An F-16C, foreground, and an F-16CJ on approach during exercise Cope North 20 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, Feb. 19. Cope North is an annual trilateral exercise conducted at Andersen. The base is vital to the U.S. strategic force presence in the Pacific region. Master Sgt. Larry E. Reid Jr.
Photo Caption & Credits

The Air Base: The Air Force’s Achilles’ Heel?

History shows the Air Force needs a new approach to forward basing.

Air Force doctrine today fails to pay sufficient attention to the key role air bases play in the employment of air power at the operational level of war. Throughout the history of air power, from World War I to Desert Shield/Desert Storm, air bases are among the primary means by which air commanders maneuver air power to achieve the advantages of concentration, survivability, and surprise that make air power effective. 

The Air Force must again make the air base a key concern when establishing aircraft requirements, and reorganize forces to exploit mobility, dispersal, concealment, and deception to ensure survivability.

Without having to fight a near-peer opponent since World War II, the Air Force devoted most of its attention to improving airborne performance, which has made it more expensive in terms of time, money, and engineering resources to field the bases needed to maneuver air power. The Air Force must again make the air base a key concern when establishing aircraft requirements and reorganize forces to exploit mobility, dispersal, concealment, and deception to ensure survivability.

U.S. Army aircraft were destroyed by Japanese raiders at Wheeler Air Field, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941, as well as at Pearl Harbor. The attack revealed the vulnerability of U.S. aircraft in the Pacific region. U.S. Navy/National Archives

The World Wars

The primitive aircraft available in the First World War needed little more than a small field to take off and land, and air commanders could easily provide the necessary maintenance, fuel, and munitions to maneuver air power. With only short-range aircraft, bases had to be close to the front lines, which were somewhat static in the Great War. Relatively little maneuvering took place. But, as the fighting became more fluid and the Allied armies went on the offensive, the maneuvering of air power became essential. In August 1918, then-Col. William “Billy”Mitchell, commander of the recently established United States’ Army Air Service, moved his pursuit and observation squadrons into fields around the flanks of the St. Mihiel Salient in preparation for the coming offensive. Mitchell’s decision to concentrate air power and use airstrips closer to the battlefield led to the first U.S.-led Allied victory in the war. 

Advances in aircraft performance in the interwar period had a growing impact on basing requirements. Aircraft were faster and heavier, needing larger fields with longer runways built of stronger materials to support all-weather operations. The ability to rapidly build air bases in austere locations did not get much attention until World War II’s Operation Torch, when Allied armies moving across North Africa required air support. The German Air Force possessed local air superiority and operated from developed, all-weather bases close to the battlefield. Allied aircraft operated from poorly supported, undeveloped, and muddy bases that were farther away. Soon, however, improvements in Allied basing and the use of C-47s to deliver fuel and munitions forward helped the Allies prevail. By the end of the campaign, engineers had built or improved 129 air bases, causing Gen. Carl A. Spaatz to write to Gen. Henry H. “Hap” Arnold that aviation engineers were “as nearly indispensable to the [Army Air Forces] as is possible to ascribe to any single branch.” Basing continued to play a key role in determining objectives as the Allies advanced across the Mediterranean Sea to Sicily and then Italy. 

The operations of 9th Air Force in the European theater also revealed the importance of air bases to the maneuver of air power. Establishing the IX Engineer Command was critical, as it was responsible for developing, constructing, and rehabilitating air bases. As Allied armies advanced across France and captured partially demolished German airfields, the IX Engineers refurbished them, enabling aircraft to base closer to the enemy. As the need for airfields became more urgent, the engineers were hindered considerably by difficulties moving construction supplies to these forward airfields. Later, 9th Air Force’s analysis concluded “the engineers—and all other Air Force commands—would have profited by the establishment of a joint, air-ground traffic priority board which [could have] determined priorities of movement, of personnel, and supply.” 

Rapid construction of airfields was also critical in the Pacific. The Japanese air attacks in Hawaii and the Philippines revealed the vulnerability of concentrating air power at a limited number of bases. By seizing islands and establishing bases, air power could affect the movement of Japanese naval forces, enabling the Allies to bypass many Japanese islands. 

However, the failure of some of the Army’s leaders to understand air power, and appreciate fully the difficulties involved in building air bases, was evident in the Allied invasion of the Philippines and their decision to seize Leyte rather than Mindanao. The lack of proper seasonal weather information, soil conditions, and rainfall on existing Japanese fields all combined to greatly delay the building of suitable bases on Leyte, increasing the exposure of Allied ships to Japanese kamikaze attacks and causing overcrowding at Tacloban Air Base, Philippines. So important was the ability to construct new airfields that by 1945, 36 aviation engineer battalions were concentrated in the Philippines—more than in any other theater. By the end of the war in 1945, engineers had completed 200 runways between Australia and Okinawa.

