Countering the Missile Threat

Dec. 1, 2010

Operating from air bases under threat of missile attack may become one of the most important keys to projecting US airpower in the years ahead. For all its expeditionary experience, it has been decades since the Air Force has so intently focused on this problem.

Now, top leadership is again taking it seriously.

“The attack against the naval base at Pearl Harbor was recorded in history as a day which will live in infamy,” said Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton A. Schwartz in a September address to AFA’s 2010 Air & Space Conference. “What is lesser known is that enemy aircraft first targeted our fighters on the ground, preventing them from gaining control of the air and challenging the offensive.”

Both joint and Air Force doctrine instruct commanders to take care of base defense. However, ensuring the tempo of air base operations across a region, with missile attacks in progress, has not been treated as a major variable in air campaigns for some time. Schwartz’s warning suggests this is about to change as nations such as China and Iran sharpen their ability to disrupt operations.

F-22s outside hardened shelters at Kadena AB, Japan. (USAF photo by SrA. Amanda Grabiec)

Of course, USAF has been here before. Air bases and aircraft on the ground were major targets during the Cold War.

Doctrinal debate on base survivability was common in the 1980s. When the Soviet Union exited the stage, these types of all-out threats to air bases collapsed. Politics sometimes complicated base access. Operating from overseas bases has become routine. USAF commanders rarely deal with the serious threat of disruptions to operations at even a single base.

Soon, the dynamic could change. Two trends are sharpening the emphasis on keeping air bases in the game. First is the rise of China’s power projection capabilities, which cast Pacific theater operations into a harsh light.

“The main Air Force and Navy bases on US territory in the Western Pacific are located on the island of Guam, the major logistics node for all US military operations in the Western Pacific,” wrote Jan Van Tol, a retired naval officer, in his study of AirSea Battle for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. “This creates enormous logistical vulnerabilities that could offer [China] the opportunity (and perhaps even the incentive) to cripple US power-projection capability by attacking and incapacitating a handful of soft facilities,” he added.

Second is Iran’s quest for advanced missile technology. Iran already has ballistic missile forces in quantities sufficient to complicate matters. Maintaining air and sea operations around the Persian Gulf could get much harder if bases fall under threat of missile attack.

The strategic question for 2010 and beyond is when and how the threat may jump up from the occasionally deadly attacks in Afghanistan or Iraq to full debilitation of air base capacity.

The Air Force has closely watched missile threat implications. At Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio, the National Air and Space Intelligence Center monitors test and development activities around the world. NASIC analyses track the rising asymmetric threats.

“Ballistic missiles have been used in several conflicts over the last 25 years, including the Iran-Iraq war, the Afghan civil war, the war in Yemen, the 1991 and 2003 Persian Gulf conflicts, and the Russian military action in Chechnya and Georgia,” a 2009 NASIC report found.

Most of these conflicts featured short-range ballistic missiles with ranges of some 600 miles. Dozens of nations possess them. Tallies of missile inventories are widely available. Less common are discussions of how the multilayered threat could alter the pace of an air campaign during joint operations. Since Operation Desert Storm, USAF has counted on mounting a steady campaign where obstacles such as weather in the Balkans or sandstorms in Iraq slow the pace only briefly.

Narrow Margins

Opponents with roving missile launchers threaten this assumption.

The Air Force has quietly studied the implications of regional missile attack for more than a decade. Enemy arsenals once seemed no match for hundreds of USAF fighters deployed to a theater.

A seminal 1999 RAND report titled “Air Base Vulnerability to Conventional Cruise Missile and Ballistic Missile Attacks” explored whether missile attacks could degrade future airpower. While the authors recognized a growing threat, their meticulous operational analysis concluded enemy missile arsenals did not yet have reach or numbers to shut down an air campaign.

“By devoting the lion’s share of its resources to a single contingency, the USAF can easily repeat an air campaign of the size and intensity of Desert Storm from bases outside the range of the missile threat we have proposed,” the report noted.

