The cornerstone of America’s continued military preeminence is our ability to project combat power rapidly and virtually unimpeded to widespread areas of the globe.
—National Defense Panel, 1997
By Aaron Sick
Another volley of missiles is inbound. They saturate blue force Patriot and THAAD missile systems; enemy missiles pierce through the missile defense with ease. They hit their targets: radars, runways, aircraft, barracks, and headquarters buildings. Within six hours, the US has lost half of its fighters, two thirds of its air refuelers, an Army headquarters, most of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, two aircraft carriers, and a third of the strike group. Extensive damage to air and sea ports of debarkation would make it difficult for remaining forces to fight back. The adversary seized the initiative to deny US access and influence. While not defeated, the US will be hard-pressed to project power in the coming months, much less fight the adversary and regain the initiative within in half a year.
This scenario is fictitious, but warns of the dangers of “putting all of one’s eggs in the same basket.” America’s ability to hold the enemy at risk is critical to national security, but doing so with limited basing options increases risk to US forces. In the past, the current basing construct was much less vulnerable to attack from conventional weapons, largely due to the global geopolitical landscape and the lack of missile technology capable of accurately hitting land, maritime, and air targets at long ranges. Today, both factors have changed dramatically, turning previous strategic assumptions upside down.
While no single option will create a more survivable military situation overseas, one of the requirements that must be considered is dispersed basing. As the name implies, this term refers to having access to operate from a greater number of bases spread across a region. There are compelling reasons for implementing this approach, including survivability and the capacity to execute multi-domain operations. There are also significant challenges to overcome, including building partnerships; sustainment; restructuring personnel and training requirements; ensuring command, control, communications, and computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) connectivity; and base defense. National and military leaders must decide today on the long-term strategy of US interests, leveraging time to solidify American military viability across the globe.
Dispersed Basing: Why Consider It
Adversary and missile threats protected by effective air defense network compel the joint force to operate more dispersed and places a greater premium on assured command and control to coordinate effective operations.
– TRADOC, 2017
Missile technology has drastically altered other nations’ capability to hold the US and its allies at risk. In contrast to the Cold War, Russia now holds NATO forces at risk without having to cross the nuclear threshold, enabling it to take controversial actions without crossing NATO’s threshold for intervention. Likewise, China, Iran, and North Korea have demonstrated long-range capabilities.
Even the US Navy is at risk. China could potentially strike US aircraft carriers at great distances (the DF-21: 810nm; the DF-26: 2500nm). Even if only 25% effective, the implications of that capability greatly impact strategic maritime and overall military thinking. In addition to its recent strikes on ISIS, Iran has exercised using missiles and swarming boats to take down a mock carrier. While anti-ship missile ranges and accuracy may still need improvement to be a reliable threat, swarming fast attack craft (FAC) may prove disastrous for US fleets in the Arabian Gulf, through which 30% of all maritime-traded petroleum passes. Russia could field a hypersonic anti-ship missile by 2020, capable of destroying ships from a range of 250nm only minutes after launch. While the effectiveness of such systems remains to be seen, their emergence as legitimate threats changes the way the US must think about power projection into contested regions.
Furthermore, the US currently relies on aircraft and missiles to destroy anti-surface and anti-ship missiles and allow for land and maritime forces to approach their objectives. However, an assumption of air superiority is challenged by advanced surface-to-air missiles (SAM), such as the Russian S-300/400. These systems are deployed in Russia, China, and the Middle East, and can deny access to US aircraft at ranges up to 215nm. It would take large, expensive salvos of cruise missiles and long-range surface missiles to overwhelm the SAMs, especially since the SAMs are linked together in an integrated air defense system (IADS). Additionally, commanders would have to accept medium-to-high risk of losing expensive, low-observable aircraft to complete the task. Against a near-peer adversary, these responses would not alleviate the threat, due to resource constraints, difficulty in locating and targeting the systems, and an inability to prevent a debilitating attack in the first place. Dispersed basing mitigates the effects of adversary missile attacks.
In short, the increased capability, capacity, proliferation, and comparatively low cost of missiles creates a formidable force that safeguards potential adversaries. Far from simply being a missile defense system, these assets threaten US military force projection capabilities thousands of miles away, far into regions where US vital interests are at stake. In recent years, this threat has been called the “anti-access/area-denial” strategy, or A2AD. Combined with geopolitical factors of a complex world, this system of threats creates an environment where massing forces at a smaller number of bases invites a higher likelihood of losing those forces to an overwhelming missile attack. Dispersed basing increases survivability by decreasing the adversary’s ability to mass.