F-51D Mustangs on the flight line of a Korean airfield in 1952. North Korean ground forces were a major threat to the maneuvering of F-51s during the Korean War. USAF


When North Korea launched its surprise invasion of South Korea in June 1950, the U.S. Far East Air Force’s (FEAF) instantly found itself handicapped by the limited number of air bases in South Korea. They had only a few improved bases suitable for the FEAF’s F-80 jet fighters, plus six primitive short sod strips. The improved bases were quickly captured, forcing the F-80 Shooting Stars to fly missions from bases in Japan. The F-80 required a higher takeoff and landing speed and weighed more than the F-51, requiring longer and smoother runways, and it soon became apparent that it would take more time and materials to build bases suitable for modern jets. 

Air Force commanders at the time were not knowledgeable about air base engineering problems and when the Air Force became a separate service, the Army retained responsibility to support aviation engineer units. The Army’s ability to provide the required engineering suffered, however, from constricting post-World War II budgets. Army engineer units were undermanned, poorly trained, and often equipped with obsolete, worn out, or unserviceable gear. 

The need for air commanders to maneuver air power for survivability was again apparent during the defense of the Pusan Perimeter. North Korean ground forces posed a serious threat to air bases at Taegu and P’ohang-dong, forcing the 5th Air Force to cancel the planned maneuver of four squadrons of F-51s forward from Japan and to withdraw to Japan two F-51 squadrons already in Korea. When United Nations Command (UNC) ground forces advanced into North Korea in early October, the 5th Air Force’s ability to drive its air power forward from bases in Japan was severely restricted by General MacArthur’s decision to make an airborne assault and a second amphibious landing at Wonsan. This created a massive logistical problem, reducing available airlift and the use of the Port of Inchon, so that heavy equipment had to move forward from Pusan using severely damaged transportation infrastructure. The logistical problems slowed the forward maneuver of air power, which, in turn, handicapped UNC forces’ ability to detect and attack Chinese forces that had moved into locations deep in North Korea and along the Yalu River. On Nov. 25, powerful Chinese forces ambushed the UNC ground advance, forcing the sudden withdrawal of UNC ground forces. To survive, 5th Air Force units had to maneuver to the rear and quickly abandon several bases from which they had only just begun to operate, leaving behind much of their equipment. 


As the United States increased its involvement in Vietnam, air commanders paid close attention to lessons learned in Korea. Commanders maneuvered land-based air power to existing air bases in the region, while naval air commanders maneuvered aircraft carriers in the Gulf of Tonkin. For land-based air operations over South Vietnam, just six bases dating from the French regime were available initially, and only the first three were suitable for jet fighters like the F-100 Super Sabre. All three bases were seriously overcrowded with aircraft and fuel, and munitions storage—located near base perimeters—was also vulnerable. Space constraints meant large numbers of key personnel, including aircrews, lived off base. 

To achieve the desired concentration of forces, air commanders maneuvered air power to bases in Thailand. Initially, only three bases in Thailand could support the takeoffs and landings of heavily loaded jet fighters such as the F-105 Thunderchief. Runways at Ubon and Udorn Royal Thai Air Bases, Thailand, were lengthened to support the F-4 Phantom. Propeller-driven World War II-Korean era aircraft like the A-1 Skyraider, along with rescue helicopters, used the shorter runway at Nakhon Phanom, whose location on the Mekong River meant these aircraft could reach areas in Laos and North Vietnam without air refueling. 

This was significant: In a first for air power, fighters throughout Southeast Asia had come to depend on air refueling to reach distant targets beyond their normal range, tying fighters to the availability of tankers. After supporting an attack in the morning, tankers had to land and refuel before they could support a second attack, creating a gap of several hours between attacks and making their timing predictable. By contrast, advanced aircraft with longer range, such as the F-111 Aardvark and A-7D Corsair II, reduced the number of tankers required, but their need for escort by F-4s that did require air refueling continued to limit commanders’ ability to launch attacks. 

Achieving an even greater concentration of air power closer to areas in South Vietnam depended on how quickly the Air Force could both expand existing bases and build new bases. Without established Air Force criteria in place for constructing air bases in wartime, vulnerability problems soon became evident. For example, Phan Rang Air Base, Vietnam, relied on water and fuel pipelines through areas exposed to enemy forces. The Army also delayed sending enough engineers to build these bases because the areas were not yet secure. Weather, the need to move large amounts of earth, and a shortage of aluminum matting contributed to delays. Concerned at the slow pace of air base construction, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. McConnell requested permission to contract with a civilian company to build a base under a new, single-package philosophy called the Turnkey concept. The contractor was responsible for the entire project: design, engineering, materials, equipment, shipping, and construction. Six months after the advanced construction party arrived, an expeditionary base was ready with a 10,000-foot temporary aluminum plank runway to be followed by a 10,000-foot concrete runway. 

