September 16, 2012

Protecting Boots on the Base

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
, 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

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.