Sunday, March 23, 2014

Islands Don't Sink

From time to time ComNavOps examines truisms to see whether they actually do contain truth.  Today’s is the common argument that islands don’t sink.  This argument is put forth to justify the F-35 program (and by extension, the Marine’s acquisition of the F-35B) or to demonstrate how we will dominate a Chinese conflict using remote, austere bases.  Let’s look a bit closer at these ideas.

The F-35 program is often justified by the idea that F-35s (presumably “B” models) will be dispersed to numerous small airstrips carved out of jungle islands.  The idea traces its roots back to the Pacific campaign of WWII in which island airstrips were constructed to provide forward operating bases in support of the march across the Pacific.  The modern version of this espouses small airstrips hosting a “few” (half a dozen, perhaps?) F-35s that would presumably wreak havoc across thousands of miles of ocean, secure in the knowledge that their base would either be undiscoverable or, if discovered, be “unsinkable”.

So, let’s look at the logistics of such a base.  Aside from the obvious need for fuel (modern jets, and the F-35B in particular, are voracious gas guzzlers – a couple of 55 gal drums of fuel aren’t going to suffice as they did for WWII Wildcats) and munitions, even a meager airstrip would need food, water, housing, large supplies of highly sophisticated spare parts and diagnostic equipment (the days of a mechanic with a wrench, duct tape, and wire are long gone).  Getting all those supplies to the dispersed bases will be a challenge, to say the least.  It was a challenge in WWII when we had thousands of warships and cargo ships and many thousands of delivery aircraft.  Today, we have very little in the way of logistical supply ships or aircraft and what little we have will be totally consumed supplying our major bases let alone small airstrips housing a few planes.

WWII Pacific Airstrip

What would such a base look like?  We’ve all seen the WWII jungle strips made up of steel matting and huts for the personnel.  Well, today’s aircraft are very delicate, FOD intolerant machines that require scrupulously clean runways.  We need hangars to shelter the aircraft from the elements and to house the sophisticated diagnostic and repair equipment required to maintain modern stealth aircraft.  We need powerful, long range radars for base defense and situational awareness.  We need sophisticated anti-missile batteries and ballistic missile defense systems.  And so on…  Not exactly the definition of an austere base.

In addition, F-35Bs operating in vertical mode (we’re talking short runways, right?) have already been proven to damage existing carrier decks.  What will these austere runways be made out of?  Common steel?  Doesn’t sound like it will hold up.  Asphalt?  A melted puddle.  Concrete?  No idea.  Again, these are not WWII Corsairs.  These are aircraft that are difficult to operate and maintain.

Let’s look closer at the “unsinkable” aspect.  Proponents of these bases call the islands unsinkable.  I take that to mean that they can’t be permanently destroyed.  Strictly speaking, that’s true.  The bases do, however, offer fixed targets that can’t move and are perfect for long range ballistic or cruise missile attack.  Because these will be austere bases, according to the proponents, they won’t have the sophisticated equipment or technical expertise to repair runways or facilities damaged in attacks.  Who’s going to repair destroyed computers, radar arrays, or even paved runways?  Of course, we could maintain large stockpiles of extra computers, radars, diagnostic equipment, and specialized aircraft maintenance tools but then the austere base is well on its way to becoming a major base. 

Well, the F-35s will provide their own base defense, won’t they?  Ignoring the fact that F-35s don’t have an anti-ballistic missile capability and would probably be hard pressed to demonstrate an effective anti-cruise missile defense, if we only have a half dozen (or dozen) aircraft and they’re tied up on base defense, who’s conducting the offensive missions which are, presumably, their reason for existence?  Of course, we could mount Patriot batteries and other, similar, high tech, powerful anti-missile defenses and radar systems but, again, there goes the concept of an austere base and the powerful radar broadcasts the base’s location.  One quickly reaches a point where the base exists merely to defend itself.

Now, let’s look at the reason the base would exist – it’s offensive capability.  We’ve got half a dozen or so high tech, stealthy F-35Bs.  These are relatively short range aircraft with limited payload when operating in stealth mode.  Presumably, these small, austere bases are going to utilize the F-35B’s vertical or short takeoff capability – if not, we’ve again got a major size base.  In vertical or short takeoff mode, the plane sacrifices range and payload.  Given the very high tech nature of these aircraft and the intensive maintenance demands – yes, read the initial reports;  the maintenance demands are staggering, at the moment, and are unlikely to improve all that much – we’ll be lucky to field three or so aircraft at any given moment.  So what will these few aircraft, assuming they aren’t consumed in base defense, do offensively?  Well, they can patrol and strike out to a couple hundred miles.  Yes, I know they can fly around the world if we want to set up a staggeringly complex tanker and support system.  Are we going to have flights of tankers dedicated to small, austere bases housing a half dozen or so aircraft?  Not likely!  Are we going to dedicate electronic support aircraft (Growlers) to assist these aircraft?  Again, no.  So, we’ll have a few F-35Bs with limited range and payload attacking targets of opportunity in their immediate area.  Does this justify the base construction, defense, and logistics necessary to support them?  It doesn’t look like it.  The island may be unsinkable but the austere basing concept is not.   


