Winning the Battle of the Airfields

Seventy Years of RAND Analysis on Air Base Defense and Attack

by Alan J. Vick, Mark Ashby

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Research Questions

  1. How has RAND analysis of ABD/A contributed to the resiliency of U.S. air power?
  2. What enduring lessons do RAND's seven decades of work on ABD/A provide?

From the dawn of the air power age to today, airfields have been recognized as essential military facilities, and combatants have gone to great lengths to destroy enemy aircraft on the ground (where they are most vulnerable) and to deny the use of airfields through attacks on runways, fuel storage, and other supporting assets.

The RAND Corporation has worked on issues related to analyzing air base defense and attack (ABD/A) for 70 years — supporting the analysis of its U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) and U.S. Air Force (USAF) sponsors and sometimes leading the way. This report documents and highlights RAND's many contributions to the analysis of ABD/A over time and identifies enduring insights for improving the resiliency of U.S. air bases in the face of modern threats.

Key Findings

RAND has made far-reaching contributions to the resiliency of U.S. air power, and sometimes led the way

  • Over seven decades, RAND analysis has responded to an ever-evolving geopolitical, military, and technological landscape in step with its DoD and USAF sponsors, but, given RAND's charter, it was not entirely bound by them.
  • At critical junctures, RAND led its DoD and USAF sponsors, identifying emerging threats to air bases and potential solutions well before the broader community acknowledged them.
  • RAND's greatest contributions were in its disciplined and creative application of more formal analytical tools to the problem of ABD/A. RAND researchers invented and applied these tools so that the relative utility of various offensive and defensive concepts could be measured systematically.

RAND analysis of ABD/A offers several enduring insights

  • Air bases have always been, and are likely to remain, priority targets in wars. This is true because air power is an element that must be countered to prevail in conflict, and air bases are specific points of vulnerability.
  • Air base attackers will rarely limit themselves to a single attack mode.
  • There are no simple or cheap means to defend air bases.
  • Aircraft dispersal on and across bases has renewed salience for air base defense. Distributed operations present a host of challenges but are often easier to implement than other passive defense options and do not require massive investments in infrastructure at bases that may not be needed in the next war.
  • ABD/A is best understood from a systems perspective.

Table of Contents

  • Chapter One

    Introduction

  • Chapter Two

    A Statistical Overview of RAND Research on Air Base Attack and Defense, 1951–2020

  • Chapter Three

    Nuclear Threats to U.S. Air Force Bases in the United States and Europe, 1950–1959

  • Chapter Four

    A Shift Toward Conventional and Offensive Operations, 1960–1969

  • Chapter Five

    Conventional Warfare in Central Europe, 1970–1989

  • Chapter Six

    Era of Rear Area Sanctuary for the U.S. Air Force, 1990–2009

  • Chapter Seven

    Anti-Access Threat to U.S. Bases Reinvigorates Analysis of Air Base Defense, 2010–2020

  • Chapter Eight

    Conclusions

  • Appendix A

    Statistics on Report Authors and Co-Author Networks

  • Appendix B

    First Authors by Decade

  • Appendix C

    Chronological Listing of Publicly Available RAND Reports on Air Base Attack or Defense

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was prepared for the Department of the Air Force and conducted by the Strategy and Doctrine Program within RAND Project AIR FORCE.

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