The Vulnerability of Air Bases

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In 1921, Italian Army General Giulio Douhet published Il Dominio Dell’Aria (or Command of the Air), a hugely influential treatise on airpower. While the book was largely an advocacy for what would be termed strategic bombing, it also makes several insightful points on other aspects of airpower, one of which is that of destroying the enemy’s air force at its point of origin.

As Douhet asserted: “It is easier and more effective to destroy an enemy’s aerial power by destroying his nests and eggs on the ground than to hunt his flying birds in the air.”

In other words, Douhet was proposing striking the enemy aircraft on the ground. This made a lot of sense then and still does today. After all, aircraft have always been considered ‘soft targets’ given that they are thin-skinned and are virtually sitting ducks (no pun intended) when on land. (Of course, the proviso is that one must first penetrate the adversary’s outer defences to carry out such an attack).

Douhet’s quote came to my mind when I was reminded last month of the anniversaries of two highly effective attacks by land forces on airfields in recent decades: the 1982 Pebble Island operation during the Falklands War and the terrorist attack in 2011 on the Pakistan Naval Station (PNS) Mehran. Indeed, both involved only a scattering of attackers, but they exuded effects disproportionate to their limited numbers.

Pebble Island operation

Pebble Island 1982 is one of the most audacious special operations forces (SOF) missions in history. On the night of 14-15 May, 1982, over 40 members of Britain’s Special Air Service (SAS) struck the Argentine held airstrip on Pebble Island, whose operational potential was deemed to jeopardise the upcoming amphibious landing by the closing British Task Force to reclaim the Falklands.

In a strike reminiscent of their forefathers during the North African campaign against German Luftwaffe airfields, the SAS troopers destroyed 11 Argentine aircraft using anti-tank weapons, explosive charges, and mortars. Fuel and ammunition stores were also hit. Just one British soldier was injured, and the operation was regarded as a complete success.

Terrorist Attack on the Pakistan Naval Station

Twenty-nine years later, on the night of 22 May, 2011, up to 20 fedayeen from the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda brazenly infiltrated and assaulted the headquarters of Pakistan’s naval air arm at Karachi. Within 20 minutes of infiltrating PNS Mehran, the militants using rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) had destroyed two Lockheed P-3 Orion maritime surveillance aircraft, each costing some $45 million.

A few other aircraft were also damaged. The Islamabad Government activated its SOF to retake the base, and at the end of the 16-hour incident, 18 Pakistani military personnel were dead with another 16 injured. Four fedayeen were killed, two escaped, and the rest captured.

This was a relatively low price to pay to inflict costs worth many millions of dollars on their adversary. Unsurprisingly, the Pakistan Navy was castigated by the media over the attack, which came during a period where social media was on the ascent. The two airbase raids highlight how derring-do, surprise, and arguably some luck by small units of men could circumvent seemingly tight defences. They have also cast the spotlight on airbase security, an issue that has been debated since the exploits of the British SAS in North Africa.

Camp Bastion attack

The lessons learnt from many decades of dealing with airbase security were arguably not heeded during the spectacular Camp Bastion attack carried out by the Afghan Taliban on the night of 14 September, 2012. Lapses and shortfalls in perimeter security led to 15 fedayeen dressed in American military uniform successfully infiltrating the airbase in Helmand province.

Although Camp Bastion was described as “one of the largest and best-defended posts in Afghanistan”, an intense four-hour firefight ensued where even pilots and maintainers were called to fend off the militants.

Using various weapons, including RPGs and suicide vests, the fedayeen shot up eight United States Marine AV-8 Harrier jets and inflicted damages amounting to some $200 million. Two Marines were dead at the end of the siege, with another 17 wounded. Only one militant was captured, and the rest killed.

Indeed, one commentator termed the incident as “the worst loss of US airpower in a single incident since the Vietnam War”. Like the PNS Mehran strike, Camp Bastion 2012 was arguably a military victory for the extremists in purely financial terms. More importantly, it was also a major propaganda coup for the Taliban in the “war of the narratives”.

Penetrating attacks by small numbers of determined and skilled personnel could pose an effective threat to airbases. There have been many other instances of such operations: including several during the Tet Offensive by the North Vietnamese forces during the Vietnam War.

Future Attacks

In the future however, a tech-savvy extremist group targeting an airbase need not  simply rely on ground infiltration. By using cyber to jam security systems, and unmanned aerial vehicles (which may be weaponsied and may be swarming) to confound the airbase’s defence, infiltration by a determined group could result in even greater success.

by Ben Ho