The Essential Elements of Dispersed Basing

By Aaron Sick


My previous OTH article covered the reasons for dispersed basing: a complex world order armed with long-range missiles drives the requirement for US forces to mitigate risk to it forces and national interests. Dispersed basing significantly increases survivability, postures the US to shape and win on the multi-domain battlefield, and bolsters US influence in the region.

This article will describe the dispersed basing concept and the obstacles that must be overcome to make it a reality.

Essential Elements: An Overview of One Construct for Dispersed Basing

The purpose of this section is to use a Cold War case study to illustrate lessons learned from a real-world example of dispersed basing, and then paint a picture of how dispersed basing may be feasibly executed. From this framework, the following section will discuss essential roadblocks that must be overcome to execute the dispersed basing concept.

Cold War Vignette: USAFE Response to the USSR

db2 russiaWilliam Pinter describes the Air Force’s decision to execute dispersed basing in response to the Soviet threat of nuclear strikes against European bases, which USAFE exercised consistently during the 1950s. Below are several strategic and operational lessons learned.

Strategic Lessons

  1. Military plans must be closely tied to the real-world relationships between the US and other nations, especially the adversary. “An effective US coercive strategy must address deterrence, perceived US vulnerabilities, enemy counterstrategies, coercive diplomacy, and compellent military force options.”
  2. The US must deter the use of nuclear weapons.
  3. Increasing the number of bases “enhanced the survivability and operational capability of its combat assets”

Operational Lessons

  1. In addition to physical dispersal, USAFE also employed a multitude of passive defenses, including hardened, revetments, shelters, underground areas, camouflage, etc.
  2. Networking dispersed units together through C4ISR and logistics was critical to successful operations.
  3. It was vital to rotate all units through the dispersed bases, to strengthen unit operations from deployed locations (especially austere and/or non-desert environments), and “maintain individual proficiency in operating from remote bases.”
  4. It was imperative to pre-position several weeks of supplies necessary to conduct combat operations.

From these lessons, one can glean that international relationships are intricately tied to military strategy, and that dispersed basing played a key role in bolstering US credibility in the region. Even once bases were secured, they had to be equipped, defended, and used by well-trained Airmen. The same lessons hold true today.

Application for Today: Tiered Basing Option

Based on these lessons learned, Pinter explains a three-tiered basing system: main operating bases, dispersed operating bases, and dispersed landing bases. In the three-tiered system, Tier 1 bases would be permanent bases, with a full complement of assets, logistics, networks, and supplies to support long-term combat operations. Additionally, Tier 1 should have additional supplies and network capability to support some combination of Tier 2 and Tier 3 bases for six months of combat operations.

Tier 2 are dispersed bases which have “sufficient infrastructure to support combat operations.” Squadron and battalion-levels unit operate from Tier 2 bases, with the ability to sustain combat operations for at least 30 days. Tier 2 bases would belong to the host nation during peacetime operations, who could use the base for its own military purposes (US would have to coordinate for major exercises). The base would be minimally manned by US personnel unless active.

Tier 3 dispersed bases are austere, satellite airfields which serve as launch and recovery operations for up to three days. The JFC would have to decide how and when to sustain these bases to use them for operations. Host nations would retain authority for use of these bases. Tier 2 personnel would monitor their suitability for US forces.

The purpose of these tiers is to provide a framework that demonstrates the flexibility of the dispersed basing construct. Similarly, Maj Gen CQ Brown describes a five-tiered system with the same premise: different tiers have different levels of logistic and operational capacity. The concept does not require every base to have exquisite features. Rather, the key is securing access to sites, preparing them before conflict, and training to fight effectively when conflict commences.

Foundations: Other Modern Concepts

db2 a10While a forward-stationed basing concept is relatively innovative for air forces, it is already commonplace within Army and Marine thinking, as described in their Multi-Domain Battle (MDB) white paper. Army and Marine units of the future will have to be small, agile, and dispersed in a way that is undetectable, and not tied to static locations. They would also benefit from the dispersed basing concept described in this article in several ways that enhance the multi-domain mission. If properly planned for, dispersed basing would allow these units to resupply and rest. They could also communicate with leadership to update mission-type order taskings, gain intel from across domains on latest enemy movements and tactics, and collaborate with forces operating in other domains on how to support one another in opening windows of opportunity to defeat the enemy. Air assets, including Army helicopters and Air Force light attack aircraft, would be able to base together to quickly and agilely support Army and Marine ground operations. If dispersed bases also included offensive and defensive cyber operators and electronic warfare assets, then the multi-domain fight would be further enhanced.

