What does research on pelletized asphalt have to do with airpower and national strategy? Plenty, it turns out. Exercises and experiments on methods for airfield damage repair are just one area where USAF airmen are preparing to deal with the effects of disruptive attacks at forward bases. Why? Because damaged airfields, snarled communications, and sporadic command and control are all possibilities in fights of the near future.
Airmen roll it up into a common phrase: “fighting while degraded.” Rarely heard a decade ago, planning to do without key capabilities in the cockpit or at forward bases is now part of the way USAF prepares for war. And success with airpower hinges on convincing adversaries—and Washington policymakers—that the Air Force can project power even through degraded conditions.
Picture dozens of ballistic and cruise missiles pelting a forward air base in the Pacific. Sections of the main runway are pockmarked with holes and the strikes have also damaged flight line buildings and munitions areas. To make matters worse, communications have dwindled to a minimum because satellites are unavailable.
It’s a serious challenge. “Our adversaries are sinking massive resources into denying our forces access to tools such as position navigation and timing, data links, communication networks, and radars,” warned Gen. Gilmary Michael Hostage III at the Air Force Association’s Air & Space Conference in September. At the time, Hostage was commander of Air Combat Command.
Fear over damage at forward bases has raised force structure doubts, too. Fortunately, USAF has quietly focused on airfield damage repair, contending with denied communications, and other essentials for fighting while degraded.
Fighting from bases under attack is nothing new. The former Balad Air Base in Iraq was dubbed “Mortaritaville” due to hundreds of hit-and-run shelling attacks aimed at the sprawling base during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Further back in time, Soviet forces were so close to NATO bases in the Cold War that USAF developed advanced techniques for airfield survivability.
Yet Hostage and others are talking about a problem on a far larger scale. Potentially unfriendly actors have developed more ballistic and cruise missiles with greater range and accuracy. Looming ahead are intensive threats that could jeopardize sortie generation during a crisis. For example, Iran tested its Shahab family of missiles in 2012, simulating attacks “on transregional forces’air bases” effective out to 186 miles. And both North Korea and China possess missiles with ranges and accuracies sufficient to reach allied and US air bases.
The problem has increasingly concerned analysts. A 2009 RAND study led by David A. Shlapak and David T. Orletsky devoted several chapters to analysis of China’s ability to suppress sorties by cutting runways. Specifically, they found that as missiles reduced their circular error probable to less than a hundred feet, as few as five missiles could cut a runway.
China’s ballistic and cruise missiles launched at forward bases “will force US aircraft to operate from distant bases and will greatly reduce their sortie generation rates,” CSBA analyst Mark A. Gunzinger postulated in a 2010 study. “Operations in the Western Pacific region would be particularly problematic,” he said, because bases such as Kadena Air Base on Okinawa and Kunsan Air Base and Osan Air Base on the Korean Peninsula are so near China, “they are under threat of devastating air or missile strikes.”
Chinese military doctrine writers have made unambiguous statements, like this one cited by RAND analyst Roger Cliff: “If an attack is aimed at disrupting the enemy air strike plans, one should target the enemy’s command and control systems and fuel and ammunition supply systems; if it is aimed at degrading an enemy aviation corps group to reduce the pressures from its air strikes, one should target the aircraft parked on the tarmacs of airports housing the enemy’s main bomber and fighter-bomber aviation corps.”
Officials have been blunt about the threat. Chinese capabilities “are increasing, so subsequently, the risk to our force increases,” said Gen. Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, in an interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun in April when he was head of Pacific Air Forces. “But at the same time, we’re continuing to counter that risk,” he said. According to Carlisle, who now heads ACC, priorities include airfield resiliency.
The implications are clear: Credible airpower depends on fighting through initial attacks as they degrade key functions at the air base.
Oddly, official terminology calls this “passive defense,” because it doesn’t involve shooting back. “We are working the passive defense piece of the puzzle, … including hardening, concealment, dispersal of assets, rapid runway repair, and support for a fluid force operating in a distributed manner,” said Carlisle, in a Breaking Defense interview.
However, airmen are anything but passive in this mission. Fighting while degraded requires a combination of savvy, initiative, and sweat.
Opening airfields is essential, but so is restoring command and control. Two threats stand out. One is cyber attack. The other is disruption of satellites. China demonstrated how easy it was to knock a satellite out of orbit by targeting one of its own back in 2007. The result was a field of space junk. In the future, a satellite strike might be able to inflict degraded communications on US forces.
Effective control is at the core of responsive airpower. Over the past 20 years, that control has come to depend on instant communications across satellites and in cyberspace. Secure links allowed commanders to share data, redirect aircraft, and employ up-to-the-minute ISR in pursuit of important targets. Like open runways, fine-tuned control has long been a hallmark of US operations, but some believe complacency is setting in.
