Much traditional naval strategy and, indeed, military strategy, in general, is focused on forward bases at strategic locations. For example, the famous naval theorist Mahan considered overseas bases to be one of the three pillars of sea power. A base/fort could control critical naval and commercial passage through a narrow strait, for example. The entire Pacific campaign of WWII was a series of assaults intended to seize ever more forward bases to enable ever more forward assaults culminating in the final assault on mainland
And so on. Japan
Note: We’re not talking about the Marine’s wet dream of hidden jungle bases operating a couple of F-35Bs. We’re talking about major bases that allow the operation of significant military assets –
Guam, today, for example.
From a naval perspective the historical purpose of a forward base was to place the fleet near a vital area of interest. Why? Because the fleet’s weapons and, thus, its sphere of influence, were short ranged – on the order of a few to twenty miles. The forward base was necessary to allow the fleet, and its weapons, to operate near the area of interest. The existence, today, of thousand mile cruise missiles within the fleet renders the need for forward base proximity moot or greatly modified. With such greatly enhanced weapon ranges, forward bases do not need to be as near the enemy as in earlier times. In fact, cruise and ballistic weapons may actually outrange the operational ranges of the ships and aircraft which, again, suggests a reduced need for forward bases.
What do all these forward bases have in common? They all are situated so as to allow their associated military power to be brought to bear on strategically vital locations. Expressed another way, they enable military power to operate in strategically important areas far from home ports/bases. Thus, there is both a firepower and logistics element to a strategically important forward base. Of course, the military expert understands that the firepower and logistics are ultimately one and the same!
To better understand this, let’s look a bit closer at the Pacific campaign in WWII. What was the defining characteristic of the forward bases? What made
Okinawa more desirable as a forward base
than, say, some island in the Caribbean? The answer is range
– the operational range of the military assets of the time. More specifically, it was the range of the
ships and aircraft tied to, and supported by, the base. How far could a task force operate and not
lose the link to its resupply (see? this
is where the logistics enters into it)?
The at-sea resupply ships could only operate so far from safe haven
without risking being sunk. The task
force could only operate so far from land based air support and resupply/repair
(logistics, again) facilities. The
forward based air forces could only fly so far on a tank of fuel.
In pre-aviation times, forward bases used to be staging areas for fleet operations and amphibious assaults. This changed in WWII and now, with the development of modern air forces, forward bases also exist to support air operations which, to be effective, means sortie rates.
One of the main range related driving factors behind the WWII Pacific forward bases was the range of the heavy bombers and, to an extent, their escorts. Today, the Air Force likes to claim that they can reach any target on Earth from home bases in the continental US. With lots of caveats and limitations, that’s a true claim. So, does that eliminate the need for forward bases, at least so far as aviation is concerned?
No. Even if we accept the claim of global reach for the US B-1/2 force, for sake of discussion, we need to keep sortie rate in mind. While we might be able to reach any target on Earth, we certainly can’t do it on any operationally useful basis because the sortie rate is far too low. Yes, we reached that target on the other side of the world but it required a 24 hour mission to do so. With a B-2 bomber force of around 19 operational aircraft (if that many), a couple of sorties per week in a war is next to useless. A forward base allows a significant increase in sortie rate. So, strategically located forward bases are still needed for aerial strike purposes.
Of course, the ultimate range factor was not the operational ranges of the ships and aircraft but, rather, the range to the ultimate target – that being the Japanese mainland in WWII. Thus, the selection of forward bases was predicated on reducing the operating range to the ultimate target.
In the case of bombers, what has changed today is the range of the bomber. The B-29 Superfortress, for example, had an unrefueled combat radius of around 1000-1500 miles. In comparison, the modern B-2 has an unrefueled combat radius of 3000 miles or so. Thus, the forward base doesn’t need to be as close to the ultimate target as it needed to be in WWII – at least for large bombers.
We see, then, that the selection of strategically desirable forward bases was based on the operating ranges of the various ships and aircraft and the overall range to the ultimate objective.