Joint doctrine already addresses the ability to support aviation missions using forward arming and refueling points (FARP). These points normally serve aircraft engaged in close air support. However, the battlefield in the multi-domain fight is increasingly non-linear. TRADOC Pamphlet 525-3-6 calls it hyperactive, with a myriad of sensor, network, friendly, and adversary inputs across the entire area of operations. Consequently, the joint force must execute as a multi-domain force to be able to affect the battlespace. Dispersed basing concepts should utilize FARP lessons learned to create agile basing options that promote and enable effective multi-domain operations.

The ability to quickly deploy high-end assets in all domains is critical to multi-domain operations. One example is the deployment of a small contingent of fighter aircraft at a moment’s notice. Called Rapid Raptor, this particular capability sends four to twelve F-22 Raptors using a C-17 for logistics support anywhere in the world within 24 hours. This concept was demonstrated in the European and Pacific theaters, showing US resolve and the ability to hold competitors at risk, and execute elements of multi-domain operations very quickly. Dispersed basing concepts can pull lessons learned from Rapid Raptor to create an array of options for high-end and low-end capacity. This empowers national and military leaders to shape, deter, and defeat the adversary along multiple lines of effort.

Essential Elements: Potential Roadblocks to Dispersed Basing

While dispersed basing does increase survivability and does provide advantages for executing multi-domain operations, there are several obstacles that must be overcome to ensure a successful strategy. These include building partnerships; providing logistics capacity; restructuring personnel and training requirements; ensuring command, control, communications, and computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) connectivity; and defending the base.


The military does not operate in a vacuum. Rather, it operates within a political, economic, and information-driven context. The US must leverage each of these instruments of power to achieve a well-thought out strategy and to set up favorable relationships with nations in key areas of the globe. An effective dispersed basing plan requires the US to cultivate lasting partnerships with host nations to ensure operations do not violate sovereignty. In addition, if bilateral relations become strained or are prohibitive, the US may have to rely on other regional allies to gain access or receive support for dispersed basing operations.

Current relationships with South Korea and Japan in the Pacific, and Italy, Germany, and the United Kingdom in Europe are excellent examples of strong partnerships. The US has Tier 1 bases in each of these nations. Improved relationships with Poland and the Baltic States, as well as Australia and other southeast Asian nations may also lead to long-term basing options. On the other hand, there are political risks to funding overseas basing. The deteriorating relationship between the US and the Philippines is an unfortunate example of how a shift in a partner’s national interests can affect national strategy. The US military’s future is less sure, while the Philippines continues to develop closer ties with China.

In most circumstances, the diplomatic relationship correlates whether the US can have a Tier 1 base in the nation. When negotiating on basing rights, privileges, and capabilities, the US must take into consideration the following factors. First, the US should attempt to retain control with the fewest amount of host nation restrictions during build-up and combat operations. Restrictions include executing combat missions, support missions, overflight/staging, logistics/munitions, and bandwidth. Not being able to use the resources stored at a base, or the base itself, could have strategic implications in a conflict. Second, the US should know what Tier it desires, the level of investment it is willing to put forth, and host-nation expectations for cost-sharing and dual-use capacity. Sharing a base with the host nation gives the host nation “skin in the fight,” provides them with military upgrades, and decreases the cost for the US. Naturally, US requirements will drive the footprint of the base, runway size/capacity, barracks, sea port, logistics access, weapons storage, security, ramp space, and local sustainment support contracts. Before, after, and during the agreement, the US must maintain its relationship with the host nation to optimize its dispersed basing strategy.


Logistics is the part of the supply chain process and plans, implements and controls the efficient, effective flow and storage of goods, services and related information from the point of origin to the point of consumption in order to meet [customer] requirements.” To be effective, the dispersed base must have a minimum capacity for fuel, munitions, maintenance, and supporting infrastructure. In addition, rapid dispersed basing options require an even heavier airlift requirement. While limited, short-term dispersed operations utilizing concepts like Rapid Raptor can greatly benefit multi-domain operations, larger scale, long-term dispersed operations would require an unsustainable C-17 and tanker force. The US must coordinate airlift, sealift, and local sources to meet basing requirements.

