Snakes in the Eagle's Nest: Ground Attacks on Air Bases, 1940-1992
Jan 1, 1995
A History of Ground Attacks on Air Bases
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Recent RAND research on trends in global airpower suggests that few opponents will be able to challenge the U.S. Air Force (USAF) in the air. If that is correct, future adversaries are likely to look for alternative means to counter U.S. airpower. A RAND study for the Air Force, "Countering U.S. Aerospace Power," has been investigating those means. The historical effort reported here was part of that study and sought to better understand past, present, and future ground threats to air bases.
In the course of the research, it became clear that attacks on air bases were much more frequent and successful than is commonly appreciated. For this reason, the history of those attacks is pertinent to future USAF operations.
This report presents a comprehensive overview of ground attacks on air bases from the first known attacks in 1940 to the most recent in 1992. The objectives, tactics, and outcomes of those attacks are analyzed to identify lessons learned and their applications to future conflicts. In particular, this report identifies the attack techniques that proved most difficult to counter and offers some suggestions for improving air base defenses against them.
In 1921, Italian Army General Giulio Douhet observed that "it is easier and more effective to destroy the enemy's aerial power by destroying his nests and eggs on the ground than to hunt his flying birds in the air." Douhet's metaphor was directed at fellow airmen, pointing out both the great offensive potential of airpower–a radical notion in 1921–and the exceptional vulnerability of aircraft on the ground. Flying machines, even modern ones, by their very nature are thin-skinned, relatively soft targets. Speed, maneuverability, and stealth enable these unarmored vehicles to survive and be decisive in combat. In contrast, an aircraft parked on a ramp has none of these characteristics and–compared with most other ground targets–is triflingly easy to destroy. The vulnerability of parked aircraft was vividly demonstrated by the Japanese at Hickam Field, Hawaii, and the demonstration was repeated by all combatants many times during World War II. The preemptive Israeli raid on Egyptian airfields in the 1967 war demonstrated that unsheltered aircraft remain a tempting target in modern air warfare also. Since 1967, billions of dollars have been spent by the world's air forces on aircraft shelters, air defenses, and programs to enhance air base survivability.
Douhet's observation, like most great insights, has applicability beyond the confines of its initial setting. If aircraft are vulnerable on the ground, why not attack them with every weapon available? That is just what the world's armies have done at least 645 times in ten conflicts between 1940 and 1992, destroying or damaging over 2,000 aircraft. Ground attack forces have included airborne, airmobile, infantry, and armor elements. Airborne forces have arrived on the objective by parachute, glider, and aircraft landing, often under fire. Armor and infantry have assaulted by land, and amphibious forces have landed by sea. More recently, helicopters have been used to transport the assault force. Finally, special forces, guerrillas, and terrorists have made their contribution.
Given the numerous occurrences, global distribution, and recentness of ground attacks on air bases, it is surprising that a history of those attacks has not been published. This report is intended to begin filling that void by bringing together in one document descriptions and analyses of air base attacks over the past 50 years. Beginning with a discussion of the four broad objectives of air base attackers, the report then briefly describes examples of air base attacks under each objective. The core of the report focuses on three case-study regions in which many air base attacks occurred: Crete and North Africa during World War II and Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War. The objectives, tactics, and outcomes of both standoff and penetrating attacks are analyzed to identify lessons learned that can be applied in future conflicts. In particular, by seeking answers to the following questions, I identify those techniques that were most effective for attackers and the successful defensive countermeasures:
It is hoped that these historical insights will be helpful to USAF officers responsible for planning and executing air base defense today and in the future.
Between 1940 and 1992, ground attacks on air bases pursued a variety of objectives. These objectives ranged from the very ambitious goal of capturing an airfield to the minimalist goal of harassing air base operations. Discussions of air base defense often treat these bounding goals as similar, but they really are quite different and call for a broad range of defensive countermeasures. To make the range and nature of historical threats to air bases more visible, I categorized the attacks identified in this research according to which one of the following four broad categories the attacker's major objective fit best (number of attack type follows each objective):
As Figure S.1 illustrates, the majority (60 percent) of these attacks sought to destroy aircraft and equipment. Only 6 percent were directed at the more ambitious objective of actually capturing airbases as airheads for troop insertion or for offensive use by the attacker's air force. Most of these major attacks occurred during World War II, although Soviet forces in Afghanistan (1979) and U.S. forces in Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989) also seized airfields for use as airheads. With these three exceptions, the most likely threat facing current and future air base defenders appears to be attempts to destroy aircraft rather than to seize the airfield. Figure S.2 shows the distribution of attack tactics for the 645 attacks identified in this report.
Of particular interest is the apparent evolution of air base attacker tactics since World War II (WW II). All the British attacks on Axis airfields in WW II penetrated the defenses. In contrast, faced with extensive minefields, fencing, guard posts, and lights, Viet Cong and North Vietnam Army (NVA) attackers rarely used penetrating tactics, relying on standoff weapons for 96 percent of their attacks. Recent attacks have used both techniques. Kurdish and Filipino insurgents used penetrating tactics; insurgents in El Salvador and Afghanistan used standoff weapons. The Special Air Services (SAS) attack against the Argentine airstrip on Pebble Island used both techniques, opening the attack with naval gunfire and light antitank weapons, then moving onto the airfield to plant charges on aircraft. It is likely that both tactics will continue to be used in the future, depending on the quality of perimeter defenses. Where perimeter defenses are weak, attackers will probably continue to penetrate and place charges. More troublesome is the possibility that precision-guided munitions for both existing standoff weapons and some new weapons may give small standoff attacks a lethality they lacked in the past.
