The night sky lit up as ballistic missiles rained down on Erbil and Al-Asad Air Bases in Iraq. Sheltered in bunkers, Airmen found the extent of the Iranian attack hard to decipher. Staff Sgt. Brian Sermons, 22nd Expeditionary Weather Squadron aviation weather noncommissioned officer in charge at Al-Asad, heard “soul-shaking explosions.” Debris pummeled the bunker walls, kicking up dirt and dust and making it difficult to breathe. When a missile struck a munitions tent, small arms rounds started to cook off, and Airmen braced themselves for what they thought was a follow-on ground attack.
“The next four hours became a blurred mix of emotions and chaos,” a member of the 443rd Air Expeditionary Squadron Security Forces team at Al-Asad wrote afterward. “Bomb after bomb shook us for what felt like all night. … My muscles tightened and I could feel my teeth grinding. Then the radio chimed in. ‘You have six more missiles inbound to your area, followed shortly by two more.’”
No one died from the volley of Iranian ballistic missiles on Jan. 8, 2020, but more than 100 U.S. personnel suffered traumatic brain injuries.
It was a wake-up call: U.S. forward operating bases are vulnerable.
It Could Have Been Worse
“The attack on Iraq was more symbolic, and we had early warning, so we had fewer casualties,” said Alan J. Vick, a senior political scientist at RAND Corp. In the future, he said, the “Iranians could do much more” harm. An attack by Russia or China “would certainly be vastly more serious and consequential for air operations.”
The U.S. must rethink how to gird against attack from theater ballistic missiles and land-attack cruise missiles. While traditionally an Army mission, it could be handed to someone else following a planned roles and missions review.
The last U.S. service member to die by an enemy air strike was in 1953 during the Korean War. But the nature of air base attack has changed since then, with the advent of cruise missiles, unmanned aircraft, and improved ballistic missiles. Today’s air base defenses have never been seriously tested by an enemy capable of launching large salvos of guided weapons.
An attack by Russia or China “would certainly be vastly more serious and consequential for air operations.”Alan Vick, senior analyst, RAND Corp.
Carl D. Rehberg, a nonresident senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA), said air base defense today is “very poor across the board.”
U.S. Air Forces in Europe-Air Forces Africa boss Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian is looking to change that with award of a nearly $1 billion air base air defense contract.
The Air Force asked contractors to respond to two hypothetical attack scenarios:
Within the first hour, 15 Chinese Dà Jiang Innovations (DJI) unmanned aerial systems attack the base, with the potential to threaten from any direction. No more than three DJIs successfully penetrate the perimeter, though not concurrently.
In the second hour, five AS-34A cruise missiles attack various sections of the base with at least 30 seconds between each arrival.
Contractors were told to assume the air base defense system will be controlled from a main operating base inside of Germany and operated by five-skill-level Airmen. Proposals were due Jan. 22 and were to include an “operations view of a base defense network.” Solutions could include commercial-off-the-shelf technology and equipment that can be “modified or available within the next three years,” according to the request for proposals. Contractors were asked to provide a cost and manpower estimate in their proposals.
The government wants a mix of sensors, kinetic, and nonkinetic systems, capable of finding, fixing, tracking, targeting, engaging, and assessing a range of threats, from small unmanned systems to hypersonic missiles.
Harrigian said USAFE, headquartered at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, has aggressively moved out on this effort over the last year, and recently started testing new ways to use existing sensors and cameras for improved situational awareness at the base.
“We kind of take it from the long-range to the short-range to help our domain awareness, and then we built in some algorithms that are now starting to help with the decision matrix, that would give you options depending on what the type of threat was,” he told Air Force Magazine.
The data gleaned from such demonstrations will help USAFE officials “understand pattern of life,” so they can better detect changes that might present a threat, he added.
The USAFE Air Base Air Defense effort is envisioned in three phases. Phase one looks to develop the Ramstein Air Defense Systems Integration Lab (RADSIL) at Ramstein, which will serve as the interim command and control center for air base defense operations in the European and African theaters.