Fuel. Movement and maneuver depend on fuel. Even with improvements in fuel efficiency, aircraft, ships, and vehicles require significant amounts of petroleum products. One million gallons of fuel will sustain an F-15E squadron for just over eight days (this assumes eight aircraft flying three times a day; air refueling not included). This also does not include transport or tanker support who will take on fuel as part of logistics and combat operations support. The acute need for airlift to provide logistics support will significantly increase aircraft fuel requirements, and exponentially so in the Pacific theater. These requirements are further increased when considering sealift and other transportation.

Dispersed basing may enable aircraft to be closer to the fight, but it may also increase fuel requirements to transit to and from the battlespace. Tanker fuel requirements would also increase: if tankers are not co-located with the dispersed bases, they will have to travel from their Tier 1 base to the vicinity of the Tier 2 and 3 bases. Longer flight times for aircraft increase fuel requirements, especially in the Pacific theater.

While Air Force fuel requirements overshadow the other Services, the Army still has substantial needs. For example, a tank battalion consumes approximately 25,000 gallons of fuel every eight hours. Supplying fuel to power a multi-domain force is a significant obstacle in future conflicts, especially when using the dispersed basing concept.

Munitions. There are specific requirements for storing, maintaining, moving, and securing weapons. Due to weapons resource management (WRM) and security requirements, weapons may need to be delivered just prior to a conflict. One way to balance this might be to ensure air-to-ground weapons are pre-positioned, while flying in air-to-air missiles closer to the conflict. Either way, the US should have the munitions storage areas in place well prior to conflict.db2 maint

Maintenance. The US should invest in maintenance facilities and pre-position aircraft parts and tools. Another consideration is how to maintain stringent low-observable requirements when operating from dispersed bases.

Infrastructure. Infrastructure requirements will vary based on the US designs for the base and host-nation involvement and investment. Along with supporting fuel, munitions, and maintenance, infrastructure must also support security, C4ISR, and airfield operations, including the ability to fly instrument approaches to the base. To meet these requirements, the US should invest in infrastructure to support them, as well as prioritize assets to flow sustainment into the bases as forces diminish supplies.


Dispersed basing increases personnel requirements. For Tier 2 bases, there is a minimal requirement during peacetime. Pinter says two to five personnel would suffice. In reality, if weapons were stored there, the security personnel required would exceed this estimate. The permanent personnel requirements also increase if the base is meant to serve as an intel node or temporary drop-in for airlift. During exercises, bases will require a baseline staff to ease the process of bringing units in. Tier 3 manning would vary, depending on the scope of mission support. The situational use of Tier 3 bases means that personnel would be brought in as needed. Depending on host nation upkeep, an initial wave of heavy equipment may be needed to ensure readiness for US forces.

Beyond manning requirements for baseline functions, there is a personnel cost for operating an airfield, and a cost for operating with units smaller than squadrons. Flying operations require tower, weather, flight medicine, and pilot-filled supervisory positions. While a certain number of positions can cover an entire wing’s flying operations, these positions must be duplicated at each dispersed base to cover smaller units. The same duplication holds true in the maintenance, fuel, and munitions organizations. The Air Force could still fly effective tactical missions with smaller units at dispersed bases, but would generate much fewer sorties overall, degrading operational effectiveness.

Furthermore, sustaining flying operations not only require skill positions, but experience. For example, there should be a mix of instructor, flight lead, and wingman pilots. Maintenance professionals require managerial supervisors to keep teams running effectively and safely during combat operations. The US must also consider how to maintain combat persistence. The inefficiencies of splitting a squadron into smaller units is magnified with 24-hour operations or multiple “waves” of combat power. Even with an entire squadron present, long sortie lengths will also increase rest periods for pilots, which further reduces the ability to sustain high operations tempos.

Fortunately, the Marines and Army ground units are designed to operate at the required echelon to enable dispersed operations more easily. Sustainment challenges still exist, including equipping personnel with munitions, communication tools, and sustainment to complete the mission. Leadership must also equip the entire multi-domain force with mission-type orders; otherwise dispersed basing would be rendered less effective when communications are degraded.


Dispersed basing, if done poorly, will introduce substantial fog and friction into combat operations. Units who are used to being a part of a larger unit have been split up. The bases are austere, with limited lodging, food, and communication options. There is a high workload and uncertainty, and potential psychological effects of the war and isolation. Therefore, preparation is key to dispersed basing success. The Air Force, in particular, must take stock of hard-learned lessons from the Army and Marine experience in Afghanistan.

