There was a time when the United States could count on safe and secure air bases from which it could leisurely deploy warplanes to deter an enemy or launch an air campaign. No longer. Potential enemies — China, in particular — possess long-range missiles that could pepper an airfield with bomblets and wipe out huge portions of America's air power.
"Since the end of the Cold War, U.S. dominance in conventional power projection has allowed U.S. air forces to operate from sanctuary, largely free from enemy attack," RAND analyst Alan Vick writes in a new study. "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.
How bad would a missile strike on a U.S. air base be if the planes were parked in typically blase American fashion? Check out RAND's illustration above. And take a look at the hardened F-22 shelter at Kadena Air Force Base in Japan. As the Pentagon finally deals with threats to its airfields, these shelters could pop up at bases all over the world.
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