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Contingency Basing for Great Powers Competition

  • Published
  • By Capt Michael E. Canfield, USAF


Military bases are expensive to establish, operate, and sustain, but they are also crucial as the platform necessary to project Air Power. In the resource constrained environment that the United States operates within, the military must find opportunities to reduce resource costs while achieving the same desired effect. Rather than becoming complacent with previous basing operations and procedures, we must adapt to the emerging, global, multi-domain threats and posture our forces in a manner capable of adaptive operations. Embracing new basing operations should align with national defense strategy (NDS) and joint policy, support globally integrated operations, and implement construction standards compatible with the operational requirements.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy highlights the need to transition from large, centralized, unhardened infrastructure to small, dispersed, resilient, adaptive basing.1 The 2017 National Security Strategy (NSS) shifted the national defense focus and priority to Great Powers Competition.2 The Capability Development Council developed a policy of ‘adaptive operations in contested environments’ that aimed to answer the strategic change required to meet this developed national security threat. The adaptive operations concept aims to posture, protect, sustain, move and maneuver, command and control forces across bases to confound enemy risk-reward determination, complicate adversary targeting, preserve combat power, and fight from positions of power.3

China and Russia are identified as the two countries in Great Powers Competition that are challenging American power, influence, and interest. The new focus on peer-to-peer threats brings changes to the basing environment experienced during counterterrorism (CT) and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations. Air superiority and an uninterrupted communication network is no longer a given during conflict causing the air base to no longer be a sanctuary as often experienced in CT and COIN operations. This has required an emphasis to be placed on operational resiliency rather than operational efficiency. The Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) has further developed the adaptive operations into the agile combat employment (ACE) scheme of maneuver to reinforce the call to change required to meet this new challenge.4 ACE encompasses four elements of agility, posture, protection, and joint all domain command and control (JADC2) to shape the efforts needed for the cultural and operational transformation. The ACE concept is applied to five lines of effort: set the theatre, deploy the force, maneuver the force, command and control the force, and sustain the force.5 This paper will focus on the first line of effort, set the theatre, and apply the ACE concept to contingency base posturing.

Base Distribution

ACE is a scheme of maneuver supported by infrastructure. It has been directly applied to offensive operations, military assets, logistics support infrastructure, and war reserve material (WRM), but should also be applied to how the United States establishes its contingency bases during a conflict. ACE advocates for a distribution of operations in a contested military environment. Likewise, a distribution of military bases would support the goals of producing agile military operations and complicates adversaries from identifying target rich opportunities.6 PACAF’s current adaptive cluster methodology uses main operating bases (MOB) as hubs to provide command and oversight to distributed fighting positions or spokes. The conventional Hub-and-Spoke contingency base distribution creates a target rich environment that could easily cause command and control to be disrupted at the hubs; instead, a base network distributed and executing decentralized control and execution trades efficiency for survivability and operations capability. Shifting the focus to distribute missions, assets, and resources more evenly between the hubs and spokes would help prevent adversarial disruptions.

This change in mentality requires a major change in organizational structure and posturing. Rather than consolidating headquarters together for operational efficiencies as the United States has historically executed in the Middle East, it requires shifting towards decentralization to enable survivability and operations capability. One main threat in a peer-to-peer conflict is China’s missile inventory which can devastate centralized assets or command and control. Increasing base distribution increases and complicates missile targeting and would also cause a lower desired detrimental effect to the United States. However, decentralized base missions requires clear commander intent and trust, a well-defined mission, and delegated operational authority.

Joint Bases

An obvious challenge to a distributed and decentralized network of bases is that bases are expensive to build, operate, and sustain. To prevent wasted resources, air base construction and missions need to coincide with the joint strategic needs, not simply focusing on Air Force asset requirements. The identity of an Air Base must shift from an Air Force service perspective to providing overall joint integration to effectively manage theatre and country resources. Rather than each service building bases to support their missions, the joint base must be embraced in the earliest stages of staff planning. To align with the national defense priority, the force presentation model and basing structure for combative commanders needs to adapt to effectively meet this threat.

The establishment of bases unfortunately often undergoes independent stages of development based on functional needs facilitated through the Base Operations Support Integrator (BOS-I) and staff planning. These functional ‘stove-pipes’ need to be integrated together into comprehensive base capabilities-planning and prevent just-in-time completion. Furthermore, service function integration needs to be taken a step further into planning bases for the joint strategic needs. Many joint contingency bases are developed with services segregated from one another into districted and separate areas. This separation of services is contrary to the very notion of joint operations and prevents the integration of functions, operations, and personnel. Instead, intentional base planning and layout should design the installation based on functional campuses that co-locate services and coalition partners to aid in the melding of the joint ideology. The physical layout of operations should reflect the goal of implementing Joint All Domain Operations and actively search for finding and building proximity interactions.

The move towards globally integrated operations means bases must move past territorial motivations and service focused logistics. Contingency bases should not be developed to be air bases or Army camps, but rather joint bases supporting a joint operation and mission. The BOS-I needs to be empowered to align base development with ACE principles to encourage multi-capable, adaptive bases. An emphasis should be placed on creating joint bases to enable agile operations and integration of multi-capable missions.

