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Future concepts: Overcoming a power projection problem

(U.S. Air Force graphic)

(U.S. Air Force graphic)

By Maj. David Dammeier
Strategy and Future Concepts Action Officer
Lt. Col. Meka Toliver
Blue Horizons Fellow
and Capt. Logan Smith
Strategy and Future Concepts Action Officer

   Enemies will test the United States' military strength in future conflicts. The democratization of technology has allowed adversarial nations to gain relative parity in technology and capability placing U.S. forward bases at risk of attack. To overcome this threat, the U.S. Air Force needs a strategy to maintain freedom of movement, commitment to our partners and demonstration of our resolve.

   Three documents explain the operational effects of airpower in any region. In 2014, the Department of Defense unveiled the Third Offset Strategy, which focuses on "restoring the United States' conventional and technological superiority."

   "The Third Offset" is technology oriented and operationally efficient with organizational constructs, said Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work, giving the U.S. military advantages against adversaries. The adversaries referenced are China and Russia, but the strategy is not limited to them. A second source, the USAF Strategic Master Plan, states, "We [as a nation] are increasingly likely to face sophisticated enemies with advanced capabilities."

   These advanced capabilities directly impact the Air Force's ability to operate in contested areas and are known as Anti-Access/Area Denial, orA2/AD, environments. The advanced enemy capabilities specifically include Integrated Air Defense Systems, denied or contested electromagnetic environments and potential missile threats to forward-operating locations.

   To further support the strategy of operating in a contested area, the Air Force's core strategic document is the Air Force Future Operating Concept, or AFFOC. The central theme of the concept is, "how will future Air Force forces deliver responsive and effective global vigilance, global reach and global power in the anticipated environment of 2035?"

    One method Air Force planners use to combat this dilemma is through the development of future operating concepts. Adaptive Basing is the emerging future concept of operations, or CONOPs, enabling the operational effects the three documents -- Third Offset Strategy, SMP and AFFOC -- state as vital for airpower in any region. The purpose of this article is to introduce readers to strategic basing future concepts supporting continued air power projection in an A2/AD environment and the impacts to the civil engineer enterprise.

Power projection platforms

   Within an A2/AD environment, future concepts challenge the norms of current doctrinal operations and focus on national strategy to counter current and future threats.

The integral relationship between an air base and the effective projection of airpower was realized by Gen. Henry "Hap" Arnold in 1941. General Arnold's ideas were later translated into Air Force doctrine that stated, "Few effective missions can be launched without a mission-capable aircraft; a fed and rested crew; fuel, weapons, command, control and communications; a usable runway; and a secure, uncontaminated base from which to operate."

   This relationship is highlighted by the number of bases constructed after World War II. One area of focus for recent concept development is a basing solution to support operations in a contested environment, adaptive basing.

Future concepts

   As the strategic theater advances over the next 25 years, it is imperative Air Force planners focus on basing strategies, solutions and CONOPS for operating in an A2/AD environment. Adaptive basing proposes alternate basing options to enable flying operations. It calls for forces to disaggregate capabilities from a single base and disperse forces and capabilities to many locations for operational maneuver. Adaptive basing results in complicating the enemies' ability to target and deliver mass, while providing a means for U.S. forces to survive, persist and operate in the A2/AD environment.

   Adaptive basing will have far-reaching impacts at all levels of war. At the operational and tactical level, the concept concentrates on mitigating the risk to permanent and vulnerable bases, allows basing flexibility and complicates enemy targeting. At the strategic level, future concepts reinforce the U.S. commitment toward stability within a specified region while demonstrating our nation's resolve. These concepts challenge current doctrinal operations and focus on national strategy to counter the threats of the future.

   Ongoing studies and research efforts centering on strategic basing initiatives are occurring simultaneously across the Air Force. While adaptive basing is a new term, it has been in the research and development phase for several years.

   This overarching concept will link other Air Force operational basing concepts currently in development. Examples of these operational basing concepts include Forward Air Base Operations, Flex-dispersed Operations, Cluster Basing, Rapid Raptor, Untethered Operations, Fractionated Basing, micro deployments and Expeditionary Airfield of the Future. All of these initiatives and CONOPs are still in development, and have yet to be approved by the Air Force. In addition to the Air Force's efforts, correlating concepts are in development by other services. They include: Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations, and a joint service effort -- Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons. Each of these concepts is tailored to its respective service or joint needs, and share the underlying themes of survivability, persistence and operations in a contested environment.

Implication to civil engineers

   The future operating environment has the potential to pose significant threats to U.S. power projection capabilities. This is evident in A2/AD environments in which adversaries continue to invest in capabilities such as IADS, electromagnetic and missile technology.

   By incorporating the strategic vision of the Third Offset Strategy to solve this complex problem, Air Force strategists will continue to research and develop future concepts. The Third Offset Strategy is a necessity for the U.S. to continue leveraging technology and maintaining its superiority and strategic advantage.

  This effort is important to Air Force civil engineers because, while the Third Offset Strategy and adaptive basing alone will not solve the complicated problem of projecting airpower, they will complement one another.

   Most notably, Air Force civil engineers play a critical role in validating vital assumptions for modeling, exercises and war-gaming during concept development. Adaptive basing has the potential to change how civil engineers organize, train and equip. It will drive CE to be leaner than currently postured in order to provide agile combat support in a contested environment. Thus these inputs to adaptive basing will enhance the viability of the Air Force to project airpower.

   As future technologies mature, the Third Offset Strategy will need engaged civil engineers to communicate and assist strategists with practical strategic basing options. Although more research and study is required to validate AB as a strategic basing strategy, this future concept shows promising results.   As the last F-16 roared its engine and disappeared over the horizon heading toward Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, and Eielson Air Force Base, Alaska, the 8th Civil Engineer Squadron Engineering Flight began ushering contractors, bulldozers, excavators, dump trucks and all types of heavy equipment out to the 9,000-foot runway to start the first 24 hours of a massive 45-day construction project to breathe new life into the aging airfield on Kunsan Air Base, Republic of Korea. This was the beginning salvo of a repair project that had been in wing planning coordination for eight months.