Air University Review, January-February 1986

Air Base Survivability and V/STOL Aircraft:
A Gapin Air Force Doctrine

Lt Col Price T. Bingham, USAF

THE U.S. Air Force is responsible for developing its doctrine. This responsibility requires thorough evaluation of concepts and technologies so that current and future forces will be able to perform their missions as effectively as possible.1 To this end, in the development of both airpower employment concepts and technology, the Air Force puts great emphasis on an aircraft's airborne performance. Unfortunately, because of this emphasis, the Air Force gives too little attention to those aircraft characteristics most related to air base survivability, support requirements, and operating surface requirements. Apparently, the Air Force considers air base survivability as a problem unrelated to aircraft requirements. The most likely reason for this separate treatment of requirements is that those responsible for doctrine development do not consider the base as an indispensable element in the overall warfighting system, of which any aircraft is but one element. However, because of the rapidly growing threat to air bases, the ability of the Air Force to survive and perform its missions is less than certain.

A more effective approach to doctrine development would make base survivability a key factor in determining what aircraft characteristics are required. In applying this approach, the Air Force would look at how more survivable it could make a base by intelligently exploiting the unique capabilities of vertical/short takeoff and landing (V/STOL) aircraft, such as the Harrier. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that the Air Force is seriously examining this reason for employing V/STOL aircraft. To comprehend some of the reasons why different approaches to air base survivability are not given more attention, one must understand certain characteristics of human behavior associated with organizations. Too often there are important differences between how people in organizations may behave and how they must behave if their organization is to be effective in war.

To appreciate the advantages in basing survivability gained from the inherent flexibility of V/STOL aircraft, particularly compared to either conventional takeoff and landing (CTOL) or short takeoff and landing (STOL) aircraft, one must understand the threat.2 A major task at the onset of hostilities is gaining control of the air by neutralizing enemy air power. One way to do this quickly, which many perceive to be increasingly effective, is to attack enemy air power on the ground. Temporarily degrading an enemy's sortie generation, rather than destroying his aircraft, may be all that is needed; and doing this may be far more feasible than either destroying aircraft on the ground or in the air.

Air base attacks can involve nuclear, chemical, biological, and conventional munitions, which all have one characteristic in common: their lethality continues to increase. Moreover, simultaneous employment of combinations of munitions produces powerful and often unappreciated synergies.3

Advances in the speed, range, and accuracy of various delivery systems are further intensifying the threat. Cruise and ballistic missiles, special operations, and conventional land forces, as well as aircraft, may be increasingly effective means for attacking targets as lucrative and important as most air bases. As with munitions, the employment of combinations of delivery methods creates synergies that make successful defense more difficult.

Just as the threat to air bases is increasing, so are the limitations on air base defensive and recovery measures. Developments in air base attack systems are forcing active defense measures to become more complex and expensive. Simultaneously, the increasing lethality of munitions raises the cost for base defense failures, as increased resources and time are required to return a damaged air base to full effectiveness. Also, these growing requirements for defensive and recovery measures make building a hardened, protected air base, where none now exists, a task that requires more and more time and resources.

Many of the problems involved in defending a base and repairing it quickly are related to the fixed, relatively concentrated nature of most bases. The size, complexity, and density of these bases are the direct result of aircraft maintenance and takeoff and landing requirements. CTOL aircraft require long, relatively smooth, hard surfaces (runways) for takeoff and landing. Both they and most STOL aircraft need similar surfaces or taxiways to travel between the runway and parking areas. Thus CTOL and STOL aircraft usually are located close to runways, where they need hardened shelters to increase their survivability. In addition, most of these aircraft have been designed with the assumption that extensive and complex maintenance will be readily available at the base. Because these requirements are expensive, there are relatively few hardened bases suitable for these aircraft available in Europe, let alone in Southwest Asia. Therefore, the neutralization of only a few bases could have an immense impact on our ability to employ air power.

