Conflict with China will present logistics challenges naval aviation has not experienced since World War II—and some it has never faced. Logisticians will need strategies and procedures to enable aircraft to stay on station longer, egress from the weapons engagement zone (WEZ) after sustaining battle damage, and rapidly rearm and refuel to keep constant pressure on an adversary with numeric and home-field advantages.
One proven method of improving on-station time and maintaining pressure on an adversary is by maintaining forward operating bases (FOBs). Naval FOBs trace from the Athenian navy establishing strings of bases from which to raid enemies during the Peloponnesian War, to the British conquest of New York in the Revolutionary War; the Union’s base in Port Royal, South Carolina, during the Civil War; and the numerous bases across the Pacific established by the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps during World War II.
Naval aviation also has relied on the FOB concept to stage aircraft as close to contested environments as practical. While many of these FOBs have been in relatively secure locations—which likely will not be the case in a conflict with China, which has both medium- and long-range capabilities—lessons from World War II, the Korean War, and the early stages of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) can provide some guidance on sustaining air operations in the WEZ.
Forward Arming and Refueling Points
Combat aircraft require substantial maintenance to remain mission capable, which means logistical hub airfields need to be in proximity to the operating area for naval aircraft to be effective within the WEZ. This proximity to enemy fires presents challenges, but Wake Island and Guadalcanal demonstrate that naval aircraft can be staged and conduct rapid air-to-air and air-to-surface operations in heavily contested areas. In both battles, aircraft were able to refuel and rearm close to the battlespace, allowing for a nearly constant airborne presence even without air dominance.1
Of course, exposing modern aircraft to the same attrition as occurred at Guadalcanal (43 aircraft destroyed on the ground) may not be sustainable.2 Enemy fires also can take a toll on the manpower and support equipment required to stage aircraft within the WEZ for an extended time. Naval forces can avoid the risk of having aircraft stationary for long periods and still derive the benefits of rapidly repairing, refueling, and rearming close to the battlespace with the FOB’s smaller sibling: the forward arming and refueling point (FARP).
FARPs are small outposts for refueling and rearming aircraft (typically rotary-wing or tilt-rotor) that can be quickly established and broken down.3 They have the additional benefit of being mobile, as demonstrated during the invasion of Iraq. Marine light attack helicopter squadrons would send teams of 5 to 10 Marines forward with infantry battalions to rearm and refuel helicopters along the lines of advance until the invasion force slowed and permanent FOBs could be established.4 These mobile FARPs enabled helicopters to provide on-call close-air support while drawing on battalions for ground security.
FARPs do not always have to be for vertical takeoff aircraft or deliberate in their planning and establishment, as demonstrated by operations at Tacloban Airfield during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in 1944.
Alternate Landing Sites
On the morning of 25 October 1944, a Navy task group of destroyers and escort aircraft carriers was caught unawares by a powerful Japanese task force consisting of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers. The U.S. task group, “Taffy 3,” was significantly outnumbered and outgunned, but it had the advantage of being able to maintain air superiority with the aircraft assigned to its escort carriers. These aircraft were able to keep constant pressure on the enemy and, even though they were purposed for close-air support and were not armed with antiship ordnance, managed to damage several Japanese ships.
The biggest problem for the aviators was that their home carriers were under direct fire from the Japanese. Unable to rearm and refuel on board, they were forced to find an alternate location, with few options. By a stroke of luck, the U.S. Army had recently captured a Japanese airfield close by, but the landing strip was unimproved and heavily damaged, and all its ordnance and fuel still were boxed up.5
Lieutenant (junior grade) Thomas Lupo was the first naval aviator to land on this newly acquired landing strip at Tacloban, Philippines. He quickly organized parties of Army aviation support soldiers and Navy Seabees to establish communications, clear landing strips, and organize supply dumps for his fellow aviators to rearm and refuel. After a few landing mishaps and a heated disagreement between Lieutenant Lupo and the resident Army officer-in-charge, the airfield began servicing aircraft from the escort carriers at a rapid rate.6
As in this scenario, primary airfields and FARPs are likely to be damaged in any conflict with China, requiring friendly aircraft to divert or ditch. Lieutenant Lupo’s ingenuity showed that alternate landing sites with ground support personnel (for maintenance, refueling, airfield repair, etc.) and equipment will be needed to keep aircraft fighting in the WEZ for prolonged periods.