Large forces are not required to conduct the most common type of air base attack. As one would expect, attempts to capture airfields or to deny their use have required larger forces, typically of regimental strength. In contrast, quite small forces have been used in efforts to destroy aircraft and equipment. Such attacks are typically conducted by platoons, albeit platoons often divided into squads or smaller teams. The SAS used 3-to-5-man teams quite successfully in WW II; later operations appear to favor platoon- or company-size teams.
Most large-unit attacks on airfields succeeded because defending ground forces were outnumbered, outgunned, or outclassed. On Crete, maldeployment of forces and bad leadership prevented effective use of well-trained and motivated forces. Many times, attacker air superiority also played an important role. For both standoff and penetrating attacks intended to destroy aircraft, shortages in high-quality rear-area security forces and a lack of surveillance assets were the most common weaknesses. Axis forces in North Africa demonstrated another weakness: their notable slowness to develop countermeasures to SAS attacks. In particular, their failure to establish night listening posts and ambushes outside of airfield perimeters is perplexing; such practices would not have taken large forces and could have paid large dividends. Conversely, U.S. forces in Vietnam demonstrated great innovation and creativity in their defensive countermeasures. Joint-force responses to penetration attacks proved quite effective. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam's (MACV's) refusal to make air base defense a high priority for such resources as ground forces and airborne surveillance assets, however, made it impossible to counter the standoff threat effectively. Without ground forces and airborne surveillance assets dedicated to controlling the standoff footprint, USAF bases remained vulnerable to the end of the war.
Reliance on other services for the defense of air bases was a problem for the RAF on Crete, the Luftwaffe in North Africa, and the USAF in Vietnam. In each case, air base defense had to compete with other missions to which ground commanders assigned higher priority. On Crete, ground commanders failed to recognize that air bases were key terrain that the attacker must be denied at all costs. In North Africa, Luftwaffe units reported up their own chain of command and were not integrated under General Rommel, the theater commander, which hampered the coordination of defenses.
What effect have these attacks had on the outcome of the subject conflicts? At the least, they caused the loss of valuable aircraft, materiel, and personnel, and they forced the defenders to devote substantial resources to the defense of their airfields.
In one case–British special forces' attacks on Axis airfields in North Africa–the loss of aircraft was so severe and the airpower balance so precarious that these small attacks made a major contribution to the RAF's battle against the Luftwaffe. In others, the loss of airfields to attacking forces enabled the attacker's air force to move in and extend its range. In the Pacific theater, the need to capture and defend airfields drove both American and Japanese campaign planning. For example, the Japanese victory over the British in Malaya was made possible when critical air bases were captured by ground forces. The U.S. island-hopping campaign was focused on capturing airfields; toward the end of WW II, Tinian, Okinawa, and Ie Shima were captured to launch air attacks against the Japanese homeland. The Japanese attack on Midway sought to capture the island for its airfield; their failure to do so and their losses incurred in the process marked a turning point in the war.
It is clear from this analysis that ground attacks on airfields in past conflicts cannot be dismissed as a quaint subfield of military history. The basic techniques of airfield attack and defense have not changed dramatically over the past 50 years. The simple-but-effective tactics and the strategic rationale for the attacks are as relevant today as they were in 1940. Indeed, the centrality of airpower to modern warfare makes airfields even more tempting targets than they have been. Conversely, a variety of new information and sensor and weapon technologies offers opportunities for attacker and defender alike. It remains to be seen who will exploit these opportunities most effectively.
What lessons can be learned from this historical review? The five primary conclusions of this study are as follows:
During World War II, ground forces attacked air bases in pursuit of three of the four objectives (harassment not included). During the Vietnam War, virtually all air base attacks were focused on only two objectives: destroy aircraft and harass defenders. Of the 19 attacks since Vietnam, 12 have sought to destroy aircraft. Of the remaining 7, 5–by the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the United States in Grenada and Panama–were to capture airfields for use as airheads and may not be representative, because few other nations have this capability. To the extent that we wish to look to historical experience as a predictor of future challenges, these cases are probably misleading.
It is highly unlikely that USAF bases will be assaulted by large airborne forces in the near future. Although the possibility of large-unit attacks on airfields should not be discounted, it is a possibility more for adversaries of the United States than for the United States: The United States has elite airborne units that specialize in assaulting and capturing airfields. Airborne insertion of special forces is another matter, however, and a distinct possibility in a future Korean conflict, for instance. The threat facing USAF bases in future contingencies is more likely to resemble that presented by SAS operations in WW II or the VC/NVA operations in Vietnam. If the historical experience is any indication, standoff threats will continue to pose a particularly daunting challenge. New precision-guided munitions for mortars and other standoff weapons will only exacerbate this problem.
In conclusion, attacks by small forces with the limited objective of destroying aircraft succeeded in destroying or damaging over 2,000 aircraft between 1940 and 1992. Such attacks are powerful testimony to the effectiveness of small units against typical air base defenses and offer a sobering precedent for those responsible for defending USAF bases against them.
The German Airborne Assault on Crete
British Special Operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean
Air Base Attacks in Vietnam and Thailand
Churchill's Memo on Defense of Air Bases
Chronology of Ground Attacks on Air Bases
"Snakes in the Eagle's Nest should be mandatory reading for anyone involved in air base defense because it highlights a potential weakness in our reliance on airpower to achieve our national objectives."
- Airpower Journal
The study was conducted as part of the Strategy, Doctrine, and Force Structure program of RAND Project AIR FORCE and was sponsored by the Director of Plans, Headquarters, United States Air Force (AF/XOX).
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