Because the present approach results in relatively few fixed bases, which present targets that would be both lucrative and vulnerable to an enemy, we must develop an alternative to it. The employment of V/STOL aircraft such as the Harrier makes possible a much different and more survivable approach to basing. The flexible takeoff and landing characteristics unique to V/STOL aircraft make increased basing survivability possible by dramatically increasing one's ability to exploit measures such as dispersion, mobility, concealment, and deception. To understand how this can be done, one need only examine a basing concept for a wing of V/STOL Harrier attack aircraft, which also possesses a limited air-to-air capability.4 During combat, the aircraft in such a wing would be dispersed over a wide area, with no more than three or four aircraft based together in a single location or hide. The wing would be composed of three squadrons. Each squadron would control six hides. Hides would be separated by at least a mile. Each hide would include parking for the aircraft, a pad suitable for vertical takeoff and landing, and enough fuel for each aircraft to fly to other locations within 50 nautical miles, three times a day, for three to seven days. To reduce transportation requirements, a hide would have only one reload of air-to-air missiles for each aircraft and only minor maintenance capabilities.

To reduce the hide's signature, increase the number of sorties flown, and take advantage of a pilot's target area familiarity, each aircraft would be scheduled to fly several close air support or battlefield air interdiction sorties in one cycle. A cycle would begin when the aircraft takes off vertically from the hide, carrying only its basic missile load. It would then fly to a predetermined short strip, which might be a field or road, where air-to-surface munitions and fuel are located. This strip and others like it would be used for only short periods of time, perhaps less than a day. Landing at the strip, the aircraft would be loaded with air-to-surface munitions and have its fuel topped off. Using a short takeoff run, the aircraft would fly an attack mission, returning to the strip to be refueled and rearmed until the scheduled sorties in the cycle were flown. At this time, it would recover at the hide for crew change and minor maintenance.

Using strips has several important advantages. It allows hides to be very small and the source of only a fraction of the total sorties, making them more difficult to detect. If strips are located closer to the enemy than hides, time and fuel are saved on turnaround sorties, while the added distance makes the hide even more secure from attack. Finally, a strip enables an aircraft to make a rolling takeoff when loaded with air-to-surface munitions, which avoids range/payload handicaps associated with vertical takeoffs.

If an aircraft needs maintenance that cannot be performed at a hide, it would fly to a specially designated location having more extensive capability. If the aircraft could not fly to the maintenance, either the maintenance could be brought to the aircraft or the aircraft could be retrieved by helicopter. Periodically, possibly every few days, a squadron would relocate its hides. Normally a wing would have only one squadron relocating at a time to reduce the impact of any sorties lost due to the move. The wing headquarters would designate the location of new hides and would assist in the squadron's move.

Both hides and forward strips would be well camouflaged. Besides camouflage, each squadron would use deception. Generally a squadron would build several decoy hides during each move. Aircraft routes to and from hides and strips would be planned specifically to reinforce the deception created by these decoys. Additionally, by concentrating air defenses, a decoy hide could be made into a dangerous trap for the enemy.

The result of this V/STOL basing concept would be greatly improved survivability. One reason is dispersal. Because of the separation between hides, even the explosion of a munition as powerful as a low-yield or "tactical" nuclear weapon would disrupt the operation of only a few aircraft. Another reason is mobility. Since hides and strips would be constantly changing, enemy intelligence on their location would be perishable. Perishable intelligence requires a quick response, limiting time available to concentrate forces, plan, and execute an attack. This circumstance reduces the probability for attack success. Moreover, because a hide could be moved quickly out of a contaminated environment, the effectiveness of area denial munitions, such as mines and persistent chemical and biological agents, would be reduced.

Using camouflage makes it very difficult for the enemy to find a location as small as a hide, and deception would make the reliability of any information suspect. Overall, the combination of mobility, concealment, and deception measures operate to make it very difficult for an enemy to find and successfully attack air power based in hides. Due to hide dispersion, even a successful attack would produce little payoff.5

An additional factor that we need to consider in examining air power employment is the lack of hardened air bases in areas where national interests may require the deployment of landbased air power. The nature of this V/STOL basing concept not only makes air power more survivable in such a situation but also eliminates the need for long periods of time to build expensive, hardened bases (which later may be abandoned). The use of V/STOL aircraft and hides makes it possible to move land-based air power quickly into an area while reducing indicators that betray our plans.