Air Force basic doctrine had ignored air base ground defense, so Air Force units were not prepared to provide the necessary local ground defenses. The 1968 Tet Offensive ground assaults at Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa temporarily stopped air operations at both bases, and began six months of standoff attacks by mortars and rockets that destroyed 14 aircraft and damaged 114 more. In response, the Air Force constructed aircraft shelters, switching from revetments surrounding aircraft to shelters with overhead protection. By January 1969, 373 shelters had replaced about 1,000 revetments.

An F-16C prepares to take off on a mission during Operation Desert Storm at an air base in Saudi Arabia. Dispersed and plentiful air bases were a boon to U.S. and allied forces during the conflict. USAF/courtesy

Desert Shield/Desert Storm

After Iraqi forces invaded Kuwait in August 1989, the United States convinced King Fahd of Saudi Arabia to allow the U.S. forces to operate from his country during the conflict. Immediately, the United States began deploying air, land, and naval forces to the region. Naval air commanders recognized that operating carriers in the confined waters of the Persian Gulf close to Iraq posed too great a risk, so carriers conducted air operations from the Red Sea and east end of the Persian Gulf, distances that meant the Navy’s aircraft would depend heavily on air refueling provided by land-based Air Force tankers. 

The basing infrastructure was already available because the Army Corps of Engineers had helped build air bases in the region over the previous decades. Yet, the U.S. air commander, Lt. Gen. Chuck Horner, still needed to enlarge existing bases with taxiways, ramps, fuel and munitions storage, and housing. Horner also created a quick-turnaround base at King Khalid Military City, less than 50 miles from the Iraqi border, to support the forward maneuver of air power. Eventually, U.S. and allied aircraft were based at more than 20 air bases on the Arabian Peninsula, though it took a while for logistical support to catch up so these bases could function properly. 

Ultimately, the coalition force comprised 2,614 aircraft. Concentrating so many aircraft on bases without shelters created a major vulnerability, but the Iraqi Air Force was unable to mount a serious threat to take advantage. Although equipped with modern aircraft, Iraq lacked well-trained pilots and, while the Iraqis possessed the Scud-B surface-to-surface missile and some 225 mobile launchers, the missiles themselves were inaccurate. Out of the 51 missiles fired at targets in the Arabian Peninsula, only one caused casualties, striking a barracks at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.


 History shows that air bases have played a vitally important role in a U.S. air commander’s ability to achieve increased effectiveness through the maneuver of air power at the operational level of war. But future air commanders’ ability to maneuver air power at sea on aircraft carriers or at land air bases will be seriously challenged in a near-peer or peer conflict. Aircraft carriers conducting sustained air operations close to land sacrifice the protection mobility provides and could risk unacceptable losses. Further, opponents such as China and Russia are too distant from the sea to be within the range of unrefueled, carrier-based aircraft, and advancements in surveillance and precision missile technology pose a dual and increasingly dangerous threat to carriers, despite their mobility. Finally, as accidents during the Vietnam War demonstrated, the concentration of large numbers of aircraft, fuel, munitions, and personnel on a small carrier deck poses a major risk should any attack reach its intended target; even if the ship itself survives, it would likely have to leave the area to make lengthy repairs. 

In contrast to carriers, air commanders can still conduct survivable air power maneuver using land bases, provided the Air Force recognizes the critical importance of making the air base a key concern when establishing aircraft requirements. While aircraft are now seen as weapons systems that require integration of the airframe, engine, avionics, and munitions, the Air Force has neglected appropriate planning for air base requirements to ensure aircraft can operate effectively at the operational level of war against a near-peer opponent. The Department of Defense often makes the unexamined assumption during tactically oriented exercises that air power will always be available and operable. Yet the growing threat from precision attacks by near-peer precision attacks suggests that may not be the case. 

To neglect air bases today is to behave like armies in the past, which continued to build castles in the age of gunpowder. To meet evolving threats, armies had to radically change how they organized, trained, and equipped. The same need for change is now an imperative, as the Air Force makes plans to deploy forward to wage theater warfare against a near-peer opponent. Just as armies have been forced to use mobility, dispersal, concealment, and deception in their maneuver to increase survivability, the Air Force must do the same at its future bases. Survivable maneuver will require exploiting numerous runways located throughout the world and the ability to quickly refurbish these fields and make them capable of supporting dispersed air operations. This requires significantly reducing dependence on long, smooth runways and elaborate support measures that require vast stores of readily available spare parts and large numbers of personnel. Instead, personnel must be prepared to live in austere conditions and to defend themselves and their base against an increasing variety of threats, including unmanned aerial vehicles and special operations forces.

As new Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. recently pointed out, making these personnel responsible for base defense will also require rethinking service roles and missions, so the Air Force takes full responsibility for air base defense. While dispersed operations alone are not sufficient to provide the essential degree of survivability, these capabilities would also allow Air Force units to exploit concealment and deception measures, rendering adversaries’ targeting information unreliable.

Lt. Col. Price T. Bingham, USAF (Ret.) is a widely published author; flew fighters in Vietnam, Europe, and the United States; and finished his career at the Air Force Doctrine Center.