U.S. Aircraft Basing Options in Competition and Conflict with China

Editor’s Note:  This article is part of our Below Threshold Competition: China writing contest which took place from May 1, 2020 to July 31, 2020.  More information about the contest can be found by clicking here.

Captain Walker D. Mills is a Marine infantry officer. He is currently serving as an exchange officer with the Colombian Marine Corps. He is also pursuing an MA in international relations and contemporary war from King’s College London.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization or any group.

National Security Situation:  The U.S. and China are competing below the threshold of armed conflict and trying to best position themselves should conflict occur.  One area of competition focuses on Chinese rockets and missiles, and their potential use against U.S. aviation facilities.

Date Originally Written:  March 3, 2020.

Date Originally Published:  May 27, 2020.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author is an active-duty military member with a stake in potential future competition and conflict with China in the Pacific. The options are presented from the point of view of the United States.

Background:  In recent decades, the People’s Liberation Army within the People’s Republic of China has invested heavily in conventional cruise and ballistic missiles of several types. Today the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force has thousands of missiles with ranges of up to 2,000 kilometers[1]. Their rocket force is among the premier in the world – U.S. and Russian militaries have not kept pace with Chinese missile development and deployment because, until recently, they were constrained by the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF).

Chinese missiles are more than capable of targeting fixed U.S. bases and ships. A recent Center for New American Security report noted that “…a preemptive missile strike against the forward bases that underpin U.S. military power in the Western Pacific could be a real possibility” and named it “the greatest military threat” to U.S. interests in Asia[2]. Analysis of images from missile ranges in the Gobi Desert indicates that the primary targets for these missiles are U.S. aircraft carriers and fixed aviation facilities like airplane hangers and runways[3]. The missiles have repeatedly been highlighted in military parades and are the cornerstone of the PLA’s capability to defeat and deter U.S. military action in the South and East China Seas and their anti-access, area-denial network[4].

Significance:  The increasing threat from Chinese missiles will prevent U.S. forces from being able to credibly threaten the use of force in the seas around China and the First Island Chain because of the extreme risk to U.S. bases and large ships. Without the credible ability to employ force in support of foreign policy objectives in the region, the U.S. may be unable to fulfill treaty obligations to allies in the region and will cede one of its primary tools for competition and foreign policy. The capability to credibly threaten the use of force is the cornerstone of U.S. deterrence in the region.

Option #1:  The United States can embark on a multi-national, multi-agency effort to build dual-use aviation facilities across the First Island Chain. Because the most of the First Island Chain is comprised of U.S. treaty allies, the U.S. can work with allies and partners to rapidly construct a large number of runways and aviation facilities for civilian and military use by foreign partners, which would become available for U.S. military use in the event of a conflict. There are also dozens if not hundreds of derelict runways from the Second World War across the First Island Chain that could be renovated at lower cost than new construction.

Risk:  Such a building program would be expensive, and would have to significantly increase the number of available airfields to achieve the desired effect. This option is also contingent up U.S. partners and allies accepting the U.S. construction programs and the proliferation of airfields on their sovereign territory which may face local political resistance. There is also a risk that this option could spur an arms race with China or spur increased missile development.

Gain:  A significant proliferation of dual-use runways in the First Island Chain would complicate Chinese targeting and force the PLA to spread out their missiles across many more targets, limiting their effectiveness. This building plan would also serve as a type of foreign aid – is it a non-confrontational approach to competition with China and would be a gift to our partners because the airfields and support facilities would be intended for partner use and civilian use in times short of armed conflict.

Option #2:  The U.S. can invest in amphibious aircraft that do not need to operate from runways. Legacy U.S. amphibious aircraft like the PBY-Catalina, also call the ‘Flying Boat’ and the Grumman Albatross were highly effective as utility transports, search and rescue, and maritime patrol craft during the Second World War into the 1980s in the case of the Albatross. These aircraft are capable of operating from conventional runways or directly from the sea – which makes strikes on runways and traditional aviation facilities ineffective towards preventing their operation. These planes are able to operate from any coastal area or inland waterway. Other militaries in the region including the Chinese, Russian and Japanese are already modernizing and upgrading their respective fleets of amphibious aircraft.

Risk:  The risk to this option is that reinvestment in amphibious aircraft could be expensive for the U.S. military or too much of a burden for a niche capability. The risk is also that amphibious aircraft are not capable of performing the necessary roles or do not posses the necessary capabilities for operations in against a peer-adversary like China. There is also a risk that this option could spur an arms race with China or spur increased missile development.

