At the end of 2018 the U.S. Air Force IG (Inspector General) issued a report detailing how an Air Force program, to create sets of equipment and assigned personnel to quickly set up new airbases for combat aircraft during an emergency, was not working. Actually, the DABS (Deployable Air Base System) was shown to work during a test run in July 2018. After the test, the Air Force announced the first of these DABS sets would be ready by 2019 and 23 more in the next year or so. The IG did not name names but made it clear that poor leadership at the top left the task of implementing DABS to no one in particular and with vague performance goals. In other words, nothing was happening to make DABS a reality.
The IG pointed out that for DABS to work someone very senior had to order various different commands in the Air Force to cooperate and do so quickly. That was not happening and if DABS implementation was not reorganized the first DABS would not be available for years (like 2026, maybe). Within weeks that got the attention of senior people in the Department of Defense and Air Force who quickly assured the IG that DABS management would be promptly set right and the first ten DABS sets would be ready by 2021 and that the IG would receive regular progress reports. Such alacrity is rare in military procurement and system development and it remains to be seen if the new assurances carry any more weight than the initial announcement about the July test success and plan for DABS implementation.
The July 2018 DABS test run involved moving 161 shipping containers and 60 construction and airfield operation vehicles from Luxemburg to Poland largely by land (via 19 railroad cars and 87 trucks). Two C-130s were also used to get everything to a small airport that did not normally handle military operations (and thus was seen as likely to survive a major Russian attack on Polish airbases.) The land movement took 24 hours and then 57 Air Forcelogistical and airfield operations personnel spent another 24 hours to unload, position and get the equipment operational.
After DABS was set up the small airport was capable of arming or loading/unloading, refueling and repairing damaged aircraft with the support of the recently arrived Air Force airbase personnel and equipment. This included medical, housing, sanitary and dining facilities. DABS included tents and modular structures, generators, satellite communications and airbase support electronics. Poland would offer whatever resources they might have available in a wartime situation but DABS also worked on the assumption that food, fuel and other supplies would also have to come in from West Europe via rail, road and cargo aircraft.
The initial test found no serious flaws in the system, but there was a long list of those little things that would make DABS operation go a lot more smoothly. For example, there were no printed instructions about what was in each container and what had to be done with it. That is being changed because in wartime electronic communications might not be sufficient to consult sources back in Western Europe or the United States. The Polish site was surveyed via aerial photos and that approach did not contain enough detail about which areas near the airstrip were swampy or otherwise unsuitable terrain for setting up the military facilities. You needed to bring enough fuel with you to get the generators going and operational until fuel supply for the base could be established. There were a lot of minor items like that but DABS was considered a success.
The Air Force then announced plans to purchase and preposition up to half a dozen (or more) DABS sets in Western Europe and survey many more sites for setting them up in Poland and other East European NATO countries during a wartime emergency. First, however, Air Force planners wanted to tinker with the DABS equipment list because it was pointed out that DABS could also be used for crises short of major war to provide a base just for UAVs, aerial refueling tankers or just transports. To deal with these possibilities the DABS equipment set would have to be larger and everything clearly marked for which “mission packages” it was used for. That will make DABS more flexible than earlier iterations of this concept. The IG report did not say so but the way things work in the military these ancillary uses of DABS may have contributed to bringing implementation to a halt. As the IG report did mention when there are several major commands involved for implementing something new a lot of bureaucratic inertia is encountered with a lot of people saying, “we’ll get back to you on that” with no incentive to do so very quickly.
DABS is a variant of the Cold War REFORGER (REturn of FORces to GERmany) technique which pre-positioned large quantities of army (and later marine) equipment in Europe. All you had to do was fly in the troops and you had brigades and divisions ready for combat in 24 hours or so. The pre-positioning of equipment continued after the Cold War ended in 1991 but the annual troop movement exercises (REFORGER) to use the pre-positioned equipment stopped. In 2016 the army began reviving the REFORGER exercises. As part of this, the U.S. Army moved to store more pre-positioned military equipment in Europe and have brigades move their personnel to Europe for training with that equipment each year. At least one brigade a year is being sent to Europe to use the pre-positioned equipment for training exercises aimed at defending East Europe against Russia. Just like the Cold War, except then the Russian armies were already in East Europe and it was Western Europe being defended.
This practice of moving troops and equipment as separate entities was a Cold War innovation. To speed the movement of reinforcements from the United States to Europe, in the event that the Soviet Union invading, two divisions had one set of equipment in Europe, and another back in the United States, where the divisions were based. In reality, this pre-positioning and troop movement plan also served political demands in the United States that some of the divisions stationed there be brought home. The pre-positioning was a politically acceptable way to withdraw two divisions from Europe in 1968. But the equipment stayed behind and was stored and maintained by contractors (local civilians). Starting in 1969 troops from the two withdrawn divisions began flying to Europe each year, firing up the gear, and going out on field exercises. The troops would then return the gear to the storage areas and fly home. These annual exercises lasted until 1988.
The experience gained in all those REFORGER exercises made the army and marines confident that they could apply the concept of pre-positioned equipment elsewhere. This also led to the idea, as applied in Iraq from 2004 to 2011 of having the first units to get there to leave their gear behind (if they were being replaced by the same type units) when the troops returned home. This saved a lot of money in shipping costs, not to mention the additional work the troops had to do preparing everything for sea movement. Same deal in Afghanistan and the REFORGER techniques have become standards.
One thing that did change was that there were no longer regular movements of troops each year to use the pre-positioned equipment. But there are less regular exercises where the troops are flown overseas, take control of pre-positioned gear and go out and train for a week or two. It is good training and a way to make sure that the pre-positioned material is being maintained properly.
The Air Force already has the capability to fly in personnel and some equipment to set up operations at a foreign airbase or large airport. DABS takes that one step further and makes it possible to quickly turn several of the hundreds of sites in East Europe into operational military airbases. But to fly the DABS gear from the United States to Eastern Europe would require the use of a hundred C-17 transports (or equivalent civilian ones like B747 freighters). These military transports would be in high demand in wartime and DABS was created as an inexpensive solution to the air transport shortage. Like REFORGER the Air Force will regularly assemble teams of Air Force personnel in West Europe (or fly them in on a single military or civilian transport) from the U.S. on short notice and deploy DABS to East Europe, set it up, handle some traffic then pack it up and send it back to West Europe. Air Force logistical and airbase operations personnel are accustomed to doing this, just not with an “instant airbase” kit available. The July test showed that Air Force personnel (active duty and reserve) could quickly implement DABS.