Airbase safety

Airbase protection is quite an issue for Western air powers, not the least because Western combat aircraft rarely have the undercarriage for rolling over unpaved surfaces. I saw what happens with combat aircraft that leave the runway at low speed without a suitable tire size: They sink in and need a crane for safe recovery. One such crane also happened to crack the concrete plates of the taxiing area with its outriggers on a recovery exercise. You don't want Western combat planes on unpaved grass surfaces, period.

This means craters at intersections may block planes from reaching the runway for take-off - regardless of how gold-plated said planes are. Repairs and metallic carpet sections laid over other grass areas may alleviate this, but for many Western air forces this is such a low profile, unsexy thing that they didn't spend or train on being prepared for this.

Traffic control towers, maintenance hangars, aircraft bunkers, kerosene depots and even such petty things like the rooms where the braking chutes (in use with some combat aircraft types) get stored, inspected and folded may be missed sorely once hit. Most obviously, aircraft parked in the open would be very easy targets.

image credit: RAND Corporation
NATO prefers well-established, well-built airbases for combat operations, almost irrespective of how far they are from the air strike targets. This offers some security by distance, protection by structures and securing against sabotage is made quite easy as well. The downside is the often ridiculous distance to the strike targets and patrol areas, and as a consequence a ludicrously high demand for tanker aircraft.

Yet how far away is far enough away? Recently I pointed out the rumoured 499 km range of the Iskander missile (415 km confirmed) and how this turns almost all of Poland into poor areas for NATO airbases.
Treaty obligations created the artificial limit at 500 km for land-based cruise and ballistic missiles, but this doesn't apply to missiles on ships. A few ships in the Baltic Sea could serve as missile platforms, 'arsenal ships', purely meant for surprise strikes at 1,500+ km range. This could even be improvised within a year, using some old freighter as platform.

Another possibility would be even more difficult to defend against once the initial surprise effect waned; huge waves of killer drones. Yes, "killer drone" sounds spectacular and sci-fi, but Germany had worked on such a concept since the 1980's* and Israel has put such a thing into service for anti-radar work about as long ago already. Such killer drones are nothing more than ordinary missiles with propeller instead of turbine or rocket propulsion. 

IAI Harop drone (c) Julian Herzog
Israel's Harop drone offers a 23 kg warhead and a published range of 1,000 km. Autonomous operation instead of a radio link is very much feasible with almost any drone design.
Launched from mere trailers a wave of 100-200 such drones would be impossible to stop. They could reach airfields 900-1,000 km away (depending on winds) and engage all vehicles in the open as well as the usually at least partially exposed kerosene storage and the traffic control tower. This would not need to be too terrible against normal airbase operations. A replacement air traffic radar can be used.** The quantity of aircraft stored in the open can be minimised, and those which are may be concealed-enough to prohibit pattern recognition by the drone's software.
This is completely different when the airbases are overcrowded or  civilian airports without hardened aircraft hangars need be used. So essentially every airbase of great importance for Baltic defence would be terribly vulnerable to such drone wave attacks in addition to the more traditional threats.

There's not much that can be done against this; active air defences wouldn't work. Barrage balloons with nets could be countered by LIDAR sensors, enabling the drones to avoid the nets.*** Or the drones could be programmed to simply fly over the barrage, which is easily possible if the service ceiling is 2,000 m or better. Active defences would be saturated easily, and autonomous drones do not need to maintain jammable radio links.

I'll skip on many more traditional threats to airbases, and fast forward to conclusions:

A compromise for airbase safety could be to build airbases of sufficient capacity at roughly 500-600 km distance to possible aggressor territory. These bases (and their ground crews) would need to be prepared to cope with damage done, such as with backup traffic control, improvised taxiways (metallic carpets capable of supporting combat aircraft at maximum take off weight) and quick repair of runway damage (such as EOD effort and quick dry cement). They should offer enough modestly hardened aircraft shelters, and additional aircraft-concealing shelters.

