Tuesday, September 11, 2012
A new rocket attack launched by the Taliban has hit Bagram airfield, with five rockets hitting inside the perimeter, causing three dead and the destruction of one parked american Chinook helicopter.
Mortar and rocket attacks are still very common on FOBs, and the british forces have experimented rocket attacks on airfields, with Kandahar being hit in 2005 with the loss of an Harrier and the damaging of a second, temporarily removing 20% of the air support available, at the time represented by 6 Harriers.
Attacks on airfields, with mortars and rockets, are a daily thing around the world, and they are a plague that has not yet been defeated. Attacks as successful as this last one on Bagram or the 2005's attack on Kandahar are relatively rare, but we should not forget that there are other effects to the RAM (Rocket, Artillery, Mortar) offensive: mainly, the enormous number of precious "boots on the ground" that become tied in to the protection of the airfield.
Kandahar airfield, crucial for the prosecution of operations in Afghanistan, is protected by a multinational force of over 700 men, the force of an Armoured Infantry Battalion in the british army.
This always includes a RAF Regiment field squadron for force protection.
The rationale of this is that patrols and defensive operations happen outside the wire, expanding the safe perimeter around the base to a distance that makes mortar and rocket attack virtually impossible.
This is an effective method, but a resource-intensive one.
The inner layer of defence is provided by artillery locating radars and sensors (the UK urgently procured 34 Lightweight Counter Mortar Radars LCMR from the US for operations in Afghanistan) that provide a warning for the troops to get to cover before the shells hit. The radars are also meant to cue the fire of C-RAM defense systems, but the UK has not deployed any to Afghanistan, while a number of Centurion systems (naval Phalanx 1B modified and mounted on trailers) were leased from the americans and employed in Afghanistan by joint-services batteries made up of Royal Artillery and Navy personnel.
The investment in C-RAM systems is relatively little, even in the US. In the UK, with the end of the deployment in Iraq is also ended the brief but important story of C-RAM for the deployed army. Germany is the only european country seriously addressing the C-RAM requirement, with the MANTIS system, probably the best one available at the moment. Italy's Oto Melara is working on the Porcupine system, with an italian army order anticipated, but budget issues are slowing down the process and adding uncertainty.
The RAM threat, however, has not gone away, nor it has been defeated. It continues to eat up resources and it continues to cause losses.
But the attention of most is not conquered by relatively little, dumb rockets hitting land airfields, which could well be civilian ones soon or later, causing far worse bloodshed. No. Most press, most "experts" and many commenters like it more to try and sell the argument that the aircraft carrier, the floating airfield which featured in all conflicts after the end of the Second World War, is "vulnerable" when not even "obsolete", using the infamous chinese ballistic anti-ship missile as the new big bogeyman. An untested system of which we know little, but that is apparently proving almost as successful a deterrent in the mind of some as a nuclear arsenal.
This made even more ridiculous by the fact that, for years, we have been told by the same experts of the superior technology of the Western alliance, first against the (fearsome, but nonetheless downplayed) russian anti-ship missiles and then against China's own technology.
This new fear of the anti-ship missile reminds me of the UK Defence White Paper which, as early as 1957, talked of a future in which combat airplanes would cease to exist, replaced by Surface to Air missiles, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. 55 years later, that forecast sounds like a drunkard vision, and for the foreseeable future there will still be manned and unmanned airplanes flying.
Or the never-ending talk of end of the tank age, with the MBT "obsolete" and "useless" due to the menace of anti-tank missiles: reality shows that the battle tank is still going strong, with thousands of MBTs in production and with new models coming online, with Russia due to put in service a new type by 2015 and with the Asian countries putting their own new tanks in service.
The new movement of thought saying that the aircraft carrier is obsolete is even more ridiculous than those others, because it focuses on the carrier, but does not expand to the other surface vessels. How come, those are not vulnerable to anti-ship missiles? If they aren't because they can shot down the missiles, then the carrier isn't vulnerable either, when escorted, and no one would send one on a solo mission during war.
So, what is the explanation? Also, if we removed the "vulnerable" carrier from the equation, wouldn't the other surface warships be even more vulnerable because left without air cover?
If the carrier is doomed, then surely even more so is the Amphibious ship? What should we do, buy navies of sole submarines?
The aircraft carrier is actually less vulnerable than most other platforms. A succesful attack against an aircraft carrier hasn't been seen since the war in Korea. The UK itself failed to find and sink the argentinian carrier ARA 25 de Mayo in the Falklands in 1982, when the submarines failed to locate her.
As we know, the carrier had located the british surface fleet instead, and only the weather prevented the launch of the heavily loaded Skyraiders from her deck.
How many countries in the world have a realistic chance of finding, targeting and striking an aircraft carrier at sea? Excluding allied countries, the list comes down to China and Russia. But in such a conflict, against one or both of these two major powers, there is nothing that would not be "vulnerable". Still, i know i'd prefer to be on an aircraft carrier than in an airport exposed to artillery, direct land attack, ballistic missile attack (we should not forget that Russia and China and Iran and other countries deploy a formidable array of tactical ballistic missiles, with Russia having used its Iskander as a tool of aggressive diplomacy against Poland already more than once), air attack and so along.
In most realistic war operations against minor countries, terrorist organizations and so along, the aircraft carrier would be nearly untouchable.
The aircraft carrier is "vulnerable" in the sense that, while it is much harder to hit in the first place, it can take less damage than a land airfield. An airbase can't sink, and a cratered runway can (normally) be restored quite quickly. A carrier can sink, or more realistically she can be forced out of action since repairing damage to the floating airport is undoubtedly more challenging (but not impossible, as the second world war showed more than once).
However, the vulnerability of an aircraft carrier is most likely to be tested in a major conflict between major powers. In such a conflict, you can't expect many things to stay out of trouble, and a land airfield wouldn't at all have an easier life. It would not sink, no, but it most likely would be devastated nonetheless.
In more realistic scenarios, most enemies worldwide do not have the capability to harm the aircraft carrier at sea.
While in the meanwhile, the list of successful attacks on land airfields is long and growing constantly. And i'm not speaking just of assaults on Pakistani bases, but of attacks on airfields held and fortified for years by british and american forces.
Lastly, there is no real alternative to the aircraft carrier just as there isn't much alternative to using land airfields. We will need both until the airplane, manned or not, remains indispensable for the war effort, and the airplane is here to stay, i think we can all agree on this.
I think someone has gotten its priorities wrong. If i have to point the finger to indicate which airfield is the most vulnerable, the one i'll point to is not the floating one.
Before throwing money into anti-ballistic missiles for Type 45s (which are anyway desirable for the future), i'd much prefer to see investment in an effective C-RAM system, thanks.