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Research Questions

  1. What are the current service roles and responsibilities for defense of air bases against air and missile threats?
  2. How were these roles and responsibilities established, and how well have they worked in the decades since?
  3. What courses of action are open to the Air Force to improve air base defense, and what are their strengths and weaknesses?

The growing cruise and ballistic missile threat to U.S. Air Force bases in Europe has led Headquarters U.S. Air Forces Europe to reassess defensive options, including active ground-based systems that are currently assigned to the Army. The gap between the cruise missile threat and the U.S. joint force's capacity and capability to counter the threat is particularly worrisome. Constraints on resources and Army prioritization of mobile short-range air defenses for forward forces suggest that shortfalls in air base air defenses are likely to continue unless U.S. Department of Defense force planning and posture decisions give higher priority to these point defenses. This report presents a broad assessment of the threats, defense options, and constraints. The authors offer alternative courses of action for Air Force leadership and assess strengths and weaknesses of each. Although the U.S. Army has been assigned the mission, that mission is not a priority for the Army, as reflected by the lack of dedicated forces. The Air Force is increasingly interested in acquiring its own ground-based air defense but does not believe it has the authority to do so.

Key Findings

  • Air base defense has been an enduring area of disagreement and frustration for the Army and Air Force.
  • Although many factors are at play, the misalignment of service responsibilities and priorities for air base defense is hindering the correction of enduring shortfalls.
  • The limitations of joint force development processes, Army resource constraints, and Air Force ambivalence have also contributed to an air base defense roles and functions roadblock.
  • The Air Force may be able to bypass this roadblock through innovation and the use of advanced technologies, such as directed energy.
  • The most robust strategy to improve air base defenses would pursue parallel lines of effort.


  • Demonstrate institutional commitment to air base defense by funding and advocating for substantial enhancements in capability areas already assigned to the Air Force, such as security forces and passive defense programs.
  • Use the Air Force culture of innovation to break down barriers related to roles and functions.
  • Propose a new memorandum of understanding with the Army to establish ground-based air defense of air bases as an Air Force responsibility.

Research conducted by

This research was commissioned by then–Brig Gen Charles Corcoran, Director of Operations, Strategic Deterrence and Nuclear Integration, Headquarters USAFE and Air Forces Africa, and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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