A View from the Pacific

  • Published
  • By Airman Magazine Staff
  • Airman Magazine

We interviewed Gen. Terrence John O’Shaughnessy, Pacific Air Forces Commander and Air Component Commander for PACOM, on Sept. 15, 2017, one day after North Korea fired a ballistic missile over Japan.

Airman Magazine: You’ve spent a lot of time at PACAF, from what I can tell. How has that time changed since your career started?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: My first assignment here in PACAF was actually back in 1992. I’ve been in and out for a long time, but really almost the last 10 years continuous. I’ve either been stationed in the Pacific, or the job that I had back in Washington, D.C. has directly contributed to things out here in the Pacific. In that time, it’s been dramatic changes that have occurred in the theater. Having the ability to watch it all the way from a squadron level, and then a wing level, from the Air Operations Center level, from the combatant commander level, and now back to the Pacific commander level as the PACAF commander, contributor to PACOM as the air component commander, has been absolutely fascinating. What we’ve seen change has been from a theater that has a few things going on, but not necessarily at the dramatic nature that it is today. What we see today, and what you got to see firsthand yesterday with the launch of a missile from Korea, is an operational tempo here that will match anywhere in the world.

We’ve seen this headquarters here at PACAF change from an administrative headquarters and organize, training and equip headquarters to a warfighting command, or actually a forward-deployed command that’s focused on warfighting. That transition is ongoing. It’s nearly complete. As we’ve seen just in the last year in the time that I’ve been here, we’ve seen the focus completely change to where now the majority of our effort is all about how do we support the warfighters here? How do we support the forward deployed Airmen that are out every day doing great work, whether it be on the [Korean] peninsula, whether it be in Japan, or even down in Antarctica, and watching them in their operations and giving them all the support that they require.

Airman Magazine: How do you support the warfighter?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: In many ways. First and foremost, of course, we help with the organize, training and equip aspect of it. Now, more than ever, it’s about the command and control of that warfighting capability. You got to see the AOC firsthand. I had the great fortune to be the commander of that AOC about a decade ago. Watching it develop over the last decade to a very robust command and control capability that, ultimately, has the task of commanding and controlling airpower over half of the globe…52 percent of the earth is what the region encompasses. That AOC there, with all those amazing Airmen, every day do things from airlift operation to the defense of the homeland. When we saw yesterday a missile launch from Korea, all the way to just making sure that we are ready for a near-peer fight or something that might happen, for example, on the Korean peninsula.

Airman Magazine: Approximately eight years ago, you were the AOC commander. When you walked in there yesterday, were you like, “Oh. I know exactly what’s happening. I know what’s going on.”

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: I’m comfortable. I will tell you that that’s one of the great advantages of having been assigned at multiple levels and multiple locations and multiple aspects of things that have happened out here in the Pacific. I’m comfortable in the environment. I’m able to understand the different levels of command. I’m also able, I think, to contribute in a way that is beneficial to understand the ramifications of the decisions that maybe we make here at the headquarters or that the AOC makes. I understand what the ramifications of those are, for example, in the Korean peninsula with the wing at Kunsan (Air Base), as an example, or Misawa Air Base in Japan. Having that full scope of experiences here, I think, does help me command here in the Pacific.

Airman Magazine: You talk about command and control, and this area being 53 percent of the earth. How do you manage the time and the distance and what it takes; 83 or 87 percent water or something like that.

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: Yeah, 52 percent of the globe, of which 83 percent of that is water. One hundred percent of that 52 percent of the world is actually covered in air. As an Airman, we find that a lot of the responsibility that happens within this region falls on us. It’s also because of the tyranny of distance. If you are trying to provide support to, say, Korea, and the time that it takes to, whether it be sail a vessel, get some Army supply capability there, it’s just not responsive to the nature of the fight that we know that we’re going to have to fight. What we find is, air … Not just Air Force, but the air component, which, of course, includes Air Force, Navy, Army and Marines, is part of that. That air component is very, very, critical to the initial response in any kind of contingency in this region.

Airman Magazine: Does the delegation of authority come into that as well? Is it easier to have decisions made at the lowest level?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: One of our primary tenants is centralized command, decentralized execution. More than ever, in this particular area of responsibility that becomes really, really, critical. We have the AOC, which allows us to do that centralized command, but we count on our Airmen, our Airmen that are forward deployed to do that decentralized execution.