Potential anti-access scenarios forced new thinking about how to operate in an austere communications environment. Hostage made plain that nothing guarantees secure and continuous links in the next war.
Aircrews regularly train for the “lost-link” environment. For example, Red Flag exercises now routinely include missions where everything from radio to radar drops offline.
While airmen are training to contend with interference in the tactical environment, a larger question is how to prevent degraded operations from slowing down the air campaign.
For example, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, listed 30 joint operational requirements in the 2012 Joint Operational Access Concept.
No. 1 and No. 2 were “the ability to maintain reliable connectivity and interoperability among major warfight-ing headquarters and supported/supporting forces while en route,” followed by “the ability to perform effective command and control in a degraded and/or austere communications environment.”
To address the operational level, Hostage suggested introducing a new concept of distributed control. “Through the concept of centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution, we can diminish the impact of a temporary break in the link between CFACCs [combined force air component commanders] and their forces,” he advised. Distributed control and its tactics, techniques, and procedures will “ensure that we remain effective.” The concept complements the core tenet of centralized command, distributed control, and decentralized execution. Hostage characterized it as a “healthy adaptation to the realities of contemporary warfare.”
Some of the command and control challenges demand technology advances. USAF is well-aware of the priority on sustaining and restoring communications links via adaptive planning. A recent Air Force Research Laboratory industry solicitation noted, “A lack of dexterous network management and recovery mechanisms makes it hard to provide the necessary level of network reliability and survivability at the battlefield. This is nowhere more factual than in A2/AD [anti-access, area-denial] environments where the ability to make rapid adaptations based on the situation is crucial.”
Coping with austere communications requires two main elements. First are mobile, “spare” communications devices. Command and control can often be run from VHF and nearby frequencies. The other element is improving airborne networks so that aircraft, unmanned vehicles, ships, and other surface units in the right position can form a relay network. Rapid and even automated backup network formation can restore information flow among tactical platforms and to operational control nodes.
Commanders expect USAF forces to train for all the ways future adversaries may try to trip them up. But fighting while degraded can affect command at the highest levels. Reinvigorating time-tested principles of command is another part of keeping all elements of the campaign moving forward at the operational level.
“The keys to effective use of distributed control are the clear articulation of intent and standing directions that will continue to allow … our forces to operate in a broken-link environment,” said Hostage. Commander’s intent is the mental map of the entire campaign that allows units temporarily cut off from communications to make decisions to support the plan, not hinder it.
Commander’s intent stems from ongoing discussions with senior leaders and eve-of-battle articulation of key elements in the plan. Standing directions can help fill in alternatives. An example would be instructions on where to divert if returning strike aircraft find their home airfield closed down.
Going back to that cratered runway, priority one is to resume sustained aircraft sortie generation. Airmen must launch, recover, rearm, refuel, and turn strike aircraft. Forward bases also have to receive incoming mobility aircraft with fresh supplies and personnel and be able to send out aircraft on medical evacuation.
“Rapid airfield repair has been done the same way for years: Get on the runway, find the holes, fix them using large, slow equipment, bolt down a huge, heavy mat over the repair, and pray that it lasts for a hundred sorties,” wrote two USAF experts, R. Craig Mellerski and Craig A. Rutland, in their 2009 article, “The New Face of Rapid Airfield Repair,” in Air Force Civil Engineer. “If heavies and fighters have to land on the same repair, you have a problem,” they said.
The Air Force acknowledged the problem back in 2008. One result was a joint capability technology demonstration on rapid runway repair sponsored by USAF and the Office of the Secretary of Defense.
The critical runway assessment and repair, or CRATR, initiative focused on two types of repairs: expedient repairs capable of lasting for 100 sorties and sustainment repairs, upgrading to support 5,000 sorties. According to officials, the CRATR tested new materials and techniques for airfield damage repair under specific threat scenarios and weather conditions.
The work fell to two types of Air Force units with long histories: Rapid Engineer Deployable, Heavy Operational Repair Squadron Engineer—better known as RED HORSE—and Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force, also known as Prime BEEF.
Fast forward to Malmstrom AFB, Mont., on an early spring night in 2012. Temperatures hovered at 30 to 35 degrees—tough on both airmen and materials, according to an Army news release. “The demonstration at night was a good secondary test because visibility was decreased and the airmen’s energy levels were lower due to working earlier during the day,” said test team member Lulu Edwards. “This is more representative of what may actually happen during an actual attack.”
Next the team conducted a wet-weather test at Tyndall AFB, Fla., in June. A sprinkler system soaked repair crews with nearly half an inch an hour. “It was hot and we were all red within minutes of going onto the airfield test area, but we had to give the airmen a chance to work in the wet conditions,” said Haley Bell, a test monitor.
