Air Base Defense

July 1, 2014

With the “strategic rebalance” to the sprawling Asia-Pacific region, the US armed services increasingly are sending small forces to unfamiliar, remote locations far different from their usual established overseas bases.

Many of those deployments involve Air Force aircraft, either as the primary mission provider or for logistical support to US or friendly foreign ground units. These small, expeditionary packages, as a means to answer widely dispersed security threats and humanitarian emergencies, are becoming commonplace.

Part of the idea is to give potential enemies more locations to worry about. USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Mark A. Welsh III recently noted that the threat from conventional ballistic missiles to large US air bases has led to plans to spread out combat aircraft over many smaller allied airfields, to complicate an adversary’s targeting challenge during a conflict.

All this adds up to US aircrews and support personnel deployed at foreign air bases where the main security may be provided by host nation forces.

Unfortunately, this creates additional base-defense challenges. US military history is replete with episodes where depending on others for security had tragic consequences.

The most recent example was the Sept. 14, 2012, suicide attack by Afghan insurgents on Camp Bastion, a British-controlled airfield in Afghanistan’s volatile Helmand province. In a nighttime assault, 15 heavily armed insurgents wearing US military uniforms quickly penetrated the security perimeter and reached the flight line, where they destroyed six Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers and severely damaged two more.

The attack also killed two Marines from the Harrier squadron and wounded 13 other US and UK troops and a civilian contractor.

Although Bastion adjoined Camp Leatherneck—a large US Marine Corps compound with a lot of ground combat troops—most of those at the air base were aviators, maintainers, and other support personnel. The base also hosted British aviation units, including the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter squadron that Capt. Harry Wales—Britain’s Prince Harry—served in.

To defend themselves, the pilots and maintainers from Marine Attack Squadron 211 fell back on the infantry training all marines receive early in their service to defend themselves, killing some of the intruders and delaying the assault until stronger forces could arrive.

One of the marines killed was the squadron commanding officer, Lt. Col. Christopher K. Raible, who was organizing a defense, armed only with his semi-automatic pistol.

At the request of the Marine Corps Commandant, Gen. James F. Amos, the commander of the US Central Command, Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, conducted an extensive investigation of the attack.

Completed nearly a year later, the investigation found that the British were responsible for guarding Bastion. It was ringed by a chain link fence, concertina wire, and 24 watchtowers that supposedly provided good visibility across the open terrain surrounding the air base.

The British base commander, however, had assigned the task of manning the towers to troops from the Pacific island nation of Tonga, and the Tongan soldiers had left some towers unmanned. The insurgents used a gap in surveillance to cut through the perimeter fencing with simple wire cutters and were well inside the compound before being detected.

The investigation concluded that other aspects of the US-British security plan for the Bastion-Leatherneck complex were “suboptimal,” with no single officer in charge of security for the contiguous bases.

The security arrangement created command and control relationships “contrary to the warfighting principles of simplicity,” Amos wrote in accepting the investigation.

Based on that investigation and internal Marine Corps reviews, on Sept. 30, 2013, Amos publicly asked for the retirement of the two top marines in Afghanistan at the time of the attack: Maj. Gen. Charles M. Gurganus, head of Regional Command Southwest (where most of the marines were fighting), and Maj. Gen. Gregg A. Sturdevant, the senior marine aviation officer in the area.

It marked the first time since Vietnam that any US general officer had been fired for negligence in combat.

The eight Harriers destroyed or damaged meant the loss of nearly an entire squadron of short takeoff and vertical landing attack aircraft capability that cannot be replaced. They had received expensive upgrades and service life extension work to keep them flying until the F-35B replaces them.

Although he considered both men close friends in the small cadre of marine general officers, Amos said the two “failed to exercise the level of judgment expected of commanders of their rank.” It was unrealistic, he said, “to think that a determined enemy would not be able to penetrate the perimeter fence.”

It was evident that sharp reductions in US forces in Afghanistan had affected security at Bastion.

When Gurganus took over RC Southwest in late 2011, he commanded about 17,000 troops and had 325 marines providing security at the two bases. By the night of the attack, Gurganus’ forces had dropped to 7,400 and 110 marines assigned to security at the complex.

Still, Gurganus had tried to correct the problem. He had requested permission earlier in the year to add 160 troops back in to the complex’s security force, but was refused by ISAF headquarters in Kabul because of the force limits in place.

Amos said Gurganus should have reassigned troops from within his command to protect the bases.

A sharp eye

“The commander still has the inherent responsibility to provide protection for his forces,” Amos asserted. “Regardless of where you are in a drawdown, you’re required to balance force projection with force protection.”

As the aviation commander, Sturdevant “did not adequately assess the force protection situation at Bastion airfield,” the Commandant said. And although the marine air units were on the British-run base, Sturdevant remained responsible for assessing vulnerabilities and mitigating them with his own forces by having a layered, integrated defense in-depth.

Marines, Amos concluded, “can never place complete reliance for their own safety in the hands of another force.”

Similar attacks by Taliban insurgents against US-occupied Kandahar and Bagram air bases in the spring of 2010, before coalition forces started the drawdown, had been repulsed by security personnel, including US airmen.