Construction Standards

During Great Powers Competition, the basing standards will differ from COIN or CT to coincide with the changed constraints. COIN and CT operations enjoyed the air base as a sanctuary with air superiority and allowed for bases to be a relatively safe location from which to operate. This allowed consolidation of organizations, missions, and functions to enable improved efficiency and stable execution. Great Power Competition contrasts that with a contested environment that is susceptible to attack and focused on agility, flexibility, and resiliency. A consistent joint basing standard will need to reflect this fundamental difference and can more effectively enable the joint mission to rapidly project power with intentional base planning and design.7 Constructing bases to lower construction standards will balance the larger distribution of bases with resources constraints. This allows for a larger number of temporary bases that provide dispersal and operational redundancy that coincide with the intent of ACE. The drawback of this distribution is that additional air bases require additional reliance on security forces and a logistical support infrastructure for the bases. Additionally, this requires the political relationship with host nations in place to support the posturing of these bases. The magnitude of these drawbacks can be minimized through focusing on integrating joint forces into bases with combining service requirements which can simultaneously help reduce the number of required bases. But bases should be balanced to a distributed network throughout the theatre instead of having large, centralized command bases to avoid significant disruption from adversaries.

A common lexicon is required when discussing contingency base construction standards. Different military publications use various terms to describe military construction standards to include austere, bare, expeditionary, organic, initial, temporary, semi-permanent, permanent, established, and enduring. Joint doctrine provides a foundation to begin distinguishing between construction standards by categorizing contingency locations into initial, temporary, and semi-permanent.8 An initial contingency location represents an austere base designed and constructed with organic service capabilities, a temporary contingency location is developed for missions expected to last 24 months, and a semi-permanent contingency location is developed for mission expected to last 24 to 60 months. Geographic Combatant Commanders (GCC) are given the authority to decide how to handle enduring locations that are expected to last beyond 5 years. Additionally, joint doctrine states that “the GCC will establish contingency basing criteria and specify the common service standard for BOS.”9 Temporary, semi-permanent, and permanent construction standards are most frequently used in military contingency application to apply to contingency construction.10

Contingency bases in Great Powers Competition may require trading quality of life investments for operational agility, resiliency, and flexibility. Spending resources to provide contingency bases with expanded infrastructure, increased construction standards, and long-term investments creates an enticing target with a larger adversarial effect. Lower construction standards will need to be embraced to reduce enticing targeting-rich strikes and coincide with the need for a larger number of distributed bases. Each base will need to understand its strategic purpose to be an ‘austere tactical location,’ ‘drop-in/out,’ or ‘stay and fight’ when developing its construction standards.11 But prudent investment in base infrastructure can align the base with its operational mission and ensure that the base effectively supports regional and global efforts.


The force presentation model is developing to include smaller teams that are more agile, lighter, and leaner aimed at reduced airlift; consequently, base posturing and construction standards will also need to develop in order to efficiently leverage financial resources and optimize base infrastructure to support the changing strategic adaptive operations concepts and ACE policies. In order to transition from COIN and CT operations to Great Powers Competition, the GCC should: 1) align the strategic distribution of bases to support the emerging threat of peer-to-peer conflict, 2) develop contingency bases as flexible joint bases capable of supporting adaptive joint requirements, and 3) leverage lower contingency basing construction standards to achieve additional theatre base infrastructure goals with limited resources.

The broad scope application of adaptive operations and ACE discussed in this paper should be further refined into tangible GCC plans and standards. Further research is recommended to develop the specific GCC needs to adapt their basing distribution to their operational threats and fully embrace joint basing to provide a resilient and adaptive installation layout, all while still supporting ACE concepts. Additional research should develop the specific construction standards that enable prudent distribution of theatre resources to effectively counter peer adversary capabilities. This recommended approach aligns with the new contingency environment of adaptive operations and ACE concepts to counter near-peer adversaries’ anticipated threats and capabilities while maintain the air base as a resilient platform for air power projection.

Captain Michael E. Canfield, USAF

Captain Canfield’s (MS, Air Force Institute of Technology; BS, University of Dayton) research interests include construction management, sustainability, and Great Power Competition. He is currently a USAF civil engineer officer serving as the Flight Chief of Installation Management at Dover Air Force Base.

This paper was written as part of the SOS Air University Advanced Research (AUAR) elective, MAF section.



The conclusions and opinions expressed in this research paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or The Air University.

Author’s Note:

This research paper was written from the perspective of a Civil Engineer (32E) Air Force Specialty Coded officer. The core focus of this research paper derives from the ACE effort currently being worked at staff level and applying this concept to contingency bases.

Senior mentors contributing to research topic (December 2020):

Col Theresa Weems (USAF), Air War College, Dean of Students
Major Justin Borgerding (USAF), Air University Advanced Research Group Facilitator
Major Jeffery Vanguilder (USAF), USAF Expeditionary Center, Chief of Operations A3/4/5


1 K. J. McInnis, “The 2018 National Defense Strategy,” 2018 Natl. Def. Strateg., 2018.

2 H. Security, “2017 National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” Found. Homel. Secur. Law Policy Second Ed., pp. 175–180, 2017.

3 C. D. Council, “Summary of Adaptive Operations in Contested Environments.”

4 H. PACAF/A313, “PACAF Airfield Operations ACE CONOPS,” 2019.

5 PACAF, “PACAF Annex to AOiCE.”

6 M. Priebe, A. Vick, J. Heim, and M. Smith, Distributed Operations in a Contested Environment: Implications for USAF Force Presentation, 2019.

7 L. C. J. T. Scott, “Joint Standards for Contingency Construction,” 1993.

8 US Joint Chiefs of Staff, “Joint Publication 4-04 Contingency Basing,” no. January 2019, 2019.

9 J. C. of Staff, “Joint Publication 3-34 - Joint Engineer Operations,” no. January, p. 206, 2016.

10 Jordan CastaƱeda, “Analyses of Temporary, Semi-permanent, and Permanent Construction Standards on Expeditionary US Air Bases APPROVED BY SUPERVISING COMMITTEE,” 2017.

11 M. Priebe, Distributed Operations in a Contested Environment.

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