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Dr. Thompson is a professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore Campus.

Strike warfare remains a core U.S. capability, certainly an essential part of our military portfolio. Not only is it a key part of military strategy, but a credible strike capability is a significant deterrent to aggression. Despite its importance, however, our strike capability is less credible than before (despite innovative new weapons and platforms), and some pending decisions threaten to degrade it further. Note that in this context we are discussing only conventional, not nuclear, strike warfare, and then only beyond artillery range.

Our strike capability can usefully be divided into land-based air, sea surface-based, carrier air-based, and submarine-based. Our land-based strike capability (consisting of cruise missiles and some theater ballistic missiles) mostly requires air cover to deploy, so many of the arguments dealing with land-based air apply to it as well. Similarly, the vulnerability issues regarding aircraft carriers apply to surface vessels capable of strike warfare, so they largely may be considered together as well.

Land-Based Airborne Strike Warfare

Our colleagues in the Air Force have recently made much of the global reach of their strike capability, and particularly its efficacy in the Balkans. Yet despite the introduction of outstanding new technology such as stealth and new smart munitions, I would argue that the reliance on fixed airbases makes this approach less and less viable. The decline in viability comes from the reduction in air bases accessible to the U.S. worldwide, and the vulnerability of those air bases to a variety of agencies. Certainly the vulnerability of air bases in Europe, Korea, and Japan was an important concern during the Cold War (see P.T. Bingham, “Fighting from the Air Base,” Airpower Journal, Summer 1987, < >;and P.C. Baham and K. W. Polasek, “Tactical Aircraft and Airfield Recovery,” Airpower Journal, Summer 1991 , and events since then have only exacerbated this trend. The vulnerability of airbases arises because they are large, fixed, difficult to camouflage, and have vulnerable logistics. They are also vulnerable to many different forms of attack, including by missiles using a variety of warheads, aerial bombing, and special forces. Furthermore, they are soft targets for intelligence collection. Finally, the availability of third country air fields or even air space is definitely unreliable, as recent events have shown.

The threat to airfields from ballistic missiles carrying conventional or nuclear warheads was (and remains) difficult to counter. While sophisticated anti-missile defense systems such as Patriot and Aegis/Standard are proposed for defense against ballistic missiles, their efficacy is the subject of debate, and clearly they must be in place to fend off an attack. The threat of using chemical warheads is also viable, and was of particular concern during the Gulf War. During the Cold War NATO personnel were exercised in rapid runway repair wearing chemical protective suits. However, even at moderate temperatures under simulated chemical attack (during exercise Salty Demo at Spangdahlem AB in Germany in 1985) personnel were unable to complete repairs (J .A. Centrone, “Triple R in a Chemical Environment,” Engineering and Services Quanerly, Spring 1982, pp. 20-21). The reader may consider the difficulty of working in protective gear in Saudi Arabia in July. The reader may also consider the difficulty in decontaminating vehicles, aircraft, and personnel at airfields lacking abundant water. Certainly many nations are seeking or developing theater ballistic missiles, and chemical warheads are overtly more accessible to these nations than other weapons of mass destruction. While the Scud missiles used in the Gulf War were ultimately ineffective (except perhaps politically), they also represent very old technology that made them vulnerable to counter force tactics. In particular, they must be erected to be fueled, which takes some time, during which they can be hunted. A more modem missile which can be transported fueled (like the U.S. MGM-52 Lance using UDMH and IRFNA deployed in 1962, or any solid propellant missile) can be erected and fired within minutes. Such a missile is much harder to target. The comments of the then-commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, General Jumper, (“Operating Abroad,”) Air Force Magazine, Volume 81, December 1998, < >) suggesting that their operational limitations have made Scuds straightforward to find (and thus not a threat to Allied airbases) presumes one is still hunting ’50s-era missiles.

Certainly bombing is a time-tested approach for neutralizing air bases, and specialized munitions have been developed for the purpose. These munitions include bomblet dispensers (such as the JP 233) designed to crater runways, and bunker-busting smart bombs designed to penetrate hardened aircraft shelters. One can anticipate that these munitions (or former Soviet equivalents) will be readily available to any who can pay. Airbases will of course have anti-aircraft weapons, and in the Gulf War even guns and shoulder-fired weapons were effective against Coalition Tornadoes attacking Iraqi airfields with cratering munitions (C.M. Centner, “Ignorance is Risk: The Big Lesson from Desert Storm Air Base Attacks,” Airpower Journal, Winter 92 ). Indeed, the Coalition air campaign against the Iraqi air bases was less success-ful than is widely believed, despite 3000 sorties. The Iraqi use of superhardened bunkers and airbase layouts with redundant taxiways and runways made the Coalition efforts less successful; this was attributable to an Iraqi construction program begun during the Iran-Iraq War. The lesson to be learned here is that airbase operation in the face of determined air attack is feasible if one is prepared, but takes substantial money and time; we were fortunate that the Saudis had plenty of both in constructing the bases used by Coalition forces in the Gulf War.

