The overseas basing structure isn’t what it used to be. Two major drawdowns, occurring after the end of the Vietnam War and the Cold War, have left the United States with fewer overseas bases, particularly those from which we can operate fighter aircraft. In the Pacific, our permanent forward bases are limited to Japan and South Korea. In NATO, the U.S. Air Force basing structure has devolved; all of Western Europe today has fewer fighter bases than either Germany or the United Kingdom had in 1990. Our force-structure design has not adjusted to the new reality, and the Air Force is still reliant on fighter/attack aircraft flown from a basing structure that no longer exists.
The Pacific Air Force has long been aware of the paucity of permanent bases. A newer basing strategy, “Places, not Bases,” aims to capitalize on existing facilities owned by allied and partner nations. Under this basing strategy, the U.S. Air Force will emphasize expanding the network from which we might operate in a crisis. Using existing Air Force expeditionary capabilities developed since Operation Desert Storm, facilities can be prepared for future use.
Hurdles must be cleared to make this concept a reality, even for locations where political access can be gained. Foremost among these obstacles are the availability of fuel, munitions storage, and runway suitability. While the Pacific is burdened by long distances and limited landmass, the abundance of water is an exploitable advantage for the establishment and support of land-based air power. Frontier basing is a logistical framework designed to lay out the rationale for using joint ocean transport and sea-basing capabilities to support Air Force operations in the Pacific.
Cold War basing architecture was both expansive and robust. Air operations over Vietnam were supported by an extensive network of bases. NATO basing infrastructure was designed to be resilient under attack; hardened facilities were built in an arc stretching from Turkey to Norway. Tactical Air Command’s deployment planning was based on the rapid deployment of fighter/attack squadrons into a prepared, hardened base infrastructure overseas.
In Saudi Arabia, preparations for the defense of the Arabian Peninsula were extensive and long-running. The Engineer Assistance Agreement between the kingdom and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began 24 May 1965, and resulted in decades worth of construction paid for with Saudi funds but accomplished by the United States. “This construction formed a portion of the major infrastructure that supported U.S. military operations in Saudi Arabia during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in 1990-1991,” according to the Army.1 When Desert Shield began, the United States relied on a network of airbases and supporting facilities throughout the region that had been a quarter-century in the making.
We weren’t the only ones. Great Britain and Yugoslavia constructed the Iraqi “super-bases” that supported Soviet and French-built fast jets. In Afghanistan, the Soviets built seven large fighter-capable airfields, six of which are used by the International Security and Assistance Force. (Ironically, the United States built the Bagram Air Base in 1976 atop a much smaller airport, where President Dwight Eisenhower had landed in 1959.) The airbases in the Persian Gulf region were largely built by the superpowers to support their own air forces in a conflict that never occurred. The fact that fast jets could be employed from readily available airfields in the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq, and Afghanistan concealed the reality that this is not the global norm. Had the U.S. Army, along with Yugoslav and Soviet engineers, not built a network of airfields specifically designed for fighter operations, air warfare since 1990 might have developed quite differently.
What Makes a ‘Fighter-Capable’ Airfield?
The U.S. Air Force standard for a fighter-capable airfield is commonly defined as a runway 8,000 x 75 feet, with arresting gear installed, and a runway bearing strength suitable for fighter jets. The runway bearing strength is a trickier limitation than it might appear. Because most fighters have a single nosewheel, their ground pressure can often exceed a fully loaded C-5, particularly in the case of the F-15E. (During the 1999 Kosovo War, Operation Allied Force operated F-15Es from Aviano Air Base in Italy; it was one of three military airfields in the country that could handle a combat-loaded F-15E. Such aircraft that diverted to other airfields could not be rearmed or fully fueled.)
In addition, the airfield must have adequate ramp space, fuel, and servicing capabilities. One of the most overlooked requirements is the need to provide storage and loading facilities for munitions. It is this limitation that renders most civilian airfields unusable for combat-loaded fighters.
