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Air-Mechanization, Part 3: Firebases
The previous piece on air-mechanization looked at the potential for long-range artillery in an air-mechanized role. Airmobile artillery, positioned aggressively far forward and closely synchronized with a fast-paced ground offensive, could help create a breakthrough against a well-prepared defense. This scheme creates a fleeting window of opportunity in the critical opening stages of a campaign, using high tempo to mitigate the enormous risks to unsupported assets.
An alternative is to trade immediate usability for greater protection of the air-mechanized force: employing forces at even greater depth but creating hardened firebases in the enemy’s rear. The actions of the 101st Airborne Division during the Gulf War offer a template.
On 24 February 1991, the first day of the Desert Storm ground campaign, the 101st conducted an immense air assault to establish a base at a point in the desert 85 miles beyond the Iraqi border, FOB Cobra. This was not so much a single base as a vast 400 sq-km area in which troops and supplies were amassed. From there, they pushed out detachments to block Iraqi forces from moving along the main highway and launched artillery raids against fixed positions.
There are a few things that make FOB Cobra unique. The ground invasion only kicked off after five weeks of bombing in which the Coalition had established air superiority and attritted a large part of Iraqi ground forces. The Iraqis moreover lacked any kind of long-range fires that could target the FOB with any accuracy (as did the 101st). The assault was done in close coordination with ground troops, with the French 6th Light Armored Division and elements of the 82nd Airborne screening their left flank. Finally, it was sustained by ground lines of communication (MSR Newmarket).
Yet a few things stand out that could apply more generally. Most obviously, it demonstrated how air assault can be used to exploit an open flank. Whether the Iraqis believed the desert itself to be a sufficient obstacle or simply lacked the forces to defend it, geographical inaccessibility created the opportunity for an air assault.
Second, the FOB provided a springboard to project force. Air assaults were launched a further 85 miles into Iraq, far beyond the ordinary range of helicopters in a contested environment. Although limited in their absolute strength, their position so far behind Iraqi lines—within 150 miles of Baghdad—made them disproportionately effective: they isolated the main battle area, preventing forces from getting in or out.
Establishing the Firebase
This would look very different in a modern operating environment. The two greatest difficulties in a fight between near-peers would be sustainment and protection. Geographic inaccessibility and long-range fires might provide some initial protection, but the air and missile threat would remain—SAMS, EW equipment, and counterbattery radars would have to be quickly brought in to harden the position.
There is no guarantee that this could be done by ground as at FOB Cobra, nor could the sheer mass of necessary supplies and equipment be lifted by rotary-wing; more likely, the assault force would have to seize or prepare an airstrip (this might provide a role for more traditional air-mechanized units). Then there is the problem of holding the air corridor open: enough assets must be committed to suppress air defenses in the sector for the duration of the operation.
All told, simply establishing a firebase and keeping it operational requires tremendous expenditure of high-demand assets in the resource-intensive opening phase of the campaign. Whether this is worth it comes down, as always, to a question of economy of force.
Exploiting the Gap
A firebase that is geographically inaccessible enough to survive the opening days of a campaign is also likely out of range of forward-positioned reserves or critical infrastructure. Its utility comes from the ability to project force deep into the enemy rear: airmobile fires, supported by attack helicopters and other air-mechanized forces, could wreak havoc on poorly-defended infrastructure and deep reserves. Even before that point, the presence of such a firebase impedes the adversary’s free movement by land and air within his own territory—depending on the geography, this could be an enormous hindrance.
The mere potential of such a lodgment therefore poses a dilemma for the defender. It is a threat that only grows worse with time; every new defensive asset brought in to protect the firebase presents an additional complication for the counterattack, demanding greater resources and longer time horizons. This dilemma confronts the defender at a crucial moment, when he is straining to contain the main offensive thrust (the same dilemma outlined in the previous piece, but on a longer timescale).
This is exacerbated when the firebase supports the opening of a second front. Once established, a firebase could provide an umbrella of air and electronic protection that opens a corridor that is otherwise unrealistic. Just as the presence of FOB Cobra effectively secured its own ground lines of communication through vast tracts of open desert, firebases established on the far side of mountains, forests, swamps, etc. could support the passage of friendly troops. Even if these only consist of supply trucks, as during Desert Storm, a land corridor allows a far more rapid build-up of combat power than an airbridge.
The Amphibious Option
Another plausible employment of firebases is in conjunction with naval assets. A rugged coast may offer an open flank if there are few suitable landing zones that need to be defended, or if those zones are too remote from anything else of value. Naval assets could create a corridor for the initial assault, which then establishes a firebase to cover what might otherwise be a difficult amphibious landing.
