A 2015 RAND report analyzed the effect of Chinese cruise missile attacks on Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. The analysis found that 60 cruise missiles could target every hangar, hardened aircraft shelter, and fuel tank at Kadena resulting in every target individually suffering a greater than 90-percent probability of fatality. These estimates were not better for other crucial bases in the Pacific, like Guam’s strategically important Anderson Air Force Base, the only base in the Western Pacific that can permanently service U.S. strategic bombers including B-1B, B-2, and B-52 bombers.
A 2020 RAND report released exposed the lack of US air base defenses against the current missile threats emanating from adversaries, and the lack of urgency there has been in taking the initiative to deter these threats. The Air Force possesses various fighter aircraft for air defense capability, air superiority and strike, and with the addition of the F-35s have a 5th generation fighter with tremendous sensors to track targets. These planes are not persistent nor are they mission specific for air and missile defense. The current gap between adversary cruise missile technology and joint force persistent 360-degree sensing -enabling accurate interception- is noticeably troubling as we prepare for great power competition.
The Air Force is questioning their air defense capacity to defend their air bases as it does not own the mission for ground-based defenses as the US Army does, nor the authority to train, equip , develop and procure surface-based air and missile defense (AMD) systems. The U.S. Army took up this responsibility for air bases in the 1950s, after the Key West Agreements of 1948, when decisions delineating responsibilities between the Services were needed, following the creation of the Air Force on September 18, 1947. The agreement meant that the Army would own all ground-based SAM (surface-to-air missile) and ballistic missile defense systems. Eventually after the Cold War, the interest in air defense procurement was sacrificed for the cost of conflict from the wars in the CENTCOM area of responsibility, which realigned the Army’s priorities. Projects such as the SLAMRAAM, which had initial operational capability in 1994, got canceled and the United States accepted the risk of deploying without air defenses as the US military and its allies had air superiority in the Middle East. The ramifications of not fielding and modernizing a missile and air defense system have become a tremendous challenge today, in the face of states which challenge that long-held aerial dominance.
The Air Force has recognized the need for mitigating this concern with its own base security zone (BSZ) concept. The concept considers the area outside the base boundary, from which standoff and indirect fire weapons can engage the base and aircraft on approach and departure, in base defense planning. The problem is that this concept has been stovepiped for a long time from joint planning, which serves as a disadvantage to the Air Force — because the Army or forces of the host nation are the force in charge of manning the defensive systems that have the mission to protect air bases. The Army certainly has the capabilities to have the initial systems for effective defense, and with BSZ integrated into a joint doctrine, the base commander can have direct control in determining how these systems can effectively serve to protect aircraft — from takeoff, to landing, to being stowed in the hangar.
The RAND report argues that the Air Force must demonstrate institutional commitment to air base defense by increasing the number of personnel dedicated to air base resiliency, significantly expanding the scope and pace of defensive programs, and more visibly advocating for air base defense to ensure it receives the necessary attention. The Air Force must recognize the need to focus its priorities on what it requires to protect its assets, including the burden associated with it. Establishing a new MOU, modeled on the 1984 MOU, with the Army to establish ground-based 360-degree air defense for air bases as a joint Army-Air Force responsibility, will be an important first step towards achieving this advantage. Working on parallel, but coordinated, lines of effort to complete the mission, would share the burden of cost and development. The Army is demonstrating the capability to defend against a 360-degree cruise missile threat, after the successful intercept of two cruise missiles by Patriot during the IBCS LUT — which included a simulated electronic warfare attack on the Sentinel and Patriot radars.
The means by which this would enhance command and control capabilities, along with the advances across the various branches of the Armed Forces, can serve as an exemplary means for heading in the right direction with regards to protecting our Air Force.
Although the ideal solution set for air base defense -by way of the Air Force’s development efforts- would be “(to) deploy a single multipurpose defensive system with significant capabilities across a wide range of threats” (p. 51), according to the RAND report, it is more realistic to expect a combination of passive defenses -such as enhancing the construction of hardened aircraft shelters- and a series of active defenses. The latter can include short- and long-range missile systems, and defensive counter-air (DCA) patrols, along with RF jamming systems, and more evolving technologies like high-powered microwave. Given the historical, technological, and policy assessments conducted, the first 3 forms of active defense mentioned above are deemed to be significantly effective against more traditional threats. The issue in point is complicated by the existence of newer technologies like hypersonic missiles and swarming SUAS, which will require more creative solutions in the future (such as solid-state lasers) but can be now mitigated through jamming systems and improved passive defenses. As for the employment of guns on air bases for defense, the report suggests: “Specialized AAA guns deployed with partner-nation forces should be exploited, and the U.S. Army C-RAM capability is worth using when mortar and rocket threats are of concern.” (p. 52) The essence of this combination would be to look for synergistic solutions that can be rapidly fielded and deployed, based on the threat profile surrounding the area.
The vagueness of the 1948 Key West Conference paper was the defining origin of the roles & missions conflicted relationship between the Army and the Air Force regarding air base defense. Congress mandated clearer roles & functions definitions for this burden as far back as 1956. The last time the Air Force elevated the issue of air base defense to the JCS was in 1965, during the Vietnam War. In a way, a difference initially generated by misalignments in doctrine, force structure, and prioritization of resources and functions was made worse by a culture of overly-technological approaches to force development and planning. With not much in the way of conceptual and doctrinal advancement to match such breakthroughs, the problem was pushed further down the road until the present era. The report describes the fact that precision-guided missiles and missile technology really did generate an across-the-board change in warfare, and such a change was acknowledged much later on and not in all areas of the Armed Forces mission. Evidently, a policy of acceptance of a calculated risk is no longer acceptable.
The gap in security alluded to in this note is not exclusive to the US, either. 78% of the world’s air forces lack ground-based air defense (GBAD), so we’re not the only ones vulnerable. But, certainly, addressing this need would give us a more resilient advantage that our competitors are not taking the necessary precautions against. Since the end of the Cold War, the US has enjoyed the unique advantage of unequivocal air superiority and has dominated the skies ever since. No adversary can match the firepower we hold in the air. But what happens when these angels of the Free World come to rest in the hangars, unprotected from the threat that our enemies permeate?
We note that the joint services have come together to counter the threat that armed drones pose to deployed forces. Major General Sean A. Gainey is the Director, Joint C-UAS Office (JCO) and Director, Fires in the G3/5/7, HQ Department of the Army. The JCO is a newly established Executive Agent office for all C-UAS activities by order of the Secretary of Defense.