Cover: Air Base Attacks and Defensive Counters

Air Base Attacks and Defensive Counters

Historical Lessons and Future Challenges

Published Jun 12, 2015

by Alan J. Vick


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Research Question

  1. How have needs changed for protecting air bases and their assets?

Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. dominance in conventional power projection has allowed American airpower to operate from sanctuary, largely free from enemy attack. This led to a reduced emphasis on air-base defense measures and the misperception that sanctuary was the normal state of affairs rather than an aberration. The emergence of the long-range, highly accurate, conventional missile (both ballistic and cruise) as a threat to air bases is now widely recognized in the U.S. defense community, and, with that recognition, there is a growing appreciation that this era of sanctuary is coming to an end. Consequently, there is renewed interest in neglected topics, such as base hardening, aircraft dispersal, camouflage, deception, and air-base recovery and repair.

This report is intended to provide a reference on air-base attack and defense to inform public debate, as well as government deliberations, on what has become known as the anti-access problem, specifically as it applies to air-base operations. The report explores the history of air-base attacks in the past century and describes the American way of war that emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union. It then argues that emerging threat systems are disruptive to this way of war and will require new concepts of power projection. Finally, the report identifies five classes of defensive options that have proven valuable in past conflicts and offers recommendations on how best to win the battle of the airfields.

Key Findings

Air-Base Attacks Persist, but Their Nature Has Changed

  • Air-base attacks have been a common feature of both minor and major conflicts in the past century.
  • The major components of air-base defense first identified in World War I (active defense; camouflage, concealment, and deception; hardening; dispersal on and off base; and postattack recovery) reflect enduring military principles and offer a sound framework for air-base defense planning today.
  • After the Cold War ended, the United States found that it could operate from rear-area sanctuaries, and from this flowed a new American way of war.
  • An American way of war evolved in the late 20th century.

New Technologies and Concepts Are Reducing Imbalances Between Opposing Force Capabilities Because of the Proliferation of Long-Range Strike and Other Systems

  • Emerging long-range strike capabilities are bringing the era of sanctuary to an end, with significant implications for the American way of war.
  • The United States will need to adapt its power-projection concepts to operate under a greater threat of attack.
  • As in the past, a combination of measures is needed, but the specific mix will vary depending on the political geography of the region, adversary capabilities, and U.S. objectives.


  • The U.S. Air Force and the U.S. Department of Defense should recognize that the air base, the airspace above and near it, and the surrounding land represent a battlespace, a place where defenders should not expect sanctuary.
  • They should develop and test new concepts of operation for deployment to and operation of air bases under attack that incorporate both historical lessons and a full appreciation of emerging threats.
  • They should explore organizational options to better support distributed and dispersed operations.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted within the Strategy and Doctrine Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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