This presents obvious difficulties of its own, not least the risk of placing amphibious ships within range of anti-ship missiles. Amphibious ships can only launch helicopters slowly, and not in great numbers; the assault force might have to come from land, and would in any case have to be supported by refuelers.
Whether or not firebases can ever support amphibious landings in a high-intensity fight, this scenario highlights another possible use-case: expeditionary warfare. Protection and sustainment become more manageable against a lesser (or at least more dispersed) adversary; the real challenge of expeditionary operations is force projection—extending the reach of limited combat power. This is the exact problem for which artillery raiding was developed in the Vietnam War, and a natural application for firebases equipped with long-range artillery.
The use of airmobile fires in any role, whether the firebase concept outlined here or the support of a breakthrough described in the previous piece, requires a happy confluence of circumstances in order to ever be implemented. There are only so many countries in the world that have large enough militaries to afford the development, procurement, and training required, to say nothing of the opportunity cost of dedicating so many assets to a specialized mission—any military that could afford the expense would also have to have justify it. The theoretical viability of airmobile fires is therefore no guarantee of its future employment.
The most immediate obstacle at present is the inexistence of a helicopter-transportable MLRSs and the general lack of heavy lift even in many advanced militaries. From a budgetary and development perspective alone, the United States is therefore the most likely to adopt the concept. It already has a large inventory of heavy-lift helicopters and an MLRS that is close to the limits of the heaviest of these. The US Army has already invested time in developing the air-mechanized concept and has several dedicated airborne units.
The US Marine Corps has already adopted an airmobile fires concept in an expeditionary capacity. It has long practiced heliborne artillery raids, and has recently begun experimenting with fixed-wing HIMARS raids. There are some differences with the concepts outlined here—the Marines’ concept is oriented toward contesting the vast spaces of a maritime environment, not penetrating enemy territory in support of a ground campaign—but the basic principles remain the same.
There are several mid-sized US-aligned militaries such as the British, French, and Japanese which maintain some air-mechanized capabilities but lack sufficient heavy lift. Given the competing priorities that all three face (especially maritime), they are less likely to invest in so specific a capability. If the US or another country developed a suitable missile launcher, on the other hand, they might conceivably purchase both the weapon system and the helicopters to go with it.
Among former Warsaw Pact countries, only Russia maintains sizeable airborne forces, heavy-lift capacity, and the doctrine and training to go with it. However, the war in Ukraine has shown a lack of suitable infantry to be one of the Russian Army’s greatest shortcomings. The VDV are some of the only ones that have performed well; paired with the corresponding ineffectiveness of their BMDs in high-intensity combat, they may be reconfigured toward a more conventional ground role. This leaves open the question of what would happen to their large helicopter inventory: they might divest themselves of air assault capacity altogether, but could also adapt them to the use of airmobile fires.
India is another large military with a history of successful air assault. Its most active conflict zones are in the Himalayas, where altitude severely restricts the use of helicopters, but it shares a long lowland border with Pakistan where a number of geographical obstacles would make airmobile fires more useful. India is also looking to expand its reach in the Indian Ocean, and has been investing in amphibious vessels which could serve as the basis for expeditionary firebasing.
The concept might also be applied on the defense. Indonesia and the Philippines are composed of several thousand islands spread out over a vast area, and the former has an especially large military with several air assault brigades. Airmobile fires could certainly play a role in defending remote islands, although this would likely only supplement fixed-wing airlift to prepared airstrips.
The Taiwan Scenario
This leaves one country with the greatest potential use for airmobile fires: China. PLA acquisitions and doctrinal developments are oriented toward Taiwan, which presents tremendous difficulties for an amphibious landing. The utility of airmobile fires is obvious. The island’s central mountain range offers many potential landing zones within range of the lowlands, where the terrain masks the assault force against air defenses on the ingress and protects it against ground attack.
This brings many difficulties of its own. A lack of suitable airstrips in the mountains makes resupply difficult, meaning the assault force would have helicopter support for at most a few hours or would require the commitment of even greater resources to establish a FARP. This problem is exacerbated by the cramped spaces available to land, inviting swift retribution against any units left milling around the LZ. Beyond this, Chinese air assault doctrine is not particularly well developed, although it has undertaken a large building program of amphibious ships (3 completed, another 9 planned) and is currently developing a heavy-lift platform.
The Shape of Things to Come
The future of warfare will be shaped just as much by budgetary and diplomatic considerations as by technological and doctrinal developments. The expense and difficulty of modern combat may simply limit the prospect of high-intensity land conflicts in the next several decades. Yet the fundamental problem of moving combat power across contested ground will remain, and militaries around the world will continue to experiment with solutions. Air-mechanization remains one of their likely bets.
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