Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Henderson Field

A recent article about the Marines, sea control, and HIMARS cited Henderson Field (Guadalcanal – WWII Solomons campaign) as an example of an expeditionary base.  This is an interesting case that warrants a bit of examination.

Many military observers and, apparently, many professional military thinkers seem to have a vision of austere, hidden jungle bases from which a handful of F-35B’s wreak havoc on the surrounding enemy, immune from discovery.  I swear, most people seem to have this image:  the chirping and chatter of jungle life will momentarily pause, the jungle canopy will rustle, the branches will part, and an F-35B, dripping with all manner of weaponry, will rise, vertically, out of the jungle, undetected, and fly off to decimate enemy forces and return to repeat the cycle until the enemy is brought to their knees.

The Marines are not immune to the lure of this vision. 

“The Marines would provide additional “distributed” firepower from Expeditionary Advance Bases. Carved out of hostile territory by landing forces, kept small and camouflaged to avoid enemy fire, EABs would support F-35B jump jets, V-22 tiltrotors, and drones, as well as anti-ship missiles for the fleet. It’s a high-tech version of Henderson Field on Guadalcanal (part of the Solomons) in 1942. Like Henderson Field, the EABs would provide a permanent presence ashore, inside the contested zone, to support Navy ships as they move in and out to raid and withdraw.” [emphasis added] (1)

Let’s look at the historical example of Henderson Field and see what we can learn from it that can be applied to today’s Marine Corps Expeditionary Advance Base concept.

-The most obvious characteristic of Henderson Field was that it wasn’t hidden or unknown to the enemy.  The Japanese knew exactly what it was and where it was!  The assumption that any airbase large enough to operate multiple modern aircraft, sensors, warehouses, fuel depots, munition dumps, etc. will remain hidden is pure fantasy.

-Henderson Field was bombarded on an almost nightly (and daily!) basis by both aircraft and ships.  Because the Navy didn’t control the sea, the Japanese were able to bombard the field almost at will.  The Marine’s concept of a base located in enemy controlled sea (or, at best, no man’s sea) that will be somehow immune from attack is delusional.  Worse, unlike WWII where the bombarding forces had to come near the field and were subject to counterattack, today’s enemy can simply launch ballistic and cruise missiles without ever exposing their own forces to direct counterattack.

-The regular bombardments, combined with the primitive conditions and lack of spare parts and skilled maintainers, meant that the field usually only had a handful of operational fighters at any given moment.  How much worse would this be with modern, finicky stealth aircraft that require advanced technology for diagnostics and maintenance and require pristine conditions to perform maintenance and maintain the stealth characteristics of the aircraft?  The very nature of a forward area, austere base guarantees that readiness rates will plummet.  Considering the F-35 is struggling to achieve 50% readiness under ideal conditions with highly trained factory service personnel and ample spare parts, it’s a certainty that aircraft readiness will be abysmal.

-Henderson Field was a very large base!  Now, the jump jet supporter’s response is that we’ll operate vertical landing and takeoff F-35B’s so we’ll only need ten feet of runway!  Of course, that’s incorrect.  With any useful weapon and fuel load, the F-35B won’t be taking off vertically.  It needs a runway.  It may not need a 10,000 ft runway but it will need a significant one in terms of visibility to the enemy.  Of course, there’s also the parking areas for each aircraft (you don’t park a modern aircraft in the mud, under a tree), hangars to perform clean maintenance in, computer facilities for diagnostics and mission planning, munition dumps, spare part warehouses, fuel storage tanks, barracks for all the pilots, maintenance personnel, and command staff, radars, control towers, aircraft support vehicle storage/parking, food facilities, and sanitary facilities.  On top of all that, an expeditionary base is, by definition, in enemy territory so there will have to be a defending force with vehicles, anti-aircraft vehicles/sites, radar, more housing, food, and sanitary facilities, etc.  How all of this is “kept small and camouflaged to avoid enemy fire” is a mystery that the Marines have yet to explain.

-Let’s also recall that because Henderson Field was in enemy controlled air/water space, we had difficulty resupplying it, especially early on.  Resupply and reinforcement was sporadic, at best.  A modern aircraft and expeditionary base needs immense amounts of fuel, munitions, computers, electronics, spare parts, etc.  Keeping a modern expeditionary base supplied would be even more challenging than in WWII.