There, officials are studying the data collected from sensors, as well as the environment, to include everything “from airplanes to the potential threats of small UAS,” Harrigian said. “We’re actually out there flying small UAS to ensure we can detect them.” That information is fed into the lab, helping to fine-tune the algorithms that help make decisions, he added.
Phase Two will transition to a permanent air base air defense capability at Ramstein, and Phase Three includes installing air defenses at bases across Europe, Africa, and possibly other theaters, according to the request for proposals.
Pacific Air Forces boss Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach noted the Army already has fielded larger systems, such as PATRIOT missile batteries or the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System (THAAD), which first deployed to Guam in 2013 to face down the North Korean ballistic missile threat. And though the command is considering adding an Aegis Ashore system to Guam as well, overall it’s looking for something more agile that can be deployed to remote locations across the Indo-Pacific.
“The systems that we’re going to use for base defense have to be pretty lean and pretty light, because we start running out of ships and aircraft to get those systems moving around,” Wilsbach said. They must also be agile, said Wilsbach, noting that’s one of the key tenants of the Agile Combat Employment concept, which calls for moving assets and small teams of multi-capable Airmen around to various remote locations to make it more difficult for the enemy to target.
“I’ve had conversations with multiple defense contractors, and they all have designs that they’re pitching to us to be able to go forward with some purchases here in the future,” Wilsbach said.
Despite a new emphasis on great power competition, Rehberg said, “the posture has not changed at all since the China threat evolved.”
THAAD is designed to intercept ballistic missiles during their final stage of flight. Yet the Army has just seven THAAD batteries, with a total of 42 launchers and more than 500 interceptors, according to, “Air and Missile Defense at a Crossroads: New Concepts and Technologies to Defend America’s Overseas Bases,” a CSBA report co-authored by Rehberg and Mark Gunzinger, now the director of future aerospace concepts and capabilities assessments at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
The Army’s PATRIOTS—actually an acronym that’s short for Phased Array Tracking to Intercept of Target—are located in Japan, Korea, and elsewhere. As of 2018, the Army had 15 Patriot battalions operating 50 batteries with 480 launchers and more than 1,200 interceptors, according to the CSBA report.
“PATRIOTS are an effective element of the air and missile defense architectures of the United States and many of its allies,” the report states. But it notes, too, “they are expensive, and their combined capacity would be insufficient to protect air bases and other military infrastructure that U.S. and allied forces would depend on during a major conflict with great power.”
China’s Rising Threat
Gunzinger, who led multiple assessments on U.S. military capability requirements for both DOD and the Air Force and also was a member of the National Security Council staff, said: “We were asleep as China built up its military, its offensive capabilities.” He recalled sitting in meeting after meeting as decisions were made to delay funding high-end capabilities because the National Defense Strategy at the time was focused on irregular warfare.
“China and Russia didn’t defer to the future,” he said. “China built multiple cruise missile systems, improved its family of ballistic missiles, increased their range, their payload capacity, the different kinds of payloads they carry, their accuracy, and on and on.”
Commercial satellite images have shown mock targets representing Kadena Air Base, Japan, and possibly other U.S. and Taiwanese bases and ports, which the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force apparently use to “practice attacks,” the CSBA report says. In September 2020, a Chinese military propaganda video depicted an H-6K bomber flying alongside fighter aircraft and attacking the flight line at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Pacific Air Forces called the video an attempt to intimidate.
China has about 1,200 short-range ballistic missiles, mostly focused on Taiwan, according to the CSBA report. It has 200 to 300 medium-range ballistic missiles that can reach the first island chain in the Western Pacific and an unknown number of intermediate-range ballistic missiles that can reach the second island chain, the report says.
But the growing cruise missile threat is what worries Gunzinger most. He said the Defense Department’s last Missile Defense Review intentionally left Ballistic out of the title. “That was purposeful,” he said. That change acknowledges “that it’s now cruise missiles and long-range cruise missiles that can be launched from 1,000 kilometers or further at an air base or installation from China—and Russia, for that matter.”
Cruise missiles fly at low altitudes in the terminal phase of flight, making them harder to detect and “pretty survivable,” Gunzinger said. They are also smaller and more affordable than ballistic missiles and can be launched from aircraft that can get them closer to the fight. Ballistic missiles are larger and follow a predictable flight path, making them easier to track and target.
