attack Drills
By Kazuhiro Kinoshita
Asahi Shimbun Reporter
“Fifty “fighting falcons” flew low over towns, forests and
meadows across Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido last
week in what was considered to be air-to-ground attack drills.
“Fighting falcon” is a nickname for a U.S. F-16 jet fighter.
The unprecedented drills, involving 50 F-16s from the U.S.
Misawa Air Force Base in Aomori Prefecture puzzled officials of
the Defense Facilities Administration Agency and the Self-Defense
Forces. Although the flights were “legal” under an agreement based
on the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, the agency and the SDF were
not informed of the drill.
The flight of the F-16s was first witnessed last Monday. In the
Hidaka area, a noted breeding center for racing horses, a thoroughbred
was scared by the roars into a frantic run and injured its leg.
On the next day, Tuesday, the U.S. forces said in reply to an
inquiry by the agency that they are conducting week-long drills of 50
F-16s, which were stationed at the Misawa base in July. FA-18 jets
from the Iwakuni base in Yamaguchi Prefecture joined them.
The low-altitude flights of F-16s were also reported on Tuesday
and Wednesday. A complaint said that a rabbit, excited by the din, bit its
young to death; another said window panes were shattered by sonic waves.
About 10 cases of injury to livestock and 140 complaints on the noise
were reported by the end of the week.
According to the investigation by a local defense facilities administration
office, the F-16s flew even in the “sensitive area” north of Nayoro, northern
Hokkaido, where SDF aircraft refrained from flying in consideration of the
Soviet Union. They were seen in many places of Hokkaido flying at an altitude
of 300 to 400 meters. In many cases, the jets rushed toward the sea or mountains
and made sudden turns.
Besides air battles, F-16s are capable of attacking ground forces and of
being equipped with nuclear bombs. Last week’s flights were a practice at flying
low to make a raid without being detected by enemy radar.
The drills seemed to be successful in evading detection by Soviet radar,
since no scramble of Soviet fighters was reported. This proved that F-16s are
capable of making a surprise attack on Sakhalin and the Kurile Islands. This may
increase tension in the area, as the Soviet Union has been especially nervous about
F-16s in Misawa.
Since the disposition of F-16s in Misawa was completed, the U.S. has
conducted low flight drills in the Tohoku area. The U.S. says that in the face of the
Soviet defense buildup, the forces are required to keep high capability for joint defense
efforts with Japan. It also says that its aircraft respect the restrictions on altitude under
the Aviation Law, though it does not have to comply with most regulations of the law.
An official of the Air Self-Defense Force, however, did not hide his displeasure,
saying the scale of the drill, covering the whole Hokkaido area was “too much.” ASDF
jets fly at much higher altitudes than the regulations for fear of creating noise disturbances.
The Japanese side cannot demand an end to low flights but can only “ask” for it.
The U.S. forces ended the drills on Thursday, three days earlier than originally scheduled.”
Although to civilian observers on the ground it may have appeared that the aircraft were maneuvering wildly, perhaps haphazardly, over the Hokkaido landscape, such was not the case. In a way, the pilots in the LORE were executing one of the basic principles of the famous Japanese warrior Miyamoto Musashi, “…keeping inwardly calm and clear even in the midst of violent chaos…” Certain objectives were set for the fliers, plans made to accomplish them, with some involving lower altitude flying to take advantage of terrain masking by mountains and ridges in order to deny opposing forces a clear line of sight from the ground or even the air to engage the fighters as they flew to their objectives. It may have appeared as chaos, but a well-planned mission was being executed.
Sometimes the mission plans didn’t come off smoothly, for any number of reasons, weather, fuel, threat, air traffic control, etc. That was when the pilots would enact the second basic principle of Miyamoto Musashi, “…not forgetting about the possibility of disorder in times of order.” A contingency plan is always in the mind of a prepared warrior, is briefed by the leader to the others just in case it is needed, so as to retain unit cohesion and accomplish the assigned objective. In the case of this LORE, that could lead to some “wild” maneuvering as flight paths or altitudes or speeds changed, but in this case it was trying to bring order out of something that may have been starting to become chaotic. And if something became truly problematic, a “knock it off” by anyone involved would terminate a particular situation before it got out of hand or posed a danger to anyone in the air or on the ground.
No doubt the Hokkaido LORE bothered some folks, and there may have been legitimate claims of damage, which were no doubt duly processed by the government. But it is this web log writer’s belief that the benefits to the Japan-US Alliance far outweighed the adverse aspects. Deterrence of prospective adversaries is accomplished in a variety of ways, most non-nuclear, and this was just one important way to dissuade the Soviets from ever starting anything. Time has told well of all of this, as the Cold War peace was kept, at least insofar as northeast Asia was concerned in the late 1980s.
And just because I like it, here’s a little tune you might hear if you’ve ever been to, or will go to, Sapporo or other locales up on Hokkaido: “I am Hokkaido Man!” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pDtvAcPTeNw
Cleary, Thomas, translation of Miyamoto Musashi’s “The Book of Five Rings,” Shambhala, Boston & London, 1993.
“Red Flag exercise,” entry on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Flag_exercise
“Red Flag Alaska,” entry on Wikipedia at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Flag_%E2%80%93_Alaska
Asahi Evening News, Monday, November 23, 1987, page 3, English language edition