Support: December 14, 2004


The U.S. Air Force has become eager to develop a capability to set up airbases anywhere, anytime, and more quickly than anyone ever thought possible. This is nothing new for the air force. Back during World War II, when they were the U.S. Army Air Force, new air bases were often established in hours. But aircraft back then were smaller, lighter and less in need of fuel, munitions and other supplies. Todays aircraft are enormously complex beasts that require lots of maintenance and many tons of fuel and weapons for each sortie. The crews (one, two or more people) also need lots of information on what the targets, and risks, are. 

Getting a new airbase working you need five things;

A captured enemy airfield, one borrowed from an ally, or one built from scratch. Even a commercial airport will do, but they can still build them from scratch (by army engineers). You need that long stretch of concrete for the aircraft to land and take off from.

Once you have an airfield, you can bring in the warplanes, and all the equipment needed to get these aircraft ready for combat. The engineers will still be working, as needed, to build additional facilities to store fuel and bombs, and to load these materials into aircraft. You also have to set up a control tower (that doesnt have to be a tower, you do it out of a tent.) This includes a lot of communications equipment and air traffic control specialists. You also bring in the specialists who fuel, arm and maintain the aircraft. You are now able to get warplanes, loaded for war, off the ground. But you cant do it just yet.

Next you have to get the aircrews ready. That means having the needed information on where the targets are, and what kind of opposition, in the air or from the ground, the pilots may encounter. This function can be, and more frequently is, done remotely. Because of better communications, particularly via satellite, the intelligence and planning personnel can be back in the United States. The aircrews can even be briefed via video conference.

Next comes what is called generating sorties (actually getting fueled and armed aircraft into the air and on their way to the target. One aircraft taking off on a mission is a sortie) In order to keep this process going, you have to have the fuel and weapons in position, as well as maintenance crews, their equipment and spare parts, ready to service the aircraft. 

Finally, while all the above was going on, you had to set up living facilities for all the personnel needed to make things happen. That includes living quarters, kitchens and dining halls, recreational facilities (this is the air force), medical support, power generation and other utilities. In effect, a small town.

Now all of the above can be gotten together, for limited sorties, in a matter of days. What the air force is trying to do is improve their methods so an instant air base can be established anywhere in the world in the shortest amount of time. To work out the details, simulations (or wargames without any shooting) are used. Sort of like a spreadsheet (some of them are spreadsheets), where you plug in the variables (what kind of existing base, if any, is available; how far away from sources of supplies and equipment the new base is; how many air transports are available to move everything; and what quantities of people and equipment will be required to make it all happen.) The simulations show the best and worst case, and all the variations in between. This reveals bottlenecks in terms of people, equipment and transport, especially when compared to places the instant bases might be needed. 

The air force has been working on this sort of thing for decades. They already have engineer units that specialize in getting an existing airbase ready, or creating one from scratch. Much of the equipment, and even buildings, needed for an instant airbase, are fitted into standard shipping containers. 

There are several incentives propelling the air force in this direction. The 2001 Afghanistan campaign made it obvious that there were some really out of the way places that only naval aviation could reach quickly. The air force didnt like that at all. The Iraq campaign in 2003 reminded everyone that bases close to the fighting were important, especially for aircraft like the A-10 (that could handle crude airfields and was often needed on short notice.) 

Speed is a weapon, and the air force has found that getting a new air base set up in a short period of time can be a large military advantage.




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