Small Wars Journal

“Crippled At The Starting Gate” – America’s Achilles Heel In Future Conflict

Tue, 02/27/2024 - 8:41am

“Crippled At The Starting Gate”

America’s Achilles Heel In Future Conflict

By Martin Stanton


            I recently finished Kurt Schlicter’s excellent book THE ATTACK which is written as a retrospective on a massed October 7th style terrorist attack on the United States that occurs in the late summer of 2024.  Schlicter’s book is a page turner, both easy to read and compelling.  The premise of THE ATTACK is simple:  Large numbers of terrorists’ infiltrate across our open southern border (past our distracted, improperly focused, and politically hamstrung law enforcement and intelligence agencies) amidst the current flood of illegal aliens.  They assume hiding positions within the US and wait for the “GO” order.  Their attacks happen over several days and cause mass casualties and crippling economic damage.  THE ATTACK captures the savagery of Oct 7, 2023, and transfers it to an American setting on a far broader scale.  Schlicter’s descriptions of the atrocities committed by the attackers are not for the faint of heart but are basically taken directly from both testimony of Israelis who survived the Hamas attack on October 7 and the captured Hamas footage of what happened to those who did not.  The balance of the book is about the various reactions to the attack across America. 

Schlicter makes no secret of his political leanings, but no one can deny the plausibility of his scenario.  THE ATTACK is a well written and thought-provoking book.  It certainly caused me to freshly consider my own community and how it would react to such an event.  It also got me thinking about how vulnerable the US is; not just to non-state actor “terrorist” attacks, but to attacks by conventional and special operations forces of enemy nations in the event of hostilities with the US. 


            The United States has almost no living memory of an attack by the forces of an enemy nation on our mainland.  The closest we have left are the few 90–100-year-olds, who can recall the handful of Japanese submarine gun attacks on the Pacific coast and the ferocious U-boat campaign off our Atlantic shores in early 1942.  The last time we faced an enemy capable of stopping our maritime traffic and projecting power into the continental United States was in the war of 1812.  None of our modern enemies in the 20th century had the capability to conventionally attack military targets on the US mainland in any meaningful way.  America was too far and their ability to project power too limited. 

            In the 21st century this is no longer the case.  We have long lived under the “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) deterrent when it comes to nuclear threats to the US; but MAD has no counterpart in conventional war.  There’s no “Cosmic Law” against conventionally attacking the continental United States.  In almost every plausible major war scenario the US faces today WE will be bombing potential enemies on their respective mainland’s.  It’s only reasonable to assume they will look at ways to respond (or to pre-empt).  The combined impacts of vastly improved and expanded international transportation, massive amounts of commerce that defy comprehensive inspection, the miniaturization of weapons, emergent military drone technologies, cruise and ballistic missile proliferation and launch system diversification, unchecked mass migration and open borders makes the US vulnerable in ways we have not previously seen in our history. Our adversaries are starting to wake up to this.


Excluding its considerable arsenal of nuclear weapons and delivery systems, what makes America powerful is not only it’s highly trained conventional forces but its ability to project those forces rapidly (relatively speaking – more quickly than our adversaries) anywhere in the world.  We maintain some forces in certain theaters (CENTCOM, EUCOM, PACOM) but even there, were war to break out these would have to be reinforced by considerable forces from the Continental United States (CONUS).  All the ground forces will deploy from a relative handful of Ports Of Embarkation (Air and Sea -APOE and SPOE) on either coast.  The air forces are more flexible but depend heavily on static air bases and the tanker fleet for quick strategic mobility.  Naval forces too rely on a small number of large bases on each coast.

Putting my “Red Team” hat on, if you’re going to fight America, attacking our ability to project forces and sustainment is job # 1.   This will especially be true in scenarios such as Taiwan or Korea where even a delay of a few days or weeks in America’s force flow can tip the scales in the outcome of a campaign.


An enemy nation that wishes to attack our power projection capabilities and facilities in the continental US can avail themselves of an embarrassingly diverse set of options when it comes to striking us.   We’re vulnerable to just about anything.   To keep this essay small, I will focus merely on kinetic options and not include the dazzling array of cyber and information operations options available to our enemies.  Here’s a few of the bigger ones.

