Hit The Road, Jack

It’s been road-base week. In an extensive joint exercise in Finland, an RAF Typhoon landed and took off from Highway 551 near the unusually vowel-deprived town of Tervo, some 200 miles north of Helsinki. A couple of days later, the Royal Norwegian Air Force did the same with an F-35A. There was a lot of coverage to the effect that “they took off from a road”. Road-basing, of course, is first and foremost associated with Sweden, and there were a few press reports that implied that Typhoon and F-35 can now do the same kind of thing.

Up to a point, Lord Copper.

The first of said points is that Highway 551 is not so much a road as a full-size 3000-meter runway built into the Finnish rural highway system, in the days of MiG-21s. Three and a half 800-meter Swedish road bases would fit in its length. But even that’s not the main point.

Road basing is not a STOL contest. It’s a dispersal method, intended to reduce the vulnerability of an air force to enemy attacks when it is on the ground. That’s getting more serious attention, as it should. Missiles are becoming more accurate. Overhead imagery and terrain databases are consumer products. The smoking remains of Tu-22M3s and Il-76s drive home the point that insurgents or infiltrators with drones are much more dangerous and harder to stop than the same guys with mortars.

The Swedish model was originally intended to deal mainly with bombers but its philosophy works against other threats. It’s basically a shell game, forcing the enemy to aim strikes at more aimpoints. STOL increases its effectiveness, making it easier to locate and establish runways in any kind of terrain – three kilometers is a long stretch of straight, dead flat road. STOL also makes the force more resistant to counter-runway strikes, because the runways have to be cut in smaller pieces, with more bombs, to stop operations.

The Swedes’ 800-meter requirement with a basically conventional airplane is a good compromise. Long ago, the USAF even wanted the Advanced Tactical Fighter – which became the F-22 – to be able to use 460-meter runways – the requirement was dropped because it required ludicrously heavy inflight thrust reversers. The RAF tried using Harriers from unprepared fields and reverted to pre-surveyed sites next to roads, after that was shown to be not worth dealing with soft, wet German terrain (full story here). The US Marines have operated F-35Bs from a road in Southern California, but were doing short versus vertical landings (they wanted to use the road again) and the stretch of the Old Pacific Highway in question, as Google Earth shows, is a full 1800 meters.

The price of dispersal can be that your own forces are less effective or more costly. Maintenance people, facilities, and spares holdings should be concentrated for efficiency. Another major piece of the Swedish system is design for reliability and quick turnaround, with a crew of fice conscripts and an NCO. Sweden has never made a twin-engine fighter, nor one dependent on exotic technology. The AJ37 Viggen was Sweden’s first computer-based fighter – and it had the first airborne integrated-circuit computer, not some temperamental core-memory device. Auxiliary power units/jet fuel starters? Standard.

Fishing rods. The Swedes like to talk about the geared manual winches, designed to engage points on the weapon pylons and airframes, that make it possible to load weapons and even change engines without power equipment.

There’s a video here. Whether or not you agree, there’s a cogent argument.

Sounds like a gimmick? This is what it takes to change the engine on, errm, another current aircraft:

Note that this complex device needs external power and is not road-mobile, even towable. Even MilTwitter’s favorite jet, the A-10, can’t go BRRT without one of these:

Gripen uses a hand crank to load the 27-mm. gun. No, it isn’t a Gatling, but then, Sweden hasn’t built a fighter with more than one gun, and that a single-barrel revolver, since 1965.

Road bases can be far from main bases, but don’t have to be, as long as they are dispersed widely enough to make multiple aimpoints a problem. Some Swedish bases are satellites to the main base, so that fuel and other support can move among them quickly by truck. Agility is survivability.

A couple more aspects. Saab has a division called Barracuda, which develops and markets camouflage products (including radar-absorbent materials) and decoys. (Barracuda was one of the first companies to figure out that a decoy that is completely unconvincing on the ground will confuse a pilot at 500 knots.) Camouflage, concealment and deception (CCD), done right, is a great complement to the shell game.

Finally, active defense. From the 40-mm Bofors to the RBS 70 missile, Cold War Sweden deployed systems that were intended to exact a cost on air base attackers. Did you want to penetrate a thicket of light flak and missiles to find you were attacking a Viggen made out of tent poles and canvas? Did you want to be in the wave following the one that, with the advantage of surprise, had determined which road bases seemed live and which did not? Hard nope to both.

Dispersal and ground survivability are important issues and deserve to be better understood.

One thought on “Hit The Road, Jack

  1. Lynn Jenson says:

    Thanks for the back-to-basics reminder — and the reminder of some of the absurdities and brutal realities of modern multi-environmental warfare. Excellently written as usual, by the way!

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