Despite the numerous advantages of a V/STOL-aircraft-oriented basing concept like this one, many unknowns exist. Dispersion and mobility, which are perceived by many to complicate logistics requirements, may, in fact, be advantageous when compared to the costs in resources and time of trying to operate hardened air bases in wartime. Facing the same firepower trends that threaten air bases, the U.S. Army operates in a way very similar to what is proposed in this concept, using dispersion, mobility, concealment, and deception to increase survivability. Increasingly, the Army also operates equipment with fuel, maintenance, and munitions requirements similar to many Air Force attack aircraft. As a result, with this concept it is very possible that air and land forces could share logistical resources, perhaps reducing overall theater requirements.

Personnel and training requirements would be different under this concept. To make the concept feasible, personnel must be trained to perform a variety of tasks, such as both maintenance and hide defense. As with logistics, the Air Force could examine how the Army approaches this manning/training problem.

Command and control is another potential problem area. Controlling aircraft located in a large number of widely separated hides will require different communications equipment. Again, studying the Army and how it controls artillery might help in the development of solutions.

Obviously, many factors need to be explored before this proposed basing concept can be considered a viable solution for attaining greater air base survivability. Unfortunately, Air Force organizations charged with responsibility for doctrine development do not seem inclined to integrate closely base and aircraft requirements. As a result, there is little effort being made to explore the basing advantages and disadvantages of V/STOL aircraft. To understand better why this is true, it is necessary to examine the nature of both war and organizations.

History provides abundant evidence that innovation and flexibility contribute significantly to success in war. Innovation involves the development and employment of new technology. Even more frequently, successful innovation in war has been due to the employment of old or known technology in new ways. The Germans' employment of tanks in panzer divisions to exploit breakthroughs is one such example. Their innovative use of the tank made the blitzkrieg invasion of France in 1940 a devastating success, despite the fact that German tanks were not superior either in numbers or in quality to French and British tanks.6

Often flexibility is closely related to innovation. Flexibility allows a military force to adapt to the changing and unpredictable aspects, or frictions, of war. It also creates uncertainties for the enemy, degrading the effectiveness of his operations. As Clausewitz explained, frictions are an unavoidable reality of war and the successful military commander is the one who does not try to change this reality but, instead, uses his judgment to adapt to it.7 German innovations combining the use of radios in tanks with a mission-order concept created flexibility. As a result, in blitzkrieg warfare, panzer divisions were able not only to adapt to friction but, more important, to create friction for their foes.8 if we believe that effective Air Force doctrine requires objective, rigorous testing of innovative, flexible concepts such as the one proposed here, we need to examine reasons why it is not being done. We find one possible reason when looking at the nature of human behavior. All people are capable of undesirable behavior. Fortunately, when the reasons for this type of behavior are understood, it is often possible to find ways to decrease or even prevent such behavior. A particularly successful example of this is the reduction of undesirable behavior caused by fear through the intelligent development of social bonds within a military unit.

Organizations, like combat, are prone to cause people to behave in undesirable ways. Organizational rules and impersonality developed to produce reliable, predictable behavior may also cause excessive conformity and reduced flexibility.9 As a result, people in an organization can come to look upon invention as a hostile or destructive act. Such attitudes may result from a realization that change will disturb comfortable routines.10 Another reason for this negativity toward innovation is the tendency for people to identify too closely with things that give them satisfaction. Whatever the reason, satisfaction with the status quo prevents people from thinking about a practice's original purpose or its defects.11 If this type of behavior or response becomes prevalent in a military organization, a dangerous situation exists because war-fighting goals become subordinate to organizational rules and procedures.12 Unfortunately, when we review the history of the development of steamships, aircraft, tanks, and ICBMS, we see that such situations are not rare. According to Michael Howard, aversion to change is prevalent because "a better case can always be made out against innovation than can be made for it."13

