Footholds on the Asian Rim

Nov. 1, 2002

Elmendorf AFB, Alaska, and Hickam AFB, Hawaii, both are more than 4,000 miles from the Taiwan Strait–too far away to be effective bases for Southeast Asian fighter operations. Osan AB, South Korea, and Misawa AB, Japan, are closer but could be threatened by ballistic missiles. And experience with Saudi Arabia and its Prince Sultan Air Base has shown that host nations may exercise control over US combat operations from their soil.

Pentagon planners say the Air Force needs better access to the vast Asia-Pacific region, which is growing in importance, but identifying the need may have been the easy part.

Because political or practical risks accompany almost any potential USAF operating sites in the Asia-Pacific region, analysts say the Air Force should use a broad range of strategies in its search for new beddown locations there. The Air Force’s goal, most agree, should be identifying the maximum number of options so that, when a mission has to be performed, there is no single-point basing failure. When it comes to access, more is better.

Last year’s Quadrennial Defense Review noted that the current alignment of US assets concentrated in Western Europe and Northeast Asia “is inadequate for the new strategic environment.” The report called for the Air Force to “increase contingency basing in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, as well as in the Arabian Gulf,” since the Bush Administration sees these areas as being the most likely future hot spots.

A 2002 Rand report, Strategic Appraisal: United States Air and Space Power in the 21st Century, zeroed in on Southwest Asia, the Taiwan Strait, and South China Sea as the principal areas of “problematic access.”

As a result, the Defense Department will likely reach out to build new bilateral relationships across the Asia-Pacific region, but it is still studying how this should be done.

At a minimum, a larger presence on the island of Guam in the Western Pacific seems to be the logical first step.

The Challenge

The fundamental challenge in the Asia-Pacific region is distance. Air Force planners are forced to balance conflicting concerns when identifying bases. On the one hand, aircraft should be kept as close to the action as possible to maximize sorties. On the other, bases need to be far enough from the battle zone to make them less vulnerable to attack.

The current network of bases is largely optimized for staging fighter operations in Southwest and Northeast Asia. The drawback of being close to potential opponents, though, is that these locations are largely within the range of enemy short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Analysts say adequate force protection requires aircraft to be at least 400 miles from enemy territory–perhaps more–though distances beyond 1,200 miles put fighters at the outer edge of their effective combat range.

Bombers are affected by distance, as well. Though the Air Force showed it can fly 44-hour intercontinental B-2 sorties from Missouri, it could have flown far more sorties if these aircraft were based in the theater.

According to Rand, the Air Force would be wise to maximize dependence upon bases on its own territory because “no matter how friendly or closely aligned, a foreign government will consider its own interests first” even in the closest of relationships.

The think tank offered five approaches the United States could pursue to solve this problem, but two–identifying new, “reliable” allies akin to the United Kingdom and negotiating long-term international base leases–are unlikely to yield results.

Therefore, said Rand, the United States should focus on expanding overseas main operating bases; push for new security arrangements; and “rely on extended-range operations from US territory” as planning guidelines. These approaches should be pursued together, the report stated.

New security arrangements will be key, according to former Air Combat Command chief Gen. Richard E. Hawley, who retired in 1999. To avoid political surprises, the Air Force would be wise to “pick a whole slew of places” the service may be interested in as possible deployment locations. By seeking good relations with large numbers of nations, Hawley said, “if you work it right, one or two [of these options] will pay off” when the time comes for action.

A Web of Relationships

Hawley, who also served in several Pacific command positions, noted that when it comes to finding the right bases for future conflicts, “everything is scenario-dependent.” Therefore, the Air Force shouldn’t be happy just with what it has–or with a single new option like Guam. The problem, he said, is that “we get so happy with a place … we say we’ve got what we need,” even when other options remain a necessity. As evidenced by the airfield supporting the war on terrorism at Manas, Kyrgyzstan, a “web of bilateral relationships works very well,” Hawley said.

For all the political problems inherent in getting approval for military action from foreign bases, officials note that when push comes to shove, it is usually not just the United States that feels a need for action. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John P. Jumper recognized this in February 1998 when planning for Aerospace Expeditionary Force deployments. Then the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, Jumper said at an Air Force Association symposium that “access is an issue until you begin to involve the vital interests of the nation that you want and need as a host. Then access is rarely an issue.”

Further, the Air Force does not necessarily need expensive, permanent operating locations. In some cases, an argument can be made against building new “superbases” like Prince Sultan or Osan.

Hawley said this fall, “It behooves us to begin cataloging” the locations the Air Force could operate from, although the service should not become wed to huge infrastructure investments in foreign countries because it “may be disappointed.” Notably, the Afghanistan model showed that the Air Force is able to build up in truly austere locations if a bare minimum of infrastructure is in place.

As USAFE commander, Jumper saw value in maintaining a low-profile international presence. “If you are engaged with these countries in an aggressive exercise program instead of a prolonged rotational presence, if your maintenance people are involved at the grassroots level teaching them how to maintain airplanes, if you make yourself valuable as a training asset to these countries in ways that are definable and measurable, then you add a dynamic of regional stability that otherwise would not be there,” he said. Familiarity and comfort make the host nation’s decisions easier “when you have to ask to deploy in a real situation,” he added.

The Rand report noted that relying upon five locations to serve as “forward support locations”–essentially superbases–would put most of the world within the C-130’s range, a distance useful for rapid resupply and proximity to combat operations. These five support bases could be based on US territory in Alaska, Puerto Rico, and Guam, and in England and on the British island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Expanding Guam

In the Pacific, North Korea and Japan are well covered by Pacific Air Forces, but the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, farther from PACAF operating locations, are not. This “leaves a dangerous level of uncertainty” in the region, the Rand report asserted.

