Tomorrow’s Air Force Airbases

By Dr. Peter Layton

The Chief of Air Force’s strategic intent update makes airbases a priority for future investment. Airbases certainly seem ripe for change. Conceptually, they have barely changed since World War Two when grass runways gave way to concrete ones. In this the Chief has laid out three criteria for the RAAF’s airbases: be fit for purpose, robust and resilient.

In terms of purpose, RAAF airbases need to generate airpower from peace into major conflict. For this, they need to be in the right place; geography is important. In that regard, the RAAF’s southern Australian bases are very distant from potential flash points. The Air Force will need to deploy forward to bring air power to bear.

In terms of robustness, airbases are large static facilities, easily targeted using kinetic and cyber weapons. In time of war, the most concerning kinetic weapons are precision guided weapons and in particular cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Their proliferation means hardening an airbase is of little use anymore. Instead dispersion, that is hiding, is the better option.

In this, the Iranian ballistic missile attacks on al Asad Air Base are instructive. The Iranian’s apparently used commercial space imagery for targeting and were able to achieve surprisingly accurate attacks. Forewarned, the US moved personnel and equipment from the area. CENTCOM General Frank McKenzie said later that the strike could have killed up to 150 Americans and destroyed 20-30 aircraft if these measures had not been taken. Iran was not a peer competitor; such attacks in a major war would be much larger, more numerous and widespread.

Kinetic strikes are a wartime problem but cyber is a clear and present danger. In times of conflict the rate of cyber-attacks will step up but it is already an ongoing threat against any and all RAAF airbases.

There is also a new appreciation emerging of natural disasters. Fires and floods are getting bigger, while there are more Cat 4 and 5 cyclones. Moreover, natural disasters can cascade and once triggered set off further events with impacts that can be both non-linear and distant to the triggering event. Southern Australia’s 2020 bushfires almost led to a major wide-area protracted power outage, just as the cold weather did later in Texas. Such an outage could disrupt airbases and communication networks including base personnel and their families.

In terms of resilience, airbases need to be able to absorb a shock and continue to operate. In this, the shock needs to be kept to a manageable scale. If it’s very large, resilience measures can be overwhelmed and any recovery during a limited duration conflict is then unlikely. Moreover, it’s necessary to define what an airbase is to be made resilient to, when it needs to be resilient and for how long. In this, an airbase is a large facility; are some parts less important than others?

Lastly, the notion of what returning to operations can range from: surviving a shock in some reduced form; continuing operation in the presence of a shock; recovering from a shock to the original form; or absorbing a shock and evolving in response. Which of those four options is desired?

Let’s pull these disparate threads together into a simple quad chart. The x-axis line runs from the large southern bases across to deployment air bases, likely offshore. On the y-axis the line goes from today’s cold peace to a hope-not hot war. The chart then covers where, and in what context, airbases will need to be fit for purpose, robust, and resilient. It’s a chart to make us think about what the design of future airbases needs to be, and implicitly where to invest.

Lookin’ Out My Back Door

The Lookin’ Out My Back Door quadrant is the best of all worlds. The airbase is well practised in carrying out standard flying operations on a regular and ongoing basis. There is ready access to a large workforce and the ability to generate more quickly through using contractors. The airbase is well integrated into national and global supply chains. There are threats however, with cyberattacks prominent. The rise of compound and cascading disasters suggest that the airbase may need to be able to function for a short period independently of the local energy and communication networks. There is also a potential issue from nuisance commercial drones. On such airbases, the primary aim is to improve efficiency.

Down on the Corner

The Down on the Corner quadrant involves deploying to a northern or offshore base for an exercise that may feature a heavy international engagement strand. There will be considerable reliance on the local infrastructure and support network. RAAF staff will be a scarce asset with few available on the airbase, particularly for protracted operations. Supply will often be using commercial means with specialised maintenance items and stocks brought from Australia, at times on dedicated RAAF air transport. Cybersecurity remains a threat with the possibility of drone interference higher than in Australia. Compound and cascading disasters could still be an issue. The nature of deployed operations though is that when trouble threatens, there is always the pack up and leave option. In such an airbase, the primary aim is effectiveness; each deployed person needs to be as productive as possible.

Bad Moon Rising

The Bad Moon Rising quadrant involves southern bases in times of war. The main changes from the cold peace would be the higher rates of effort demanded and possibly for an extended period; the sizeable numbers of airbase personnel sent forward to run deployment airbases; the sharp rise in numbers and sophistication of cyber-attacks; and some argue the possibility of kinetic attacks from the occasional submarine launched cruise missile.

Such a context means that the airbase might need operating by reservists with limited training or more likely, by newly recruited staff with enthusiasm but not much else. The advances in training that digital technology brings may be really important to bring these new people up to speed. This might be for both maintaining the airbase facilities and in sustaining the airbase’s flying operations.

In terms of threats, the airbase will come under significant space-based surveillance using a variety of sensors. Moreover, it must be expected that software malware placed in systems years before will be activated to cause general disruption. This disruption might be on the airbase, but also in local and national energy and communication systems. Independent airbase operation may be necessary.

Who’ll Stop the Rain

The Who’ll Stop the Rain quadrant is the worst case, particularly in terms of kinetic attack. Activities will need to be dispersed so as to ensure a single attack does not inflict catastrophic damage. Regular movement may also be needed to ensure survival as attacks continue. Accordingly, a primary aim is to keep in front of the adversaries targeting system, so the location of critical items like aircraft, supplies, maintenance support and personnel is always uncertain. Precision attacks then become problematic. To back up dispersion and movement, the airbase will include active measures to fool and deceive an adversary. In this, deployed operations by their nature are always short of people while in a combat situation exposing fewer people to danger is always desirable. There are hard issues of resilience under fire.

Let’s sum up. The airbases in the bottom half of the diagram aim to deliver air power as efficiently as possible. Decisions can be driven by cost-benefit analysis. In contrast, airbases in the top half of the diagram need to focus on achieving effectiveness gains. Decisions are driven by how to best increase the airbases’ outputs, hang the costs.

Across all quadrants looms the spectre of cyber-attack. Crippling an airbase might cut air operations but even having someone watching online what you’re doing is bad too. Having software experts at hand looks essential, not just a nice to have, especially in the diagram’s top half combat operations.

Airbases are central to air power. They need to be as the Chief sets out: fit for purpose, robust, and resilient. If not, others may steal a march. The RAAF might have the better aircraft, but with mediocre air bases might deliver less effective air power than an adversary can. That’s not a war winning place to be in.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and an Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (UK). He is the author of the book Grand Strategy. His other posts, articles and papers may be found at:

This article was published by The Central Blue on June 19, 2021.