-Trying to operate an expeditionary base in enemy air/water space is going to be costly.  Recall that we lost many cruisers, destroyers, and one carrier (Wasp) trying to defend Guadalcanal.  In WWII, ship losses were relatively quickly and easily replaced.  Today, with only a couple of shipyards in the U.S., we’ll be hard pressed to replace our losses and to believe that we’ll be able to “carve” out a base, equip it, operate it, and resupply it without being noticed and without suffering significant losses is pure fantasy.  Does it really make sense to lose dozens of ships to defend an expeditionary base?  It might, if it’s strategically beneficial.  The point is that any base large enough to be operationally beneficial will be noticed and we will have to fight to defend it and the heavy losses must be factored in rather than just blithely stating that we’ll “camouflage” the base and the enemy won’t see us.

-Recall that we lost many aircraft at Henderson Field to combat, bombardment, and poor ground conditions.  For example, from Wiki,

Between 21 August and 11 September, the Japanese raided Guadalcanal a total of ten times, losing 31 aircraft destroyed and seven more heavily damaged, primarily due to the defensive efforts of CAF fighter planes. …  During this same time, the CAF Marine Corps fighter squadrons lost 27 aircraft with nine pilots killed.”

Again, in WWII, aircraft were very easy to replace.  Today, F-35’s and MV-22’s can’t be as readily replaced.  Will the losses be worth it?  Again, perhaps but we need to acknowledge and factor in the enormous losses as we discuss these things rather than just hand-waving away the problems.

-Henderson Field was a very primitive base.  Huts, mud, rain, dust, dirt, insects, humidity and accompanying rust and corrosion, and disease were the hallmarks of the base.  An expeditionary base “carved” out of enemy territory won’t be any better.  Those conditions took their toll on pilots, maintainers, and aircraft alike.  How will modern, exquisite, stealth aircraft stand up to such conditions?  Not well!  The F-35 has only a 50% readiness rate now, at fully equipped, pristine bases with ample supplies of spare parts, manufacturer tech reps, and maintenance personnel.  What do you think it will be when mud, rain, dirt, and rust start working their magic?  Sure, we could pave the runways, taxiways, and parking.  We could build insulated buildings with climate controlled atmospheres to house the computers.  We could build filtered air hangars with moisture control to work on the aircraft.  We could set up advanced hospitals with extensive medical staffs to keep the pilots and maintainers healthy.  We could do all that but then it’s not an expeditionary base, is it?  And it certainly won’t be hidden with all that!

F-35 Operating Base?


Henderson Field is an example of a forward base but it certainly isn’t an example of a secret expeditionary base, small and camouflaged and hidden from the enemy. 

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a forward base, if the strategy requires it, but let’s be realistic about what that means.  It means a base that will be well known to the enemy, a base under constant attack, a base that will struggle to achieve aircraft readiness rates of 25%, a base that will consume unbelievable quantities of supplies, a base that will require the efforts of the entire Navy to defend and supply, and a base that will cost us almost as much as we gain from it.

Let’s drop this fantasy of hidden bases once and for all.




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(1)Breaking Defense website, “Marines Seek Anti-Ship HIMARS: High Cost, Hard Mission”, Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., 14-Nov-2017,




35 comments:

  1. I had the same thoughts as you. It really seems like an idea that was not well thought out. Yet they keep repeating it over and over.
    Some of the reasons given such as distributed lethality just like the Navy seemed to defy logic. Distributed lethality of ships works because they can move. A bunch of small bases will not be able to support each other past their current loadout of missiles and unlike ships they will not be able to leave the area. They are sitting ducks that now require rescue.

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  2. One of the myths of STOVL aircraft is that they can take off and land on unprepared roads. In fact even the Harrier will cause holes to be blown into the road throwing tarmac into the air which will damage the aircraft

    The F-35B will cause even more damage and debris so you will need a heavy duty airstrip to successfully operate such planes.

    The movies are full of video showing STOVL aircraft taking off from all sorts of places, but in order to lift a multi-ton aircraft you need multi-ton thrust pointed downward and that will blow holes into most ground cover throwing debris everywhere.

    Even the V-22 has problems with this compared to helicopters due to their small diameter rotors

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    1. When the Marines demostrated firing HIMARS from the USS Anchorage, they took precautions to prevent the exhaust from damaging the deck.