China also is developing unmanned aerial vehicles for both reconnaissance and strike. Massed UAVs pose a particular hazard, and the CSBA report argues the United States “has failed to develop the means to counter salvos of large numbers of cruise missiles and UAVs.” But the Air Force has made progress in recent years with directed-energy weapons, and the Pentagon appears ready to start buying the technology.
A “couple of pulses” from a high-power microwave weapon can make a swarm of UAVs drop from the sky, Gunzinger said, a vastly less costly defense than firing a barrage of bullets. “From a cost-per-effect perspective, … there’s no comparison,” he added. “We’re talking pennies worth of electricity to create an effect on a target. Lasers, maybe it costs more than a couple bucks worth of electricity, versus spending thousands of dollars, sometimes more than thousands, per round for a kinetic interceptor.”
The Department of the Air Force’s 2021 budget request calls for $21 million for directed-energy (DE) prototyping, though that is less than half the $44 million requested in 2020 and the $48 million in 2019, according to budget documents. From fiscal 2019 to 2025, the department plans to spend a total of $152.2 million for the DE prototyping program, which “bridges the gap between lab-based technology demonstration under a controlled environment, and demonstration of a system in realistic environments with the intent of establishing successful acquisition, and operation or operational capability implementation,” according to budget documents.
Air Force Chief Scientist Richard J. Joseph said the service is testing one Air Force Research Laboratory-developed microwave drone killer, called the Tactical High-Power Operational Responder (THOR) in Africa. Richard said he’s seen the system in action and it’s “really quite impressive.” The Air Force has not yet committed to purchase it, though the Army announced in late February it too would invest in the technology prototyping.
“The Army’s directed energy capabilities will need to provide a layered defense with multiple ways to defeat incoming threats,” said Lt. Gen. L. Neil Thurgood, the director of hypersonics, directed energy space and rapid acquisition, who observed the technology at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., on Feb. 11 and met with developers. “High-energy lasers kill one target at a time, and high-powered microwaves can kill groups or swarms, which is why we are pursuing a combination of both technologies for our Indirect Fire Protection Capability rapid prototyping effort.”
USAF is evaluating multiple alternatives, including a 12-month field assessment with unnamed combatant commands of Raytheon’s High-Energy Laser Weapons System (HELWS), Raytheon’s high-power microwave (PHASER), as well as THOR.
“The overseas field assessments are allowing us to understand directed energy as a capability against drones. This gives us a better picture of the military utility, reliability and sustainability, training requirements, and implementation with existing base defense,” said Michael Jirjis, Air Force Strategic Development Planning and Experimentation Office director, in a release.
Those tests should wrap up in April, and the results will shape where the Air Force goes with high-energy lasers and high-power microwaves moving forward, Jirjis said at the time.
Russian Salvo Threat
Russia’s arsenal of long-range conventional ballistic missiles is smaller than China’s, but it has fielded multiple, short-range ballistic missile variants capable of reaching bases in Europe.
Russia had 11 combat brigades of Iskander-M road-mobile, short-range ballistic missiles systems as of 2019, systems first used against Georgia in 2008. The system has been permanently deployed to Kaliningrad since 2018, putting it within reach of NATO forces in Poland and the Baltics, as well as NATO ally Sweden, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The newer Kh-47M2 Kinzhal hypersonic air-launched ballistic missile, which Russian President Vladimir Putin first showed off in March 2018, is similar to the Iskander but is launched by a supersonic MiG-31BM jet, giving it a range of 2,000 kilometers.
“Russian crews from a MiG-31 squadron have already flown some 250 training sorties in support of this mission,” states the CSBA report. “It is envisioned that the Kinzhal will be deployed with [hypersonic glide vehicles] that maneuver after separation from their boosters and fly depressed trajectories that make them difficult to intercept.”
The introduction of hypersonics to the battlefield is a game-changer. Flying at Mach 5 or faster, they compress the kill chain, making it extremely difficult for a defender to locate, track, and counter.