I feel free to assert that we don't have these preparations regarding Baltic defence, I would surely have heard about such construction projects. Such investments would be utterly unsexy to the top brass and civilian bureaucrats anyway. There would be hardly any additional officer career opportunities, no additional sexy supersonic jets, no additional officers would receive or maintain pilot status with extra pay, hardly any additional personnel to play with, no additional prestige ... investments in former Warsaw Pact airbases in East Germany would even be mocked by the public; airfields that cause noise when used and would seemingly be without justification if no aviation wing was based there permanently.

Yet it's often these unsexy back office things that determine whether a deterrence and defence effort is robust or crappy. This is doubly disconcerting because the somewhat new threats of precision-guided cruise and ballistic missiles (30+ years old is still "new" to slow-moving bureaucracies) and long range autonomous attack drones did not influence the collective memory and concept of air war in earlier wars. Well they didn't do so with us on the receiving end. Lessons from WW2 are still more ingrained into the Bundeswehr than lessons the Americans collected from beating up Arabs much more recently. You don't learn well from others telling about their exploits; you learn well from overcoming your own problems.


*: Resulting in the TAIFUN and TARES drones.
**: Though I heard back when I was in uniform that when NATO OPEVALs check the "excellent" box for the presence of such a radar, it's often a scam and the radar is not really operational. Back up traffic control radars aren't high profile, not sexy enough as well.
***: LIDAR has been used to give helicopter crews a tool for detecting overland powerlines at night, to make night missions safer.

edit 20 September 2016: Some more details about rapid runway repair systems, lest someone thinks I didn't take their utility into account fully: 
Runway repair systems such as FAUN, Dallexpress or Microtech. Example here. The concept itself is old. One problem with these is that some anti-runway (sub-)munitions do not leave huge craters with easily identified damage. They penetrate and may rest embedded in the ground for hours until they finally explode after all. This greatly complicates air base repairs. You need to find every tiny penetration hole, EOD needs to blow up whatever may be in that hole (creating a crater). So after an attack on a runway, you need to (1) inspect the runway (2) EOD removes debris, duds and scatterable mines from the runway (everything small can be swiped off the runway fairly quickly with rotating devices that reminded me of a mobile car wash) (3) fill big craters with soil (4) find and blow up tiny holes, filling them and deep craters up with quick dry cement or other materials (5) apply such road-laying equipment to create a hard surface for aircraft again  (6) thoroughly inspect everything (easily half a square kilometre!) for even tiny foreign objects and finally (7) clear the runway for fixed wing operations again.
All this takes time, thorough peacetime preparation (equipment stored, training), needs to be done in parallel with coping with wounded personnel, fires and various damages on buildings and it reduces the sorties generation by the air base on that day.
Still, I think threats that make overcrowding (past the capacity of hardened aircraft hangars) unacceptable or very costly are even more important than the cratering threats that do merely delay sorties. Runway denial attacks are something that you can prepare to mitigate quickly, and both this equipment and training are fairly cheap (but need to be done; the state of the art is of no use without its application!).

The French Durandal seems to be the most famous runway denial bomb, but to me the technology of the Russian RBK-500U BetAB-M runway denial cluster bomb is of most concern. This kind of payload could also be applied by cruise missiles.


  1. Waves of killer drones are unnecessary; concrete penetrating warheads, submunitions, and mines from venerable cruise missiles like the BGM-109 are more than sufficient for airfield destruction.

    Scattering anti-disturbance mines over the runway and ramps would create a much longer duration and positively nasty problem for airfields. Any enemy bold enough to attack will not be constrained by the repercussion of using mines. Such an attack creates a breaching problem far beyond the capabilities of EOD. Even without mines, unexploded bomblets will still create a de facto minefield.

