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