The corollary is that using improvised airbases or commercial airports in neighboring countries is likely to be risky by comparison with more survivable military fields. General Jumper is quite right that a nalion under altack would be eager lo have our aircraft use its airfields. The problem is that unless those airfields are con-structed with hardened aircraft shellers, redundant taxiways and robust fuel supplies they will be vulnerable to even unsophisticated attacks. Lieutenant Colonel Bingham pointed out that “Even Third World countries are likely to possess significant airbase attack capabilities,” and development of specialized munitions is within the means of many. Certainly laser-guided bombs (first deployed almost 30 years ago by the U.S. in Vietnam) and cralering munitions are within the reach of many nations either to purchase or develop. Moreover, an opponent contemplating aggression at leisure can be relied upon to devote special attention to airfields (even those in third world countries). A non-allied nalion which is not at risk (like Uzbekistan providing the use of its airfield(s) during the current conflict) is likely to drive a hard bargain for their use.

An additional threat to any airbase is ils logistical tail: in particular, the need to supply huge quantities of fuel and munitions for an active air campaign. While modern jet aircraft have longer ranges, they nevertheless are very thirsty as well. For instance, a medium-large commercial airpon such as Baltimore-Washington International (400 outgoing flights daily prior to September 22, mainly regional jets) consumes 600,000 gallons of jet fuel daily. Lacking a pipeline, that amount of fuel requires 80 to 100 tank trucks to transpon daily. While tactical aircraft are smaller than commercial airliners, they still require lots of fuel: the fuel for one sonie by each of the aircraft in the 366th Air Expeditionary Wing on full internal fuel (e.g., 18 F-15C, 18 F-15E, 6 KC-135R, 3 E-C, 6 B-lB, and 18 F-16) comprises over 350,000 gallons. Whether fuel comes by pipeline or surface transport, the countryside surrounding the airbase must be secured to prevent interdicting the fuel flow. Similarly, munitions are heavy and bulky and are shipped by surface transpon; full bomb loads for a single sonie by the 366th comprises nearly 700 tons of bombs and missiles, or 35 truckloads. Obviously an exposed pipeline, a bridge, or a convoy of trucks represent targets well suited to attack by special opera-tions forces or guerillas.

Not only are bases overseas vulnerable, but they are fewer and farther between. If a crisis erupts on Taiwan, the nearest base Americans can expect to operate from is on Okinawa; if the American bases there are closed, the next closest is in Korea, a 1200 nautical mile round trip. Twelve years ago it was Clark AB in the Phillippines. While the range of tactical aircraft can be extended using aerial refueling, longer distances reduce the sortie rate in any case. Since World War II a great many bases have been closed to American operation; outside NA TO countries the places we can operate from without securing prior permission can be counted on the fingers of one hand. The loss of Clark AB and Howard AB in the Canal Zone are particularly telling. Thin basing and stretched resources make diplomacy and subversion more effective in denying airbases. Either could close Okinawa to U.S. forces, and likewise closing the Panama Canal or Suez Canal to U.S. warships cuts our (shrinking) fleet in half for weeks. Most recently, the lack of bases in theater has limited the Air Force to employing only aircraft (B-lBs and B-52s) with intercontinental range to strike targets in Afghanistan from the British base on Diego Garcia, roughly a 5000 mile round trip.

The Air Force has made much of the worldwide reach of the B-2 Stealth bomber from its base in Missouri, and this was demon-strated in Kosovo. Yet how sustainable are 24+ hour combat sorties? Air Force sources speak of the ability to catnap for twenty minutes at a time as a restorative, but how many crews could pull an all nighrer every few days for weeks on end? The tension of a combat sortie under fire is greater than on a training flight, even in a stealth aircraft, and correspondingly more tiring. The experience of bomber crews in World War II and the postwar Strategic Air Command taught that long missions (8 hours) could seldom be scheduled more frequently than 2-3 times per week, even if the aircraft can be maintained. Perhaps multiple crews could be trained, but the short answer is that bombers outside the theater are pretty much out of the fight.

Airbases, being large and fixed, are also comparatively easy to keep under surveillance. Cenainly the number and types of aircraft arriving and departing are often observed by agents, and observations of departing strike aircraft was used to cue defenses by the British during the Falklands War. With the advent of commercial reconnaissance satellites with 1 meter resolution (in addition to military systems), frequent observation of airfields should be straightforward.