The Air Force had suffered a greater loss of life due to constrained security arrangements in the June 25, 1996, truck-bomb attack on Khobar Towers, Saudi Arabia. The complex provided housing for airmen with the 4404th Wing (Provisional), supporting “no fly” operations over Iraq from the nearby Saudi Arabian international airport.

A large tank truck loaded with a mix of gasoline and explosives—with an estimated force equal to 20,000 to 30,000 pounds of TNT—was detonated against the security fence 72 feet from the building, which housed US airmen and foreign nationals. The blast shattered the front of the eight-story structure, killing 19 American troops and injuring nearly 500 people.

Air Force SSgt. Alfredo R. Guerrero, standing security watch on the roof of the building, recognized the threat from the parked truck and called for an evacuation. He is credited with saving the lives of many who were in a reinforced stairway on the opposite side of the building when the blast hit.

Guerrero was awarded the service’s highest peacetime award for valor, the Airman’s Medal.

Subsequent investigations revealed that there had been warnings of a possible attack on Khobar particularly after a Nov. 13, 1995, car-bomb attack in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, killed or injured more than 35 Americans who were there as advisors to the Saudi National Guard.

Various investigation reports offered widely varying conclusions, though, over what security steps were taken in the wake of the Riyadh bombing and who was to blame for any deficiencies.

An investigation led by retired Army Gen. Wayne A. Downing roundly blamed the entire chain of command for failing to take adequate force protection measures. He directed most of his criticism at USAF Brig. Gen. Terryl J. Schwalier, commander of the 4404th Wing, writing that “it appears that the ‘fly and fight’ mission and ‘quality of life’ took precedence over force protection” at Khobar Towers and that Schwalier “did not adequately protect his forces.”

An Air Force investigation, however, showed that Schwalier had taken major steps to improve security at the compound, closing 36 of the 39 security gaps that USAF inspectors had noted. Three were left unaddressed due primarily to lack of funding.

Downing’s condemnation also overlooked the fact that some of Schwalier’s attempts to improve security, such as moving the fencing farther from the quarters, were denied by Saudi officials. Downing also failed to acknowledge that the Saudis had primary responsibility for security at the facility.

Downing’s findings—coupled with congressional pressure—ultimately inspired the new Defense Secretary, William S. Cohen, to overrule the Air Force and deny Schwalier a previously approved promotion to major general, forcing his subsequent retirement.

The Navy had a similar experience when two terrorists drove a motorboat packed with explosives into the guided-missile destroyer USS Cole on Oct. 12, 2000, during a refueling stop in the port of Aden, Yemen.

The massive explosion blasted a 40-by-40-foot hole in Cole’s hull at the waterline, causing massive flooding and killing 17 sailors and wounding 42. Cole’s well-trained crew struggled for hours to rescue their wounded shipmates, to remove the dead they could reach, and to keep the crippled warship from sinking.

The Navy had avoided Aden for more than a decade because of Yemen’s history of terrorist activities and weak government control. But it had resumed use of the port a few years earlier because US Central Command wanted to rebuild relations with the supposedly moderate regime.

Although US intelligence services had detected unspecified threats of a terrorist attack against American interests in Yemen, Cole was operating on a Threat Condition Bravo, the second lowest of four security levels, with rules of engagement that heavily restricted the use of deadly force for self-protection.

Primary security in the port was supposed to be provided by Yemeni forces.

As a result of these conditions, a sailor standing watch with an M60 machine gun did not consider firing warning shots when the bomb-laden boat approached and the two men on it smiled and waved, before steering into the side of the ship.

A Navy investigation praised Cole’s crew for its heroic efforts that saved the ship and concluded that the commanding officer, Cmdr. Kirk S. Lippold, acted reasonably in adjusting his force protection posture based on his assessment of the situation in Aden. Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Vern Clark said Lippold “did not have the specific intelligence, focused training, appropriate equipment, or on-scene security support to effectively prevent or deter such a determined, preplanned assault on his ship.”

Despite those findings, the Navy denied Lippold’s promotion to captain and he retired as a commander.

The history of attacks on US forces reliant on other nations for security goes back much further. The Vietnam War marked a particularly painful period of being let down by host nations.

US involvement in South Vietnam began in the late 1950s with small numbers of ground and aviation advisors to Republic of Vietnam forces. Soon, though, it grew to include Air Force, Army, and Marine Corps air units, providing helicopter and fixed wing transport support.

Those airfields and the expensive US aircraft on them—defended primarily by South Vietnamese forces at the beginning—soon became attractive targets for Viet Cong guerrillas.

One of the earliest serious attacks came in the night of Feb. 6-7, 1965, when VC sappers penetrated the wire perimeter surrounding the air base at Camp Holloway, or Pleiku, in the Central Highlands.

Undetected by the few Army military policemen inside the compound until it was too late, the guerrillas killed eight soldiers, wounded another 128, destroyed 10 US aircraft, and damaged another 15 before escaping into the night.

