The Vulnerability of Air Bases

 In Land, Afghanistan, Italy, Air, Forces & Capabilities

Pakistani-PNS-Mehran-1Pakistani-PNS-Mehran-1

In 1921, Italian Army General Giulio Douhet pub­lished Il Dominio Dell’Aria (or Command of the Air), a hugely influ­en­tial trea­tise on air­pow­er. While the book was large­ly an advo­ca­cy for what would be termed strate­gic bomb­ing, it also makes sev­er­al insight­ful points on other aspects of air­pow­er, one of which is that of destroy­ing the enemy’s air force at its point of origin.

As Douhet assert­ed: “It is easier and more effec­tive to destroy an enemy’s aerial power by destroy­ing his nests and eggs on the ground than to hunt his flying birds in the air.”

In other words, Douhet was propos­ing strik­ing the enemy air­craft on the ground. This made a lot of sense then and still does today. After all, air­craft have always been con­sid­ered ‘soft tar­gets’ given that they are thin-skinned and are vir­tu­al­ly sit­ting ducks (no pun intend­ed) when on land. (Of course, the pro­vi­so is that one must first pen­e­trate the adversary’s outer defences to carry out such an attack).

Douhet’s quote came to my mind when I was remind­ed last month of the anniver­saries of two highly effec­tive attacks by land forces on air­fields in recent decades: the 1982 Pebble Island oper­a­tion during the Falklands War and the ter­ror­ist attack in 2011 on the Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran. Indeed, both involved only a scat­ter­ing of attack­ers, but they exuded effects dis­pro­por­tion­ate to their lim­it­ed num­bers.

Pebble Island operation

Pebble Island 1982 is one of the most auda­cious spe­cial oper­a­tions forces (SOF) mis­sions in his­to­ry. On the night of 14 – 15 May, 1982, over 40 mem­bers of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) struck the Argentine held airstrip on Pebble Island, whose oper­a­tional poten­tial was deemed to jeop­ar­dise the upcom­ing amphibi­ous land­ing by the clos­ing British Task Force to reclaim the Falklands.

In a strike rem­i­nis­cent of their fore­fa­thers during the North African cam­paign against German Luftwaffe air­fields, the SAS troop­ers destroyed 11 Argentine air­craft using anti-tank weapons, explo­sive charges, and mor­tars. Fuel and ammu­ni­tion stores were also hit. Just one British sol­dier was injured, and the oper­a­tion was regard­ed as a com­plete suc­cess.

Terrorist Attack on the Pakistan Naval Station

Twenty-nine years later, on the night of 22 May, 2011, up to 20 feday­een from the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda brazen­ly infil­trat­ed and assault­ed the head­quar­ters of Pakistan’s naval air arm at Karachi. Within 20 min­utes of infil­trat­ing PNS Mehran, the mil­i­tants using rocket-pro­pelled grenades (RPGs) had destroyed two Lockheed P‑3 Orion mar­itime sur­veil­lance air­craft, each cost­ing some $45 mil­lion.

A few other air­craft were also dam­aged. The Islamabad Government acti­vat­ed its SOF to retake the base, and at the end of the 16-hour inci­dent, 18 Pakistani mil­i­tary per­son­nel were dead with anoth­er 16 injured. Four feday­een were killed, two escaped, and the rest cap­tured.

This was a rel­a­tive­ly low price to pay to inflict costs worth many mil­lions of dol­lars on their adver­sary. Unsurprisingly, the Pakistan Navy was cas­ti­gat­ed by the media over the attack, which came during a period where social media was on the ascent. The two air­base raids high­light how der­ring-do, sur­prise, and arguably some luck by small units of men could cir­cum­vent seem­ing­ly tight defences. They have also cast the spot­light on air­base secu­ri­ty, an issue that has been debat­ed since the exploits of the British SAS in North Africa.

Camp Bastion attack

The lessons learnt from many decades of deal­ing with air­base secu­ri­ty were arguably not heeded during the spec­tac­u­lar Camp Bastion attack car­ried out by the Afghan Taliban on the night of 14 September, 2012. Lapses and short­falls in perime­ter secu­ri­ty led to 15 feday­een dressed in American mil­i­tary uni­form suc­cess­ful­ly infil­trat­ing the air­base in Helmand province.

Although Camp Bastion was described as “one of the largest and best-defend­ed posts in Afghanistan”, an intense four-hour fire­fight ensued where even pilots and main­tain­ers were called to fend off the mil­i­tants.

Using var­i­ous weapons, includ­ing RPGs and sui­cide vests, the feday­een shot up eight United States Marine AV‑8 Harrier jets and inflict­ed dam­ages amount­ing to some $200 mil­lion. Two Marines were dead at the end of the siege, with anoth­er 17 wound­ed. Only one mil­i­tant was cap­tured, and the rest killed.

Indeed, one com­men­ta­tor termed the inci­dent as “the worst loss of US air­pow­er in a single inci­dent since the Vietnam War”. Like the PNS Mehran strike, Camp Bastion 2012 was arguably a mil­i­tary vic­to­ry for the extrem­ists in purely finan­cial terms. More impor­tant­ly, it was also a major pro­pa­gan­da coup for the Taliban in the “war of the nar­ra­tives”.

Penetrating attacks by small num­bers of deter­mined and skilled per­son­nel could pose an effec­tive threat to air­bas­es. There have been many other instances of such oper­a­tions: includ­ing sev­er­al during the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.

Future Attacks

In the future how­ev­er, a tech-savvy extrem­ist group tar­get­ing an air­base need not  simply rely on ground infil­tra­tion. By using cyber to jam secu­ri­ty sys­tems, and unmanned aerial vehi­cles (which may be weapon­sied and may be swarm­ing) to con­found the airbase’s defence, infil­tra­tion by a deter­mined group could result in even greater suc­cess.

by Ben Ho

Asian Military Review source|articles

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