Does the Air Force Need its Own Army?

Nov. 1, 1956
Air base defense is a headache. It is a headache because our enemies have the time and the means to scout our installations almost at leisure. They can choose the point of attack that suits them best.

There are two possible cures to this headache. We can give up, admitting that the enemy advantage is so great as to overcome any protective measures we might be able to take. Or, we can establish a defense that will minimize or eliminate entirely our losses in the event of enemy attack.

A great portion of the future of the United States is already invested in our air base system. That investment is due to grow even larger. Obviously, then, the first “cure” is absurd.

We have chosen to defend our bases on the ground as well as in the air. In doing so, however, we have left a gap so large that it threatens to negate all the progress made to date.

It is my purpose here to describe the dimensions of this major deficiency and to recommend the organization of a small, mobile armored unit capable of filling the gap.

During the past ten years, a vast improvement has been made in protection of our air bases both at home and overseas. The efforts of the Office of Special Investigation and the air police have paid off in a security organization capable of dealing effectively with the individual traitor, the saboteur, the enemy agent who strikes alone, by subterfuge and stealth. It is not yet capable of dealing with native or foreign agents employing small unit tactics and willing to shoot their way through our defenses if forced to do so.

This is not intended as criticism of the air police. The APs have made a determined effort to meet all the demands of air base defense. One look at the forces and the equipment available to them, plus the multitude of routine police duties for which they are responsible, should be enough to show why their efforts have fallen short.

The principal item of air base defense available to the air police is the M-20 armored car, two per air base. Aside from the fact that this vehicle has been out of production for a number of years, it possesses severe limitations affecting its ability to maneuver rapidly and to negotiate difficult terrain.

Wherever possible, the air police have established a “mobile striking force,” designed to move rapidly to any part of the air base threatened by enemy attack. This force is mounted in commercial-type pick up trucks. Its firepower consists of rifles and a few automatic weapons.

The chances of the “mobile striking force” being decoyed to a remote corner of the base and immobilized by a diversionary force are altogether too good. Once off the road, the striking force becomes simply a reinforced infantry squad without support of any type. Pinned down by the fire of a few riflemen and cut off from its vehicles, the striking force would be unable to redeploy rapidly enough to deal with the main enemy effort.

The remaining ground defense force immediately available to the air base commander—the operating personnel of the base—is the weakest reed of all.

Air Force basic training has been reduced far below the minimum necessary to train an effective ground combat soldier. With the exception of the air police, few airmen have participated in a realistic air base defense problem. Air Force officers skilled in platoon and company tactics are scarcer yet. To attempt to maneuver such a force at night against a well trained enemy guerrilla unit would be folly.

What is worse, the use of mechanics, air crews, and other technicians in ground defense would be to hand the enemy a partial victory, for the combat effectiveness of the base involved would be automatically reduced.

We can conclude that some means must be found to provide an effective air base defense that will, at the same time, permit the operating force of the base to carry on with their normal duties.

In planning such a force our primary consideration must be the nature of the enemy threat. J. Edgar Hoover of the Federal Bureau of investigation has announced that there are some 20,000 “hard-core” Communists at large in this country. Sympathizers and fellow travelers, we can assume, total several times that number.

From the days of Lenin, the world Communist movement has stressed the value of guerrilla warfare, an emphasis that has paid huge dividends in China, Indo-China, Malaya, and Russia itself. There is no reason to assume that American Communists, many of them war veterans, are any less expert bomb-throwers than their comrades abroad. Our Strategic Air Command base system would be the logical prime target of a native guerrilla attack.

Allowing a minimum of twenty men per base, the American Communists have more than enough manpower to do the job. Transportation is a simple matter of private automobiles. Arms and ammunition can be procured from hundreds of sporting goods stores throughout the United States. Commercial dynamite sufficient to wreck every B-47, B-36, and B-52 in existence is also readily available to the Communists and their sympathizers.

The Kremlin has, then, a potential guerrilla force already deployed in the United States. We would be fools not to take it for granted that that force is set to go into action just prior to or during the progress of a major Soviet air attack.