Carrier-Based Strike Warfare

The fundamental difference between land-based strike aircraft and carrier-based aircraft is the carrier can move. The carrier, being mobile, is a much tougher target than the airbase. Norman Friedman in his recent Seapower and Space (Naval Institute Press) recounts in great detail the efforts by the Soviets to develop systems which would credibly threaten aircraft carriers. Suffice it to say that, except in confined waters, it is very difficult to get close enough to an operating carrier to target it (using one’s own sensors) well enough to get a fire concrol solution. Even a supersonic missile launched from beyond the reach of the carrier’s air umbrella would take more than ten minutes to arrive, ample time for decoying, interception, jamming and evasion. Similarly, it is very difficult for a submarine to get close enough to track the carrier with its own sensors, and not be detected; this is doubly true if the carrier is operating aircraft because it requires the submarine to sustain speeds of 20+ knots, (e.g., be nuclear propelled) which increases the chances of detection and degrades its sensor perform-ance. Supersonic cruise missiles similar to the SS-N-19 (NATO designation is Shipwreck) are too large to launch from torpedo tubes and require correspondingly large, purpose-built submarines (in this case, the Oscar II class exemplified by the lost KURSK). While the credibility of the Soviet threat to our carriers might have been debatable and the object of much concern, the threat from a small diesel-electric submarine force operating subsonic missiles relying on their own sensors is clearly modest.

As some have pointed out, aircraft carriers in the Gulf War ultimately were supplied from seaports, which of course are large, fixed targets. However, there are some important differences compared with airbases. First, a seaport is by and large a tougher target to put out of action. If you crater an airbase runway anywhere along its length, it is inoperable until it is repaired and swept clean of debris. By comparison, a pier can be heavily damaged and still be useable immediately, as long as traffic can move to and from ships tied up to it. Although drydocks, repair facilities, cranes, and other specialized equipment in a port can be destroyed by bombardment, wilh consequent loss of efficiency, much of the capability of the port can be restored by tenders and floating drydocks. Airplanes (except VSTOLs) must have runways; for a carrier, a pier nearby is only a convenience. Perhaps lhe best examples of the ruggedness of seaports were the Nazi submarine bases in Occupied France in World War II, which withstood prolonged bombardment; certainly a seaport is not harder to defend from air attack than an airbase. Furthermore, interdict-ing operations of a seaport itself (as opposed to sinking a single ship) is much harder for guerillas or special forces, since supplies of fuel and munitions can be brought in by ship, ralher than overland. Finally, the vulnerability of a seaport to chemical weapons is modest due to the abundant supply of water for decontamination and the ability of naval ships at least to seal and wash lhemselves down.

A key advantage of a carrier battle group is its ability to keep the sea and continue operations for months independent of any shore base, while being resupplied at sea. Nimitz class carriers can stow nearly 2,000,000 gallons of aviation fuel and approximately 2,000 tons of aviation ordnance, enough for a few days sustained operations at a high tempo. The underway replenistunent (UNREP) procedures and the specialized supply vessels needed to carry them out have been refined over decades, and consequently the process is relatively fast and efficient. Thus hundreds of tons of munitions and hundreds of thousands of gallons of fuel can rapidly be transferred to an aircraft carrier. While lhe carrier almost cannot carry out flight operations during this time, it is off line less than 113 of the time. Also, the base which supplies the auxiliary vessels which supply the carrier and her escorts need not be within tactical air range at all; the fast speeds (26 kt) of current auxiliaries permit the base to be a thousand miles away and still be convenient for resupply. While with midair refueling, airbases also need not be within range of the opposition’s tactical air force, the tankers themselves may well be. The carrier has full maintenance capabili-ties onboard, with nearly 2,000 personnel to maintain aircraft in a Nimitz class carrier, dedicated spaces, and substantial spares.

While the advantage of carrier aviation for strike warfare (and other missions) remain strong, currently there are several issues confronting the Navy. The modest capabilities of the Hornet as an attack aircraft ‘are being addressed by the advent of the Super Hornet, and the introduction of the Joint Strike Fighter will finally bring a stealthy attack aircraft to the carrier deck. While it remains a superb fighter, the Tomcat is thirty years old, along with its Phoenix missiles. Although the threat from long range aircraft with supersonic missiles is less now than in the Cold War, the ability to establish at least local air superiority is essential for many of the carrier’s missions, and no replacement for the F-14 is in prospect. The only contemplated replacement for the overstretched EA-6B Prowler fleet is a modified Hornet; the degree of automation required with a two-man crew would appear to require extensive development of what promises to be a very expensive aircraft.