Like China, Russia also is building multiple smaller UAV variants for targeting support.
The Air Force is actively moving out to better protect its installations overseas. Though the U.S. may be behind right now when it comes to air base defense, it is not far behind.
“We may lag in some … technology areas—in terms of building operational capabilities—but our technologies are every bit as good, if not better, than our competitors,” Gunzinger said. “We will catch up, and we will do it soon.”
Pentagon Editor Brian W. Everstine contributed to this story.
Who Should be Responsible for Air Base Defense?
The fiscal 2021 National Defense Authorization Act gave the Secretaries of the Air Force and Army until June 21 to come up with a joint strategy for defending America’s overseas air bases from missiles and for the best way to preposition material.
Defending air bases is the Army’s job, but it’s never really been a priority for the service, according to multiple defense experts. Congress wants to change that, and an upcoming Defense Department-wide roles and missions review ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III also is likely to tackle the issue.
What’s not clear is if the Air Force will completely take over the task, if the Army will be forced to step up, or if the final solution will be more of a compromise.
“It’s a well-known problem. It’s been festering for years,” said Mark Gunzinger, director of future concepts and capability assessments at AFA’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “The Army hasn’t stepped up. The Air Force continues to insist it’s the Army’s job, rightfully so, but someone needs to do it, and they need to start doing it now.”
China and Russia didn’t sit idly by as the United States focused primarily on counterinsurgency operations for the last two decades. They’ve been bolstering their ballistic and cruise missile capabilities, developing new variants of small, unmanned aerial systems for reconnaissance and strike operations, and training with these new systems against simulated U.S. bases.
In addition to the Army’s PAC-3 and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense System, the service is looking to field a new Initial Maneuver Short-Range Air Defense system, known as IM-SHORAD, to replace its aging Avenger system. Mounted on a Stryker armored vehicle, it has better armor and is more survivable than the legacy HUMVEE-mounted system. It also has its own radar and various weapons that are effective against air threats, but the system is mostly focused on protecting Army units from close in air threats.
Gunzinger said SHORAD and other air and missile defense capabilities are among the Army’s top five priorities, “but it does not appear as if the Army has made defending air bases one of its top five priorities.”
Carl Rehberg, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis, said the Navy does the best job at integrated air and missile defense. It is solely responsible for protecting its ships, and doesn’t have to work with another service to get the job done. As a result, there is a very clear layered defense aimed at existing threats.
“So they are the leads. … Then we get to Army bases and air bases, especially in the theaters, and we basically fall off kind of a cliff, if you will, as far as defense,” Rehberg said. “A lot of that has to do with the roles and missions issue, and who perceives the threat and where, which is part of the issue DOD is trying to grapple with. But, we really haven’t made a whole lot of progress so far.”
Rehberg offered several options for solving the issue once and for all.
- The Defense Secretary could direct the Army to fund the system, and the Army could submit a budget requesting funds for new technologies to defend air bases.
- Following the roles and missions review, the Air Force could agree to accept a portion of the mission, and the Defense Department directive detailing the roles and functions of the military services could officially be changed. The Defense Secretary would have to sign off on such a change, and Congress would need to fund the new mission.
- The Air Force can just decide the mission is too important to wait until the issue is officially resolved and adopts its own strategy for defending air bases. However, Rehberg noted that also would require additional funds from Congress.
“There is no silver bullet against the kinds of threats that Russia and China represent,” Rehberg said. “Part of the solution is kinetic, part of the solution is nonkinetic (lasers, high-powered microwaves, and electronic warfare),” but camouflage and dispersing critical airfield functions across a wider area also are just as important, he emphasized.
That’s largely what the Air Force’s Agile Combat Employment concept is all about—moving forces and assets around the theater so the target is more difficult to track and attack.
Gunzinger argues that air base defense is “so critical to our ability to generate combat power forward, to generate combat power inside of China and Russia’s [anti-access, area-denial] complex coverage, that if the Air Force needs to do it— it ought to do it. But if the Air Force takes on the mission, the Congress ought to appropriate the additional resources to include people as well as dollars for them to do it. They can’t just take it out of hide.”