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  3. "The most obvious characteristic of Henderson Field was that it wasn’t hidden or unknown to the enemy. The Japanese knew exactly what it was and where it was! The assumption that any airbase large enough to operate multiple modern aircraft, sensors, warehouses, fuel depots, munition dumps, etc. will remain hidden is pure fantasy."

    The Japanese were in the process of building the airfield that would become Henderson Field when we invaded. Of course it wasn't secret or its purpose a mystery to them.

    The Swedes might also take issue with a lot of this. They've only been operating high-performance jet aircraft from highways, and you know, parking jets under trees, for a few decades.

    While the EAB may be "permanent," that passage doesn't say anything about the F-35Bs being stationed there. The EAB is really more of a semi-permanent FARP for F-35Bs, V-22s, CH-53s, etc..

    F-22s and C-130s FARPing:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uPYoMG0Kilo

    An EAB operations brochure:

    https://marinecorpsconceptsandprograms.com/sites/default/files/files/EABO%20Concept%20Toolkit%20(Public).pdf

    There's a lot of pie-in-the-sky stuff in there, but some cool stuff too: bistatic/multistatic shore-based sonar installations, expeditionary shore-based ASW bases, STOVL FARP barges, rotary-wing FARP barges, submersible fuel barges, water purification barges, towable fuel and water bladders, motorized floating containers, expeditionary at-sea concrete fabrication, and motion-compensating cranes for container and VLS onload/offload. It seem like some people are starting to take this stuff a little bit seriously.

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    1. "The Swedes might also take issue with a lot of this. They've only been operating high-performance jet aircraft from highways, and you know, parking jets under trees, for a few decades."

      No, this is a misconception. It is certainly possible to operate some types of aircraft (not VTOL!) from a highway (how many of those are there in a "carved out" expeditionary base?) for a very brief period of time (like once). A highway has no maintenance, spare parts warehousing, fuel storage, munitions depot, computer maintenance diagnostics, computerized mission planning facilities, or any of the other things discussed in the post. Further, one isolated aircraft can't accomplish anything operationally significant. Having an aircraft land or takeoff from a highway is a stunt that has no military significance and is utterly irrelevant to the concept of a forward base.

      "expeditionary shore-based ASW bases, STOVL FARP barges, rotary-wing FARP barges, submersible fuel barges, water purification barges, towable fuel and water bladders, motorized floating containers, expeditionary at-sea concrete fabrication, and motion-compensating cranes for container and VLS onload/offload"

      And all of that is going to occur without the enemy noticing? There's nothing wrong with all of that as long as you're willing to stand and fight for it because the enemy is certainly going to see it. If the fight is worth it, then it's a good idea but the notion that we'll "carve out" a secret base and conduct clandestine operations of any significance is ludicrous. The Marines are idiots or, far more likely, simply looking to expand their budget share by claiming all kinds of ridiculous capabilities.

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    2. "Having an aircraft land or takeoff from a highway is a stunt that has no military significance and is utterly irrelevant to the concept of a forward base."

      A FARP isn't a "base." It's just a place where a jet or helo can land, rearm/refuel, and takeoff to continue a mission. A FARP might be thrown together for a single mission (like what the CH-53s did for the AH-64s in the opening hours of Desert Storm) or on an emergency basis in response to an air raid (Sweden). The barges might be a semi-permanent asset, but they're also mobile. For example, F-35Bs might land at a FARP barge so that they can refuel before taking off again to escorts some bombers as soon as the bombers arrive overhead. The barge could re-position or withdraw after the F-35Bs take off.

      "And all of that is going to occur without the enemy noticing?"

      I think you're reading WAY too much into the "clandestine" aspect. I don't even see any specific reference to "secret" or "clandestine" bases. Keeping them distributed, small, and camouflaged is just a prudent defensive measure.

      I believe that the reference to Henderson Field is that the EABs would represent the first toe-hold gained in enemy territory - like Henderson Field. That brochure shows SAMs, AAA, railguns, lasers, and rocket artillery. I think the idea IS to fight for these EABs. Furthermore, the enemy's A2/AD network is going to be just as susceptible to sensor attrition as our networks are. The U.S. Air Force couldn't find SCUD TEMs in the Iraqi desert despite having near complete air superiority. It's hard to believe that our enemies will have an easier time finding mobile barges in a contested littoral environment.