Airman Magazine: Partnerships. Let’s talk a little bit about partnerships. We have Korea, we have Japan, we have Australia, we have all these countries in this AOR. How important are those partnerships?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: We’ve known from historical conflicts that we don’t fight unilaterally. We almost always fight as a coalition. I think any fight that we would have out here in the Pacific would be the same. We have actually five allies out here in the region, numerous partners and others we consider like-minded countries and friends. We train with those allies and those partners, and make sure that we have the interoperability and we have the ability to have our Airmen work closely together. You can’t do that and just come together at the time of conflict. You have to do that in exercises. You have to do that on a day-to-day basis. As a result of that, we have forged great relationships with our allies and partners out here where we communicate on a day-to-day basis. We make sure we exercise, not just in the number of exercises we do, but having very high-end exercises that allow us to really wring out our Airmen and make sure we’re giving them the toughest threats to fight and train against. If we do find ourselves fighting together as a coalition, we know that we’re going to be able to interoperate and we know we’re going to perform well together.

I’d also expand that discussion to not only just our allies and partners but on the joint side. This opportunity we have here in the Pacific, we’re right here in Oahu (Hawaii), we have not only the Air Force leadership with PACAF but we have our sister components also right here on island. That’s given us a great opportunity, maybe more than we’ve been able to do in other AORs and regions, to really come together as a joint team. If you walk into our AOC right now, you don’t just see Airmen. You see Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, working together every day. I gave you a real world example yesterday. When North Korea launched that ballistic missile, it was our role as the theater area air defense commander to defend against that threat.

That’s not something that we did just as Airmen. We had an Aegis ship that our Navy brethren provided to allow us to provide defense of Guam. We had our Soldiers that were not only manning some of the radar sights, but were also manning the THAAD that is at Guam and the THAAD that’s on the peninsula, and the Patriot Missiles that are throughout there. Then we were providing the command and control to be able to bring that all together within the AOC. That’s just one example. Pretty much anything we do out here, we do as joint partners and we do completely integrated in that fashion.

Airman Magazine: Since we’re operating like that more and more and more … We’ve done exercises in Hungary and the Netherlands. How do we develop those leaders, those people who will lead those fights?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: Certainly (Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein) has been very clear in his articulation of the importance of developing joint leaders for tomorrow. A big part of developing joint leaders is first understanding airpower. We think we have a great leadership laboratory right here in that AOC that you had a chance to see, where our Airmen are versed in the command and control of airpower. They’re doing it shoulder-to-shoulder with their joint partners. While not technically a joint position, those Airmen that have the opportunity to serve here in the AOC, and those Airmen that have the opportunity to service here in the headquarters, have an experience of working with their joint partners that is critical. They can then go on to further assignments in the joint environment, for example, at a COCOM or PACOM. Now they can really speak articulately about airpower. They can now integrate that into their joint world at the combatant commander.

Airman Magazine: When you walked into the AOC yesterday, I felt like you went right over to the missile defense guys and got a brief from a chief warrant officer. What were you looking for?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: Initially, our Soldiers that are there are tracking the missile itself. The first step, as we saw that initial launch happen, was where was the missile impact going to be? What defenses do we have in play in order to defend against that missile if it was going to an area of our responsibility? The Soldiers that are within the AOC are critical in that, both in the radars that they are processing within the AOC as well as the integration to the defense systems like THAAD, like Guam, or the Patriot Missiles throughout the region.

Airman Magazine: What should Americans know about our defensive capabilities?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: First they should know, 24/7, 365, we have Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, on duty and ready to defend the homeland. It’s a mission that we take incredibly seriously. It’s a mission that is no-fail. It’s a mission that they should feel very confident in our ability to succeed in. Yesterday, as an example, was watching our Airmen in action and to watch as the missile launch occurred, how they were postured and ready to defend.