On July 1, 1965, VC fighters used mortar fire to cover the assault by well-armed sappers who pierced the perimeter defenses of the air base at Da Nang, on the coast, which was used by Air Force and Marine Corps squadrons. The attack destroyed two C-130s and one F-102 and damaged two F-102s and another C-130.

At those and other air bases that suffered similar attacks, security outside the wire was supposed to be provided by South Vietnamese troops, while US personnel stayed inside.

President Lyndon B. Johnson responded to the airfield attacks by ordering new air strikes against North Vietnam and sending in two battalions of marines to guard Da Nang, beginning the buildup of US forces and offensive operations that would last nine more years.

Trying to get it right

Attacks—mainly by mortar and rocket fire—against Da Nang, Tan Son Nhut, and other airfields continued throughout the conflict, destroying and damaging scores of aircraft.

Given the sad history of depending on host nations for air base security, and threat posed by the “new normal” security environment, all of the services have changed their organizations and procedures for protecting forces deployed to potentially dangerous locations.

The Army’s military police organization has units sometimes referred to as “combat MPs,” who have training and equipment much more like the infantry than the law enforcement elements that normally serve on bases in the US.

These combat MPs provide area security, conduct mounted or dismounted patrols, man listening or observation posts, and escort convoys, among other combat-zone duties. They’ve been heavily engaged during the last 12-plus years of US involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.

The Navy has gone through several revisions of its overseas security measures since the Cole attack. The first step was to assign marines to provide security in Aden when Navy ships stop there for refueling.

It then opened an Anti-Terrorism and Force Protection Warfare Center at Naval Amphibious Base Little Creek, Va., in 2001 to develop tactics, equipment, and training to combat terrorists.

In 2004, the Navy created a new organization, the Maritime Force Protection Command, to oversee the administration and training of the expeditionary units it sends overseas to protect ships, aircraft, and bases from terrorist attack.

Those functions then were put under yet another new command, the Naval Expeditionary Combat Command, which created a subcommand, the Coastal Riverine Force, in 2012. That force combines the riverine squadrons—operating well-armed small powerboats for operations in coastal waters and rivers, much like the “Brown Water Navy” of Vietnam—and the Maritime Expeditionary Security Force, providing force protection of deployed ships and units in overseas harbors and ports.

The Coastal Riverine Force has squadrons on both US coasts and a detachment in Bahrain, supplying well-trained and heavily armed boat crews and land-based operators to provide security around any Navy ship in a potentially dangerous port.

The heightened security measures—and tension—on deployed ships was drawn in sharp relief by an unfortunate incident in July 2012, when an armed sentry on a Navy ship fired on a fast-approaching boat off Dubai, killing an unarmed Indian fisherman and wounding three others.

The Marine Corps has clearly embraced Amos’ doctrine of providing for their own security. Lt. Gen. John E. Wissler, commanding general of III Marine Expeditionary Force and Marine Forces Japan, sends units for exercises and training missions to host nation facilities all over East and Southeast Asia.

“Force protection is always one of the major concerns anytime we deploy,” Wissler observed. “We do a good analysis of the threat wherever we are deployed. And we always bring sufficient force protection capability as part of that exercising team, to take care of ourselves.”

The level of the perceived threat “will drive what we will bring, in terms of our own organic force protection, or where we will work with host nation capabilities.”

The ground commander “understands that his principal responsibility is the safety of his marines and their capability,” Wissler said.

He cited a major combined command post exercise in South Korea this spring involving high-level staff members from the US and South Korean Marines.

“Because of the level of classification at which we ran the exercise, we had security for our headquarters … that was set up under tentage in the field. So we brought along sufficient marines who could provide that security from the outset.”

The Air Force began developing air base security units during the Korean War and expanded those efforts in Vietnam.

They were revised and strengthened after the Khobar Towers attack, with the Air Force security forces personnel field divided to produce specialists in air base ground defense, as well as law enforcement. The security forces also have trained working dog teams for bomb detection and other security missions.

In recognition of their capabilities, Air Force security personnel were deployed to protect Army installations overseas in what were called “in lieu of” assignments or “joint expeditionary taskings” when Army forces became strained from heavy commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even after the assignments ended, security forces airmen have maintained one of the highest deployed-to-dwell ratio in the Air Force.

In 1997, Air Mobility Command created its own security force with the Phoenix Raven program, providing small teams of well-trained security personnel to protect AMC aircraft operating out of foreign air fields. Teams of two to six specially trained and equipped Ravens are sent “where security is unknown or additional security is needed to counter local threats,” according to a USAF fact sheet.

Other Air Force major commands, including Air Combat Command, Pacific Air Forces, and even Air Force Special Operations Command, have sent security force personnel to the intensive month-long Phoenix Raven training course, conducted at JB McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, N.J.

Air Force security forces in Afghanistan provide both perimeter and flight line security at USAF-run airfields. If Air Force units are operating on facilities controlled by the Army or Marine Corps, the security airmen primarily are still responsible for the flight line, according to an Air Force statement.

Otto Kreisher is a Washington, D.C.–based military affairs reporter and a regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “China’s Carrier Killer: Threat and Theatrics,” appeared in the December 2013 issue.