Air forces are ditching runways to prepare their jets to keep operating when enemies aim for their bases

An A-10 on highway in Michigan
A US Air Force A-10 lands on a Michigan highway in August 2021.US Air Force/Master Sgt. Scott Thompson
  • The British air force plans to operate its Typhoon and F-35B jets on highways in the next year.

  • It is meant to be a test of the British air force's ability to operate away from its main bases.

  • Many militaries use highways as runways, and it's getting new interest as threats to airbases grow.

The war in Ukraine has reinforced many things that militaries knew about major conflicts. One of the most important is that air power is vital to ensuring ground forces survive and advance.

But sustaining power in the air requires having places where jets and helicopters can land, refuel, and rearm. On a modern battlefield, where long-range weapons can reach far behind the frontlines and drones constantly roam overhead, protecting aircraft from the enemy is hard.

So Western air forces are increasingly focused on dispersing their operations. One way to do that is by using highway networks to land, refit, and take off before the enemy catches up.

Fighter jets and highway ops

ZK438 Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 lights the afterburner for a performance takeoff RAF Coningsby.
A Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 takes off at RAF Coningsby in October 2020.Jon Hobley/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images

Highway operations are not new. During the Cold War, militaries selected roads to be used as backups if their bases were destroyed. In one exercise in 1984, NATO militaries practiced landing their jets, including the A-10 Warthog, on a stretch of German autobahn.

Some air forces moved away from that capability after the Cold War and now have to train for it again.

One such force is Britain's Royal Air Force, which will certify its Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4s and F-35B fighter jets for highway operations sometime in the next year, Air Marshal Harvey Smyth, the RAF's air and space commander, told Aviation Week at a conference in London this month.

The RAF plans to land its Typhoons on highways in Finland in the coming months and some time after that to land its F-35Bs on a roadway in the UK, using aluminum mats to protect the pavement, Smyth said.

Finland F/A-18 fighter jet highway
A Finnish F/A-18 fighter jet lands on a motorway in September 2022.REUTERS/Janis Laizans

Landing on a roadway may be more challenging for the Typhoon FGR4, a conventional-takeoff-and-landing aircraft that requires longer runways. The F-35B stealth fighter has a short-takeoff-and-vertical-landing capability, reducing the amount of runway it needs and vastly increasing its expeditionary warfare capabilities.

The drills are meant to show the RAF what shortcomings it has in its ability to operate away from its main bases. Finland, NATO's newest member, is well suited to help. It routinely uses its fleet of F/A-18s in highway operations and rising tensions with Russia have prompted it to focus more on that capability.

Sweden, which is awaiting NATO membership, has similar experience. It developed an air-basing strategy that made use of highways during the Cold War, and the need to be able to use rudimentary or improvised runways informed the design of Sweden's JAS 39 Gripen fighter jets.

How the US military plans to do it

Air Force F-35 C-130J Guam
US Air Force F-35s wait to refuel from a C-130J during an Agile Combat Employment multi-capable airmen training on Guam in February 2021.US Air Force/Senior Airman Jonathan Valdes Montijo

The US military has also been planning distributed air operations from unconventional airfields and runways.

US Air Force and Marine Corps units have been training on highway operations, both in the US and abroad. A 2016 drill that saw A-10s practice landing on a highway in Estonia was the first of its kind in three decades.

Under the Agile Combat Employment concept, the US Air Force is training to disperse small numbers of aircraft to bases across the Indo-Pacific region to make it harder for China's military to target them. Elements of ACE can be used proactively amid rising tensions or after a conflict breaks out.

When done correctly, ACE "complicates the enemy's targeting process, creates political and operational dilemmas for the enemy, and creates flexibility for friendly forces," according to the Air Force's ACE doctrine.

Air Force MQ-9 Reaper Wyoming highway
US airmen prepare an MQ-9 for take off on Wyoming highway during training focused on agile combat employment in April.US Air National Guard/Master Sgt. Phil Speck

The Air Force is training what it calls multi-capable airmen to support ACE operations by doing several jobs at lightly manned outposts. US special operators also have a role in ACE, especially when it involves highways. Air Force commandos are specially trained to survey potential airfields and to conduct air traffic during dispersed operations.

US special-operator forces have been working on another key concept known as Forward Arming and Refuting Points, which goes hand-in-hand with ACE. Aircraft need to be refueled and rearmed wherever they are, especially if they have to deploy to remote, austere location on short notice.

Like the RAF, the US Air Force has turned to its Scandinavian partners for pointers. Gen. James Hecker, the head of US Air Forces in Europe, said last year that his command was sending airmen to study the Swedish approach.

"The ability to disperse aircraft is a speciality of theirs," Hecker said in August 2022, according to Janes. "Sweden has got Agile Combat Employment down better than any other air force in the world, and we are going to exploit that."

Stavros Atlamazoglou is a defense journalist specializing in special operations, a Hellenic Army veteran (national service with the 575th Marine Battalion and Army HQ), and a Johns Hopkins University graduate. He is working toward a master's degree in strategy and cybersecurity at Johns Hopkins' School of Advanced International Studies.

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