Divert and Repair Airfields
The 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima offers a further argument for establishing multiple FARPs in the WEZ with prestaged support personnel. The Allies’ goal at Iwo Jima was to seize an airfield from which the Japanese could intercept Allied bombers and turn it into a forward staging base for Allied fighters to escort those bombers on their raids.7 However, it was the island’s role in assisting damaged and disabled aircraft after their bombing sorties that provides the best lesson for planning for a conflict with China.
On 3 March 1945, a B-29 named Dinah Might was forced to divert to the heavily contested island of Iwo Jima after sustaining heavy damage during a bombing raid over Tokyo. Though the airfield was still well within the Japanese Army’s WEZ, the bomber was able to land, make hasty field repairs, and return to its home base. This scenario played out constantly until the end of World War II, saving numerous aircrews and aircraft.8
The Navy also established forward bases to patch up aircraft well enough to get them back to their home stations during the Korean War. Teams of about 15 maintainers would be detailed to an airfield ashore to complete whatever maintenance damaged aircraft required to enable safe carrier landings, preserving valuable aircrew lives, experience, and limited aircraft.9
In a potential future conflict, China will have numerical and home-field advantages, which means U.S. forces cannot lose aircrew or aircraft for want of suitable divert locations and maintenance personnel. The ability to rapidly repair damaged aircraft near the WEZ will preserve scarce resources and enable further sortie generation—although having maintenance personnel in proximity to the WEZ opens concern about support personnel attrition.
Personnel and Equipment Attrition
The 1941 Battle of Wake Island highlights the need to account for attrition among aviation support units when establishing FARPs in the WEZ. On 7 and 8 December 1941, Japanese naval and air forces conducted coordinated attacks on Allied installations across the Pacific. One of these attacks was on the small atoll of Wake Island.10 In the initial Japanese raid, Marine Fighting Squadron 211 (the only tactical aviation unit ashore) lost 8 of its 12 F4F Wildcats, most of its maintenance personnel, and the bulk of its surplus aircraft materials.11 This left the squadron to fend off subsequent Japanese attacks with only four aircraft, a handful of maintainers, and sparse spare parts.
Luckily for the squadron, two of its pilots, a sailor, and the remaining civilian contractors had sufficient knowledge of aircraft mechanics to cannibalize parts from destroyed aircraft and fabricate required support equipment. Their superhuman feats of endurance kept the remaining F4Fs in the fight until overwhelmed by enemy numbers.12 Their efforts resulted in the destruction of eight Japanese aircraft and the sinking of four Japanese warships in coordination with shore-based artillery.13
The Wake Island example points to three major factors in conducting FARP operations inside the WEZ. First, aircraft logistical support near the contested area enables tactical aircraft to outsortie superior-sized forces whose support is farther away. Second, highly skilled aviation support personnel and their equipment will take casualties, and those valuable assets will need to be replaced to sustain combat operations. Third, Marine Fighting Squadron 211 had personnel available who could fill in for its casualties and patch its aircraft; the Marines and sailors fighting China may not be so lucky, especially given today’s highly technical aircraft.
Applying the Lessons
Today’s Navy and Marine Corps can capitalize on several lessons from these examples. The primary lesson is that functional airfields with aviation logistical capabilities near contested areas enable significant sortie generation. This is true even when those airfields are subject to heavy enemy fires. But Guadalcanal and Wake Island warn that significant combat power and logistical support can be lost when aircraft are parked for prolonged periods and logistical assets are not well protected.
China will target any airfield within range of its weapon systems that houses aircraft or prepositioned support assets, which could present a critical vulnerability if only a few primary airfields are being used. U.S. naval forces must have access to multiple functional airfields for rapid rearming, refueling, and repair of aircraft before, during, and after sorties, as well as localized logistical support able to protect itself until needed. Wake Island demonstrates the need for survivability and versatility among aviation logistics personnel, so the mission can continue despite casualties. Guadalcanal further highlights the need for versatility among aviation logistics teams, as when Navy facilities teams from CUB-1—code name for a division of an Advance Base Aviation Training Unit—were employed as impromptu aircraft maintainers in the early days of the fight, or when squadrons started using nonaviation personnel to replace casualties and supplement rearming and refueling operations to maintain pressure on Japanese forces.14
There are several ways the modern force could increase versatility among the support teams who would be staged to operate FARPs. First, aircraft technicians must be experts in their primary fields but also should be familiar with the other systems on their primary platforms or with the same systems on other aircraft. This would allow an F/A-18 airframe mechanic to assist in avionics or ordnance operations or to conduct airframe repairs on F-35s, KC-130s, or MH-60s. Similarly, aircraft rescue and firefighting specialists, expeditionary airfield systems technicians, and bulk fuel specialists should be familiar with each other’s jobs to ensure airfield operability during combat operations.