Permanent fighter airfields have munition-storage areas (MSAs) located on the airfield, mostly consisting of hardened, earth-covered concrete facilities. Some airfields store small amounts of ready munitions in hardened aircraft shelters; others have live ordnance loading areas (LOLAs) that are pointed away from vulnerable buildings and populated areas. (LOLAs are often necessary for loading forward-firing ordnance, such as Hydra rockets, AGM-65 air-to-ground missiles, or live gun systems.) Other fighter airfields may locate the MSA away from the airfield in a separate facility, and some have two or more.
The runway and munitions safety-requirements substantially impact the number of available airfields in South America, Africa, and the Pacific. Burdened with a force structure that must rely on the availability of advanced facilities, the U.S. Air Force is challenged to deploy fighter/attack aircraft in portions of the pan-Pacific region. This limitation can be addressed using existing joint resources, with relatively minor changes to current force structure and methods of supporting operations.
Pacific Basing Infrastructure
Japan and South Korea are adequately equipped with a well-distributed basing structure, although the latter country’s air force bases are hardened while Japan Air Self-Defense Force bases (with the exception of Misawa Air Base) typically have few or no hardened aircraft shelters. Outside these countries, the United States would be hard-pressed to base combat aircraft, and partner fighter/attack bases with suitable runway length and munitions storage are unevenly distributed. Australia has two northern bases, RAAF Tindal and RAAF Darwin, plus three “bare” bases, which are full-up fighter airfields with no permanently assigned fighters. Vietnam, Malaysia, and Thailand have good distribution; the Philippines has a mere three fighter/attack bases, and Indonesia has only four, all west of Sulawesi.
Each of these bases could be used “as is” for U.S. fighter operations, assuming appropriate runway bearing strength. Air Force fighters would be added to the fighter/attack aircraft already there, presenting a challenge for sheltering, fueling, and arming all these planes. In theory, advance arrangements could allow U.S. Air Force fighters to “fall in” on existing infrastructure.
The Concept of Frontier Basing
The reality is that much of the existing base infrastructure is within range of China’s strike capabilities, and some bases are in poor repair. If we were to consider other basing options and differing aircraft mixes, we would significantly expand our basing opportunities in the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) area of responsibility. The use of “frontier basing” is intended to address the basing shortfall. Loosely defined, a frontier base is an existing airfield that can be converted rapidly into an operational fighter/attack base. Frontier bases will rely on existing infrastructure provided by the host nation, supplemented by joint logistical capabilities as necessary.
Host nations can reasonably provide fuel, airfield operations, air-traffic control, firefighting, and other functions that are typical of any airfield. The Air Force would have to bring along aircraft-specific maintenance and support, including munitions-handling capability. Additional fuel, fuel treatment, and all munitions supply, storage, assembly, handling, and security (including some air defense) would be a responsibility of the U.S. Department of Defense.
The single greatest limitation on the use of civil airfields by military aircraft is weapon storage and the associated weapon requirements. The safety distances (quantity-distance) required for explosive material vary with net explosive weight (NEW) of munitions, rocket engines, chaff, flares, and cartridges. Air-to-air munitions, gun ammunition, and rockets have the smallest NEWs per round. Therefore, a frontier base that operates only missile-armed fighters or rocket-equipped fighter/attack aircraft can count on storing much lower NEW quantities than a base where the aircraft require large-warhead munitions such as joint direct attack munition. If munition safety requirements can be met, then a large number of airfields can become operational fighter bases. (A transport case for air-to-air missiles or 70-mm rockets that is also a storage container could allow rapid conversion of a civil field for military use, at least for counter-air or attack missions.) In Southeast Asia, the number of fighter/attack bases could increase from 39 (including Myanmar) to 84 frontier bases, simply by allowing for expeditionary munitions storage. Of the additional frontier bases, only nine do not have direct access to navigable waters. The distribution of bases improves substantially, opening up throughout Indonesia and to the east end of New Guinea.