    The best antidote to the aftermath of such an attack is to post a armored combat engineer unit equipped with a surface mine plows suitable for paved concrete surfaces, in addition to other specialized equipment. Wheeled engineer vehicles like the M1132, wheeled loaders, and route clearance vehicles used to counter IEDs in SW Asia, could be particularly valuable as they could deploy by road to support multiple airfields and other facilities.

    Consider the *other facilities* for future blogs as airfields will not be the only infrastructure subject to such attacks. Ports, rail yards, and other transportation nodes are also lucrative targets.


    1. The issue with few pricey cruise or ballistic missiles is that (a) conventional air defences are effective against them and (b) their effects - while large - can be removed with repairs.
      The waves of small cheap and numerous drones would saturate normal defences, and they would prohibit overcrowding of air bases.

    2. Waves of *autonomous* drones operating to a range of 1,000 km, against heavy EW have yet to be demonstrated!

      One day, certainly, but I have little to no trust in defense contractors!


    3. Why care about EW in this context? Save for EMP nothing about EW is relevant against autonomous drones that need no RF emissions.

    4. I remain skeptical.

      From an engineering standpoint, propelling individual warhead is over distances of up to a thousand nm is not going to be cheaper than grouping dozens or hundreds of those sub-munitions into a cruise missile, which delivers them as a group to the target. This is an economy of scale issue, an established system like BGM-109 or 3M-14S is likely to be beat these smaller drones in overall performance, survivability, and cost per warhead delivered.

      First, we should disabuse ourselves of the notion of “cheap” – For comparison, BGM-109 costs were down to about $700 K per missile, but the last BGM-109D cost about $1.5 million, which translates into ~$9,678 USD per sub-munition delivered. If we increase the size of the sub-munitions to ~23 kilograms, the cost goes to ~$96,000 per sub-munition delivered. India allegedly sought 8-10 Harop systems, and reportedly paid $100 million, but the details of the transaction and what was included are hardly transparent. Suffice to say that Harop is well over $1 million per copy, and perhaps as much as $10 million.

      Second, to do a proper job of busting up an airfield you need a selection of warheads types and sizes. Tomahawk, like similar systems, is based on long-standardized interfaces allowing the selection of any number of potential warheads. This is a huge advantage derived from a family of systems. BGM-109 can carry payloads from 350-500 kg, as opposed to Harop at 23 kg. A 23 kg warhead is over-kill for some targets, but others will require warheads that are 20-times larger.

      Third, survivability is likely to depend upon greatly on RCS: BGM-109 is 53 cm in diameter with a ~2.6 meter wingspan and a length of ~5.6 meters; while Harop has a ~3 meter wingspan and a length of ~2.5 meters. The actual RCS of both airframes is not available publicly, but they appear to be at least comparable, and the propeller on the Harop is not likely to help its detectability, at least compared to a system like Tomahawk. Tomahawk enjoys a significant speed advantage over Harop, which also favors survivability.

      Forth, the opening cruise missiles salvoes of a major war will be immense and likely to saturate air defenses in and of themselves. The U.S. Navy alone has some 8,000 VLS cells; not all are loaded with cruise missiles, but the implication is obvious.

      Fifth, there is also a maintenance cost associated with cruise missiles and drones; those “sealed systems” still have batteries, fuel systems, and what not that need attention. Replacing a cruise missile that carries 155 sub-munitions, with 155 drones with is going to have a proportional maintenance cost associated.

      Finally, “drone” is an over hyped term: what are BGM-109, torpedoes, and similar systems other than suicide drones?


  2. Doesn't this suggest a near-impossibilty to airbase protection (or indeed any fixed location protection in peer-peer war)?

    Should part of the solution not be aircraft capable of rough and improvised operations and doctrine towards road airbasing. I'm specifically thinking of Swedish cold war doctrine and aircraft (not sure how Gripen 'NG' will perform I'm this regard).

    Isn't this a more sensible solution? Or at least part of the solution. I appreciate it has its limitations for larger aircraft types.