Airman Magazine: What was it? Maybe 20-something minutes that the missile, 30 minutes, something like that. It’s a very short period. These decisions that we have to make in such a short period of time, do we have something that says, “Hey, If this happens, we’re doing to do this”?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: Right. It’s a combination of our Airmen being incredibly well trained. They know exactly what they need to do and when they need to do it. They have the skillset and the knowledge to be able to respond to a variety of different situations that would happen. Some of that delegation of authority has to happen because, as you mentioned, the time of flights of these missiles can be relatively short. We can’t necessarily wait to tie in back to Washington for authorities. To the best extent we can, we have trust and confidence in our Airmen. We push those authorities down to the lowest possible level.

Airman Magazine: I don’t want to dwell on North Korea. It seems like this whole AOR is in the cross hairs. As a military member, I was thinking to myself if my neighbor is threatened I’m like, “Hey, You shouldn’t threaten my neighbor,” if somebody threatens my kids, it’s different. You are the commander of PACAF, is it personal for you?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: It’s very personal. I think, when we look at this region and we look at all the complex situations that happen on a daily basis, whether it be the North Korea situation we’ve been talking about, or whether it be some of the interactions we have with China, or even Russia. A lot of people don’t think of the Pacific theater as being one we’re engaged with Russia, but we have a lot of long-range aviation from Russia that comes through, not only in the region close to the U.S. but also through Japan, Korea and our allies and partners. We have our forward deployed warriors out there, they also have their families with them. Just as concerned as we are for the welfare of our Airmen that are out there, we’re concerned about those families that are out there as well. That just adds to the responsibility, but also adds to the motivation to make sure that we’re providing them everything that they need to be able to, not only defend but be prepared for whatever the future might bring.

Airman Magazine: What do you think about the future of PACAF? What do you hope?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: First off, I would say there’s no doubt in my mind that this region is the most consequential region to us as a nation. When I look at the future of America, that future lies out here. That is not a result just because of the things that are happening from a military perspective. If you look at it from an economic perspective as well, if you look at it from the global dynamic and regional powers, this is the future of where, I think, America maintaining its competitive advantage and America remaining the great nation it is, is going to happen because of the great work that our Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines are doing out here right now. This is a critical time for us, not only because of the most urgent threat maybe in North Korea but also as we see a rise in China. How do we manage that rise of China in a way that is productive for both China and for the United States?

We look at our other regional partners here, Japan and South Korea, they’re counting on us to partner with them to make sure that we maintain the rules-based international order that has led to the prosperity, not only of the United States but of many of our friends and partners. Right now, that’s what our Airmen are doing every day. When we have our forward deployed force, for example, at Guam, and they’re flying the bomber missions that you see flown in deterrence against North Korea, what you don’t see is they’re also flying missions on a routine basis through the South China Sea. They’re out doing America’s work throughout this whole 52 percent of the world every single day. It’s making America safe. It’s making sure that the global international order that has allowed America to continue to be prosperous is still alive and well. We’re the defenders of America’s freedom well beyond the confines of the United States.

Airman Magazine: Do you think we are doing more with less, or is this the new normal?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: To walk that balance in the high-ops tempo while still giving enough time for Airmen to take care of themselves, take care of the mission, take care of their families. Let there be no doubt that we are working them hard. We’re working the equipment hard. We need to continue to recapitalize on our equipment. We need to continue to find what we call white space, or time for our Airmen to take care of themselves. As an example, one of the things we’re doing is we’re constantly looking at our exercise programs out here. We weight the value of the exercises so that, perhaps over time, we’ll have less exercises but they’ll be better exercises. The Airmen may spend maybe only two-thirds of the time that they’re spending now on the road, but they’ll still get that same level of experience and training because the exercises they do go to will be so good that they’ll get that high-value training without having to be away from home for as long.

We’re constantly evaluating that. We’re constantly looking at that. I think, right now, we need to continue to focus on being ready to fight tonight while, at the same time, giving our teams the ability to charge their batteries and maintain that high-ops tempo and take care of their families while, at the same time, making sure that we never take our eye off the ball and understanding that this is a dangerous AOR. In this AOR, we always have to maintain that high degree of readiness.

Airman Magazine: How do you recharge your batteries?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: I’ll tell you, everyone has to have a way that they are able to maintain their edge and maintain the ability to perform at the highest level. Two things for me. One is family. If I can spend time and minutes with my family, it definitely recharges my batteries. Then surfing. There’s nothing better than being out in the water as the sun is coming up with some of your friends. It’s great exercise, and it’s also good for the body and soul. It’s a great way to recharge your batteries.

