What Air Force Leaders Are Considering to Better Defend Forward Bases

Air Force and Space Force leaders are thinking long and hard about the need to better defend U.S. forward-deployed forces and allies in a world awash in cruise and ballistic missiles, armed drones, and potential adversaries increasingly emboldened to use them, they said March 7 at the AFA Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo.

Those threats are not confined to one region either. In the Indo-Pacific region, top Chinese officials this week launched blistering rhetorical broadsides against the U.S. In Europe, Russia continues its assault against Ukraine—the largest since World War II—while periodically threatening the NATO alliance with nuclear weapons. And on the Korean Peninsula and in the Middle East, U.S. forces operate under the shadow of a missile threat from rogue nations North Korea and Iran. 

Indeed, many of the threats faced in different parts of the world are quite similar, said Lt. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, commander of Air Forces Central.

“When you think about the tactical problem the United States faces in the Pacific, which is [a potential adversary with] thousands of ballistic missiles that can rain down hate on any of our forces in the ‘first island chain’ [in the South China Sea], forcing our forces to move back to the ‘second island chain’ because either we can’t attack those missile launchers for policy reasons, or because they are so well defended, we have the exact same tactical challenge in U.S. Central Command, although on a somewhat smaller scale,” said Grynkewich.

In that comparison, CENTCOM’s “first island chain” would be U.S. main operating bases situated along the Arabian Gulf, he said, with the “second island chain” represented by those bases along the Red and Mediterranean Seas.

“The point is, if you flip east to west and change water to sand, we have very similar tactical problems,” Grynkewich said. “So as we think about how to execute the [Air Force doctrine] of Agile Combat Employment, implement the tenets of Mission Command, and further develop our theater missile defenses, the lessons we’re learning in Central Command will be useful to the fight we all have to prepare for should it come to conflict with China.”

Indeed, as regional U.S. Air Force commanders from around the world discussed the complex job of defending forward operating bases, they all cited some common objectives—chief among them the task of developing relatively seamless command-and-control systems to coordinate layered defenses among a disparate group of actors that included the various U.S. armed services, joint coalition allies, and host-nation partners.

“Our biggest challenge is C2, because that’s how we know when a fighter aircraft is going to intercept a threat, when a Patriot (surface-to-air missile) is going to engage, and how to make the seamless transitions involved,” said Grynkewich. “Because every seam in that process represents a chance for us to make a mistake.”

Maj. Gen. Derek France, commander of the Third Air Force at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, said similar gaps are a concern in Europe.

“In U.S. Air Forces Europe, we’ve discovered the need to constantly train and exercise and practice [tactics, techniques and procedures], because as we moved more air defense assets to NATO’s eastern flank, we found that on some forward operating bases we had U.S. air assets, NATO partner assets, and host-nation assets, and we were all trying to figure out what an effective layered defense looked like,” he said. “Who would be the ‘shooter’ under different scenarios, and under what authorities would they operate? When we exercised that with ‘Red Air’ simulating an attack, believe me, it was an eye-opening experience.”

Air Force Lt. Gen. Scott Pleus, deputy commander of U.S. Forces Korea, agreed that an effective command-and-control architecture that clearly delineates lines of authority is foundational.

“The number one priority needs to be sharing information, because you almost always run into some problems on that front,” he said. “And that architecture for sharing information needs to inform the command-and-control system, so you don’t end up with a seam in the process where your host-nation partner calls you up and says, ‘Hey, what are you going to do about this?’ And you don’t have the authority to act.”

That was exactly what happened on Dec. 26, 2022, he noted, when North Korea launched five drones into South Korean airspace, forcing Seoul to scramble fighter jets in response. Pleus’ early-warning systems detected the incursion, but under host nation rules, he had no authority to act unless the threat passed over the “fence line” of a U.S. base.

“All I had the authority to do was ask my Korean counterpart, ‘Hey, do you see that?‘” he said.

A related challenge is coming to agreement with allies and host-nation partners on which potential targets have priority in terms of being defended. In Korea, for instance, there is general agreement that U.S. and Korean main operating bases are on a “critical asset list,” but disagreements can arise when paring down a lower priority “defended asset” list.  

“Friction can come from the fact that if I am defending everywhere, I’m really defending nowhere,” said Pleus. “Luckily with our partners in Korea, those talks have never ended up as anything other than a frank discussion.”

Another area ripe for adversaries to exploit and for the U.S. and its allies to work on is sensor fusion. The earlier a missile threat is detected and tracked using multiple sensors, the more time defenders will have to respond with the most effective intercept.

“We need a network of sensors fused together to give us more accurate air domain awareness, because right now we have limited sensors and fusing,” said France. Currently, a missile warning is likely to prompt a ‘hack the clock’ exercise that resembles an 8th grade math program, he added.

“We determine that the missile was launched from a particular territory, it is traveling at a certain speed, and it will be here at a certain time. And then we make decisions based on that calculation. What we need to achieve is a network of sensors that are fused so that every sensor—airborne, ground-based, command-and-control—are all fused into a common picture that gives us a little more fidelity on what is coming our way,” France said.

With the establishment of U.S. Space Force and the ongoing integration of Guardians at virtually every level of command, many observers believe that fusing and integrating space-based sensors into operations to defend U.S. forward bases is likely to increase dramatically.

“Space Force has tracked more than 500 missile events in just the last year, in places like Korea, the UAE (United Arab Emirates) and in Ukraine,” said Brig. Gen. Tony Mastalir, commander of U.S. Space Forces—Indo-Pacific. “When you look at what Space Force Guardians have done just in terms of providing early missile launch warning, getting the word out immediately and allowing people to take proper precautions, that continues to save lives.”