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    3. From the post, to refresh your memory:

      "... kept small and camouflaged to avoid enemy fire, ..."

      That's the Marine's fantasy. The point of the post is that that will not and cannot happen if you're trying to operate a base that can exercise sea control, operate modern aircraft, employ SAMs, lasers, rail guns, artillery, and whatever other fantasy the Marines have. The point is not that a forward base is a bad idea - it might be a good idea , depending on our overall military strategy - but that it won't be "small and camouflaged to avoid enemy fire".

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    4. Again, read what the services are actually saying:

      "“The idea is not to make it invincible, (but) to make the EAB a hard enough kill for a pretty low-value target,” said Bryan Clark, former senior aide to the Chief of Naval Operators and co-author of the study. By CSBA’s calculations, if the Marines spread out, dug in, and deployed new missile defenses like the Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP) and the Army’s new Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC), it would take an enemy 28 shots to guarantee a kill on any particular target.

      What’s more, each advance base would have multiple targets, each dug in far enough apart a single warhead wouldn’t get them all: a refueling area for F-35Bs, a HIMARS missile launcher, an IPFC missile defense launcher, a howitzer battery firing HPVs, radars, a command post, bunkers for the Marines, etc. At some point, Clark argues, the Chinese or Russians would decide it wasn’t worth firing hundreds of missiles to wipe out a single reinforced company of a few hundred Marines, not when there were multiple such outposts to worry about on land plus Navy warships at sea."

      https://breakingdefense.com/2016/11/a-bridgehead-too-far-csbas-aggressive-risky-strategy-for-marines/

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    5. "read what the services are actually saying:"

      Let's be perfectly clear. The article you've linked is NOT what the services are saying. The article reflects the CSBA report and Bryan Clark is a civilian working for CSBA.

      The CSBA concept is NOT Marine doctrine and may well be too risky. From the article you cite,

      "it’s far more aggressive and risky than any other such concept I’ve seen, because it calls for setting up static outposts inside the danger zone, rather than infiltrating mobile forces that stay constantly on the move. As Army Chief of Staff Mark Milley, never one to mince words, puts it: “On the future battlefield, if you stay in one place longer than two or three hours, you will be dead.”

      I'll say it one more time since you seem not to be grasping it, the premise of the post is that a forward base cannot be powerful enough to accomplish anything significant and still be hidden from the enemy. Whether that's worth it depends on the overall strategy. Regardless, it will be very costly to execute.

      This is simple fact and logic and is not really debatable.

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    6. "Hyper Velocity Projectile (HVP) and the Army’s new Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC)"

      We'll factor those in when either are actually deployed. I won't bother to list all the Army and Navy systems that have failed to materialize.

      The CSBA's report is heavy on fantasy and light on reality.

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    7. "The Swedes might also take issue with a lot of this. They've only been operating high-performance jet aircraft from highways, and you know, parking jets under trees, for a few decades."

      Actually this is both right and wrong. During the Cold War the Swedish Airforce did plan to operate from road-bases, using the public road system. If my memory is correct some 25-30 road-bases, each with several primary and secondary runways, where constructed and manned by an equal number of “airbase-battalions”. The system and concept have been extensively tested and where valid.

      However this did not mean that the system of road-bases where by any mean expeditionary. All road-bases where constructed well in advance with pre-prepared runways (roads wide and long enough to allow for landing and takeoff), supply depots, maintenance spots and so on. Upon mobilization Airforce ground and air units would move in to a pre-prepared area and begin operations from there.

      Another factor that one must take into consideration is that the Swedish Armed Forced and Airforce did not consider these bases, by any means “secret” or “hidden”, on the contrary the assumption where that these bases where well known to the Soviet Union. The reason for using the system where not secrecy but target saturation.

      Given the large number of dispersed bases (25 – 30 bases each with several runways etc.) the assumption where that any counter-airbase-operation would be a lengthy operation, involving a large number of aircrafts, and therefore not possible to preform at all targets simultaneously. During the counter-airbase-operations the Swedish Airforce would relocate between bases that either had not been attacked or been attacked but repaired.

