Airpower Journal - Spring 1996
The ideal officer should be afraid of nothing, not even a new idea.
-Gen Sir Archibald Wavell
AMID THE DEBATE over roles and missions in recent years, claims of land-based airpower's capacity to match the contributions of US Navy aircraft carriers have been a prominent theme. As part of that argument, some advocates of land-based aviation have argued that basing and other constraints have little relevance to the debate-that basing constraints have not prevented land-based airpower from contributing to US military operations. In a letter of 3 January 1995 to the Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, Maj Gen Charles D. Link, USAF, special assistant to the chief of staff (USAF) for roles and missions, states,
With regard to Admiral Boorda's concern about "unlimited access to foreign basing or that an enemy will not attack the airfields we intend to use" we are frankly perplexed. Since the establishment of the United States Air Force, we know of no significant operation in which land-based airpower has failed to contribute because of basing constraints.1
Although entirely truthful, General Link's comment masks a far more complicated history of US access to facilities and airspace. Although land-based airpower has contributed, in some manner, to every significant US military operation since World War II, basing constraints have often seriously limited the contribution of land-based airpower.
A wide range of basing and other constraints can limit-and have limited-the ability of US land-based aircraft to contribute to US military operations (table 1). These include (but are not limited to) four types of constraints:
Examples of limitations on US Land-Based Air Operations
during Contingency Operations
|Overflight denied||These three countries denied overflight rights for the transportation of US Army units from Germany to Turkey in support of Operations Blue Bat in Lebanon.|
|1958||Saudi Arabia||Base access denied; overflight denied||The Saudi Government stated that the US could not use Saudi bases or airspace to support British operations in Jordan|
|1964||Libya||Base access not sought||State Department vetoed Wheelus AFB, Libya, to support Congo operations.|
|1964||Spain||Transit rights denied; political repercussions||US airlift aircraft staged through Spain en route to the Congo without permission from the Spanish government. Spain refused to allow the aircraft to return via Spain|
|1965-1966||Vietnam||Physical limitations||South Vietnamese air bases could not support the required buildup of tactical aviation. Aircraft carriers deployed to fill the ground-support gap until air base construction caught up with requirements|
|1973||Western Europe||Base access denied; overflight denied||With the exception of Portugal (Azores), all Western European countries denied the US permission to use their airfields or airspace in support of the airlift to Israel.|
|1975||Thailand||Restricted base use||During the Mayaguez rescue operations, the Thai government did not allow USAF strikes against the Cambodian mainland|
|1979||Costa Rica||Base Access denied||The Costa Rican government ejected a USAF unit that was forward deployed for a potential evacuation of Americans from Nicaragua.|
|1980-90||Persian Gulf||Base access denied||The US government had little success obtaining base access following the Shah's fall.|
|1986||Spain, France||Overflight denied||France and Spain did not grant overflight rights to UK-based F-111s participating in strikes against Libya|
|1992-96||Italy||Restricted base use||The Italian government has placed restricted flight hours on bases from which aircraft support NATO and UN operations|
|1994||Saudi Arabia||Base access delayed||The Saudi government delayed movement of USAF aircraft to respond to Iraqi movements|
For many, if not most, military operations involving land-based aircraft, the US will want these aircraft to fly through another country's (or countries') airspace. Most occasions involve the use of transport aircraft on essentially routine missions, and overflight rights are routinely granted.
Only rarely does the US have unimpeded and unquestioned overflight rights, and it either has had trouble acquiring or has been unable to secure approval for overflights in many contingency operations. In 1958, for example, Austria, Greece, and Switzerland refused to grant overflight to transport aircraft en route to Turkey in support of the US intervention in Lebanon. In 1973, NATO allies would not allow US aircraft to fly through their airspace en route to Israel. In April 1986, both France and Spain refused to allow F111s overflight rights as part of the strikes against Libya. Before and during Operation Desert Storm, the Indian government restricted the overflight of transport aircraft.
Issues of national sovereignty can affect US military operations in many ways. Besides having to seek permission to fly through another country's airspace, the US must seek approval to use bases and airfields to support military operations. In many cases, such permission is a pre-negotiated element of a base agreement. In others, such as typically occurs with airlift aircraft involved in humanitarian assistance operations, this process is essentially pro forma and rather rapidly accomplished. At other times, however, the host nation constrains or even refuses US use of facilities to support an ongoing US military operation (table 2). In some cases, the US will not even attempt to use or gain access to bases on the assumption that the host nation will deny their use.