  1. Direct Special Operations attack against key facilities/ assets

Kurt Schlicter’s book THE ATTACK outlines in agonizing detail how our open borders and inadequate immigration and customs enforcement made the US vulnerable to a massed Oct 7th terrorist attack.  This same open border and lack of immigration enforcement / accountability makes us extremely vulnerable to the infiltration of special operations teams from other countries.  Unlike the terrorists described in Schlicter’s book they wouldn’t have to come in huge numbers.  A high three digit or low four-digit number broken into smaller teams with specific assignments is all they’d really need.  These special operations soldiers would join the millions of illegal aliens that have flooded across our border since early 2021 – perhaps they’re already here. They would live as individuals and keep a low profile but would assemble and arm at the appropriate signal (being careful to don the uniform of their country and mark their vehicles appropriately) and conduct attacks designated targets.   

Those targets would be the primary APOEs and SPOEs in our deployment infrastructure as well as key assets such as airlift (C5’s and C-17s) Air refuelers (Tankers) and fast sealift ships.  Platoon sized groups could easily defeat the gate guards at most installations in early morning attacks (likely through some Trojan horse subterfuge – I.E a mini-van weaving up to the gate at 2 AM with its music blasting like a drunk driver).  If they can secure the gate and the barrier system without raising the alarm, other vehicles can be quickly called forward.  Within a few minutes they’ll be destroying aircraft on the flightline or sabotaging key facilities before any additional security forces could likely react.  Then, having accomplished their various missions, they could simply surrender.  This is the big difference between enemy nation soldiers and terrorists.  Except for those special operations teams with missions to assassinate key leaders or attack Command and Control (C2) facilities, the number of casualties they inflict is incidental to the mission.  Unlike terrorists they’re not out to cause civilian mass casualties.  They are instead uniformed soldiers who have used a valid ruse of war to attack legitimate military targets.  They’re squeaky clean as legal combatants under the Geneva Convention and will be repatriated to their country at the end of hostilities.   In the meantime, we’re down critical force projection assets that cannot be replaced during the conflict (KC-135s, C-17s, Key sealift ships) or have suffered debilitating damage to key installations.

  1. Drone Attacks

It gets even worse.  With many targets – particularly key aircraft on a flightline-there isn’t even a need to penetrate the perimeter of an installation.  As both the Ukraine war and the ongoing conflict with the Houthis in Yemen have shown us, drone technology is revolutionizing warfare.  Look at any of the aircraft parked closely on the flight line at any AFB.  A commercial drone carrying an incendiary device (like a thermite grenade) landing near the wing root would be sufficient to either outright destroy the aircraft or make it non mission capable (NMC) for an extended period.  Middle of the night drone attacks at the outset of hostilities could cost us whole squadrons of critical aircraft.

Nor do drone attacks have to be short range commercial drones flown from relative proximity to their targets.  The Houthis have shown the world that they can strike Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE from Yemen with drones.  The Russians are using the same drones for long-range strikes in Ukraine. The Iranian model drones they use are low tech, easily assembled and pretty accurate.  A dozen disassembled drones of this nature could easily fit in a shipping container.  When you take the range fans of the Houthi drone strikes on Israel and superimpose them on the West Coast you find that pretty much every APOE and SPOE on the west coast is within range of the Sonoran Desert in Mexico.  Smuggling shipping containers into Mexico is easily doable.  Northern Mexico is effectively a Narco-state where Chinese money already wields significant influence.  Many parts of it are sparsely populated and no one asks questions if they know what’s good for them.  It’s one big launch basket.

  1. Cruise and Ballistic Missile attacks

            US bases in the Pacific as far as Guam are within range of conventionally armed ballistic missiles launched from China and North Korea.  The Chinese and North Koreans also possess submarines that can fire ballistic missiles that can attack Hawaii or CONUS.   The sub launched ballistic missile threat is not huge because it would require retrofitting a primary nuclear deliver system for a conventional attack, but it is possible.  Of course, they could always just shoot the nukes at us.  But that makes it a different kind of war.

            The cruise missile threat, however, is huge.  Unlike ballistic missiles, almost any seagoing vessel can be outfitted to launch cruise missiles.  Cruise missiles launch cannisters can fit easily into modified shipping containers and it is not hard to envision a massive containership leaving a Chinese port with the entire top level of containers carrying cruise missiles in a new and devastating twist on the old WW2 Q-Ship/armed merchant cruiser theme.  Cruise missiles can also be launched from modified commercial aircraft.  At the outset of hostilities, a strike of several hundred cruise missiles on key US facilities could eliminate a good portion of our already too small Navy as well as have devastating consequences for our ability to project power.  In terms of impact on our war effort the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 would pale in comparison.  This threat will only get worse over time as cruise missile technology further extends range and increases accuracy.  Intercontinental cruise missiles will likely become a thing.


