The presence of expensive military equipment and skilled service personnel at a forward operating base (FOB) is a sure-fire way to capture the attention of the enemy. An attack on a base can be a relatively ‘easy’ win, a high-profile chance to inflict a heavy blow with minimum losses. While bases may appear heavily defended, scratch below the surface and they often have a soft underbelly. Recent strikes on US FOB Chapman and the Nato base in Kandahar, both in Afghanistan, and exchanges between Israel and Hamas, have brought the power of rocket attacks and the need for robust defence to a worldwide audience.

The US alone has around 800 bases in 70 countries. Protecting these assets requires strategic thinking across a broad spectrum of geopolitical, technological and economic threads. Protective doctrines need to consider not just the insurgent enemies of recent conflicts, but also great powers that continue to augment stocks of weapons and pose huge threats to far-flung bases, as well as those closer to home.

The rise and return of the great powers

Carl D Rehberg, non-resident senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA) in Washington, DC, believes that the US has for too long focused on protecting its bases from ballistic missile attacks from ‘rogue’ states such as Iran and North Korea, rather than looking ahead at the bigger picture. “All the systems that we’re basically building, and the whole mindset – even today, for the most part – is based on small, limited raids and not really based on salvos,” he says.

That approach contrasts sharply with what is happening in other areas of the world. Potential foes like Russia and China have invested time and money in developing weapons that could offset the superior conventional capabilities of the US and Nato. These include large numbers of ballistic weapons and cruise missiles, as well as hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs) that travel at over Mach 5 after release and present defenders with daunting low-level manoeuvrability. Add armed unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the mix and the threat to bases becomes multidimensional. While Rehberg says the US and Nato recognise the risks of larger salvos, progress has so far been slow in terms of guarding against them. “US main operating bases, ports and other facilities in the Indo- Pacific and Europe are almost all optimised to conduct efficient operations in peacetime, but are not optimised for the threats that have emerged over the past 20 years,” he says.

“In response to those threats, the services, Department of Defense and US Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) have taken some steps to deal with this paradigm shift, which generally comes under the rubric of resiliency or posture resiliency.”


US forward operating bases across 70 countries.

Cato Institute

Rehberg says the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force – which controls China’s ballistic and nuclear missiles – is a threat capable of hitting US and Nato bases. However, he maintains that defence should not be the US’s only concern: perception also matters. “The credibility of US power projection is at stake and a credible response is critical to reassuring our partners and allies,” he says.

Taking responsibility

The challenge isn’t to simply create a portfolio of defences against a range of threats. Just as fundamental for the US is deciding who takes responsibility for developing and deploying those resources. Rehberg describes the US as being in a state of confusion over “who’s doing what on airbase defence on the land side”. Are airmen or soldiers in charge? Who is responsible for fusing together the situational awareness picture of surrounding airspace and ground terrain? Who coordinates counter-attacks, especially when defenders may consist of personnel from various nations, with different equipment and combat engagement protocols?

There is a congressionally mandated study looking at the roles and missions in integrated air missile defence (IAMD), as well as a separate study into the army and air force, he says. The reviews are expected to learn from various sources, including the US Navy.

Rehberg believes the army and the air force could learn from the navy. “Really, the navy has the best IAMD, top to bottom,” he says. “Obviously, nothing’s perfect, but they’re kind of the gold standard for the US and probably for the world because they’ve been dealing with threats and they have a layered comprehensive system. The rest of the services are basically catch-as-catch-can, with a few exceptions here and there.”

Blended and balanced defence

Whichever service takes ultimate responsibility, finding a balance between passive and active defence is crucial – and it’s something that took time to get right in post-9/11 conflicts when active defences were shown to be deficient.

“There’s a special army capability that was used in Iraq and Afghanistan to basically take out the G-RAMM [guide-rockets, artillery, missiles and mortars] threat, a land-based phalanx weapon system to counter rockets and artillery shells,” he says. This capability had not previously existed for the US Army, so it took the navy’s phalanx weapon system and adapted it, he goes on to explain.

In addition to bolstering active defences and implementing obvious passive techniques such as camouflage and dispersal, another area of focus for the US has been making key infrastructure more resilient. The war in Afghanistan was a wake-up call for the US, particularly in the use of IEDs, and sparked significant scientific research into how to harden facilities, Rehberg explains. That work focused on the improvements needed to better protect facilities such as aircraft fuel depots. The development of new, more resilient types of concrete, for example, was just one area explored.

However, Rehberg says there is more work to be done in terms of hardening. “I’m a big believer that almost every aircraft should be in some sort of HAS [hardened aircraft shelter]. With the new drone threats, the fact is I could basically fly a mini drone right up the tailpipe and basically take out an aircraft that’s parked on a ramp. We’ve not made really good progress in this area.”

Systems of the future

Drones and other new technologies not only offer new challenges, but also opportunities for innovative protection. Developing robust, economically viable defences of the future will require a layered approach and a mixture of kinetic and non-kinetic solutions. “This is where directed energy and magnetic spectrum-type capabilities really help in what we call the salvo competition,” says Rehberg.

High-energy lasers can be used to undermine approaching munitions by focusing beams on small areas – causing damage to electronics and casings – while high-powered microwave weapons can disrupt an incoming weapon’s sensors and steering with energetic pulses. Mounting such weapons on UAVs, for example, could make a valuable contribution to future base defence, and is something the US is actively working on.

Rehberg also sees artificial intelligence as playing a key role in the IAMD arena by ensuring that the most appropriate system is used against each threat. “We basically do a match,” he says. “If I’m red going against blue, if I can have blue fire their best interceptors at bogus threats, I have basically won the competition.” The US Navy’s naval integrated fire control-counter air (NIFC-CA) system is being considered as a potential solution in this battle management, command and control space.

Rehberg suggests that the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) may need a slightly different focus moving forward, too. “The MDA has a $10–12bn budget, but basically its focus has been on the ground-based interceptor against the North Korean threat, and obviously preparing for the Iranian threat. That’s where most of the money is going,” he says. “We’ve had some really great investments with Iron Dome and David’s Sling, obviously they helped develop that. We’re doing ballistic missiles, but then, what about all these other threats?”

Rehberg is in little doubt that lessons can be learned from Afghanistan, but whether those lessons translate into significant changes or improvements is a different matter.

“We’ve done a lot of studies, but we haven’t done a lot with them. Almost all the other periods where the threat was emerging, we actually did something – we responded. We have not responded well on this one. We’re still stuck in late Cold War, in [the] early ’90s, where bases were sanctuaries,” he says. “The army needs to do a lot more, and the air force needs to step in and do things that the army can’t do or won’t do.”