Super-Falklands Base in the Gulf
Several times I pointed out how the airbase of Mount Pleasant on the British Falklands Islands is so important to the defense of the small South Atlantic Dependency. As such it is an amazingly economical aircraft carrier substitute, with a mere 4 air defense fighters and the potential for many more in a crisis. Andrew Oh-Wilekke, the Washington Park Prophet, would like to see the US build a similar type airbase somewhere in the Gulf, but on a grander scale, to take the place of its shrinking numbers of enormously expensive Big Decks:
There is a very good chance that the U.S. could now secure a permanent Air Force base in the region similar to those in Aviano, Italy or Okinawa, Japan, and will have something like 50,000 U.S. troops in Iraq for the foreseeable future in any case. In the past, this might have been seen as a threat to Iraq or other Arab states. Now, it would be seen merely as a precaution against Iranian military action that would disrupt the oil trade in the Persian Gulf.
It wouldn’t take a very large Air Force base to have superior capabilities to an aircraft carrier, and this kind of base could also be home to the Navy’s land based P-8 anti-submarine warfare aircraft. Some smaller U.S. Navy ships might still remain in the Persian Gulf, but freed of force protection for an aircraft carrier as a primary mission, far fewer navy surface ships would be required.
Concerning the last statement, the British still see the need to send ships to the Gulf, for patrol missions since aircraft can’t do presence, search-and-rescue, boarding, etc. But he’s right about the lessened need for aircraft carriers.
I understand the vulnerability of land bases, especially in this missile age, to surprise attacks, but airbases are still very durable and effective. They survived during extreme wartime conditions, from the Battle of Britain, to Malta. The German home airbases kept up a fight against the Allies until they were overrun by ground troops. The tiny airfield at Stanley in the Falklands continued to operate throughout the 1982 War, despite heavy attacks by the Navy and RAF, including by long-range Vulcan strategic bombers.
Airbases are extremely durable and economical, in contrast to aircraft carriers which are getting harder to build and afford, and also seem to distract from other important functions of seapower such as anti-submarine, anti-mine, and littoral warfare. Andrew points out that :
Each aircraft carrier group and associated fleet costs something on the order of $30-40 billion to buy before considering the cost of aircraft, and more each year to maintain. So, reducing the number of aircraft carriers the U.S. needs greatly reduces the procurement burden on the U.S. military, and does so even more in the short term as we shrink that fleet simply by not fully replacing it.
The Navy admirals take advantage of the rare occasions in which no airbases are available in initial emergencies, such as Korea or Afghanistan, to populate its fleet with numerous expensive to build and maintain platforms. I still think we need aircraft carriers, but only on rare occasions, certainly no more than half of what we have since no other nation has anything to match one of our ships. Plus, considering the threats against them, they should be used sparingly.