      So, while the concept of road-bases is valid it is probably not possible to operate as an expeditionary system due to lack of preparation, lack of supply, lack of secrecy and most importantly lack of dispersal. When considering foot-print the Swedish Airforce, equipped (both regarding aircrafts and support units) for austere operations, did not consider operating units smaller than battalions, and then relied on the army for area protection and Air-Defence.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MNak9lB_q00

      KarlV

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    8. "C'mon, at least indicate when you delete comments. Your readers deserve at least that much."

      When I delete a comment it's because it didn't meet the standards of this blog as laid out in the comment policy page. I generally refrain from publicly humiliating individuals with a description of the failings of their comments but since you asked ...

      Most comments are deleted for a single failing. You, however, hit the trifecta jackpot. Your comment was disrespectful, argumentative, and stupid. It was impressive in its uselessness.

      Even your small comment prompting this reply was stupid. I owe readers nothing as regards deleted comments. The comment policy page says it all.

      Happy now?

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    9. "operate from road-bases, using the public road system."

      KarlV, great comment and informative link. Thanks!

      So, the Swedish road use was actually a complete, pre-constructed air base that just happens to use pre-existing roads as the runway. This should put an end to the widely held, and incorrect, belief that aircraft are just randomly dropping onto any old road. These road bases are large, well stocked, and inefficient to operate. They trade inefficiency for survivability.

      Very nice contribution to the discussion! Thanks.

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    10. "The U.S. Air Force couldn't find SCUD TEMs in the Iraqi desert despite having near complete air superiority. It's hard to believe that our enemies will have an easier time finding mobile barges"

      And, just as the few SCUD launchers had no significant military impact, a few mobile barges can have no significant military impact. In order to have a significant military impact, a force must meet at least a critical threshold. For example, a single F-35B operating out of some hidden dirt pad in a jungle (ignoring the impossibility of logistics and all sorts of other things) can't have any significant military impact. It requires a massed force of aircraft to accomplish anything useful. That's why when we conduct an amphibious assault we don't send one soldier ashore - we send divisions. One guy can't accomplish anything significant.

      An air base large enough to accomplish anything significant becomes Henderson Field - a well known to the enemy, large, base that is going to trigger a massive fight for its very existence.

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  4. Use GCI-controlled, rocket-launched,"attritable" but recoverable A2A/A2G UCAVs instead of F-35s.

    https://newatlas.com/kratos-valkyrie-mako-combat-drones-paris/50044/

    UTAP-22 lands via parachute. Small logistics footprint.

    If you lose it, no big deal.

    Add appropriate IRST or mini-radar and small missiles like CUDA or SACM.

    http://elementsofpower.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-mysterious-lm-cuda-missile.html

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  5. Most important thing that is not answered with this concept is location..location and location.

    Where are you gonna be building this bases, on small island, bigger islands, or directly on the mainland of some south east nations.

    It's blurry because for example during the cold war every one had a pretty clear idea of how a war in central Europe would be fought.

    But in the vast spaces of south east Asia there are multiple scenarios.

    In some scenarios bases like this might be useful in some not.

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    1. You raise a great point about location. I've tried repeatedly to inject the idea of actual operating areas into discussions. In the Chinese theater, there are few places where could and would want to establish a base.

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    2. There is a question in the Asian theatre about why you would be building an EAB on an island. If it's on an island, there will be ocean nearby, so why not just move an LHA next to the island? The ships bring all that is needed to support the air operations in the scale that is appropriate for the air wing that is being carried on board the ships.

      If you are going to be supporting more planes than are carried on an America class LHA, and bringing in more weaponary than is carried on the ships supporting the LHA, then you are not building a small concealed EAB. This will be a much larger infrastructure endeavour.

      An ESG fulfils a very similar role to an EAB at the smaller end of the scale.

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    3. "An ESG fulfils a very similar role to an EAB at the smaller end of the scale."

      Interesting observation!

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  6. Oh, another thing, lets suppose they build a base like that under the ideal conditions described above in the article, Ok?!

    To be tactically relevant the minimum number of F-35B jets that has to be there is 12.

    Whats the first thing that comes to mind logistics wise.. yes FUEL for the aircraft.

    Personnel can live in tents and huts with just a sat-comm terminal, they can eat MRE's drink filtrated water, don't shower for extended periods of time.. you get the idea ;)

    But without enough fuel for those jets they achieve nothing.