  1. I take your point, but it probably depends on the job you are thinking of performing.
    Harrier was at least partial designed to operate from small forest clearings and pop up almost like a helo, initial this was during the cold war when we in Britain expected to lose our airbases in a first strike. They would provide close range air defence.
    However they were later intended to operate in a ground attack roll, thinning down the massed tank formations of a conventional USSR advance across Europe.
    Again the intent was 1 or 2 aircraft kitted with a dedicated team with I believe about 4 trucks of fuel and ordinance. The bases could set up in a few hours and move with the front extremely dynamically.
    Maritime patrol and other operations, like you I’m unsure.
    Can the F35B generate an effective sortie rate re: maintenance and other requirements, or even vtol with a usable load :S
    Remains to be seen ?
    But I bloody well hope so as we just signed up to a load of them !

  2. I think you miss the point of island bases… as I’ve said before they have value as staging grounds, island hoping, and offensive and defensive capabilities, etc. But their main usefulness does not come from being unsinkable; it comes from clouding the targeting picture of any adversary who we happen to be in conflict with to dilute their offensive strength.

    The multi-island basing options isn’t about parking F-35Bs in every jungle clearing with the associated infrastructure. Its about convincing the ‘not-Chinese’ we could if we wanted to. Its about spreading out their SRBM, MRBM and LRMB offensive capabilities to a point they lose their edge since they can’t “mass” their firepower (Principle of War). Every fake F-35B, every BQM-74 we fire, every fake radar transponder that soaks up a ballistic missile, a naval bombardment mission, a SOF mission, or any intel collection and/or targeting time on our adversaries part – multiplied by how many islands there are – will make effective targeting incredibly difficult, or near impossible.

    Every island with ‘something’ on it, would need to be rolled up by the ‘not Chinese’. You can’t bypass an island that may have something as ineffective as a Harpoon launcher on it. This is essentially the naval version of the tactics used by folks we fought in Iraq and Afghanistan (of which I have some very close, personal knowledge).

    It also forces the ‘not Chinese’ into a position of strategic consumption, and allowed us freedom of maneuver.

    The point is that yes, islands are unsinkable, but the idea goes fof track when you attempt to link a specific weapon system to a strtgic concept. More useful to a pacific war than a F-35B? BQM-74.

    Forget about putting actual F-35s there, again, that’s not the point. Don’t forget, the Navy isn’t the only service with ship. The Army has a long and proud history of having ships involved in conflict and still have quite a little fleet. Put some Chakars on a an Army watercraft, an old patriot radar and park it off an island. Launch some drones and make A LOT of electronic noise and then move to the next island. That simple, no infrastructure, no F-35Bs, but we know that… the enemy does not.

    Clouding the targeting picture is the point and it’s one of the only ways you’ll be able to enter into a A2/D2 areas.

    1. Robert, your concept of decoy and deception is a time honored and proven tactic. Considered in isolation, there's nothing wrong with it. The problem comes when we look at a map of the distances involved. The locations where we might establish bases are too far away from China's areas of interest to be a threat to them. So, while we might be able to confuse them as to which bases are real and which are not, the simple answer is they wouldn't care and probably wouldn't respond anyway. As pointed out in the post, a few short range, limited payload aircraft aren't going to constitute a threat worth responding to. In order for the deception to work, the enemy must care about the real threat that the deception is trying to hide. In this scenario, they wouldn't.

      Unless you believe China is going to initiate a true global war (and even I don't believe that) their aims are going to be localized. They'll seize Taiwan and stop. The first island chain will not be an objective nor a threat. That will come many decades later as part of the second conflict.

    2. All strategic military planning needs to start with assumptions and a focus. And this is where it gets sticky, both in terms of weapon procurement and tactics/strategy. Look at the LCS, while a miserable failure (and as a taxpayer I want my money back), it did try and address this issue. But going to a modular system on something much larger than a Soldier’s personal kit, I think it attempted to be something for all planning scenarios.

