Fighting Under Attack

Oct. 1, 1988

American air bases in Vietnam were harassed periodically by sapper raids and mortar fire. During the Tet offensive of 1968, Tan Son Nhut and Bien Hoa stood off enemy ground forces attacking in battalion strength. That was the worst of it, though, and even the Tet attacks were limited affairs, lasting less than a day.

Until recently, the Air Force did not worry much about operating from bases that were under all-out attack. There was some concern about forward locations in Ger­many, but those installations, too, were relatively secure. Before the era of the Su-24 Fencer and other late-model weapon systems, Soviet forces did not have the range or the accuracy to mount a serious deep-interdiction threat.

For a combination of reasons—including the longer reach of Soviet airpower—the Air Force has begun to think a great deal about the vul­nerability of its bases. More than anything else, it was a 1985 exercise called “Salty Demo” that riveted of­ficial attention on the problem.

Salty Demo ran for two weeks at Spangdahlem AB, Germany, and simulated a bombing attack of mod­erate severity on the installation. Planners calculated the toll that NATO interceptors and missiles would take on the Soviet bombers and what those that got through would be able to do to the base. “Damaged” signs were hung on buildings and equipment that were struck in the simulation. “Casual­ties” were taken out of action. Util­ities lost in the scenario were no longer available for use in the exer­cise. For a special bit of realism, twelve craters were opened in the Spangdahlem alternate launch run­way with explosives.

The results were a sobering dem­onstration of the synergistic chaos that ensues when everything goes wrong at the same time. Thirty-one percent of the base’s personnel were casualties, half of them killed and nearly a third of the wounded un­able to return to duty. There was considerable destruction and heavy damage to aircraft, vehicles, build­ings, communications, and power and systems.

In the simulations, fires burned all over, and unexploded ordnance lay about everywhere. It was diffi­cult to assess the damage accu­rately. Repair teams were short­handed and in some cases did not have the equipment and supplies they needed. The runway craters were a bigger problem than had been expected. Unlike clean-dug holes, they were jagged and sur­rounded by buckling. Chunks of de­bris had caused secondary damage.

The Lesson Sinks In

To address the shortcomings that Salty Demo revealed, the Air Force intensified its Air Base Operability program and intends to improve the ability of its combat bases to defend themselves, ride out an attack, re­cover from it, and get back into ac­tion.

Air Base Operability sections are being formed, all the way from the Air Staff down to bases in the Euro­pean and Pacific combat theaters. New equipment is in development. Initiatives include such active and passive defenses as camouflage, concealment, deception, hardening and protection of facilities, ex­plosive ordnance disposal, and the training of base personnel to aug­ment the security police, civil engi­neers, and firefighters in an emer­gency. At a recent Air Base Op­erability roundtable put on by AFA’s Aerospace Education Foun­dation, Tidal W. McCoy, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Read­iness Support, said the priority of this problem has progressed from “urgent” to “critical.”

The most significant change may be in the thinking of leaders and planners. Many of them now talk about “fighting the air base,” a con­cept that regards the installation as a warfighting asset akin to a weapon system instead of as incidental real estate. The new thinking also recon­siders traditional assumptions about how war in Europe might un­fold.

The war may be five days old be­fore the United States is aware that it has begun, Richard L. Kuiper of PSC, Inc., a former US air attaché in Moscow, told the roundtable au­dience. The opening step of the con­flict could be introduction of biolog­ical or chemical substances into the water supply. Maj. Gen. George E. Ellis, USAF’s Director of Engineer­ing and Services, agreed. He said that bases generally pipe in their water from the outside community and may not know if enemy agents have tampered with it.

Soviet Spetznaz commando forces would put additional pres­sures on base defenses early in the fighting.

Mr. McCoy said there is growing opinion that the Soviets may em­ploy airpower in the move-and­-shoot style of Red artillery. Fixed facilities at Soviet air bases are aus­tere, but tactical units are long on portable equipment and big trucks. This suggests their intention to keep moving the air base setup around, both for survivability and for opera­tional advantage, as the attack pro­ceeds.

“They plan on using our bases,” Mr. McCoy said. “They don’t really want to destroy them.”

“Worst Case” in Perspective

At the same time, Mr. McCoy and other Air Force leaders point out that the Soviets stand little chance of delivering the full blow that “worst-case” estimates, taken in isolation, might predict. By con­centrating their air strikes, sabo­tage, commando raids, and other measures, they could probably bring selected air bases to their knees. But wreaking sudden devas­tation on the entire theater would be much tougher.

“We don’t operate one base—we operate a series of bases,” Lt. Gen. Michael J. Dugan, USAF Deputy Chief of Staff for Plans and Opera­tions, said at the roundtable. “I’m not ready to give the Soviets credit for getting away with all this against the whole system of bases.”

