- The desire to be as close as possible to the next or ultimate objective in order to maximize sortie rate and to minimize response time and ship and aircraft transit times to and from the objective operational area.
- The desire to be as far away as possible from the enemy’s defenses, typically cruise and ballistic missiles but also including bombers, submarines, and surface ships.
The existence of ballistic missiles with a few to several thousand mile ranges and submarines with cruise missiles effectively puts any base within range of enemy attack. This compares somewhat unfavorably with our own attack ranges from a forward base. Thus, if we place a base at a useful strike range, then we’re automatically placing it well within enemy attack range. This leads to the inexorable conclusion that if we want to operate a forward base we’ll have to conduct a robust and continuous base defense – something we haven’t done since Guadalcanal.
Forward bases, even if we fight for them, can only survive if we harden them. Hardening, for purposes of this discussion, is the process of making a base difficult to damage and permanently destroy. Hardening measures can take many forms. Let’s take a closer look at some of the means to harden and defend forward bases.
Anti-ballistic Missile Defense – A land base is a fixed target which is ideal for ballistic missiles. We need an effective ballistic missile defense (BMD). Of course, the best BMD is to destroy the enemy’s ballistic missile launchers before they can launch. Failing that, ship based BMD out along the path of the missile adds additional opportunities for intercepts. Rather than tie up multi-functional, expensive Burkes doing BMD, a dedicated, cheaper, single function BMD vessel is preferred. Finally, land based BMD at the base constitutes ‘point defense’.
Anti-Cruise Missile Defense – Cruise missiles can be launched from aircraft, surface ships, and submarines. We need cruise missile defense similar to the BMD described above. Ships, submarines, and aircraft need to patrol in layers extending out to the theoretical maximum enemy missile ranges which is several hundred miles.
Anti-Submarine – Submarines present multiple threats to a forward base including mine laying to prevent base resupply, cruise missile attacks, and anti-surface attacks against our own ships. To counter the submarine threat we need a layered defense (layers, again - are you sensing a theme, yet?) consisting of our own submarines, surface ships, and aircraft. As always, the best ASW defense is to attack the enemy’s submarines in their own ports and destroy their bases. The Chinese underground submarine pens in Hainan will prove challenging to incapacitate and we should take a lesson from them. Failing that we need long range interdiction of enemy submarines by our own subs. Ideally, this would occur just outside the enemy’s bases as their subs head out on missions. Closer to our base, dedicated hunter-killer ASW groups (a helo mothership and four ASW corvettes, for example) could prove useful. We also need relatively high speed, high endurance, fixed wing ASW aircraft for long range search and prosecution. An S-3 Viking-ish aircraft would be good in this role. We also need a SOSUS type listening array to assist in the search phase.
Physical Hardening – We need to physically harden hangars, fuel storage, repair facilities, munitions storage, etc. We could take a lesson from the Chinese who routinely do this with their bases. The point is not to make facilities immune to damage – that’s not possible – but to make them less susceptible to easy destruction and make the enemy work harder to destroy them.
Underground – We should give serious thought to constructing underground facilities to the extent possible. Again, this won’t make them immune but it will make the enemy expend more munitions, larger munitions, and more expensive munitions to accomplish their destruction.
Repair – An overlooked aspect of base defense is a robust repair capability and capacity. The base that can recover from damage quickly is one that can stay in the fight longer and that the enemy will have to expend more effort against. We should assume that everything will get damaged and destroyed and be prepared to rebuild and replace them. We need large stocks of dispersed parts and repair equipment.
Fuel Dispersal and Protection – Fuel is the most important feature of a base. Without it, no ship sails and no aircraft flies. We need to disperse the fuel storage and protect the fuel storage by placing it underground in reinforced spaces.
ECM – Historical data proves that electronic countermeasures (ECM) are the most effective anti-missile defense there is. To be fair, there is very little active missile defense data and almost none from any US system so this conclusion could change. Regardless, ECM is highly effective, easily upgraded or adapted to changing conditions and easily replace if damaged or destroyed. We need robust ECM defenses with hugely redundant and widely dispersed sensors and transmitters so that ECM can continue even in the face of anti-radiation missile attacks.
Fighter Defense – Long range, high endurance, layered (there’s that layering, again) fighter aircraft defense is vital to allow engagement of enemy strike assets far enough out to prevent weapon launches. We need to recognize that attrition, both from combat and from maintenance stresses due to combat, will severely reduce aircraft availability rates so we need several times more aircraft than we think are needed.
Simplification – Any forward base is going to be constantly under attack, chronically short of spare parts and replacement assets, woefully lacking in maintenance, undermanned due to combat casualties, and reduced to a much cruder level of operation than we are currently used to. With that reality in mind, weapon systems such as the F-35 are simply too complex to maintain, operate, and repair. Similarly, sensors such as Aegis are too complex to maintain and repair in combat. We need to simplify all of our combat systems to the extent reasonably possible. It’s a balancing act to simplify without giving up too much capability.
Instead of F-22/35 aircraft that can’t be kept operational in combat, we need advanced F-16-ish aircraft that are simpler, cheaper to replace, and easier to repair and maintain. We need electro-optical sensors and basic, mechanical, rotating radars that are easy to maintain, replace, and repair. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have Aegis radars, for example, but when the initial Aegis radar fails we need reliable systems to fall back on. Similarly, we can start a war with F-22/35s but when they inevitably are all grounded we need lots of far more robust aircraft to fall back on.
In fact, we need a purpose designed, basic (F-16-ish) interceptor specifically for forward base defense.
Afloat Radar – Ship-mounted radar is far more survivable than fixed, land-based radar. We need multiple, dedicated radar vessels whose only function is radar sensing. These can be simple commercial ships with a radar system installed. They don’t have to be – and should not be – multi-billion dollar warships. They just need to be mobile, afloat radar barges.
Resupply – The final aspect of base hardening is resupply. Logistics! A base that can quickly and reliably replace its fuel, munitions, weapons, and sensors is a base that can continue fighting. Arguably (actually, definitely!), this is the most important aspect of base hardening.
For forward bases in the Pacific theatre, resupply translates to convoys. China knows this and convoys will be high priority targets. Losses will be alarmingly high. Unwisely, the US has put no effort into developing the numbers of cargo and escort ships needed, the type of dedicated escort vessels needed, or the tactics for operating and defending convoys. Our initial attempts at resupply convoys will likely be disastrous.
As a historical note, the Japanese were unable to successfully and reliably resupply their forward base at Guadalcanal and had to eventually withdraw. The US was also hard pressed to resupply but were just successful enough to eventually win out though at an enormous cost. We would do well to study this example in great detail as we formulate our plans to operate Guam or any other forward base.
Conclusion - Base hardening goes well beyond physical hardening. All of the above measures serve to harden the base against damage and make the base easier to repair and more resilient to the inevitable damage it will sustain.
The reality of forward bases is that, by definition, we’ll be attempting to operate in the enemy’s “home” territory and at the very long end of our own supply chain. Currently, the US has almost no realistic base defense capability and certainly no comprehensive base defense system (layers!) and plan. The US seems to believe that we can operate forward bases with some sort of magical immunity to enemy attack. This belief is utter nonsense. We need to begin planning for a robust defense, acquiring specialized equipment, developing defensive strategies, and practicing for wholesale damage recovery.
If we address the items listed and discussed above we can mount a credible defense of a forward base. If we continue to keep our heads buried in the sand and deny the reality of forward base challenges we’ll find ourselves unable to sustain any forward bases.