Selected Chronology of US Military Access Denials since 1947
|1947-48||Australia||Australia denies the US postwar basing rights at Manus in the Admiralty Islands|
|1960-61||Cuba||The US severs diplomatic relations with Cuba, partially due to the US military presence at Guantanamo Bay|
|1962||Saudi Arabia||The Saudi government refuses to renew the US lease for bases at Dhahran airfield, ending the US presence there.|
|1963||Morocco||The Moroccan government shuts down three US bases|
|1964||Spain||Following unauthorized use of Moron Air Base to support operations in the eastern Congo, Spain refuses to allow US aircraft or personnel to use Spanish bases for returning from Africa to Europe.|
|1966||France||France's withdrawal from NATO's united military structure forces the US to shut down all bases in France, including nine major air bases.|
|1969-70||Libya||Following his seizure of power, Col Muammar Qadhafi requires the US to leave Wheelus AFB.|
|1973||Western Europe||During the US resupply effort to Israel, Portugal was the only European country to allow the US to use its bases (on the Azores) for supporting the airlift effort.|
|1973-74||Thailand||Six US bases are shut down due to local opposition.|
|1975||Turkey||In response to US pressure on Turkey to moderate its role in Cyprus, Turkey requires the US to close all of its military installations on Turkish soil|
|1975||Vietnam||Following the fall of South Vietnam, over 60 principal bases and installations constructed by the US during the course of the war are occupied by North Vietnamese forces.|
|1978||Ethiopia||The new Ethiopian regime forces the US to evacuate from its facilities.|
|1979||Iran||Following the fall of the Shah, the Islamic Republic effectively severs all previously negotiated prior access agreements|
|1988||Spain||Spain refuses to renew the lease on Torrejon Air Base outside Madrid, forcing the withdrawal of the 401st Tactical Air Wing.|
|1990||Liberia||The civil war in Liberia forces the evacuation of communications facilities and ends the use of Liberia as an emergency divert site for shuttle missions.|
|1990||Somalia||The disorder in Somalia leads to the removal of all supplies from the facilities at Berber, Somalia, in December 1990.|
|1991||Philippines||Nationalist opposition in the Philippine Senate to US bases ends the almost century long US military presence in the Philippines.|
The more interests that a host nation and the US have in common, the less likely a denial or constraint on US base access will occur. When US and host-nation interests diverge, however, US use of facilities may be constrained or even refused. For example, the US did not operate B52s from the Philippines during the Vietnam War due to concerns over Filipino sensitivities,2 and Thailand greatly restricted the use of bases in support of the Mayaguez rescue operation in 1975.3
Control over the access and use of bases provides host countries with a means of political leverage and a means to signal discontent over some aspect of US policy. The Italian government's displeasure over perceived slights with regard to its role in the former Republic of Yugoslavia led to a refusal to allow the deployment of USAF F117 stealth fighters to Aviano, Italy.4
Sometimes the US finds it difficult if not impossible to gain access agreements to support military operations. From the fall of the Shah of Iran in 1978 until the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the US had only the most limited base access in the Persian Gulf region, even though US military activity was almost continuously high in this area.5 Throughout this period, basing constraints limited land-based airpower's contribution to US military operations in the Persian Gulf region to airlift, aerial refueling, command and control, intelligence, and maritime surveillance patrols by US Navy aircraft.
In some cases, limitations on US military operations have little or nothing to do with political issues. Sometimes constraints are physical, creating limitations on the ability of forces to move into a region or limiting the ability to operate as desired. The following are examples of physical limitations hampering the ability of land-based airpower to contribute to an operation:
In 1958, USAF combat and transport aircraft overwhelmed available bases in Turkey and the airport in Beirut as they moved in support of Operation Blue Bat in Lebanon. This situation delayed the movement of US Army forces from Europe and would have limited the ability of deployed combat aircraft to execute missions.6
In 1960, airfield inadequacies constrained US airlift operations following a major earthquake in Chile. Constraints included airfields with inadequate (essentially no) ramp space and no capacity to support air activity in bad weather.7
In 1965 and 1966, South Vietnam's air bases could not handle USAF and Marine Corps aviation required to support the buildup of ground forces. The commander in chief of Pacific Command ordered Navy aircraft carriers to "Dixie Station" off Vietnam to fill part of the gap in requirements. Construction of air bases eased this problem by mid1966.8
In 1992, an inadequate basing infrastructure hampered airlift movements to Mogadishu, Somalia, as part of Operation Restore Hope. Specifically, the support air base in Egypt had limited ramp space and could not support round-the-clock operations. In addition, the Mogadishu airport had minimal ramp space for unloading aircraft.
In these and other cases, Air Force (and other) personnel have diligently worked to overcome basing constraints on the full use of land-based airpower's capabilities to contribute to the overall operation. Inadequacies in base structure did not prevent land-based airpower from contributing but did make contributing more difficult.
The US has sometimes acted without seeking host-nation approval-an action that can lead to host-nation backlash, limiting future US activity. In 1964, for example, the US-without approval-moved a transport squadron through Spain to support operations in the eastern Congo. In response, the Spanish refused to allow the aircraft to return through Spanish airspace.9 In 1980, the US-without seeking approval-used Omani facilities in the attempted rescue of US Embassy hostages in Teheran, Iran. The Omani government has restricted US use of Omani facilities since then.10
We have seen how limitations-imposed by US allies, neutral states, and physical realities-can affect the ability of land-based aviation to contribute to a US contingency operation. In many cases, the Air Force and other affected services have been able to overcome limitations and fully accomplish the mission. Such was the case when the Air Force adopted workarounds after Austria, Greece, and Switzerland refused over-flight rights for USAF aircraft en route to Lebanon during Operation Blue Bat in 1958. The pilots and planes had to fly longer distances, but the Air Force got the job done.