Overseas, the Communist threat is magnified by an even larger percentage of native Communists and by the possibility of direct attack by regular Soviet forces. In Alaska and in the crucial Northeast Air Command, there is a very real danger from Soviet paratroopers and from Soviet troops landing from pre-positioned submarine and surface naval units.

Guerrilla or regular, these forces can be expected to strike during the hours of darkness. At least some of the attacks will be carried out under cover of the mass confusion produced by a nuclear attack. They provide the Soviets with a powerful secondary means of knocking out those bases not destroyed from the air.

The men making the attack will be tough, disciplined, fanatic fighters. They will know every detail of the terrain. Training, coordination, planning, and determination will more than make up for their smallness in numbers.

There can be no “airtight” defense against an attack of this nature, any more than we can establish an impregnable defense against the threat from the air. What can be done is to minimize the effectiveness of guerrilla attacks so as to prevent them from crippling our air defense and retaliatory power.

The air base defense force capable of accomplishing this objective must do so with the smallest number of men possible. It must be capable of reacting instantly to an enemy attack, of preventing such an attack from reaching vital fuel storage and flight line areas, and of redeploying rapidly to meet additional threats as they develop. It must have sufficient firepower to destroy small groups of an enemy within minutes.

In short, the air base defense unit must possess a high degree of mobility, firepower, and shock action. When you speak of those elements in land warfare, you are speaking of armor.

In addition to the characteristics already mentioned, the air base defense unit must be able to conduct fast, aggressive, and continuous reconnaissance throughout the countryside adjacent to the base. Its commander must be familiar with the road net, the terrain, and any man-made feature which a guerrilla unit could use as an avenue of approach or an assembly point.

By using the intelligence made available to him by the various national security agencies and by close coordination with the local police and the local population, the air base defense unit commander must be ready to strike at a guerrilla concentration the moment it is detected. The further away from the air base that such a concentration can be detected and destroyed the better.

We have here a requirement for an armored unit equipped and trained for reconnaissance, security, and short, violent combat action. A force possessing these characteristics is known today as armored cavalry.

The armored cavalry regiments of the United States Army and the Army National Guard are at present the most suitable units for air base defense. However, to tie down such as unit, with all its command, communications, artillery, medium gun tank, and service elements, to air base defense alone would involve a waste of combat power badly needed elsewhere.

The job can be done much more efficiently and economically by an armored cavalry unit organic to the Air Force. Such a unit could be made up only of those elements of the present armored cavalry reconnaissance company most essential to the task of air base defense.

The unit recommended would be designated the armored cavalry squadron. One such squadron would be assigned to each base of the Strategic Air Command and to such other installations as might be deemed necessary. It would consist of a headquarters troop and two line troops.

The principal fighting strength of the squadron would be three M-41A1 light-gun tanks, four M-59 armored utility vehicles, two rifle squads, and two eighty-one-mm. mortars.

Each of the tanks is armed with a seventy-six-mm. high-velocity cannon, a .50-caliber machine gun, and a .30-caliber machine gun. In addition to the pistols carried by individual crew members, an M-3 submachine gun, an M-1 carbine, and a supply of hand grenades are carried in the fighting compartment of the tank.

Each of the M-59s also mounts a .50-caliber machine gun fired by the driver. These weapons provide the rifle squad with fire support and the mortar squad with protective fire. The mortars provide an essential element of fighting by means of powerful, indirect fires.

The rifle squads provide firepower and serve as a mopping-up force against the enemy guerrilla unit. Their M-59 armored utility vehicles enable the riflemen to the tanks at high speed, over difficult terrain, and in the face of small arms and machine gun fire from the enemy.

The two scout sections with two jeeps each provide the long-range reconnaissance element of the squadron. One jeep in each section carries a .50-caliber machine gun on a stanchion mount. The other jeep carries a 3.5-inch rocket launcher.

The jeep is carried in the present armored cavalry table of equipment in preference to the armored car. It is felt that the unlimited visibility afforded by the jeep, its maneuverability, and the relative ease of dismounting from it provide advantages over the armored car in reconnaissance work.

Personnel totals three officers and sixty-four enlisted men. Considering the amount of firepower at their command, the wide area they will be capable of covering, and the value of manpower investment will be a profitable one, indeed.