Gain:  The advantage of this option is that it mitigates the risk to U.S. aircraft in the First Island Chain by creating a reserve of aircraft not tied to easily targeted, fixed-bases. Also, amphibious aircraft can be deployed worldwide – and are relevant beyond East Asia. This option does not depend on allies or partners and the capability to operate from the water can be employed in any theater, against any threat, not just in the Pacific.

Other Comments:  Other types of unconventional aircraft may also be considered for development and acquisition. Wing-in-Ground-Effect vehicles can function like aircraft and operate completely from the water and aircraft with vertical takeoff and landing capability can also be employed without traditional runways though struggle with logistics and maintenance in austere environments.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] RAND Corporation. (2017). The U.S. – China Military Scorecard. Retrieved from https://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR300/RR392/RAND_RR392.pdf.

[2] Shugart, Thomas. (2017). First Strike: China’s Missile Threat to US Bases in Asia. Retrieved from https://www.cnas.org/publications/reports/first-strike-chinas-missile-threat-to-u-s-bases-to-asia.

[3] DeFraia, Daniel. (2013). China tests DF-21D missile on mock US aircraft carrier in Gobi Desert. Agence France-Presse. Retrived from https://www.pri.org/stories/2013-01-30/china-tests-df-21d-missile-mock-us-aircraft-carrier-gobi-desert.

[4] RT. (2015, September 3). China’s V-Day military parade in Beijing 2015 [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoC0Xcjko0A&sns=em.

2020 - Contest: PRC Below Threshold Writing Contest A2AD (Anti Access and Area Denial) Air Forces Artillery / Rockets/ Missiles China (People's Republic of China) Competition Option Papers United States Walker D. Mills

Options for the Nigerian Air Force to go on the Offensive in the Counterinsurgency War

Ekene Lionel presently writes for African Military Blog as a defense technology analyst.  His current research focuses on how technology intersects national defense.  He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Michael Okpara University.  He can be found on Twitter @lionelfrancisNG.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.

National Security Situation:  The counter-insurgency war in Nigeria has prevailed for seven years; causing untold hardship to the citizens of the region, devouring a great number of financial resources as well as precious unrecoverable lives[1]. The much sought-after victory has continued to elude the Nigerian Military despite its determined efforts to triumph over the terrorists. In the conflict, the Nigerian Air Force (NAF) has been criticized severally for being absent in the war efforts due to unavailable capable weapons platforms[2].

Date Originally Written:  May 15, 2019. 

Date Originally Published:  July 22, 2019.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  The author writes from the perspective of a seasoned regional defense technology analyst focusing on Africa. The article is written from the point of view of the Nigerian Air Force decision-makers considering using modern technologies to sustain the counter-insurgency war, as well as offering options on the building of aerial capabilities in order to degrade the terrorist elements.

Background:  Since the 1970s, the NAF has largely lost its capability to conduct full-scale conventional warfare against near-peer adversaries. This loss has directly affected its ability to wage a successful counter-insurgency (COIN) efforts against Boko Haram and the Islamic State[3].

The Nigerian Air Force’s emphasis on utilizing cost-effective aerial platforms such as trainers aircrafts pressed into service in the frontlines has left the force with fewer capable platforms to properly prosecute the COIN war. However, with the insurgents’ ever-changing combat and survival tactics coupled with the increasing regional security uncertainties, the NAF began examining new approaches in meeting its constitutional mandates, even with its shrinking budget[4][5].

Significance:  When the Nigerian Air Force cannot undertake its mandates due to limited aerial capability, the counter-insurgency efforts cannot be sustained. The military echelon will find it difficult to perform optimally, for instance, the NAF’s various Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR) platforms are critical in providing valuable information on the enemy’s disposition, troops strength and composition. Also, the NAF’s strike and attack aerial apparatus are seen as the Nigerian Military’s de facto ‘far-reach’ capability; first to see the enemy, first to strike the enemy and first to report the enemy’s position. The Nigerian Air Force is simply the fulcrum that ties all the components involved in fighting the war, its role cannot be over-emphasized[6].

Option #1:  The NAF distributes its platforms and combines them with an integrated observation system.

The NAF disperses rather than concentrates its forces, relying on new weapons, sensors, training, and tactics to defeat the aggressors. Distributed lethality is becoming the newest paradigm shift in offensive combat, aimed at ensuring joint force contribution[7].

This option would ensure the NAF controls the battlefield; which enables deterrence of aggression, power projection, as well as providing theatre security. This concept relies largely on resilient networks to coordinate the activities of all in-theatre airplanes spread over vast areas of landmass as seen in Nigeria’s northeast region. Every aircraft (offensive and otherwise), unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters are a potential sensor and shooter in the shared effort, but the ability of the enemy to detect, track and adapt is greatly complicated.