Accuracy remains the key, though. An adversary attacking an air base with inaccurate missiles would have to shower the runway, ramp, and dispersed hardstands to catch and destroy aircraft on the ground. But with accurate targeting, one missile per aircraft hardstand could be enough to take out the aircraft.

A more effective attack strategy may now be within the capabilities of China or Iran, for example. Against this, USAF has fewer fighters: Inventory requirements dropped as precision weapons enabled attack of multiple targets. However, war plans through the past two decades assumed open access to regional bases. Little thought was given to potentially significant attrition from ground sabotage or missile attack. Nor did plans go into how many fighters it might take to sustain major air campaign operations from distant bases beyond missile threats.

The narrower margins of combat airpower mean air base vulnerability has now emerged as a major operational variable in joint air campaign effectiveness.

SrA. Casey Bennett guards a Patriot missile battery at Osan AB, South Korea. (Photo by Jim Haseltine)

What would prompt an enemy to attack air bases? For China, it’s a matter of sound military strategy. In a 2007 report, RAND analyst Roger Cliff quoted this passage from Chinese military doctrine: “If an attack is aimed at disrupting the enemy air strike plans, one should target the enemy’s command and control systems and fuel and ammunition supply systems; if it is aimed at degrading an enemy aviation corps group to reduce the pressures from its air strikes, one should target the aircraft parked on the tarmacs of airports housing the enemy’s main bomber and fighter-bomber aviation corps.”

How would the attack unfold? Observers of Chinese military doctrine focus on pre-emption. Another highly disruptive option would be to dribble out attacks much as Saddam Hussein did with Scud missile firings against Israel and Saudi Arabia in 1991. Either option would require renewed focus on how to keep the string of air bases up and running.

There are strategic implications, too. The goal of an adversary would be to blunt and disrupt an air campaign before it kicks up. A critical ingredient in conventional deterrence will be to keep aircraft operating from regional bases at an efficient tempo. Fighters take the lead, but tankers, intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance aircraft, intratheater lift, and strategic airlifters must all sustain operations, as well.

Aerial refueling aircraft have been specifically identified by Chinese military strategists as targets for attack, according to the 2007 report by Cliff.

Ensuring an air campaign runs as planned under these conditions will be a prime task for future operations. It will take a combination of missile defenses, hardened facilities, and quick recovery capacity to offset a determined attack.

As an earlier generation of airmen found, the problem can’t be treated as just a case study in base defense. It’s a legacy concept from the intensive 1980s debates on base resilience.

Airpower was a primary NATO advantage pitted against superior numbers of Soviet forces. As with Chinese military writings today, Soviet doctrine emphasized swift crippling of front-line air bases. Before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, the Air Force had a thriving cottage industry of doctrinal discussions of air base defense and operations under attack.

Although the location and the weapons are different from prior conflicts, the basic requirements of operating under attack still apply as USAF gears up to deter regional threats.

Base Resiliency

“The ability of an air base to survive an enemy attack and quickly reconstruct minimum essential operating areas so it can resume offensive air operations has long been a concern,” wrote Lt. Col. Joe Boyles and Capt. Greg K. Mittelman in Airpower Journal in 1989. “Because the problem is difficult to solve, [the Air Force] solution was to have faith in the joint air defense network and assume that forward air bases were invulnerable.”

Getting past this assumption was a shock. One of the biggest transitions during the late 1980s was the move from thinking about absorbing Soviet attacks to discussing the factors essential to continuing operations. Air base operability (ABO) became the key phrase, because it best captured the need to generate sorties under attack.

China’s Dong Feng missile, shown here on a transporter-erector-launcher vehicle, plays a part in China’s base-attack military strategy.(Photo via

The next step is calculating what it takes to keep a group of bases in business during missile attack. As in the past, postattack recovery comes first. This includes assessing and clearing any impediments to movement around the base, such as unexploded ordnance, terrorists still on or around the base, or chemical attack residues. Next steps center on repairing damage and regenerating operations.