Airman Magazine: The juxtaposition is kind of weird because we’re in paradise. Right? Then you walk into that AOR and, “Oh. Hey, there’s a missile coming.” What’s that like?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: I think that’s part of what we are doing at PACAF. The PACAF environment has changed. There are still some that think we get the palm trees and the great weather and, quite literally, living in paradise, and how incredibly great that must be. That part is great, but let there be no doubt, the Airmen out here in the Pacific are working hard, they’re contributing and they are critical to the defense of our nation.

Airman Magazine: What should Airmen know about you?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: First and foremost, I’m passionate about being an Airman. I wake up every morning just as excited today to come to work this morning as the PACAF commander as I was as a second lieutenant going off to pilot training. We have the great fortune of serving our nation. We have the respect of our nation. We have the responsibility that the nation puts on us. I think we should all take that incredibly seriously. I certainly do. One of my primary jobs is, I serve all of the Airmen of the Pacific as their commander. Everybody in this headquarters knows that we aren’t here to be taken care of by the wings and the groups and the NAF commanders. We are taking care of them. Everything we do, we try to do to make sure that every Airman that is out in this forward deployed theater has the resources, the training and the care that they need to be able to do their job.

Airman Magazine: We asked this of most of our generals. I think it’s a really good question. What’s something that you knew to be true for a very long time, until you discovered you were wrong about it?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: I thought all the generals were old and out of touch. What I found is, actually, the generals of today are very much in touch with their Airmen. They care deeply about their Airmen. In fact, they’re motivated and driven simply by the Airmen that they serve.

Airman Magazine: You’re in a lot of serious meetings throughout the day. Is it difficult to switch gears and just talk to an Airman on their level once you get out of those meetings?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: Actually, one of the things I really enjoy doing sometimes is finding that time where you can actually have real conversations when people and our Airmen aren’t talking to you as PACAF commander but just talking to you as a fellow Airman, really helps you get to understand what is really on their mind. What are the real challenges that they face? What is the lens which they are looking through? It really helps me maintain my perspective up here to make sure I stay in tune with the Airmen.

Airman Magazine: Would you rather them talk to you that way?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: I love it when they talk to me that way. Sometimes you just have to find a way to break the ice. In the end, nobody really wants to hear just the party line. When we ask an Airman, “How are you doing? What can we do to help?”, we really mean how are you doing? What can we do to help you? Sometimes Airmen are reticent to come up with that answer right away. Finding a way to break the ice, make them comfortable so that they’re able to tell you what they really need, because nobody knows what they need better than the Airmen themselves.

Airman Magazine: Is there anything that we missed that you think is an important point that we should focus on?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: I’d wrap up by just saying I could not be prouder of the Airmen of the Pacific. When I look at what they’re tasked to do every day, the level of responsibility that we give to some of our youngest Airmen, and the way that they are able to respond every single time with incredible performance, I am just so proud to be serving as their commander. I’m proud of what we have transitioned ourselves to within this headquarters itself, as well as the forward deployed Airmen that are right now, right this very second, defending America. They’re out with our allies and our partners. They are the ones that our nation is counting on. There’s no doubt that they can be counted on.

Airman Magazine: I forgot one question. It goes back to North Korea. What do you hope the resolution is?

Gen. O’Shaughnessy: We’re in direct support of Secretary (of State Rex) Tillerson. I want to make sure that everyone understands that. The real way to solve this problem is diplomatically. Whether it’s the great work that’s being done in the UNSCR realm to try to get continuing resolutions to put pressure on North Korea to abide by international norms and rules, and the continuing work we do from the overall international community to get them to ultimately behave like a normal nation would, that is the way we need to solve this. Secretary Tillerson has been given that task. We are in direct support of them. That said, our job as military members, is to provide viable military options. Our team is hard at work developing and fine-tuning and making sure that we are ready with those military options. If our nation asks us and needs us to respond, we will respond with overwhelming force. We will respond incredibly quickly. We will be able to provide our national leadership the options that they need in order to ultimately solve this problem.