HONOLULU, Hawaii — Mobility Guardian 2023, the Air Force’s premier training exercise for its airlift and aerial refueling fleets, gets underway in the Pacific this week with an eye on potential conflict with China.

Now on its fourth iteration, this year’s Mobility Guardian is the largest to date at around 3,000 U.S. and allied airmen and 70 cargo and tanker planes. It’s the first time that Air Mobility Command has brought its marquee biennial event overseas.

The exercise aims to prove how smoothly the Air Force can dispatch personnel and cargo to the Pacific in a crisis, and how easily U.S. troops collaborate with their partners in the region. Also part of the event are America’s allies in the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing coalition — Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United Kingdom — plus France and Japan.

“Historically, we’re used to focusing on [U.S. Central Command],” exercise planner Lt. Col. Jake Parker said. “This is a completely different [region] that has a completely different focus. It’s really shifting the way that we think through our tactics, techniques and procedures.”

Earlier in the week, aircrews and support staff from across the United States began their journeys to U.S.-run and allied bases in Hawaii, Guam, Australia and Japan, where they will serve as the backbone of several other military exercises across the region through July 21.

Mobility Guardian is largely unscripted on purpose, Parker said. That forces troops to think on their feet to navigate the vast Pacific, set up communications and other support services in regions they’ve never visited, and roll with the punches when things don’t go according to plan.

Logistical snags are already putting that flexibility to the test.

One bleary-eyed crew of nearly 50 airmen departed Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, after midnight Thursday after weather delayed their outbound C-5 Galaxy for multiple hours. Then the team was waylaid in Honolulu when the crew that was scheduled to ferry them to Guam didn’t arrive at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam on time.

Once aircraft reach their final destinations, airmen plan to work from bare-bones tents and trailers like those set up at the edge of Andersen Air Force Base, Guam.

The Charleston-based airmen headed for Guam will act as a deployed wing staff, taking control of the airfield from a contingency response team already on the ground to set up a command post that can direct forces around the region on aeromedical evacuations, search and rescue missions and airdrops.

Mobility Guardian also gives airmen the chance to test out myriad other initiatives, from new teams that may help ensure continuity of communications, to command-and-control apps, to a real-time sleep study.

Participating airmen told Air Force Times they’re curious to see how ideas like the service’s new deployment model, known as AFFORGEN, play out in the real world.

“We’re supposed to go with generators and nothing, and set up initial comms,” Master Sgt. Justin Braden, a combat communications specialist, said aboard a C-17 Globemaster III in Charleston. “We’re getting to do more of what we’re supposed to be doing … when you go on deployment. I want more opportunities like this.”

Leaders have stressed they aren’t expecting perfection, and urge airmen to raise any issues that could help the Air Force improve after the exercise is done.

Have fun, they said, and show the world what the Air Force can do.

“I need the best and brightest,” 16th Airlift Squadron commander Lt. Col. Nicole Stenstad told airmen in a pre-deployment briefing in Charleston on Monday. “I need you to put your best foot forward.”

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.

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