World Order: From Complicated to Complex
Instead of a relatively stable, complicated world with only two nuclear superpowers, the world increasingly operates in complexity. In a complicated world, one can analyze cause-and-effect relationships to reach systematic solutions; it may have many parts, but is generally predictable. In a complex world, innumerable intricacies and relationships create extreme unpredictability, requiring dynamic decision-making frameworks. Today, the US is the only superpower, a surging China looks for regional hegemony (or more), a resurgent Russia desires the respect it once had as a world power, a dangerous Iran rekindles ancient Persian ambitions, an unpredictable nuclear North Korea threatens the US, and ubiquitous terrorism is fueled by extremist ideology. These conditions are only the tip of the iceberg, with increasing nationalism brewing under the surface and a world proliferated with advanced technology, misinformation, anonymity, and ambiguity. This geopolitical situation gives rise to a couple considerations. First, since complexity increases interdependence between and among state and non-state actors, it is harder to take decisive political and military action. Adversaries capitalize on complexity to evade intervention. They purposefully engage in low-level, gray zone activities, which build upon one another to achieve large-scale objectives at odds with US interests: North Korea possesses nuclear weapons, China has weaponized islands in the South China Sea, and Russia is in control of Crimea again. This feeds into to the second consideration: the US cannot commit to all theaters all the time, yet it must posture itself intelligently to maintain its influence across the globe. To maintain influence, it is imperative the US maintain credibility using all instruments of power. This credibility deters adversaries and assures allies and partners of US commitment. While dispersed basing requires positive host nation relationships, it also communicates US commitment and strengthens regional influence.
Dispersed Basing: Survivability and Ability to Conduct Multi-Domain Operations
In the face of threatening missile technology and an increasingly complex operational environment, dispersed basing offers one viable avenue for establishing a long-term, flexible presence of credibility, while preserving US force survivability and increasing its ability to conduct multi-domain operations. Spreading forces over a larger number of bases equates to more difficult targeting and weapons resource management problems for the adversary, leading to greater US survivability. Dispersed basing also stretches an adversary’s C4ISR capability: a more complex target array complicates collection, target generation, command and control, execution, and assessment. Furthermore, dispersed basing provides more options to divert, retrograde, or temporarily resupply military forces. Dispersed basing increases survivability, enabling a multi-domain force to remain viable in the region.
While survivability is critical, the ability to fight an effective multi-domain fight empowers the US to secure its interests. Multi-domain operations require US forces to achieve their objectives by integrating as many domains as necessary to defeat the enemy. The focus is the mission, with commanders and operators in each domain seamlessly working together to find and open temporary windows of opportunities for each other to disorient, dismantle, and defeat the enemy. Dispersed basing adds multiple axes of attack in the physical battlefield (air, land, sea, space, and arguably the electromagnetic spectrum), as well multiple axes of engagement in virtual and social contested environments. Increased basing options provides opportunities for advanced deception tactics, information and misinformation messaging, pattern of life conditioning, and increased anonymity for offensive cyberspace operations. Dispersed basing also allows for greater flexibility in how forces work together. It provides more options for the Joint Force Commander. While multiple starting locations can complicate a plan, flexible options limit predictability for adversaries seeking to know routes and intentions of the various components of the multi-domain force. In addition, dispersed basing could provide a more diversified communication network. Each base could act as a command and control node, as a relay or a collection and processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) node. Instead of merely acting as a supply point for forces, certain dispersed bases can increase multi-domain connectivity, providing the means for a more cohesive execution of mission command across the battlefield and in the absence of day-to-day command orders. Dispersed basing creates unique opportunities for the multi-domain force to execute potent game plans across various domains and along multiple lines of attack. Ultimately, it increases the survivability of US forces and empowers them to execute effective multi-domain operations.
The world today is drastically different from the Cold War era. The geopolitical context trends increasingly toward complexity, with a future full of unpredictability. The lines are blurred between friendly and adversary players, state and non-state actors, and facts and fiction. The invention and proliferation of technology, namely long-range missile systems holds US interests at risk. One requirement for solutions to mitigate this risk is the dispersed basing concept. Dispersed basing significantly increases survivability, postures the US to shape and win the multi-domain battlefield, and bolsters US influence in the region.
The next article of this series will take a look at the essential elements of dispersed basing, describing what it might look like and obstacles that must be overcome to make it a reality.
Major Aaron Sick has over 1000 flying hours in the F-16, including 400 combat hours during two tours in Iraq. He holds a BS in Aeronautical Engineering from the US Air Force Academy and a Master’s in Theology from Liberty University. He is a graduate of the Multi-Domain Operational Strategist concentration at Air Command and Staff College, and is a Senior Editor to Over the Horizon.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.