It was an honor to be asked to have a paper I penned almost 15 years ago to be included in a new volume published by Air University Press and edited by Shannon Caudill. The book examines both the art and science of one of the most important aspects of Air Force military operations . . . defending air bases against counterinsurgency. The tenets cataloged in the body of work provide lessons learned and academic insights that further the education and advocacy that began in Shannon’s volume l. It clearly informs defenders and senior leaders on the perplexing ground defense challenges we must defeat in order to achieve vital US objectives in contested environments.
I might argue the DeMarco contribution to the book was not so much the defense of airbases but more an attempt to illustrate the strategic importance of airbase opening. The piece was current in 2004, but anyone familiar with the CRG mission knows there have been a myriad of changes to the organization and the mission in the last decade and a half. The chapter should be considered a historical view into–what was one person’s vision for the CRG–before the CRG was born.
There are three case studies covered in examining how airbase opening ensured strategic effects:
1: The German Way: The Luftwaffe in Northern Europe
2: The Soviet Way: The Red Air Force in Afghanistan
3: The American Way of War: A Comparison of World War II and the US Invasion of Iraq
The piece is chapter one of the book in a section entitled: GETTING IN . . . AND GETTING OUT: SECURING AIR BASES AT THE BEGINNING AND END OF CONFLICTS
First In!: Expeditionary Air Base Seizure and Operations; Power Projection through Mobility Warriors
The global strategic environment changed in a massive way when the Cold War ended. Gone is the moderating existence of two super- powers exerting suppressive influence on otherwise explosive regions. There was armed conflict during the Cold War, and it occurred with some regularity. Yet these superpower nations had an implicit understanding that nearly every encounter carried with it the potential to widen into a regional conflict or perhaps even nuclear war. Both knew that neither country would benefit from a global confrontation and the possibility of an Armageddon scenario. However, after the demise of the Soviet Union and the emergence of new states, the stabilizing influence of the superpowers dwindled, leaving the United States as the leading political force on the globe.
The United States no longer finds itself in the arena with another heavyweight power in an all-or-nothing contest for supremacy. America must shed the pounds of that heavyweight boxer and transform into a ninja that lurks in the dark alleys of the world, attacking a myriad of foes. In the early 2000s, the goal of US military transfor- mation became focused on building light, lean, and lethal forces.1 Attempting to adjust to the new strategic realities, each branch of the US armed services is struggling to determine its relevance in this new setting.
America has withdrawn forces from all over the world and has become a continental United States (CONUS)–based force. The ability to respond to a crisis overseas has led the Air Force to become more expeditionary. These expeditionary forces must be capable of rapid, small-footprint deployments into areas of strategic and operational importance. This light and lethal deployment capability represents a significant transformation from the Cold War force and is a key enabler for the current expeditionary Air Force.
The air and space expeditionary force (AEF) concept is to rapidly deploy, employ, and sustain aerospace power around the globe from a predominantly in-CONUS force structure. The AEF’s requirement to respond swiftly means that force and support packages must be quickly tailored to meet the operational needs of a specific contin- gency. The deployment and sustainment of resources must be coordi- nated to arrive at forward operating locations (FOL) so that initial and sustained operations can occur without interruption. These operations have been a challenge for the USAF in permissive envi- ronments, but they will face even greater complications in a hostile, nonpermissive, antiaccess environment where a forced-entry seizure of an airfield is required.
As the United States emerges from two nearly simultaneous conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, global airpower trends have clearly proven the strategic importance of the expeditionary concept and suggest that few opponents will be able to challenge the United States Air Force in the air. However, adversaries of the future are likely to look for alternative means to counter US airpower. One means of doing so is through antiaccess tactics. The United States faced natural, geographical antiaccess issues in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF)— the war in Afghanistan. America faced an enemy in a landlocked country with no easy access. Through the initial use of US naval air- power and USAF long-range strike aircraft, combined with a heavy reliance on the tanker fleet, America was nonetheless able to strike the Taliban effectively. Eventually America secured air bases in permissive areas such as Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan. US forces also seized airfields in hostile environments—at landing zone (LZ) Rhino and Kandahar International Airport in Afghanistan. The post-9/11 world will find the seizing and opening of airfields in distant and unusual places increasingly important.
