Securing Aerial Approaches to Joint Airfield

By Holdsworth, Robert B. | Joint Force Quarterly, July 2011 | Go to article overview

Securing Aerial Approaches to Joint Airfield


Holdsworth, Robert B., Joint Force Quarterly


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The national security of the United States relies on the ability to project airpower around the globe. The 2011 National Military Strategy articulates key capabilities of airpower crucial to securing U.S. national interests: the direct employment of globally integrated command and control, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance, and aerial strike capabilities, as well as the use of strategic and tactical airlift assets to effectuate rapid global mobility for joint forces in order to protect and advance national interests on the ground worldwide. America's airpower capabilities are unmatched; however, low-cost weapons systems with the potential to blunt U.S. aerial strike and power projection advantages have proliferated extensively among state and non-state adversaries, threatening approach and departure corridors for these key assets.

While the Services and Joint Staff have invested significant doctrine, organization, training, materiel, leadership, education, personnel, facilities, and policy resources to secure aircraft carriers and airfields against penetrating and indirect fire attacks, the lack of clear joint guidance regarding responsibilities for securing aerial approach and departure corridors creates a vulnerable seam for which no single Service or functional component has clear accountability. This seam in joint doctrine could be mitigated by revising the Air Base Defense Considerations section in Joint Publication (JP) 3-10, Joint Security Operations in Theater. (1) This revision should emphasize the importance of securing aircraft approach and departure corridors and defining responsibilities as a joint force priority on par with the specific direction provided for defense of approaches to seaports found in JP 3-10's Seaport Facility Defense Considerations section.

The Government Accountability Office has estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 man-portable surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) circulate outside of state control and that "tens of thousands more missiles are stored in government arsenals with questionable stockpile security." (2) Furthermore, the Congressional Research Service has reported an unclassified list of 26 separate nonstate rebel, militant, and/or terrorist groups possessing SAMs. (3) U.S. military aircraft have employed onboard countermeasures and modified flight procedures to defeat this threat, but unclassified reports describe dozens of incidents of successful insurgent ground-fire attacks on U.S. aircraft since 2001. These successful attacks have included SAM strikes against Air Force C-5 and C-17 cargo aircraft in 2003 and 2004, respectively, and against nine Army helicopters between October 2003 and January 2004. (4)

The need for these low-density/high-demand aviation assets to remain available for response across multiple theaters magnifies the importance of defeating these threats to U.S. aerial might. Additionally, hazards to the Nation's airpower capabilities are exacerbated by "increased budget pressures" and prolonged acquisition lead times associated with replacing lost aircraft. (5) The speculation surrounding China's procurement of F-117 stealth fighter wreckage from Serbian farmers after the downing of a Nighthawk in 1999, and the subsequent demonstration of their own J-20 stealth fighter in January 2011, provides additional reinforcement for the need to provide insurance against combat losses in order to "continue to maintain our margin of technological superiority." (6) Straightforward joint guidance and careful attention from planners in tasking are required to emphasize the strategic nature of airfields and their approaches.

The current lack of clear joint guidance regarding Service and/or component responsibilities for the defeat of SAM threats to joint airfield approach and departure corridors increases the importance of Service doctrine in mitigating this threat. Unfortunately, a review of Service doctrine reveals no definitive answer to the question of responsibility for security of aerial approaches for even single Service-owned/component-owned and -operated airfields. …

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