The U.S. Air Force flexed its muscle in a dramatic show of force this month, amid heightened concern at the Pentagon over the prospect of expanding great power military competition with nations such as Russia and China.
In a World War II-style expression force, the Air Force’s 354th Fighter Wing and the Alaska Air National Guard’s 168th Wing engaged more than 30 aircraft in a massive runway formation on December 18 at Eielson Air Force Base.
The formation — known in military parlance as an “elephant walk” — was meant to test the rapid readiness of every flying unit at the base about 25 miles southeast of Fairbanks, Air Force officials said.
“The elephant walk isn’t only to practice our abilities to respond quickly,” Col. David Skalicky, operations group commander for the 354th Fighter Wing, was quoted as saying on an Air Force website. “This is to show our airmen who work behind the scenes what Eielson (Air Force Base) is about. It’s about showing our strength in the Arctic arena.”
While an Air Force statement on the event made no mention of China or Russia, the exercise occurred just four days before Russian and Chinese military forces made global headlines by flying a joint patrol mission over the Western Pacific.
The December 22 joint patrol was considered a show of close military cooperation between the two, and was read by many Western analysts as a joint show of force against the United States. However, Russia’s TASS news agency cited the Russian defense ministry as claiming the patrol wasn’t directed against any third countries.
The joint patrol was similar to one carried out by Russian and Chinese forces in the same area in July 2019, according to TASS, which said the patrols aim to improve “capabilities for conducting joint measures and strengthening global strategic stability.”
Recent years have seen U.S.-Russia relations sink to levels not seen since the Cold War, amid a range of issues such as Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and accusations of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. The same period has seen U.S. officials also increasingly identifying China as America’s primary strategic competitor on the global stage.
The prospect of Chinese-Russian strategic cooperation may underscore what some national security sources have described as a “new normal” of a 21st-century global conflict, with regular brinkmanship and posturing likely to shape the coming decades of U.S. strategy.
U.S. military officials have spent years bracing for such a dynamic, and the Trump administration’s landmark 2018 National Defense Strategy laid out the Pentagon’s plans for dealing with aggressive adversaries that don’t necessarily adhere to geopolitical norms or respect international boundaries of the past.
The strategy document announced the return of competition among global superpowers as the U.S. moves away from what had been a laser-like focus on the Middle East and counterterrorism for the past 20 years.
With that as a backdrop, some lawmakers have warned that Russia is making a concerted effort to control the Arctic.
“Russia has opened sixteen deep-water ports, fourteen airfields, built Arctic military bases and even formed a new northern Arctic command,” Sen. Dan Sullivan, Alaska Republican, said in a statement circulated in September. “In recent months, Russian provocation has only increased. In fact, Vladimir Putin has referred to the northern sea route as the new Suez Canal, which he says Russia intends to fully control.”
The Air Force usage of “elephant walk,” meanwhile, dates to World War II when large fleets of bombers would taxi down the runway in single file formation. Observers at the time said it looked like a herd of elephants walking to the next watering hole.
At Eielson Air Force Base, the “elephants” included 18 F-35a Lightning II stealth fighters, 12 F-16 Fighting Falcons and two KC-135 Stratotankers. The drill involves the long procession taxiing in close formation before taking off in a show of combat airpower.
“We proved what our team is capable of,” Col. David Berkland, commander of the 354th Fighter Wing, was quoted as saying on an Air Force website. “Stay tuned, because our combat capability will continue to grow.”