    1. The Swedes used auxiliary airfields, which approx. triples the target count, but doesn't change the general problem.

      Operation from Autobahn sections that were not meant for air base function (too few sections were even during the Cold War) would be helpful as well. Yet any such improvised airfields would take days to become operational, and the first days of conflict might be decisive.

      The Baltics could be overrun in few days and France was de facto defeated within approx. five days in 1940.

      The vulnerability of air bases to missile & drone strikes with resulting loss of sortie generation in the first days is the other side of the coin of what I wrote about how we could complement air power with SRBMs missiles (MTCR and INF treaty compliant; the Americans work now on LRPF).

  3. From https://defense-and-freedom.blogspot.mx/2016/09/bundeswehr-garrisons.html?m=1

    "The Luftwaffe could surely re-deploy its combat aircraft in a day, but the ground crews and their equipment would likely need 12-24 hrs to become mission ready at a distant airbase, and then there would still be but one fully operational and likely overcrowded airbase in the East. Some airports and Cold War air bases in Eastern Germany and even Poland could be used as improvised airbases, but the Luftwaffe isn't really trained for pulling this off as quickly as in a few days.

    In summary; the basing of the German military is in no way oriented at a timely defence (and thus deterrence) at NATO's Northeastern border, the least unlikely defence scenario area."

    IF there was a change in doctrine towards rapidly deployable (within 12hrs) ground crew and equipment, AND a regular demonstration of this capability to improvised road bases/auxillary airbases, it would undoubtedly counter the massed drone attack you pose as a threat, as well as many traditional threats e.g. cruise/ballistic missiles mentioned above.

    As it is only for a few days (a week max.), the costs are probably relatively small and the benefits large. Should be something the Bundeswehr looks into IMO, possibly even providing improvised basing to allied air forces on very short notice.

    As you have mentioned with other military arms needing to have some serious rethinking about what 'rapid' is for example in the Rapid Reaction Force. As you rightly say, any serious war will be over in a week, or civilisation will provably have collapsed in which case 'winning' doesn't matter anyway...

    1. Well, a European war would likely not be over in a week, but the first week would almost surely be the most important one. To fail in the first week leads either to a long and excessive war or to a peace worse than status quo ante.

  4. I am wondering if you could do a article on the defense situation in Norway.

    As of now, we are ordering 52 F-35s, all to be stationed at one airbase, and we can only as of now have 12-16 active F-16s at the time, which makes me wonder how many F-35s we can have operational. The current defense plans seems to be "bomb them from above". This seems ludicrous considering the utter lack of air power Norway has. We also have close to zero anti-air vehicles, only a handful of Humwees with SAMs, as well as some batteries.

    1. I touched on Norway defence in the "How to Fix UK Land Power" text.
      My recipe is to make Norway unusable as a base for further offensive actions for an invader, and thus uninteresting. Now add a refusal to serve as base for (NATO) offensive actions and invasion or bombing of Norway becomes least likely.

      Svalbard/Spitsbergen is an altogether different story. That one is about naval power and amphibious capability, I suppose - and certainly beyond Norway's means. Diplomacy and having no role as base for offensive or even only reconnaissance purposes would be its best defences, I suppose.

      In short; I think regarding Norway's security more of discouraging aggression (even in the event of alliance warfare) than of how to win battles.

  5. These Iskanders are nasty. Theoretically if Putin ordered to level building I'm in now, he could do this with them ;p
    And keep in mind that the 499 km is only for "normal" version, the one with cruise missile got better range IIRC.

  6. And we shouldn`t even be surprised by non-technical scenarios. For example, main pro-Russian paramilitary organization in my country has more than 7 000 members today (against < 22 000 army soldiers), and these paramilitaries are former soldiers. So attack on main airbase? No problem. There is only electronical/mechanical security system, infantry Sicherung being seen as "outdated". http://wikimapia.org/5815741/21st-Air-Force-Base-Caslav-Chotusice