This concept of airfield seizure and secure lodgment is essential for the projection of American power. The doctrinal importance of airfield seizure and air base opening to US security strategy is supported by a continuum of key policy documents ranging from the White House to the Department of Defense (DOD), Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS), US Air Force, and Air Mobility Command (AMC). The 2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America asserts, “We must enable forward-deployed field work beyond the confines of diplomatic facilities, including partnering with military colleagues in conflict-affected states.” Further, since “adversaries constantly evolve their methods to threaten the United States and our citizens” our response must be agility and adaptability. Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) guidance in Joint Publication (JP) 3-18, Forcible Entry Operations, advocates forcible entry in situations where “securing the lodgment” is needed “to protect the force and ensure the continuous landing of personnel and materiel, . . . support the increasing flow of forces and logistic resource requirements, and . . . support the joint force in preparing for and executing follow-on operations.” Air Force doctrine notes, “As the United States moves into a realm of uncertain adversaries, it is the capability of our mobility forces that will ensure the force projection necessary to protect US national interests.” It further describes how “deployable air mobility support forces can expand the GAMSS [global air mobility support system] at existing locations or establish capabilities where none exists,” thus establishing an infra- structure for global air mobility operations.
According to retired USAF colonel John Cirafici’s research, “A war-fighting commander depends on the airhead to introduce com- bat forces in the shortest time possible and to sustain them during the initial and probably the most critical phases of the operations.” Further, Cirafici states that “where a threat of force is necessary, con- cerned parties must realize that the means to project force is as cred- ible as the force itself.” In short, all US military services must contribute forces capable of rapid, decisive, forced entry operations in support of airfield seizure to enable follow-on forces.
The USAF—and more specifically Air Mobility Command with its vast array of air transports, aerial tankers, and air mobility specialists— is critical to effective power projection. US Army (USA) Field Manual (FM) 3-99, Airborne and Air Assault Operations, lists airlift as the number one item the USAF must deliver for such operations. Air mobility capabilities are the key enablers for rapid force-projection forces. Therefore, the robustness of the air mobility system deter- mines the speed at which America can generate forces for power projection. Future contingency operations will require a credible and versatile force tailored to each unique situation. Any force package will require a secure staging area to transition from deployment to employment. This is true whether that package is airpower or ground power. When a secure lodgment is not available, a forced entry into the objective area is required to seize and secure a forward base for the introduction of combat forces.
A forced seizure of an airfield is a complex and difficult operation. The mission is normally performed by airborne troops, air assault forces, and/or ground special operations forces (SOF) and specially trained mobility crews either from Air Force Special Operations Command (AFSOC) or AMC. These units, both Army and Air Force, are lightly equipped and vulnerable to enemy maneuver and fire- power. The operation is further complicated by the requirement for firepower via aircraft in a close air support (CAS) or interdiction role. Precision engagement is key in such an operation; destruction of the airfield and its facilities could render the inserted ground forces help- less as follow-on forces will be unable to proceed.
With extended-range air operations becoming increasingly important, is the USAF organizing, training, and equipping the force to handle the antiaccess issues of establishing forward air bases in a denied environment? An analysis of case studies will demonstrate the strategic importance of airfield seizure. We then examine whether the USAF is adequately preparing to execute this critical function in the future. Clearly, strategists find such operations increasingly critical: without airfields, force projection is close to impossible. For this reason, the his- tory of some select operations is pertinent to future USAF operations. While the basic technique of airfield seizure has not changed markedly over the past 50 years, new information and sensor and weapon tech- nologies offer opportunities for future conflicts.
Each historical case study is examined through the lens of Joint Vision 2020. It presents the application of four operational concepts that will result in full-spectrum dominance: dominant maneuver, precision engagement, full dimensional protection, and focused logistics. This template provides a common direction for US military services in developing their unique capabilities within a joint framework of doctrine and programs as they prepare to meet an uncertain and challenging future. Furthermore, one of the best analyses of the future is to understand the past. By applying Joint Vision 2020’s concepts to the case studies, we can gain a better understanding of how to shape our future capabilities.
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