Command and Maritime Prepositioning
Afloat munitions and fuel support may be the single biggest factors for frontier basing. The ability to store munitions on shallow-draft vessels (even barges) and provide “over the seawall” supply will greatly expand the available airfields. Conceptually, frontier basing is a throwback to World War II, when U.S. Army Air Forces basing throughout the Pacific was supported by maritime means, with much of its resources coming over the beach.
The naval infrastructure for supporting multiple, distributed bases already exists. The Military Sealift Command (MSC), U.S. Navy, and Marine Corps all provide varying capabilities to support forces ashore. Maritime prepositioning in this combination of capabilities could enable rapid establishment of fighter/attack bases.
There are two maritime prepositioning ship (MPS) squadrons in the Pacific: MPS Squadron Two at Diego Garcia and MPS Squadron Three in the Marianas. The Air Force’s participation in the program is limited to two large commercially built ships used to preposition ammunition supplies. They are equipped with their own lift systems and do not require pierside crane support. Contrast this with the Marine Corps, which maintains ten ships in the two squadrons as part of the Maritime Prepositioning Force. An MPS contains its own powered lighterage, enabling it to conduct sea-to-shore supply in the absence of functioning port facilities. Additionally, the MSC operates two dry-cargo/ammunition ships dedicated to the Marine Corps, and two aviation logistics-support ships; there is no comparable Air Force equivalent.
The frontier-basing concept is designed to avoid the pitfalls associated with establishing “fixed” contingency basing that relies on particular bases. Prepositioning equipment at specific locations may not be feasible, as access may not be granted for all contingencies. Frontier basing relies on prepositioning afloat, preserving the ability to open up a large number of potential bases in the region.
Providing support “over the seawall” is the means by which most frontier bases will be supported. Joint logistics over the shore is the official term and is routinely exercised under the auspices of the U.S. Transportation Command. The MSC operates more than 20 sealift, service-support, and special-mission vessels; roughly a quarter of them are prepositioned. Many of these ships are commercial designs, placed into MSC service because of their ability to move large amounts of cargo to supplement military operations. MSC ships haul matériel ranging from ammunition, fuel, water, and other consumables to field hospitals; expeditionary airfield equipment sets; armored vehicles, and heavy engineering equipment. Many of the vessels are roll-on/roll-off (ro-ro) ships and self-loading container ships; some are actually both. These types of vessels can offload their cargo with minimal assistance from port facilities, making them suitable for use in damaged or poorly equipped ports. In effect, they can offload in any facility that is deep enough to float them.
For offload under conditions where the water is too shallow to allow large vessels direct access to the shore, the Navy has a refined capability to use lighterage from offshore. This involves using lighters (barges) as cargo shuttles to and from ships anchored offshore. Since 2009, the Navy has invested more than $500 million in the Improved Navy Lighterage System (INLS), a modular system designed to transfer cargo from offshore to the beach. INLS consists of various standard-sized modules (barge, propulsion, ramp, etc.) that are assembled to provide a floating transfer platform or to independently move cargo ashore. The INLS modules can be unloaded and assembled at sea, providing a floating deck for the unloading, referred to as a ro-ro discharge facility.
In March 2008, the concept was demonstrated five miles off the Liberian coast on a West Africa training cruise. After the Haiti earthquake in 2010, the SS Cape May (T-AKR-5063) transported INLS to Haiti, unloaded its complement of 34 modules and anchored offshore, providing support and maintenance, personnel billeting, and fresh water. INLS has enormous potential because it can be carried and deployed by any of the MSC’s heavy-sealift ships with the crane capacity to put them into the water.
The combination of Marine Corps and MSC assets provides an existing system for supplying joint forces ashore, with the added bonus that Marine Air-Ground Task Force capabilities include a great deal of personnel and medical support. The Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU) is scalable and can be as small as three amphibious ships. While the total number of MEUs is limited, one need not be permanently tied to a frontier base, but it could be critical for setup and expeditionary operations.
Categories of Bases
Conceptually, frontier basing is intended to open basing opportunities where none existed. There are five distinct categories:
• Main operating bases: existing fighter bases in South Korea, Japan, Australia, Thailand, and Singapore only. (This category includes two Japanese P-3 bases, which have adequate runway and munitions storage to operate fighters.)