We ever so briefly touched on another major factor in forward base selection and that is defensibility. There is a balance between forwardness and defensibility. It does no good to establish a base just off the enemy’s coast because they’ll destroy it faster than we can build it. Thus, a base must be far enough away from the enemy to allow for defense by stretching out the enemy’s attack which allows time for defense. It would also be ideal to be outside the enemy’s weapon ranges. However, modern cruise and ballistic missiles with their thousand or several thousand mile ranges make it very difficult to find a place that is truly outside enemy weapon ranges!
So, where does all this leave us?
Understanding the purpose behind a forward base we can see that we still need forward bases – just not as far forward as they used to be.
The two main driving forces behind base location are,
· Attack (ship and aircraft) ranges that provide operationally useful sortie rates
· Defense ranges that provide an acceptable chance of successful base defense by reducing enemy attack types and numbers
On the surface, the immense ranges of modern aircraft would seem to suggest that bases can be well back from the ultimate target. However, this is mitigated by the need for operationally useful sortie rates. Thus, the base can be back but not so far as to reduce sortie rates to operationally irrelevant levels.
Interestingly, ship operational ranges have, in many cases, actually decreased since WWII ! Of course, this is offset by the vastly increased range of ship launched cruise missiles which makes the overall operational range much greater than in WWII.
Unfortunately, the enemy’s weapon ranges have also increased which has the effect of driving the forward base further back from the area of interest. The conundrum, here, is that in order to locate a base within operationally useful distance of the target, we have to accept that it is in range of enemy attack. In WWII, in contrast, the Pacific forward bases were within attack range of the next, or ultimate, Japanese target but outside of Japanese counterattack range – the ideal situation! The Japanese had no equivalent of the B-29, for example, and their naval forces after Midway were insufficient to mount a credible, decisive attack on the
forward bases. US
This operationally desirable situation does not exist today. Chinese ballistic missiles, for example, can easily reach any useful US Pacific base.
Putting all of these considerations together we can see the need for forward bases that are close enough to the area of interest to generate useful sortie rates for aircraft – fighter aircraft with their shorter ranges being the limiting factor, as opposed to bombers – but far enough back to allow for defensive reaction time and some degree of limitation of the enemy’s attack options. Given today’s aircraft and ships, this suggests forward bases located around 700-1000 miles from the area of interest. Beyond around 1000 miles, the sortie rates for fighters drop unacceptably.
Unfortunately, given the number and range of enemy ballistic missiles, this leaves the forward base solidly within enemy attack range. This leads to the final operational reality that we need to come to grips with: we will need to fight to defend our forward bases. We have not had to do this since, well … Guadalcanal, maybe, and that didn't go well in terms of the success of air base. The Air Force has never had to defend a base while simultaneously carrying out attacks. The Navy has never had to defend a forward base the way the Japanese had to defend Truk or Rabaul, for example. We do not have the institutional mindset of defending a base. If we did, we’d immediately give up the fantasy of austere, hidden, forward bases – they’re simply not logistically sustainable or defensible.
Guam – our major Pacific, anti-Chinese
base. Based on open source information,
it’s vitually undefended. It has no
hardened shelters, no underground sub pens, no underground hangars, very
limited ballistic missile defenses, no major defensive fighter presence, no
permanent anti-submarine acoustic sensing system (SOSUS type) hundreds of miles
out, no alternate runways, no hardened fuel depots and magazines, no dedicated
protective submarine force, no dedicated anti-suface ship/aircraft force, limited
anti-aircraft and anti-cruise missile batteries, etc.
To be sure, some of these defensive measures, such as underground pens and hangars, may not be possible given the physical size of the island and other measures, such as increased numbers of ships and aircraft, can be fairly quickly beefed up in the run up to war. Other measures, however, such as hardened shelters and acoustic arrays, could and should be in place today. Of course, it’s possible that some of the measures are in place and simply not recognized in open sources, however, I think that’s unlikely. Our society is too open to have too much of that type of capability that is 100% secret.
If we’re serious about facing the Chinese – and it’s inevitable that we will – then we need to start getting serious about establishing effective and defensible forward bases.