The resilience of air bases then forms a variable in how much of the day’s tasking can be flown as planned. Back at the air operations center, the question becomes whether enough bases are operational to support the next tasking cycle—the resilience of the center itself becoming a factor, too.

When bases are at risk, operability can depend on lessening the impact of initial attack on the force as a whole. USAF is no stranger to hardening bases, for example. Hardened aircraft shelters were essential in the Cold War and expeditionary operations. Shelters were built by the US in Oman during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s for the use of Oman’s Air Force, for example.

Ultimately, shelters may lessen the impact of a sudden strike, but they do little to protect transient aircraft or prevent strikes while the airplanes are preparing to launch.

Dispersal is another concept back in vogue. The benefit is to increase the number of targets and diminish the value of knocking out any particular forward operating location. Dispersal strategies must take into account fighters, larger aircraft, command and control, and critical maintenance and support functions to maintain operations.

Timing is important as well. RAND analysts long ago torpedoed the notion of starting up close then falling back. “Adopting a go-in-close-and-fall-back-if-necessary strategy could result in the loss of a sizable fraction of USAF combat aircraft and personnel. Additionally, it may be difficult or impossible to move units out of close-in bases, because the continuing threat of attack would pose a grave threat to airlift operations, and most operating surfaces would be strewn with wreckage, posing a serious [foreign object damage] hazard to surviving combat aircraft,” the 1999 RAND study noted.

Air base operability involves a constant trade-off between pulling aircraft and support assets beyond the threat rings versus keeping them ideally positioned for maximum impact. Distance directly affects sortie rates.

Shortly before the beginning of Operation Desert Storm, commanders moved F-15E units closer to Kuwait, for example, with the express intent of generating more sorties. Retreat to “safe” bases could diminish the number of sorties over the target at any given time.

An Iranian short-range Zelzal missile is launched during a drill in 2009 near the city of Qom, south of Tehran. (AP photo by Raouf Mohseni)

One of the tasks to suffer most as distances increase would be combat air patrol and 24/7 operations, such as finding and attacking mobile missile launchers. Attack operations—hunting and killing launchers—are essential to effective, layered missile defense. But attack operations soak up constant coverage from fighters ready to attack launchers in a fleeting window. Combat air patrols in turn depend on functioning bases near enough to provide critical mass necessary for effective suppression.

A layered anti-missile strategy would encompass Patriot batteries and fighters with air-launched hit-to-kill weapons that could also shoot down missiles in the ascent phase.

Growing missile threats have spawned huge advances in theaterwide missile monitoring and intercept capabilities. Similarly, air base operability looks poised to become a theater-level priority.

Opponents that would use missiles to disrupt air base operations still have daunting challenges to contend with. The Air Force’s expeditionary character gives it many options for ensuring operability from a number of bases.

First, USAF has long experience with quickly setting up bases. The Air Force rapidly expanded base capability in the midst of an escalating air campaign during Operation Allied Force in the spring of 1999. Aircraft launched at bases from Missouri to Turkey, as Gen. John P. Jumper, who was commander of US Air Forces in Europe, said at the time. Operations expanded from nine bases in five countries to 22 bases in 11 countries in the theater.

The Reflex Reaction

Air base operations under attack have been a constant preoccupation on the Korean Peninsula. Short distances and the North Korean missile arsenal have made base attack a given in planning scenarios.

“Estimates suggest that Pyongyang already has at least 500 [Scuds] in its inventory and that some or all of them can carry chemical warheads,” noted Bruce E. Bechtol in a 2005 Air and Space Power Journal article. The North could use these missiles concurrently with the long-range artillery already deployed along the DMZ, “with little or no warning,” Bechtol added.

Air base operability under missile, air, or ground attack threat will be just as important at new bases and in other regions. Going forward, expeditionary forces can’t risk neglecting defenses and basing strategy as new bases open up.