While West African based terror organizations lack a credible anti-air / aerial-denial capability, when NAF campaigns are organized around using just light attack aircraft, Unmanned Combat Aerial Systems (UCAS) and attack helicopters, it doesn’t take a lot of thought for the enemies to figure out what to target. But when an offensive campaign is waged by diverse aircraft (fighters, trainers, transport, helicopters, UCAS, etc) scattered over many miles, the enemy is challenged in determining where to focus its response.

This strategy could contribute to regional deterrence, enhance the survivability of the force in wartime, and get more value out of each warfighting asset.

Risk:  As with all new changes especially in the defense sector, misusing money is always an issue. However, a staggered approach to implementation could be proposed. Instead of procuring new platforms, little bits of technology could be added to each platform. Such an approach would glue together the aerial platforms, sensors, and weapons, and these incremental improvements would be a step in the right direction. Furthermore, the NAF engineers have shown countless times that they are quite adept at rejigging non-offensive platforms into highly potent warfighting machines.

Additionally, adapting the NAF for distributed lethality requires it to restructure its tactics, training and warfighting tools to a new way of waging war.  This new way of war’s most important items are weapons, networking, and sensors with increased offensive reach, integrated precision munition, improved battlespace awareness, and high-mobility training.

Gain:  This option would increase battlefield coherence, tactical units synergy, and also the possibility of integrating more features like a battlefield ‘friendly force tracker’ in the future. The overall picture is one of a force that will likely gain reconnaissance assets with wider operational range; communications links that better support timely targeting of threats; procedures to optimally pair weapons with targets in a distributed environment; precision munitions with greater over-the-horizon capability. 

Option #2:  The NAF focuses on persistent ISR, real-time target data sharing and rapid reaction engagement.

Another option is to dedicate the Nigerian Air Force’s ISR assets in a persistent deployment mode whereby multiple ISR platforms are deployed to the forward edge of the battlespace for a longer period of time. These ISR platforms will be tied to a theatre-wide real-time target data sharing network (or data link similar to South Africa’s Link ZA or the United States’ Link 16) to instantaneously transmit the target’s data (location and imagery) to standby rapid reaction assets deployed in Forward Operating Bases[8][9]. 

Risk:  With the ever-shrinking defense budget, deploying multiple aircraft for a long period of time drastically increases the operational cost. The amount of money needed to keep military aircraft airborne or in constant high-alert mode is considerable. Moreover, an increase in deployment or sortie rate results in aircraft downtime and the maintenance time required.  With the NAF currently being deployed in multiple fronts, Option #2 could result in security lapses in some areas in the country. However, UCAS could be especially useful in closing some of the gaps identified.

Gain:  Option #2 offers the benefits of a quicker engagement time since the time required from target detection to engagement is significantly reduced. With this in mind, surprising attacks from terrorists are lessened. Furthermore, the decision-making process in target engagement is also reduced because the burden would be passed on the field commanders, thereby lessening the strain on the command and control process. 

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


[1] Gillian, L. ( 2018, January 24), The impact of the Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria on childhood wasting: a double-difference study. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://conflictandhealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13031-018-0136-2

[2] Leadership Newspaper. ( 2017, June 29), Distractions On The Path To Glory: The Nigerian Air Force Experience. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://leadership.ng/2017/06/29/distractions-path-glory-nigerian-air-force-experience/

[3] Ekene, L. (2018, June 28), AIR SUPREMACY: Has the Nigerian Air Force lost its teeth? Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.africanmilitaryblog.com/2018/06/air-supremacy-has-the-nigerian-air-force-lost-its-teeth

[4] Vanguard Newspaper. (2017, November 16) War on Terror: Airforce converts L-39ZA Albatross jets to fighter aircraft. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from  https://www.vanguardngr.com/2017/11/war-terror-airforce-converts-l-39za-albatross-jets-fighter-aircraft/

[5] Sadique Abubakar. (2018, December), Air Power And National Security Imperatives. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://leadership.ng/2018/11/20/air-power-and-national-security-imperatives/

[6] Chris Agbambu. (2017, May 28), Nigerian Air Force Has Played Significant Role In Tackling Insecurity. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.tribuneonlineng.com/94666/

[7] U.S. Naval War College. (2015, October 10), ‘Distributed Lethality’ concept gains focus at NWC. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://usnwc.edu/News-and-Events/News/Distributed-Lethality-concept-gains-focus-at-NWC

[8] Reutech Communications. Link ZA. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from http://www.reutechcomms.com/linkza/

[9] Defense Web. (2010, January 18) Link ZA: Fact File. Retrieved May 16, 2019, from https://www.defenceweb.co.za/resources/fact-files/fact-file-link-za/?catid=79%3Afact-files&Itemid=159

Air Forces Ekene Lionel Nigeria Option Papers