Realizing the potential dangers, the Air Force needs to take steps to prevent undesirable bureaucratic behavior from affecting doctrine development. We must ask ourselves why we are not integrating closely aircraft and base requirements, particularly as our failure to do so is in contrast to our approach to both the Midgetman and the ground-launched cruise missile. If the Air Force is to develop effective doctrine, its focus must always be on the purpose of air power. We must not allow ourselves to remain fixated on particular basing methods just because they were effective in the past and seem adequate in peace.

Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research,
and Education
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


1. Air Force Manual 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force, 5 January 1984, p. 4-8.

2. Recognition of the growing vulnerability of current bases resulted in a Rand Corporation proposal to increase basing options for future fighter aircraft. This proposal called for an integrated approach to aircraft design, basing, and support requirements. M. B. Berman and C. L. Batten, Increasing Future Fighter Weapon Systems Performance by Integrating Basing, Support, and, Air Vehicle Requirements (N-1985-1-AF), Rand Corporation, Santa Monica, California, April 1983. Although this study provides an excellent treatment of methods for minimizing support requirements, it remains incomplete because it focuses only on aircraft with STOL characteristics. Even without considering the basing options available with V/STOL aircraft, it is necessary to recognize that the AV-8B Harrier is very capable of performing missions such as close air support and battlefield air interdiction. For a more detailed treatment of Harrier capabilities, Lieutenant Colonel Price T. Bingham, "Improving Force Flexibility through V/STOL," Air University Review, January-February 1985, pp. 72-87.

3. For example, consider the complexity of attempting to detect and clear mines, perform active defense, make rapid repairs, and generate sorties in a chemically contaminated environment. The complexity results from the different characteristics and effects of each munition, which often cause countermeasures for one munition to be ineffective against another. It is even possible that some countermeasures, like wearing a chemical protection suit, will increase vulnerability to the effects of another munition.

4. Defeating a sudden enemy offensive requires attack aircraft with some air-to-air capability so that they can defend themselves, as well as make enemy offensive air operations more dangerous.

5. The Soviets are known to identify and evaluate uncertainties that threaten the success of an option. Thus, mobility, concealment, and deception measures could have an important deterrent effect on Soviet willingness to attack hide-based air power. Benjamin S. Lambeth, "Uncertainties for the Soviet War Planner," International Security, Winter 1982/83, p. 146.

6. B. H. Liddell Hart, Strategy (New York: Praeger, 1967), pp. 223-35; Richard M. Ogorkiewicz, Armor A History of Mechanized Forces (New York; Praeger, 1960), pp. 15, 21-22.

7. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1976), pp. 119-21, 157, 168,

8. Alistair Horne, To Lose a Battle: France 1940 (New York: Penguin Books, 1979), pp. 79-81, 167, 212-21.

9. Stephen P. Robbins, Organization Theory: The Structure and Design of Organizations (New York; Prentice-Hall, 1983), pp. 196-207, 266.

10. Elting E. Morison, Men, Machines, and Modern Times (Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1966), pp. 9, 13-14.

11. Morison, pp. 39-40.

12. Gwyn Harries-Jenkins, "Military Sociology," RUSI, September 1974, p. 60.

13. Michael Howard, "Military Science in an Age of Peace," RUSI, March 1974, p. 6.


Lieutenant Colonel Price T. Bingham (USAFA) is a Military Concepts Analyst in the Doctrine and Concepts Division, Center for Aerospace Doctrine, Research, and Education, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He has flown fighters in Tactical Air Command, United States Air Force in Europe, and Southeast Asia. Colonel Bingham has also served as an air operations officer and a member of the Air Staff in the War and Mobilization Planning Division, Hq USAF. He is a previous contributor to the Review.


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 U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

Air & Space Power Home Page | Feedback? Email the Editor