    So a single F-35B hauls (lb) 13,326 Internal Fuel witch equals to just 6 tons.

    So if those minimum 12 jets have to have fuel for at least 10 sorties each, witch is a absolute minimum that is 720 tons of fuel. Absolute Minimum.

    Im guessing numbers here but i would not be that stupid to put a squadron on such a type of location without means to resupply.
    So imagine how much fuel, just FUEL would be needed to support that location on a weekly basis, kinda makes you wonder.

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    1. "To be tactically relevant the minimum number of F-35B jets that has to be there is 12."

      The current readiness rate is struggling to be 50% and that's during peacetime with ample spare parts and legions of manufacturer's tech reps helping out. During war, at a forward base, under the conditions I've described, and throwing in some battle damage, we'd be lucky to have 25% readiness. So, your minimum of 12 aircraft translates to 3 aircraft being ready at any given moment. Three aircraft are not an operationally effective force! We would need 48 aircraft with a 25% readiness to achieve the 12 aircraft you suggest as the minimal effective force.

      Are even 12 aircraft actually operationally effective? I would suggest we need around 30+ ready aircraft to truly be effective and that translates to 120 aircraft when you factor in a 25% readiness rate! Yikes! That's no longer a small, hidden base.

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  7. To me the irony is that the only type of aircraft that might pull this off would be a Boyd type fighter, and the Marines wanted *nothing* to do with something that simple. Of course, while Boyd types might be able to operate in more hostile conditions, it still does nothing about how they stay alive under the threat of ballistic or cruise missile attack.

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    1. "Boyd type fighter" would be todays Gripen

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    2. How do you figure? The Gripen is advertised as a multi-role aircraft which is the opposite of Boyd's philosophy.

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    3. Its the lightest and the cheapest from all western fighters manufactured today.
      Every fighter since the 80ties (except the F-22) has been multi role.

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    4. "Its the lightest and the cheapest from all western fighters manufactured today."

      That may be true but that doesn't make it a Boyd fighter. Boyd was all about pure fighter - not a pound for any other function. He didn't even want radar! Cost was also not one of his desired characteristics. He wanted a pure fighter and was unconcerned with cost.

      The Gripen is not even remotely a Boyd aircraft. It may or may not be the best available but it's certainly not a Boyd!

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    5. Well that concept is not realistic in the 21st century.

      BTW the Gripen is the cheapest wester fighter, but the JF-17 is the proof that a cheap technological fighter can be developed and produced for a price of around 20mil$.

      So when we're talking numbers, for one F-35 you buy five JF-17's.

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    6. I'm not arguing costs, numbers, or the merits of the Gripen - just stating that it is not a Boyd aircraft. If it was, it would probably have no radar (maybe have an IRST?), no bombing capability, reduced range (fighters only need to reach the engagement point and fight for a very brief period and then RTB), simplified avionics, simplified comms, and so on. I'm not intimately familiar with the Gripen so I can't address specifics.

      The point is, it may be a good aircraft but it's not a Boyd aircraft.

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    7. "Well that concept is not realistic in the 21st century."

      Oh, I think the Boyd approach is completely applicable. Consider the LCS. If we had had a stated purpose for it and focused, Boyd-like, on designing it for that purpose and only that purpose, we'd have a useful ship as opposed to the utterly useless ship we have now. If we had chosen one purpose for the F-35 instead of trying to make it all things to all the services, we'd have wound up with an immensely more capable and cheaper aircraft for each of the services. If we had focused on the Burke Flt III as an ultimate AAW/BMD platform we'd have a highly effective ship rather than one where the AMDR is not even big enough to meet the Navy's own stated needs. And so on.

      Boyd's approach is eminently viable today and we are violating it to our detriment.

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  8. Based on the sources that anon provided above, it appears that the EAB concept is more than just setting up bases for F-35Bs. Note the distances involved between EABs. It all seems very notional at this point, but my reading is that the EABs would be used to emplace A2AD systems. If you think about it in the context of defending the second island chain, I think it starts making a bit more sense.