Such an organization is flexible enough to permit the substitution of special items of equipment that might be required by climate or the enemy situation. In the Arctic, a lighter, weasel-type vehicle might be substituted for the jeep, the tank, and the armored utility vehicle. In areas exposed to attack by enemy armored patrols, a heavier gun tank could be substituted for the M-41 with no change in personnel and little change in training requirements.

In addition to maintaining a twenty-four-hour alert over flight line, fuel storage, and weapons facilities, the armored cavalry squadron could provide air base defense training for the remaining personnel of the base. The objective here would be qualification of all personnel in their individual weapons and the establishment of an effective point defense system.

Mess facilities for the armored cavalry squadron could be provided by the base food service squadron. Fuel and lubricants could be drawn from the base motor pool. The armored troopers themselves would be trained to perform most of their own vehicular maintenance, with track, turret, and radio specialists all being provided.

The armored cavalry squadron would replace the present air police base defense forces. It would be dependent, however, upon air police patrols and perimeter guards for early warning of enemy approach.

This last function is the key to a successful air base defense.

The small size of the proposed cavalry squadron makes it essential that the unit be kept concentrated. The only exception to this principle would be the dispatch of the sections of the cavalry squadron to a distant reconnaissance.

The ability of the armored unit to react in time would depend, then, on an efficient, radio-equipped patrol on guard at the base perimeter.

A most heartening development in this regard is the recent introduction of sentry dogs at SAC bases. The combination of an alert animal working with an equally alert, thoroughly trained airman provides an early warning system that no combination of fences, electronics, and searchlights can equal.

The principle of concentration will not prevent the establishment by the armored cavalry squadron of a constantly shifting system of strong points around the most sensitive areas of the base. Thanks to its mobility and its excellent radio communications, an armored unit can deploy over a considerable extent of ground while retaining the ability to strike as a unit, at a moment’s notice, in any direction.

Important as it is that the proposed armored unit work closely with the air police, it is equally important that such a unit be organized outside the air police structure.

Every moment in the life of the air armored cavalry trooper must be dedicated to one purpose and one purpose only—the destruction of enemy guerrilla and regular forces before they can close on the flight line. From the very nature of their over-all duties, the air police are not able to adopt this singleness of purpose.

To be effective, the armored cavalry squadron must be organized and trained as a unit, in its own environment, under its own officers. Every effort must be made to develop a distinct sprit de corps.

Use of the title, “armored cavalry squadron,” and substitution of the word “trooper” for “airman” in the rank of the lower four grades are small things in themselves. They can serve, however, to identify the proposed armored unit with the heroic tradition of the former United States cavalry.

Indeed, the only difference between the force outlined here and the cavalry of Stuart and Custer is that the newer force would be mounted in armored vehicles rather than on horseback. The mission and the concept are identical.

The means to create an armored air base defense force are at hand. Cadre for an experimental squadron can be trained at the Armor School Fort Knox, Ky. Anyone of a dozen standby Army installations could be used as a training site, complete with firing ranges, and vehicle driving and maneuver areas.

Lessons learned from organization, training, and testing of the experimental squadron could be applied to the establishment of an air armored cavalry center. Working in close cooperation with the Armor School, this center could be assigned the mission turning out complete, trained armored cavalry squadrons for assignment wherever needed throughout the Air Force.

No matter how powerful the airplane may be once it has risen into its element, it is, on the ground, the most vulnerable of all the engines of war. Our enemies can capitalize on this weakness tonight, and they can do it without importing a single Russian soldier or a single Russian weapon.

Unless action is taken soon to plug this most dangerous gap in our air base defense system, we may find some day that our vaunted power has disappeared in the smoke and rubble of a thousand burning USAF bombers.

Bill Kennedy, who describes himself as a “freelance military analyst,” spent two years in SAC, as an intelligence officer. A graduate in journalism from Marquette University, he was a reporter on the Harrisburg, Penna., Evening News, and edited the Mechanicsburg, Penna., Daily Local News. In 1946-47, he was in the AF, serving in Japan, China, and England. He was in the Air Guard before his duty with SAC. Now in the Army Guard, he was graduated last May from the Armor School, Fort Knox, Ky. He now lives near Harrisburg, Penna.