One of the topics that keeps cropping up is airfield attacks and one of the most common rejoinders to discussions about attacking an airfield is that a runway can be repaired in hours so, therefore, it’s not possible to put an air base out of commission for any length of time and attacks are pointless. Well, this is a complete fallacy so let’s address it and dispose of it.
How can an attacker halt the operation of an air base? Well, the way to answer that is to list all the things an air base needs in order to operate. In no particular order, some of the major needs include:
- Munitions for the aircraft
- Maintenance facilities
- Spare parts
- Mission planning facilities
- Control tower
And, of course, there’s always the simple attrition of the personnel. Kill enough people and the base ceases to operate. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll set the personnel issue aside and focus on the equipment side of things.
Now, let’s consider the impact of the loss of each of those.
- Runways – easily repaired; just an annoyance
- Aircraft – easily replaced within limits
- Munitions for the aircraft – no weapons, no useful flight; relatively easily protected by dispersal and bunkering but a severe problem if a significant portion is lost
- Maintenance facilities – no fix, no fly; nearly impossible to protect though hardened maintenance hangars are possible; modern aircraft require constant and copious amounts of maintenance; this is a vulnerability
- Spare parts – easily replaced but can be problematic for extended periods
- Fuel – no fuel, no fly; fuel storage is almost impossible to protect and dispersal is not really a viable option; resupply is a major difficulty that requires specialized ships; major vulnerability
- Mission planning facilities – no planning, no productive missions; tough to eliminate; easy to hide/disperse
- Aircraft control (tower) – easily replaced; easily moved; difficult to eliminate
So, what did that tell us?
It tells us that the wise attacker is going to ignore certain air base targets, such as runways, as unproductive and ineffective and focus, instead, on other targets that are easy to destroy, difficult to repair/replace, and produce large negative consequences for the base.
Foremost among these attractive targets is the fuel storage and dispensing facilities. Almost by definition, the fuel storage has to be in extremely large tanks. It’s simply not practical to try to operate an air base using small, dispersed storage containers such as bladders or 55 gal drums. The number required and the degree of difficulty moving and manipulating them is prohibitive. This might have been feasible, to some extent, during WWII when we had small prop planes that didn’t require all that much fuel but that’s not the case with today’s jets.
Below are a few fuel capacities for single aircraft, just to provide an idea of the amount of fuel needed to operate an air base. Take the numbers below and multiply them by many dozens of aircraft, every day. Bladders and drums are just not a viable option. A centralized, very large fuel storage facility is required along with a robust dispensing system consisting of extensive piping and pumps.
- F4F Wildcat fuel capacity is 117 gal to around 140 gal, depending on variant
- F-35 internal fuel capacity is 18,250 lb (2765 gal)
- B-2 internal fuel capacity is 167,000 lb (25,500 gal)
While fuel storage can be broken down and dispersed into somewhat smaller storage tanks, they would still be quite large and fixed in place.
Underground tanks with some hardened covering could provide some degree of protection but, again, given the fixed – and known! – location of the storage, an enemy would have no problem targeting them with penetrating weapons. Underground tanks are an engineering and regulatory nightmare which shouldn’t matter to a military but it does. I’m not aware of any active, underground fuel storage tanks at air bases but I don’t follow that kind of thing so maybe there are.
Once damaged or destroyed, the fuel storage and dispersing system is not an easy thing to repair or replace. It would take months, at best, to construct new fuel facilities.
As a historical reminder, while the Japanese put Pearl Harbor and the US fleet out of business for a [very] brief period (Enterprise refueled and replenished in Pearl Harbor 36 hrs after the attack), the real damage and long lasting effect would have occurred if they had destroyed the fuel storage facilities. Instead, they misguidedly fixated on destroying the Navy’s obsolete battleships. The true vulnerability of Pearl Harbor was the fuel storage.
|Fuel Storage at Pearl Harbor - 1943|
Clearly, fuel storage and dispersal is a major weakness of any air base and offers the potential to put an air base out of action for an extended period. Add in damage or destruction of munitions storage, maintenance facilities, and spare parts storage and a base would have a very difficult time restoring itself to operational status … all without touching the runways.
This is how an intelligent enemy would attack an air base. This puts an end to the ‘runways can be quickly repaired’ rejoinder.