Eastern Europe and the Baltic republics are a good example. Russia conducted missile and air attacks on bases and military targets during the 2008 conflict with Georgia. A similar dispute with the Baltic republics—where NATO maintains rotational detachments of fighters for air sovereignty—might again find bases lucrative and visible targets of attack.

“Given the small size of the Baltic states and the vulnerability of their bases to Russian attack, it might be advisable to use those sites as forward operating locations, with main operating bases in more secure areas farther to the rear,” wrote retired Lt. Col. Thomas McCabe in Air and Space Power Journal last year.

A KC-135 undergoes maintenance as an F-22 Raptor takes off from Andersen AFB, Guam. Andersen is key to US power projection in the Pacific. (USAF photo by A1C Jeffrey Schultze)

Bases in the US aren’t immune to evolving threats, either. According to NASIC, a credible conventional missile threat to CONUS will materialize within this decade. “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015,” noted the report.

Solving the equation for air base operability poses a major strategic challenge for the Air Force. It drives at the whole purpose of forward deployed airpower to set the US advantage in regional conflicts. Failure to articulate a regional strategy for air base operability will lead to lower confidence in airpower as a member of the joint team.

Already, doubts are growing about the ability to project airpower in regions where bases are threatened by missile attack. The reflex reaction is to shift emphasis to aircraft carriers, submarine-launched missiles, long-range bombers, and perhaps, conventional intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Each of these alternate arsenals has drawbacks compared to the lethality and flexibility of advanced fighters. The primary one is limited ability to sustain operations, due to relatively small arsenals, few platforms, and the realities of extended distances. A larger, survivable bomber force could weigh in heavily—but such a force is years, maybe decades, away.

Conventional deterrence cannot just subtract land-based airpower from the equation. This means renewed attention to the keys of air base operability.

The late Cold War dialogue contained a final warning about the organizational obstacles to stepping up to air base operability.

“ABO faces many challenges,” summed up Boyles and Mittelman. “It is not enough to leave the challenges of ABO in the hands of overseas base-level commanders; each obstacle must be addressed by corporate Air Force leadership bent on strengthening the logistics base to permit projection of airpower.”

A Wide Range of Threat Missiles

Exported Russian Scuds are still the dominant missile threat on the world market, but the Scud is far from a monopoly. A look at other systems that could threaten US air bases begins with China’s CSS-6 series, with ranges from 370 to 550 miles. “China has the most active and diverse ballistic missile development program in the world,” concluded a study by the Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC).

Short-range missiles fired from Iran’s coastline in the Persian Gulf region have more than enough range to threaten bases in several neighboring states. All major types of short-range missiles are road-mobile, and some, such as India’s Dhanush missile, are even configured for ships.

With missiles, the operational threat is defined partly by range and warhead, but also by number of launchers. Launchers can be reused for multiple missiles.

Medium- and intermediate-range missiles cover distances from 600 to 3,400 miles. Iran’s mobile Shahab 3 missile with a range of about 800 miles is a typical example.

“The current generation of Chinese missiles already can strike many of our fixed bases and those of our allies and friends in these regions,” such as those on Taiwan, Okinawa, and Guam, noted missile proliferation expert Henry Sokolski in the August 2010 Armed Forces Journal.

China and Russia possess intercontinental missiles. North Korea could join the club if and when it deploys the Taepo Dong 2 missile.

Attack drones are another looming possibility, as international air shows are full of vendors hawking an array of unmanned vehicles, and there are also cruise missiles to consider. Their unpredictable, low-altitude flight paths make them especially tough targets to track and intercept.

“Land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) are highly effective weapon systems that can present a major threat to military operations,” found NASIC. “At least nine foreign countries will be involved in LACM production during the next decade, and many missiles will be available for export.”

NASIC estimates up to 20 countries could possess cruise missiles by 2020.

Rebecca Grant is president of IRIS Independent Research. She has written extensively on airpower and serves as director, Mitchell Institute, for AFA. Her most recent articles for Air Force Magazine are “Airpower Over Water” and “One-Man Air Force” in the November issue.