Moreover, the Soviets would pay in lost efficiency if they used shoot­-and-run tactics. “Their modern air­planes look like ours, are equipped like ours, and have to be maintained like ours,” General Dugan said. This equipment requires care “that you’re not going to get by hauling it through the woods. They certainly aren’t going to get many sorties a day.” The aircraft “will be difficult to find, but they won’t be nearly so well defended if they have them out in these remote areas and move them around. The most difficult [targets] to attack are the well-de­fended main operating bases,” he said.

Assuming the Soviets did take the base-hopping approach, US aircraft would probably focus the coun­terattack on fuel supplies, infra­structure, and other targets whose loss would inhibit operations, no matter where the enemy is based or how many enemy airplanes survive.

The Air Force’s Air Base Op­erability objectives group into four categories: defending the bases, surviving the attack, recovering from it, and restoring capability to generate sorties in the aftermath.

Both the US and its European al­lies have been working hard to im­prove their air defenses. The Soviet attack would have to penetrate an upgraded and layered system of in­terceptor aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, and antiaircraft guns. The bases will also be better prepared in the future for local defense.

“We must make certain that all of our airmen are prepared to contrib­ute to base recovery after an air at­tack and to defense of the base dur­ing ground attack,” Mr. McCoy said earlier this year at an AFA Sympo­sium. “We cannot afford to have the sortie generators standing around watching while fifty civil engineers fill holes in the runway or 150 secu­rity policemen repel a Spetznaz as­sault.”

The bases will be better able to discover and track commando infil­trators when they get new sensors, now being developed. Some of these will be tested this year during the big Reforger exercise. “They’ve got visual lookers, sound lookers, heat lookers, and radar lookers,” a head­quarters officer in Europe says. “It’s a whole integrated package.”

Survival and Recovery

The number of casualties in Salty Demo made it clear that “you’ve got to get to a place for protection—not just jump in the woods and hide,” says a planner working the problem. The Air Base Operability program envisions “defensive construction” of facilities, making them less vul­nerable to chemical, biological, and bombing attack. This includes the Survivable Collective Protection System—dormitories sunk into the ground and covered with dirt and grass. Each will allow about eighty people to rest and sleep between shifts of damage-repair duty. Some of these bunkers will be specially outfitted for medical care.

Communications and power lines will be more protected and routed away from the most likely areas for an enemy attack. This should in­crease the probability that base ser­vices essential to air operations will be available.

New chemical masks, with im­proved visibility and filters that are easier to replace, are being issued. Unfortunately, chemical suits are still as uncomfortable as ever. Plan­ners say that protective clothing of the future will bring some relief.

The camouflage, concealment, and deception effort will seek to confuse the enemy with fake land­ing strips, dummy airplanes, net­ting, smoke, phony electronic sig­nals, runways painted in earth tones, and other decoys. These measures would not pass a close in­spection, but may fool a pilot rolling in fast after a long, hard ride through fire and flak. The Air Force conducted some tests and found that ten times out of fifteen pilots went after decoy aircraft instead of the real ones.

Today, the damage-control teams sent out after an attack to survey the base would report back by radio, a clumsy, trying process for people in chemical suits. The new way, now being tried, will be to punch num­bers into handheld computers that contain a grid of the base and prefor­matted messages. This will be faster and much easier for the survey teams and has another advantage as well. The report goes to the com­mand post in a data burst, which will be difficult for the enemy to monitor or jam.

Submunitions and unexploded ordnance would be strewn about in profusion after an attack. If disaster teams try to dispose of them one by one, giving them extensive individ­ual attention, the job will consume too much time. Bases are receiving vehicles called ORACLEs (Ord­nance Rapid Area Clearance). These are bulldozers with protected crew cabs and hardened blades. They push munitions off the runway so repairs can begin. An improve­ment, the MARV/SMUD (Mobile Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle/Standoff Munitions Disrupter) is on the way. The Air Force plans to buy more than 200 of these tank-like ve­hicles. Each mounts a .50-caliber machine gun that can detonate big bombs and unexploded ordnance.

Recovery efforts also include rapid runway repair—with big, pre­cast concrete blocks that can be stockpiled or used as parking lots in peacetime—improved firefighting techniques, and better medical pre­paredness. Repair teams have new kits with the tools and materials they need—another change stimu­lated by Salty Demo.

Runway repair teams are getting more adept at their art, but planners still want every base to have alter­nate launch and recovery surfaces for backup. With portable equip­ment, aircraft could work from nu­merous “gas and go” sites in Eu­rope. Tactical units have been ex­ploring a variety of ways to taxi, tow, or haul aircraft to fields and strips that will do in a pinch.

The Air Force thinks it is on the road to improved air base op­erability and that hereafter it will be in better shape to handle a disrup­tion like Salty Demo. The test comes in 1991, when a followup ex­ercise called “Constant Demo” is scheduled to happen at Bitburg AB, Germany.