A larger presence on Guam is the consensus choice as best place to begin when the time comes to increase Air Force presence. Guam is closer to possible South Asia hot spots than Alaska, Hawaii, or Diego Garcia; Andersen Air Force Base is underutilized; and perhaps most important, the island belongs to the United States, assuring access for combat operations.

According to PACAF, there is really no contest when looking for where to build up first. While “locations in Japan and Korea are extremely important to the US, Andersen’s location, size, established infrastructure, and politically stable environment are unmatched,” a PACAF spokesman said in response to questions from Air Force Magazine.

That assessment was confirmed by PACAF commander Gen. William J. Begert in an August discussion with reporters. Begert emphasized that no decisions have been made on how to improve access in the region but said Andersen has enormous unrealized potential. “If we could ever grow the Air Force a little bit, I’d put forces in there in a heartbeat,” he said.

“If you take a look at the geography of where Guam is, there’s no other place like it,” added Begert.

PACAF noted, “Guam is 14 flying hours closer to South Asia than anything within the contiguous United States, [which] allows strike capability by long-range aircraft throughout the PACAF area without dependence on refueling. Tankers can then be used to aerial refuel other assets.”

Basing aircraft on Guam would also reduce “the concentration of firepower along the western Pacific Rim,” the PACAF spokesman stated. Currently, air forces are heavily clustered in Japan and South Korea–locations that fall within the range of China’s Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles. Guam is at the outer edge of the IRBM threat, yet 3,000 miles closer to South Asia than Alaska or Hawaii–still close enough to serve as a base for fighter operations.

Begert said the base has a huge storage area housing modern munitions, and the Air Force has “put a lot of money into the infrastructure.” Driven in part by the fact that Guam is in “typhoon alley,” the Air Force has continually upgraded Andersen even though the base is not a permanent aircraft host.

“Every once in a while, we get a typhoon that helps us modernize Andersen,” Begert explained. A recent storm required the Air Force to “spend about six million dollars putting things back together, and actually that’s helped us keep pretty modern,” he noted.

The PACAF chief added that investments have brought new hangars and improved munitions and fuel storage capability to the island. “We have more fuel stored at AAFB than any other place in the United States Air Force. … The base infrastructure is in very good shape.”

In addition to infrastructure, Guam has repeatedly proved its capability as an aircraft host. “During the beginnings of Enduring Freedom, … almost overnight, in 48 hours, Andersen went from zero airplanes on the ground to 75,” Begert said. “As people were passing through, they never missed a beat. We were not breathing hard.”

Advocates of a larger presence on Guam note that Andersen hosted more than 150 B-52s during the Vietnam War (roughly equivalent to the entire planned Air Force bomber fleet), but PACAF also pointed out “a peripheral drawback [would be] a decrease in the bomber fleet in the contiguous United States.”

The island also offers built-in force protection. The PACAF spokesman noted, “With proper surveillance assets, nothing can approach Guam without being detected.”

The advantage of proximity must be weighed against Guam’s isolation, however.

“The single largest drawback [to a larger presence on Guam] is, simply put, monetary,” according to PACAF. Being more than 5,800 miles from the US mainland means “most sustainment products must be brought to the island, and this distance increases the financial burden.”

Capabilities-Based Investment

Given that the next battle may involve both long ranges and sophisticated air defenses, some argue the Defense Department is investing too little in systems offering stealth, endurance, and long range that could overcome the so-called tyranny of distance.

For example, USAF’s Global Strike Task Force Concept of Operations leverages the ability of the F/A-22 and B-2 to “kick down the door” in the early days of a conflict and eliminate enemy sanctuary. But acquisition requirements were not changed to reflect this CONOPS. There are no plans to build more than the existing 21 stealth bombers, and the F/A-22 buy, already revised downward several times, is under constant pressure. Earlier this year, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld asked if 180 F/A-22s would be enough.

The Air Staff argues that the F/A-22’s centrality to future Air Force plans means more Raptors are needed, not fewer.

Air Force Secretary James G. Roche has floated the possibility of an FB-22 variant with longer range and greater payload than the F/A-22 as an option to address emerging strike requirements, though no new bomber programs are on the books. Many bomber advocates lament this, arguing that the growing importance of the Asia-Pacific region calls for transformational strike systems, not incremental improvements.

As one industry analyst said this fall, “Asia is considered the most challenging theater, not because there aren’t good basing opportunities but rather because we don’t currently have the systems to unlock the Pacific’s basing potential. Industry can deliver these systems over the near term–it’s up to the policy-makers to decide by when they want the Asia-Pacific problem solved.”

Meanwhile, Begert noted a growing need for Air Force Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance systems that are already thinly spread. He sees a demand for more in his area.

“Part of the problem is, we don’t have enough [ISR] assets to go around,” Begert said. He said PACAF hopes to get additional Predator and Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles and Joint STARS and Rivet Joint reconnaissance aircraft based in the Pacific as more are procured. “I’d love to see a squadron of Global Hawks as a permanent presence in the theater in a place like Guam,” he said.

Despite the myriad political, distance, ownership, and systems challenges, officials stress that new bases in the Asia-Pacific region are both achievable and necessary. Reliable access to new bases in central Asia, such as at Manas and Bagram, put major sections of the continent inside a useful combat radius, greatly simplifying planning and improving efficiency.

Force protection and political concerns mean that the Air Force cannot become complacent, however. As the Rand report emphasized, “Access is not a problem to be solved–it is a portfolio to be managed.”