When over a dozen insurgents attacked Camp Bastion’s airfield with explosive vests, automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades and possibly truck-borne mortars, they inflicted the greatest loss on VMA-211 since December 8, 1941, when the unit – then designated VMF-211 – lost twelve aircraft during Japan’s opening assault on Wake Island. The eight Harriers destroyed or damaged in Afghanistan, though, recalled a type of attack the U.S. dealt with many times in theaters from Indochina to Puerto Rico.
My co-blogger Adam helpfully pointed to this RAND study on ground attacks on military airfields, which, chronicling them from 1940-1992, noted that relatively unsophisticated and lightly-equipped forces were able to destroy 2000 aircraft during this time period. While hostile air attacks on U.S. airbases (excepting, of course, missile threats) look relatively unlikely in the near term, determined ground attackers, acting either as part of regular or irregular forces, have used a variety of small arms, light artillery, and assorted other man-portable weaponry to disrupt air operations.
Whether in full-blown theaters of war such as Afghanistan or less-active and more secure theaters of conflict, America’s large military bases are an attractive target. Their potential vulnerability to ground assault makes such attacks provides a badly-needed recourse for those facing America’s massive aerial firepower. Particularly as the U.S. turns away from large-footprint ground wars and their associated operational risks and political costs, U.S. bases provisioning air support for partner forces, hosting intelligence and advisory personnel, and providing “lilypads” for Special Operations Forces and clandestine capabilities may become increasingly important, especially if maintenance and cost issues end up degrading the readiness of America’s surface-borne aerial assets.
The 2009 Camp Chapman attack, along with this one, provides another important reminder about the multifarious potential vulnerabilities in such a “low footprint” strategy. In that case, a Jordanian double agent detonated a suicide vest, killing several intelligence personnel at a facility heavily involved in servicing targets for airstrikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Though his objective may have been killing personnel rather than airframes, it demonstrates the continued vulnerability of American bases.
Particularly as the U.S. embraces a model where it provides support and standoff firepower to a local force doing the bulk of the ground fighting, it will be particularly vulnerable to insider threats and beholden to the reliability (both in competency and loyalty) of foreign forces. Exposed forward facilities in America’s “secret wars,” from Lima Site 85 to today, will become increasingly attractive targets. Even U.S. conventional opponents may try to exploit such sapper tactics in order to strike against American airbases (such attacks might feature prominently in the outbreak of large-scale hostilities between the United States and an opponent with sophisticated irregular capabilities, such as Iran).
While the attacks on Camps Chapman and Bastion may be less likely in a theater where a country’s population is less mobilized (and its insurgency far less battle-tested) U.S. presence than it is in Afghanistan, the fact that groups such as Puerto Rico’s violent Machetero separatists could conduct similar operations against a base on U.S. soil is a warning against complacency. If America wants to scale-down its forward presence and power projection footprint, it will need to focus more energy and attention on force protection. Attacks on such facilities target capabilities that are relatively difficult for the U.S. to sustain in the face of concerted attrition. While limiting one’s presence in a country to those necessary to operate and support missions providing aerial and naval firepower, advisory roles, intelligence gathering, special operations, and civilian roles such as those the State Department fills certainly will certainly not generate as many casualties as those an occupying counterinsurgency force generates, the loss of aircraft, highly-trained Special Operations personnel, or diplomats can dramatically set back U.S. operations in a context of limited resources and multiple theaters of operation.
Not only that, but attacks on such critical facilities can create significant escalatory effects and political pressures. While we may now associate the supporting and advisory missions of these bases with the political dénouement of U.S. involvement in a conflict, effective strikes on U.S. aircraft, naval vessels, and vulnerable facilities unleash political fallout that might undermine the determination of policymakers to effectively tame the scope and scale of a U.S. “secret war” or limited conflict. The notion that a lack of “boots on the ground” means American lives and security are at little risk is fallacious. Any kind of sustained U.S. military presence will generate potential targets for enemy attack, and the U.S. will need to find ways to effectively conduct force protection missions in such environments if these sorts of activities are to be tactically and operationally viable.