In other situations, however, basing (and other) constraints seriously limit the capabilities that land-based airpower can bring to bear. During the Arab Israeli War of 1973, USAF fighter aircraft could not use European bases to provide escorts to airlift aircraft carrying supplies to Israel. Therefore, Navy aircraft (flying from aircraft carriers) provided protection to cargo planes throughout the Mediterranean. During the Earnest Will escort operations of 1987-88, America's Arab partners allowed only limited air operations from their countries and no fighter or bomber activity. Only Marine Corps and Navy aircraft flying from aircraft carriers could provide the necessary air coverage for the escort operations.
Without a doubt, land-based aviation, including the US Air Force, has contributed to every significant operation over the past 48 years-often in very important ways. However, these contributions should not mask the fact that basing (and other) constraints have seriously limited the ability of land-based aviation to assist many of these operations.
*This article is abstracted from Adam B. Siegel, Miscellaneous Paper no. 178, Basing and Other Constraints on Land-Based Aviation Contributions to U.S. Contingency Operations (Alexandria, Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, March 1995). This article presents the author's views and not necessarily those of the Center for Naval Analyses, the Department of the Navy, or any part of the US government.
1. Maj Gen Charles D. Link, USAF, AF/RO, to Mr Michael Leonard, executive director, Commission on Roles and Missions of the Armed Forces, letter, 3 January 1995. General Link goes on to say that "we would also disagree with the implication that airfields are somehow more vulnerable than carriers to attack." Although this issue is not the subject of this article and although history does not necessarily foretell the future, it is interesting to note that since World War II, the US has not lost a single aircraft on an aircraft carrier due to enemy action. However, enemies have destroyed aircraft on land bases in such places as Korea, Vietnam, and Puerto Rico (due to terrorism).
2. Katharine Watkins Webb, "Are Overseas Bases Worth the Bucks? An Approach to Assessing Operational Value and an Application to the Philippines" (PhD diss., RAND Graduate Institute, 1988), 6.
3. David R. Mets, Land-Based Air Power in Third World Crises (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, July 1986), 56-57.
4. Daniel Williams, "Italy Seeks Bigger Role on Diplomatic Stage," Washington Post, 11 October 1995, 27.
5. Notable crises include the embassy hostages in Teheran, Iran; the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent war in that country; the Iraqi invasion of Iran; and the shipping war within the overall Iran-Iraq War. For further examples and brief discussions of military responses, see Adam B. Siegel, The Use of Naval Forces in the PostWar Era: U.S. Navy and U.S. Marine Corps Crisis Response Activity, 1946-1990, Research Memorandum no. 90246 (Alexandria, Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, February 1991); and 45 Years of Global Reach and Power: The United States Air Force and National Security, 1947-1992 (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Air Force, 1992).
6. Robert Frank Futrell, Ideas, Concepts, Doctrine: Basic Thinking in the United States Air Force, vol. 1, 1907-1960 (Maxwell AFB, Ala.: Air University Press, December 1989), 611-12; and Roger J. Spiller, "Not War but Like War": The American Intervention in Lebanon, Leavenworth Papers no. 3 (Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, January 1981), 31.
7. Press release, Headquarters Military Air Transport Service (MATS), Scott AFB, Ill., 28 May 1960, in file "Press releases: MATS, USAF, Scott"; and CINCCARIB Quarry Heights C.Z. 26171B (May 1960) "Sit Rep 1 as of 261600Z May 60," in folder "AMIGOS Airlift (earthquake) May 1960," in Air Mobility Command archives, Scott AFB, Ill.
8. Edwin Bickford Hooper, The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict, vol. 2, From Military Assistance to Combat, 1959-1965 by Edward J. Marolda and Oscar P. Fitzgerald (Washington, D.C.: Naval Historical Center, Department of the Navy, 1986), 515-16; C. Bernard Barfoot, An Overview of CV TACAIR Operations in the Vietnam War, Research Memorandum no. 94152 (Alexandria, Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, October 1994), 6; J. F. Brennan et al., Analysis of Tactical Aircraft Operations in Southeast Asia, 1965-1966, Operations Evaluation Group Study no. 712 (Alexandria, Va.: Center for Naval Analyses, January 1968),1:3, 2:10, 13; and René J. Francillon, Tonkin Gulf Yacht Club: U.S. Carrier Operations off Vietnam (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 42-43.
9. Maj Thomas P. Odom, Dragon Operations: Hostage Rescues in the Congo, 1964-1965, Leavenworth Papers no. 14 (Fort Leavenworth, Kans.: Combat Studies Institute, US Army Command and General Staff College, 1988), 75.
10. Paul B. Ryan, The Iranian Rescue Mission: Why It Failed (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 63; and Robert Harkavy, Great Power Competition for Overseas Bases: The Geopolitics of Access Diplomacy (New York: Pergamon Press, 1982), 218-19.
The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the US Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.
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