Just as Red Flag exercises enable practitioners to experience a taste of the chaos of combat, the US would need to expose the joint force to the stressors of dispersed basing. US ground forces are familiar with dispersed operations in the current fight overseas, but the entire joint force must prepare for higher-end adversaries and integrating domains in a higher-end fight. This training requires multiple airframes and units from each domain to move to a location, set up, and begin executing operations in a short amount of time. Units must know exactly what they require prior to going, who is responsible for setting up each piece of equipment, and how to establish communication with higher headquarters for status and tasking, all while bedding down a diverse force in an unfamiliar environment.

Training consists of at least three parts: deployment to the dispersed base, executing combat operations from the base, and redeploying to another location or back to a permanent base. Dispersed basing relies on using non-permanent bases. The first step of training is to arrive at a base and transform it into a combat-ready environment. Training begins with the coordination required to leave one’s permanent base and moving all the pieces to the new location. With limited airlift resources, practitioners must make sure nothing critical is left behind. Training ensures people are set up for success, machines are maintained, and communications are established.

db2 c130Executing combat operations does not simply mean generating aircraft or combat teams. These assets must fight, integrated with the entire multi-domain force and with assets from other bases. Consequently, training must not only generate aircraft, but send them out to accomplish combat missions. In training, varying levels of communication and connectivity must be practiced. One level may be a simple force package for an Air Interdiction mission. More advanced scenarios include multi-domain, multi-base integration, with each domain creating windows of opportunity in other domains. Examples include shutting down enemy logistics networks, the Army taking down portions of an IADS, or air and maritime launching missile strikes against underground command bunkers.  One of the more difficult training scenarios might be moving from one deployed location to another. However, this may be the reality of the next war against a near-peer adversary. The US must support the training behind dispersed basing to make it a reality.


C4ISR is critical to battlefield coordination. The US is reliant on C4ISR for planning, executing, and assessing operations. Dispersed basing considerations are two-fold concerning the ability to communicate with HHQ. First and foremost, existing infrastructure must be able to leverage technology to connect with HHQ. Second, dispersed bases can act as C4ISR nodes for the battlefield, increasing redundancy in the US system, and building localized PED nodes which can enhance adaptability in a smaller region. Since network connectivity may prove difficult, especially at classified levels and if not set up prior to conflict, leaders will have to decide on the scope of communication required to complete the mission at dispersed bases.  Those bases will need to be provided with pre-positioned infrastructure to enable rapid employment of C4ISR capabilities for combat operations, as well as appropriate defense cyber operations to protect against cyber attacks.

Defense and Security

In addition to cyber security, there are two main types of defense in the dispersed basing concept: air and missile defense and base security. While dispersing assets to more locations increases survivability of forces, US and host nations must still deploy missile defense systems. This becomes more imperative the closer bases are to the threats. Dispersed basing is comparable to the WWII Pacific island hopping campaign, because multi-domain forces move from point to point while operating from multiple locations to increase risk and defeat the enemy. However, the modern enemy can attack friendly forces from a location that is not accessible to friendly forces, which means the adversary does not need boots on ground or aircraft flying overhead to hold the US at risk. Consequently, it is vital that US leaders strategically link locations of missile defense systems with the locations of dispersed bases.

The second line of defense is the implied task, base security. The purpose of the base, as well as the threat level, will determine how much security is needed and who can provide that security. Invested capital, tier level, communications assets, and types of munitions raise the level of required security. Likewise, host nation investment and dependability also play a role. The US must also consider the local population, extremist ideological influence, and the ability of near-peer competitors to infiltrate or influence others toward nefarious actions against the US and its partners. Base defense should be tailored to satisfy the joint requirements of the units and equipment operating at the bases. Leadership must balance dispersed basing requirements with theater missile defense and theater-wide base defense resources available.


Technology, geopolitics, and globalization are among the myriad of factors that transformed the world from complicated to complex. In view of this complexity, the US must position itself to maintain agile influence in the world via all instruments of power. Militarily, linear solutions of the past fall short of the required dynamism required to sustain the US-led world order. Instead, the US must use multi-domain thinking to shape, deter, and defeat adversaries along multiple axes of attack and in multiple domains.

Influence is difficult to grow because of complexity and adversaries who seek to deny the US access to regions where they desire greater autonomy and hegemony. Access is denied diplomatically, economically, and informationally, but also by holding US military assets and partners at risk via advanced missile systems. The calculus for US basing options has changed. The dispersed basing concept described, combined with hardening and other solutions, offers the US the ability to survive and project power towards peacetime credibility and commitment, while also providing capacity to execute effective multi-domain operations in conflict. The United States must implement access-enhancing measures now to optimize—and maintain—its power-projection capability in the not-so-distant future.

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 US Government.


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