These efforts led to a streamlined capability to figure out how to get airplanes in the air again, fast.
Step one in airfield damage repair is sending out teams to assess the damage—even while under attack. Locating unexploded ordnance is part of the task. Remote sensors contribute, too. The objective is to select the portions of the runway to activate as the minimum airfield operating strip, or MAOS. Multiterrain loaders then maneuver to clear debris, mark craters, and prepare for filling, capping, and curing.
After that, options depend on factors ranging from materials and equipment available to air temperature. Crushed rock of high quality creates an excellent fill layer—but it’s long been known to be much less effective if laid in the rain. Over the years, USAF has worked with fiberglass-reinforced plastic (FRP) mats, precast asphalt concrete block, bolt-together FRP panels, magnesium phosphate cement, special polyurethane grouts, and even precast concrete slabs. Each method had advantages and drawbacks in time to repair, cost, and availability.
New materials innovation has advanced the science considerably. And some of the help has come from the Army’s Engineer Research and Development Center along with the Air Force Research Laboratory and Naval Facilities Engineering Service Center.
According to Mellerski and Rutland, one promising development is an easy flowing fill made from rapid-setting cement and sand. Another is high-density foam to fill craters fast. “The foam expands up to eight times its original volume and can fill even the largest craters in a few minutes,” Mellerski and Rutland reported. The foam-filled crater is then capped with several inches of rapid-set concrete and can support a fully loaded C-17 or F-15E.
Hot mix asphalt is another speedy solution. Sacks of pelletized asphalt can be stored at a base then mixed with aggregate when needed. Mobile asphalt recyclers can produce five tons of hot mix asphalt every 30 minutes. “When paired with the rapid setting flowable fill, this becomes a formidable repair technique,” the authors noted.
Airfield repair teams need fast solutions. Their goals are to resume operations in some cases in less than four hours.
FARP and Rapid Raptor
Airfield repair skills translate directly to opening expeditionary bases. One of the best examples is Forager Fury, a regular exercise held at Tinian Island near Guam. Aluminum matting was laid down on new “Baker” and “Charlie” runways supporting Marine Corps MV-22 Osprey operations, reported a Marine Corps press release. “A FARP [forward arming and refueling point] allows for expedient refueling, arming, and dearming of aircraft as well as providing the opportunity to get an aircraft forward to the fight without having to return back to a home port to get fuel,” said Gunnery Sgt. Earl Masterson, a Marine Corps fuels chief, after the December 2013 exercise.
Of course, Air Force RED HORSE units—some with airborne training—have this capability, too. “They are configured to do a rapid assessment and repair of a runway,” said Capt. Brent Legreid, airborne RED HORSE project manager, in a 43rd Airlift Wing news release. “In addition to that, because they’ve got plumbers, electricians, and others, they can also do a good assessment of the facilities on the base or in the local area.”
Airmen are fortunate to have a culture of decentralized execution. This has fostered an ability to think and react, traits that are more important than ever while under pressure.
In that spirit, the Air Force has exercised the Rapid Raptor capability, where F-22 teams exercise recovery at a bare base. “Airmen from the 703rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron in full chemical protective suits launched jets and led patrols in the wake of a simulated attack. The aircraft landed at Eielson Air Force Base in Fairbanks, Alaska, a simulated bare-bones runway with no supplies, no amenities—no toilets, spare jet fuel, or ammunition—and carted their equipment onto the runway,” a press release on the concept stated this May.
Rapid deployment is part of a strategy of hopscotching among bases in an area of operations. There are several reasons for moving when air operations are under pressure. One is to avoid a base where attacks have briefly shut down operations or limited the maximum number of aircraft that can be handled on the ground. Flexible forces can flush to new bases if attacks are imminent, or land at alternate fields after missions. Even if no attacks occur, aircraft may be moved around to activate more bases, forcing an adversary into unforeseen targeting choices. Done right, the rapid deployment strengthens the US position while complicating an adversary’s calculations.
Perhaps the greatest challenge will be continuing to apply steady effort to the problem of fighting while degraded. USAF faced the problem decades ago in Europe and learned much from it. “Survivability is not glamorous,” wrote Maj. Stephen C. Hall in an Air & Space Power Journal essay back in 1982. “It is one thing to spend US dollars for shiny new airplanes whose construction and operation will employ many American workers. … Survivability enjoys no natural constituency and thus competes at a disadvantage for scarce dollars.”
However, the benefit may not be measured in dollars. Increasing the Air Force’s ability to fight while degraded offers an ultimate operational pay-off: Potential adversaries will always have to reckon with American airpower.