      Does strategic planning and weapons procurement in the Pacific start with a worst case scenario? And all-out-war? Or do you try and find something to plan off of in the middle. Its hard, but for planning at this level I’ve always found it easier to start with the worst case and then you can back off from there.

      But take a Taiwan-China only scenario (I agree more likely than a total war). Countries have flanks and LOCs just like any military unit. I think you are wrong about this … “So, while we might be able to confuse them as to which bases are real and which are not, the simple answer is they wouldn't care and probably wouldn't respond anyway.” You can effect a tactical and operational situation, from a totally separate strategic position. Case in point.

      China sees places like the South China Sea as its own backyard. To argue it would just ignore the area, would be like saying the US goes to war with Canada and all of a sudden doesn’t care about military deployments of a foreign country in the Gulf of Mexico anymore.

      Furthermore, China is now the world’s largest oil importer. That oil comes mainly from ship. In 2010 it was Saudi and Angolan oil. China benefits from the freedom of the seas provided by the US Navy, but in an armed conflict China wouldn’t trust the US Navy to protect its tankers importing oil to use in military operations against a US ally. It would have to secure its own LOCs. There are no islands near that could cloud the targeting picture… but there are PLENTY in the South China Sea and along the VERY narrow and established waterways, straights, shipping lanes and bottlenecks where a huge portion of the worlds trade to and from China transits.

      “The enemy must care about the real threat that the deception is trying to hide. In this scenario, they wouldn't.” In war… uncertainly, the fog of war is just as good as the real thing. And China would very much care if we were in the SCS or parked on islands and ships (even the LCS can take out a tanker) along the shipping lanes that get their oil from… though it is many many many miles from Taiwan.

      No military theater is totally independent from variables outside its geographical confines.

    3. Robert,
      do you think that any Asian country is going to start a war with China because Taiwan?
      Any country that lets is territory be used by USA to attack trade to and from China, is effectively declaring war to China...

  3. All new aircraft require so many hours of maintenance per flying hour that only a well stocked (with parts) base with many maintenance personnel and test benches (in large white vans) can even HOPE to keep the aircraft flying for sef defense and MAYBE offensive operations.

    Take out the maintenance shops/personnel and the new planes become nothing but ramp markers. So now we need to put AEGIS ashore to protect the small island airfields from missile delivered cluster munitions. And now we need a command and control center to coordinate the Missile and Aircraft defense zones (becuase we can;t park a ship near the island).

    Wow I have gotta buy some defense stocks!

  4. I think you are exaggerating the proposed use to kill the idea. As Robert noted the whole idea of the jump jet is to disperse your air units so you can stay in the game when you cannot secure that huge honkin air base. Taiwan Okinawa, Philippines, hell S Korea, are the well within thousands of Chinese IRBM range that will be raining down on those known big bases. I would expect China to saturate those big bases like a WW1 pre charge artillery barrage with the idea of shutting those bases down for just a few hours while their aircraft do the heavy lifting. Having even limited numbers of short takeoff (vertical ground cooking is never really used except for landings) to being able to reinforce the air cap during the charge will be critical.

    The austere F-35B disbursement idea is not in some far flung jungle swamp its hidden in a warehouse off highwayX right down the road from big mega baseX and they are stay in the game defensive/offensive not your primary long distance heavy lifters (they work out of the mega base when its open). Its "support", making sure China cannot build enough missiles to take our air assets out of the game even in a burst. We cannot build enough missiles guarantee 24/7 mega base operation, but with the F35B china cannot build enough missiles to saturate every possible landing strip either. Its a defensive move to counter the checkmate the Chinese IRBM could be.

    The small island "unsinkable carriers" are going to be used but that will be the territory of Marines/Army packing small drones, ASM, and maybe some AA to observe, target, and/or kill. Flipping the A2AD script from East of Malaysia around up to S Korea and all between there is a crazy number of rocks to hold a Marine/Army detachment dropped in night by air/HSV pending load.

    1. C-Claw, that’s the first time I’ve seen this idea, though I guess folks have talked about it. The military seems to be focused on beating A2D2… but why not look for ways to make the Chinese have to worry about A2D2 in their own backyard. A linked set of ships, bases, islands from Korea to Malaysia that would block air and ship traffic routes.

      I’m all about sending the Army and/or Marines in to hold said islands. Would make sense, and as an Army guy I like that it would give the Army an additional role in Air-Sea battle.

    2. And the trade with Russia (the good old enemy), Kazakstan, Afganhistan (probably not a USA good friend in the near future), Pakistan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, India (yes... not probably a China's trade partner), Nepal, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Vietnam, Laos and North Korea?
      China isn't in the same geo-strategic position as WWII Germany...