Submarine-Based Strike Warfare

In many ways the ideal platform for strike warfare is the nuclear submarine. Once in theater, it practically cannot be threatened by any potential adversary, due to its stealth. It has no logistical tail, being able to operate for months independently without refueling, and indefinitely if a tender is present in theater. Armed with cruise missiles, it can hold a score of targets at risk, with no countermea-sure able to stop it. Given its stealthy nature, its presence is non-provocative, but there may be one, five, or a dozen submarines present. The submarine can shoot quickly following receipt of the order to fire, in (almost) any weather, and without coordinating with other units; no air tasking order need be generated, tankers needn’t be deployed, and it doesn’t take hours to reach a firing position. It can loiter for months if need be, instead of hours. The nuclear deterrent patrol record compiled over the last forty years makes the submarine a very credible threat. The only current aircraft armed with cruise missiles is the B-52H, with the B-lB slated to receive this capability in the fucure; neither aircraft is viewed as survivable in a modern air defense environment as deployed by the Iraqis. By comparison, a Trident carrying a number of missiles comparable to a squadron ofB-52s is essentially invulnerable, and no conceivable degree of modification or upgrade, at any price, can make either of these bombers as secure as the submarine is today. Of course, both bombers can still drop large loads of iron bombs and nuclear weapons, but both capabili-ties would appear to be less important nowadays, particularly in a tactical context. The complete inability of an enemy to hit back at a missile-firing submarine is likely to be very demoralizing. The low risk to the submarine crew compared to aircrew is of particular importance in the current news media environment. Moreover, under conditions where the only intelligence capability the enemy possess is all-news commercial television, the invisibility of the submarine and the discretion of its operations is particularly valuable. The advantages of the submarine (particularly the Trident submarine) as a strike platform argue that its weapons suite should be expanded to include tactical ballistic missiles for bunker penetra-tion and sophisticated new warheads for the cruise missile. If the most recent nuclear arms reduction proposals are implemented, several more Trident submarines will become available for this purpose. Having built the ships and refueled them, the operating costs for the balance of their service lives are comparatively modest, particularly compared with an aircraft carrier battle group.

The principal drawbacks to submarines as strike platforms are the fairly high cost per round fired, the limited volume of fire possible, and the inability to engage moving targets on land. However, recent experience suggests that sman weapons are so much more cost effective than dumb iron bombs, that the former will be preferred for almost any fixed target worth destroying. Once Tomahawk-armed Tridents go to sea, volume will be less of an issue, since a single pair will carry a number of weapons nearly equal to the 297 Tomahawks fired during the Gulf War (N. Friedman, Desen Victory, Naval Institute Press, 1991).

In conclusion then, it is evident that the advantages of sea-based strike platforms are many and growing, particularly for the submarine. While the missile-armed submarine cannot replace either land-based air forces or carrier aircraft, its unique advantages and cost-effectiveness argue that it is a capability which should be expanded in the first half of the 21st century.


USS GROWLER (SSG 577) San Diego, CA September 27-29, 2002. Contact: David Bishop, 1937 Silverwoold Lane, Los Angeles, CA 90041-3127; (323) 254-6045; e-mail:

USS NAUflLUS (SS 178/SSN 571) New London, CT October 3-6, 2002. Contact: Walt Lincoln, One Butter Brook Hill, New Milford, CT 06776; (860) 355-1822; e-mail:

USS ROBERT E. LEE (SSBN 601) New Orleans, LA September 26-27, 2003. Contact: Tim VeArd,P.O. Box 33666, Indialantic, FL 32903; (321) 722-0220; fax (321) 722-1080; e-mail:; website:

USS SABLEFJSH (SS 303) Groton, CT November 16-17, 2002. Contact: John Longo (908) 781-1518; e-mail: USS SENNETT (SS 408) Mt. Pleasant, SC May 18-21, 2003. Contact: Ralph R. Luther, P.O. Box 864, Summerville, SC 29484-0864; (803) 492-4023; e-mail:

SUBMARINE OmCERS’ CLASS 1950 San Antonio, TX Novem-ber 5-7, 2002. Any shipmates of that vintage are welcome to attend. Contact: CAPT R.E. Thomas, USN(Ret.), 3712 Southemwood Way, San Diego, CA 92106-2965; (619) 222-2036; e-mail:

USS TRITON (SSRN/SSBN 586) Norfolk, VA October 25-27, 2002. Contact: Harry W. Hampson, 3404 Montgomery Place, Virginia Beach, VA 23452; (757) 462-7875; e-mail: harry1523@cox. net.

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