    A2AD zones can overlap, and in a war with China or Russia, it will be critical that we establish a competing A2AD zone to deny the enemy free use of the area in between. Our problem is that we are, or at least aspire to be, a global force while China and Russia are both dominate local powers with regional aspirations. They can afford to construct standing A2AD zones around their territories. In the current budget climate, it seems unlikely that we can afford to do the same around their territories, and relying on our allies to pick up the slack is an iffy proposition at best. Additionally, we do not intend to fire the first shots in a major-power war, so our fixed A2AD sites may be vulnerable to attrition in the first wave of attacks by ballistic missiles. This means that our A2AD systems will need to be largely mobile.

    In all likelihood, our forces within the first island chain will have to fend for themselves without possibility of resupply and reinforcement. Realistically, we should only build up our forces within the first island chain (e.g., Taiwan) to the point that losing them would be worth their ability to attrit the enemy forces. The Chinese mainland is just too close. Japan, however, is perhaps a different story.

    The second island chain is where the show will really begin. As in WWII, holding the Philippine archipelago will be necessary to launch attacks on the first island chain. Taking Guadalcanal to protect Australian shipping and attack Rabaul was also analogous. Rather than build a standing A2AD system, I could see some of these barges and tugs being prepositioned throughout the Philippines along with patriot batteries, ASCM batteries, and ASW helicopter teams. Men and equipment would be loaded onto the barges and the barges would begin dispersing as soon as hostilities seem likely, similar to the MPF. For example, a tug could beach a barge with a patriot PAC-2 battery and enough fuel and supplies for 30-60 days of operations on the beach of a small island or anchor it in a protected cove there. That patriot battery would then disperse and either remain EM silent until cued by long-range search radars in the rear or immediately begin searching its sector. The tug might retrieve the barge or the barge could act as a landing pad for future resupply. After 30 or 60 days the tug might move the barge and battery to another island to repeat the process. You could do something similar with ASCM batteries and ASW helicopters. Constructing this A2AD zone in the Philippines might help free up the Navy for a blue-water fight in the Philippine Sea and Northern Pacific.

    As buxt1000 notes, this isn’t that much different than what an ESG might be tasked with. The difference is that similarly deploying an ESG would mean risking essentially irreplaceable billion-dollar amphibious warships within the ASBM umbrella in the opening days of a conflict. It looks like 300-400 foot articulated tug barges can be had for well under $10 million. The tugs might even be pressed into service alongside Cyclone-class patrol ships or into MCM roles when not needed to move the barges. It’s an interesting thought experiment if nothing else.

    Looking past the F-35B/airbase/FARP elements, I'd be interested in CNO's analysis of some of the other elements noted in that wargaming toolkit.

    - Caliber Curious

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    1. The major stumbling point in your vision is our ability to either pre-position assets/supplies or move such into position given the fact that the locations your mention are not under our control to begin with.

      The Philippines, for example, are not a very friendly state, at the moment, and China is pushing hard to bring them into their sphere. Japan offers us some basing privileges but even those are being reduced due to popular opinion pressures from the local citizenry. I don't think China would stand for much in the way of U.S. military assets on Taiwan. And so on.

      Assuming we aren't willing to forcibly emplace assets prior to a war, we would have to either gain permissions from some very iffy countries, many of whom are highly unlikely to take sides in a China-US war or we will have to invade neutral countries such as Philippines.

      Basing is the weak aspect of any Pacific campaign, just as it was in WWII. I just don't see much build up of A2/AD capability being possible pre-war, do you?

      Finally, our forces are spread out around the world and even in a war with China, many would have to remain scattered to ensure that Iran, Russia, and NKorea, among others, don't take advantage of the situation. That means we can concentrate only a fraction of our forces in the Chinese theater. China, conversely, can concentrate all their forces. This, makes assumptions like operating 300-400 foot barges without triggering attacks highly unlikely. China will have more than enough assets to deal with that type of low end (meaning, lacking a powerful and balanced defense) asset.

      I'm afraid the referenced concept is very heavy on fantasy and hope and very light on operational reality.

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    2. "In all likelihood, our forces within the first island chain will have to fend for themselves without possibility of resupply and reinforcement. Realistically, we should only build up our forces within the first island chain (e.g., Taiwan) to the point that losing them would be worth their ability to attrit the enemy forces."