    3. Problems with the idea of dispersing F-35s remain:

      1) Critical support aircraft like AWACs are not VTOL.
      2) Logistics support like fuel, munitions, and spare parts are very difficult to disperse.
      3) There is no way that you are going to disperse aircraft into the heart of an urban area: the risk of damage done to buildings and people is serious, the risk to aircraft from hazards like power lines is even worse.
      4) Dispersing aircraft makes them vulnerable to attack by sabotage, as well as simple crime.
      5) Dispersing aircraft significantly complicates the strategic logistics effort.

      All things considered dispersing aircraft is not a panacea: there are times when it is warranted, and times when it is a mistake.


  5. I agree with ComNavOps, dispersing on a bunch of islands sounds like a good idea and very reasonable until you start thinking how to execute this.

    My question is: do we know how many bases we are talking about here for this idea to work? 10?20?50? How much preparations/ pre-positioned gear/concrete/fuel do we need? How do you resupply them? Are there even enough "right" size and positioned islands to make this work? They can't be too close or too far away, which kind of limits the number of "austere" bases....

    To keep it "cheap", wouldn't USA pretty much have to use the same "blueprint" for all these "austere" bases, which means they would "stick" out on satellite pictures and would be relatively easy to target? Even if you add a couple of decoy "austere" bases, I don't see how the Chinese couldn't figure out with a high degree of certitude where these bases are....

    I have a hard time believing the USA could build enough "austere" bases at a cheap price and in such numbers that Chinese IRBMs would be the more "expensive" proposition. As ComNavOps points out, there is little to be "austere" about when it comes to operating the F35B.

  6. CNO,
    there is an additional angle emerging that would make the proposal that much more plausible. And it would go a long way towards breaking e.g. Chinese A2AD.

    Study these links, and you'll be up-to-speed to then take the next steps:
    - 1.
    - 2.
    - 3.
    Big question is now, when will what happen ?

    Assuming this R-&-D process remains on that vector, then consider LCU-F as the island-supply boat hauling 200-tons on to that island's shore.

    The amphibiously-delivered load aboard multiples of these would include.
    - 55,000glas of fuel or what may be about 30 re-fuelings of F-35B (what ?) 13,000lbs internal fuel,
    - tractors and USMC's RTCH, Rough Terrain Container Handlers planting containerized F-35B 'Support-Shops' under whatever tree-cover,
    - a good amount of steel-mat landing-platform |
    - on which F-35B would NOT come down in one 'boiling' spot but in a slow-forward-motion decent-rate, matching its very short take-off with very short-landing - thus preventing the ruin of that limited stretch of runway-material.

    Now that island-base is established for
    - re-crewing,
    - re-arming,
    - maintenance incl. modest repairs/patch-ups,
    then you use the 55,000gals combat-tanker load (glorified modular fuel-bladders arrangement contained at sea by the hull's steel-structure) to head out towards the A2AD region.

    Approaching it, you use the same 55,000gals combat-tanker configuration to have LCU-F serve as a very forward-positioned 'Bingo-Platform. But not for F-35B - but for the tanker-function MV-22.

    MV-22 can hover over LCU-F while taking on the maximum of internal cargo-load (20,000lbs ?) 17-20 times out of 400,000lbs aboard.

    With that 20,000lbs of fuel aboard, (K)MV-22 would refuel 2x F-35Bs internal fuel-load with fresh 10,000lbs as the F-35Bs are going under the 3000lbs remain internal fuel alarm.

    All regular procedure for carrier-borne aviation, this model allow significantly extending F-35Bs effective combat-radius.

    And at 22' beam by some 10-11' height, and readily coated with a crude radar-return 'mucking' application over the very low-slung steel hull, LCU-F would be very hard to find by any seeker not already looking at it.

    To summarize:
    - no cooking of short runways,
    - 200-tons of support-gear, ground-prep and aircraft-handling vehicles, container-based F-35B Support-Shops and consumables readily deliverable to any beach via LCU-F at up to 19kts,
    - leveraging LCU-F combat-tanker function to far-forward feed (K)MV-22,
    - which thus supplies one F-35B twice per KMV-22 load (or two once) between refueling from LCU-F for up to 10 in-flight F-35B refueling,
    - before the next refueled LCU-F shows up to take over.

    This could be kept up for quite some time.

    Thus indeed a plausible WW-2 'island-based' defense- and offense-model - this time with Mach 1.5 and advanced stealth.


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