Another option, which could be supplemented by cross-training, would be to establish mobile FARP crews, similar to those employed in OIF.15 These platoon-sized (or smaller) elements would consist of skilled technicians from a variety of platforms and systems who could be quickly deployed to FARP sites containing concealed support equipment and supplies ready to be used. If transportation were available, this option would allow far more flexibility in conducting FARP operations and significantly reduce aviation logisticians’ chances of being targeted by adversary fires.
The examples of Leyte Gulf and the mobile FARPs of OIF demonstrate the value of secondary, tertiary, and even quaternary landing sites to allow aircraft to rearm, refuel, and be repaired if primary airfields are no longer options. The size of the Indo-Pacific region and Chinese air, naval, and missile forces likely will demand frequent shifts in the focus of U.S. flight operations and the locations of their FARPs.
In addition, any landing strip used to maintain friendly aircraft likely will be targeted by long-range fires, and like the pilots at Leyte, modern aircrews will need to find suitable alternate locations to land before reengaging the enemy or returning to their primary bases. This is especially true if friendly aircraft are damaged and unable to make long flights over water. Having multiple ready-made FARPs or mobile teams capable of quickly establishing FARPs will enable allied forces to repair aircraft well enough to get them to the facilities that can make them fully mission capable once again.
Heed the Past
History provides a good road map for sustaining air operations against China in its own backyard. It is approximately 1,700 miles from Guam to the first island chain—too great a distance to expect most U.S. fighter aircraft to travel and conduct sustained operations in the WEZ.16 And the United States can ill-afford to permanently stage valuable aircraft and aircrew within easy range of Chinese fires. The solution is to heed the lessons of past sailors and Marines and establish aviation logistics hubs to keep aircraft and aircrew in the fight longer and then get them out of harm’s way until they are capable of reengaging.
1. Peter Mersky, Time of the Aces: Marine Pilots in the Solomons, 1942–1944 (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, History and Museums Division, 1993).
2. Staff, “World War II: The Cactus Air Force Fought at Guadalcanal,” Historynet.com, 12 June 2006.
3. Marine Corps Tactical Publication 3-20B, Aviation Ground Support (Washington, DC: Headquarters U.S. Marine Corps, 13 May 2021), 5-1–5-9.
4. MGySgt Margarito Casarez, USMC, to Major Timothy Warren, USMC, “Maint Teams (OIF 1),” San Diego, CA, 21 March 2023.
5. James Hornfischer, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors: The Extraordinary World War II Story of the U.S. Navy’s Finest Hour (New York: Random House 2004), 242–47.
6. Hornfischer, The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors.
7. Capt. Timothy Lundberg, USAF, “Remembering Iwo Jima and Its Importance to Strategic Airpower,” Andersen.af.mil, 3 March 2010.
8. Lundberg, “Remembering Iwo Jima.”
9. Howard Goben, “Reminiscences of Korea in 1952,” History of Naval Aviation Maintenance, AMDO.org, 28 May 2023.
10. “The Pacific Strategy, 1941–1944,” The National WWII Museum.
11. Charles River Editors, The Battle of Wake Island: The History of the Japanese Invasion Launched in Conjunction with the Attack on Pearl Harbor (CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, August 2016).
12. Robert Cressman, “A Magnificent Fight”: Marines in the Battle of Wake Island, Marines in World War II Commemorative Series (Washington, DC: National Park Service, 1992).
13. Cressman, “A Magnificent Fight.”
14. Mersky, Time of the Aces; and John Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).
15. Casarez to Warren, “Maint Teams (OIF 1).”
16. Jeff Schogol, “Why This Tiny Island in the Pacific May Be Ground Zero in a War with China,” Task & Purpose, 20 June 2022.