      You undoubtedly are familiar with the Asiatic squadron, the British Repulse and POW, and similar forward deployed forces at the onset of WWII. This is very similar (exactly the same?) as what you're describing. The history of such forces suggests that the degree of attrition they can inflict is NOT sufficient to warrant their inevitable destruction. Now, using them to buy time is another issue and may be warranted in the cold math of war.

      The problem is that, unlike WWII, our ability to quickly replace such lost ships and aircraft is much degraded due to the greater complexity of modern ships/aircraft and the dearth of shipyards and aircraft manufacturers compared to WWII.

      One needs to consider our inability to replace losses very carefully before committing to a strategy of forward deployed forces that are sure to be lost. As you note, the enemy will get the first strike and modern missiles assure that that strike will be devastating unless we are fully prepared and history shows that the defender is never fully prepared.

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  9. A rough forwarding base on an island--meh. Jets have enough problems with FOD getting sucked up into an engine on a prepared airbase...ask any Air force enlisted man whose had to do a FOD walk. And of course nothing sucks as much as an F-35.

    Yes, pun intended.

    That said the Brits did experiment with rough basing on merchant ships during the Falklands. Depending on which commentator it was a success, failure, or mixed result. But as large as today's super container vessels, it might be feasible. Unfortunately the plane in question is the F-35B so I see few actual uses for it due to low payload and no ACM ability. Harriers in the Falklands could at least take off a merchant ship lightly loaded to intercept Argentine attack aircraft. I have even seen British concepts of putting a temporary runway with a ski-jump on a big merchant vessel.
    I wouldn't bother doing that with jet that would probably melt the container ship's deck but it might be a nice forward deployment for Helicopters.
    Perhaps Some SH-60s for ASW escort or a temporary LHA's to supplement a large air assault force, maybe for Army Chinooks.

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  10. Hey CNO,

    Mentioned in my piece a point you made:
    https://breakingdefense.com/2018/01/hey-navy-lcs-is-too-big-to-hide/

    Would you want to comment on the admiral's comments as well?
    Ben

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    Replies
    1. Ahh ... so that's you? Very nice!

      Yes, I've seen Adm. Gabrielson's comments about the LCS and considered a post about it but, frankly, it was so stupid and lacking in any logical or evidential (?? - based on evidence) foundation that I decided it was a waste of time. However, since you brought it up, I'll offer a few thoughts for your amusement.

      -The PT Boat (Elco 80') that the Adm. is comparing the LCS to was 80 ft long. This could snuggle up against an island and hide. The LCS is almost 400 ft long!!!! It is not going to hide.

      -The PT Boat success rate was abysmal. It's a romantic notion that got, and continues to get, a lot of publicity but very, very few successful strikes were ever conducted - off the top of my head, I'm guessing perhaps 6 actual successful torpedo attacks on an enemy ship. That's a stunningly poor record. The PT Boat's greatest success was as a "distributed" sensor, ironically. The very concept of a hidden vessel that leaps out and strikes and then vanishes again is simply flawed. The biggest problem then was the inability to find targets. If they used radar (and they had it) they gave themselves away and were quickly destroyed. If they didn't use radar they were limited to night vision sensing range which was a couple hundred feet or so. The same applies today. If the hiding LCS uses its radar to look for a target, it will give itself away and be immediately destroyed. If it doesn't use its radar, it's limited to night vision distance (they wouldn't be dumb enough to sail around in broad daylight using just vision sensing, would they???).

      -The very islands and clutter that the Adm. claims will hide the LCS also act to blind the LCS. When you pull next to an island with trees and hills that are 30-500 ft tall, you obscure your own radar picture.

      -An LCS can operate for a couple of days (allowing for transit times to and from area of operation) and then has to leave for maintenance. A couple of days on station out of every months are not an effective combat operation. Further, the LCS will be completely vulnerable during the transits when it will be in open ocean and nearly defenseless. Not many will survive even a single combat op!

      I can go on but that illustrates why the idea was too stupid to even be worth my time to comment on. The aspect of the article that I actually gave some serious thought to commenting on was the abject stupidity being displayed by Navy leadership and the depth of the lack of tactical proficiency that it demonstrated along with the complete absence of historical understanding of naval operations by the PT Boats. However, I've harped on this so often that it would have been just another post on the exact same theme and I've got lots of other, more interesting posts to work on.

      Did that about cover it?

      I thought you were in England, not Singapore???

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