• Existing fighter/attack bases in the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Myanmar that already operate fighter or jet attack aircraft, from MiG-21s to F-16s.
• Long frontier: a civil or military airfield with a runway of at least 8,000 feet required for fighter aircraft, located outside high-density urban areas, with space for expedient or waterborne munitions storage.
• Medium frontier: a 6,000–7,999-foot runway with the same space criteria as long frontier.
• Short frontier: a 4,000–5,999-foot runway with the same space criteria as long frontier.
Effective use of medium-frontier and short- frontier bases will require additional investment. It is feasible for fourth- and fifth-generation fighters to utilize medium-frontier airfields under favorable conditions. Short-frontier airfields are an emergency measure that may enhance the survivability of aircraft based elsewhere by giving them a place to land if their home facility is badly damaged.
Medium basing may be suitable for fighter operation, particularly when part of a group of facilities. Shorter runways might well be suitable for aircraft carrying light munitions and fuel loads. An F-15C with a full missile load-out but with empty external tanks might find a medium base useful for launch and recovery—bringing the aircraft up to a combat fuel load can be done once airborne. Assuming that fighter/attack can operate successfully from medium airstrips, the count of suitable places expands dramatically. Aside from doubling the base infrastructure in Japan, the use of medium bases adds usable facilities both north and south of Okinawa, and provides significant additional depth east of Taiwan.
The final ingredient is short frontier. Short bases need not do more than recover, refuel, and relaunch fighter aircraft with a partial load of fuel and only the ordnance with which they landed. With only 4,000–6,000 feet of usable runway, short bases are most valuable when close to longer bases and serve as an insurance policy for cases where fighters cannot recover at a longer runway due to a recent or in-progress enemy attack. The purpose of short- frontier bases is to catch the overflow and keep the aircraft just long enough for the main base to restore operations. The capability to utilize short-frontier facilities does not really increase the number of places available for air-power employment throughout the region, but it could increase the resilience of a group of frontier bases.
Suitable bases may come in geographic groups. A sea-based, over-the-seawall supply concept may allow for a prepositioned kit to establish a group of nearby bases, while a single multipurpose ship might logistically support multiple bases after establishment. The dynamic for creating frontier groups is logistically driven more than being a case of sheer proximity; ease of supply becomes a key consideration.
The advantage is clear: Bases in close proximity may share counter-air coverage, electronic-warfare measures, warning systems, or missile defenses. One obvious group is centered around former U.S. bases on the Philippines island of Luzon—Clark, Basa, and Subic Bay are all positioned in a rough line only 32 miles long and connected by a road. Similarly, another cluster exists in the Marianas, where Andersen Air Force Base exists in close proximity to the islands of Saipan, Rota, Tinian, and the former Naval Air Station at Guam. Singapore crams five airfields, all military or dual-use, into a single city-state. Japan’s high density of airfields offers easy opportunities to establish frontier groups.
Outside Japan and Singapore, extremely high-density airfield groups are hard to find, but it is entirely possible to find groups that can all be reached by water. The Malaysian side of Borneo offers a cluster of five bases that has one existing fighter/attack base, plus three long bases and a single short one.
The Pacific Air Force’s drive to consider “Places, not Bases” is a well-founded strategy designed to take into account the reality of Pacific basing in the 21st century. Putting the practical veneer on this concept requires a solid appreciation of the limitations of munitions, airfield characteristics, aircraft attributes, and logistical requirements. With expeditionary munitions storage capability and an increased Air Force use of sealift command assets for logistical support, the number of places that can be judged feasible for combat aircraft increases greatly, also enhancing the possibilities for operational dispersal. The combination of effects changes the number of suitable options from an unevenly distributed few, to a wide range of possibilities across the theater. Even absent any force-structure alterations, utilizing existing over-the-seawall support and changing the way we look at fighter/attack basing requirements offers great potential for the application of land-based air power in the region.