  1. Naval Special Operations Threat

If the Ukraine war and the Houthis in Yemen have shown us anything in the past year its that you don’t need a Navy to project power in littoral warfare.  Their successful use of drone attack boats is re-writing tactical doctrine for the Navy in real time.   These attack drones are small, long-range, easily transported and pack a ship disabling wallop.  Imagine dozens being launched from a mother ship (or a beach in Mexico) hundreds of miles from a US port or naval base.   These drones have been successful against warships at sea defending themselves. Their probability of hitting the target during a surprise attack in port will be much higher.  Add to this the old stand-by of block-ships (merchantmen deliberately scuttled to impede traffic in key channels) and naval special operators who have infiltrated the US attaching limpet mines to vessels in ports and it’s easy to conclude the threat to the maritime aspect of US power projection is as bad (or worse) than that enjoyed by the air components.


            An initiation of hostilities that began with attacks on US installations and organizations in CONUS using some or all, of the methods described here would have a major impact on a short duration campaign (less than 6 months) such as Taiwan and Korea and a significant one on a longer war.  Every Tanker, C-17, C5 or maritime deployment platform destroyed or badly damaged would not be replaced during the duration of the conflict.  This isn’t the 1940’s anymore, our Air Force transports, and sealift platforms aren’t as replaceable as C-47s and Liberty Ships.  Neither are our Naval vessels, fighters, or bombers for that matter.  Gone are the shipyards and factories that churned out the mass that gave us victory 80 years ago.  In fact, an enemy envisioning a long war with the US (vice one to establish a quick “fait-accompli” on the ground) would probably attack our few key production facilities as well as our SPOEs, APOEs and existing deployment assets.

SO, WHAT CAN WE DO?           

The only good news in this essay is that, as late as it is, we still have time to fix or mitigate quite a few of these vulnerabilities.  It will take political will though and shifting priorities.  Here are a few things we can be doing.

  1.  Recognize that illegal immigration is a Strategic Threat to US security:  No nation can long survive with a border situation such as the one that exists today in the US.  Unfortunately, the failure of our political leadership has moved us past the point where this issue can be resolved easily.  Fixing this is going to be ugly but its got to be done.  The solution has two broad components:


    1.  Illegal Immigration - Plug the leaks:  Our nation needs to build a border wall with Mexico that looks like the one between Gaza and Egypt.  It needs to man the border with soldiers until this is accomplished.  Zero people come in through anything that is not an authorized point of entry. Next build something less draconian but just as effective on the Canadian border (less volume there).  Adequately resource and staff border patrol customs and immigration officials.  Make provisions to reinforce with federal Marshals and federal troops as required.
    2. Illegal immigration – Bail the boat: Deporting the millions of illegal aliens that have poured across our border since 2021 will be a massive undertaking, but it must be done.  Declare a national state of emergency and suspend immigration law that pertains to asylum or allows illegal aliens to remain in-country.  Task the military to set up deportation camps and control the logistics of deportation.  Use federal law enforcement to roundup illegal aliens and prosecute anyone who employs them.  Deny federal funding to states or municipalities who declare themselves “sanctuaries” and defund / prosecute NGO that facilitate illegal immigration. Lincoln suspended Habeas Corpus during the Civil War citing national emergency; such extreme measures are equally warranted here to combat the illegal alien invasion and the potential deadly threat they pose from both a terrorist and a conventional war perspective.


  1. Refocus the Intelligence Community and Federal Law Enforcement:  The Intelligence Community and Federal law enforcement need to re-focus their internal security priorities towards terrorist and foreign agent infiltration amongst the millions of illegal aliens who have crossed our border.  We have wasted too much time and too many assets chasing cos-play white supremacists and other politically correct bugbears while real threats pass unnoticed under our nose.  We have no idea who has entered our country.  We need to start getting a handle on it.  Start with the immediate environs (30-mile radius) of priority bases and installations – working closely with military counterintelligence.

Similarly, we need to refocus intelligence collection on the areas immediately outside our borders and on the shipping lanes that come within strike proximity of our key bases and installations. In particular, we need to recognize that northern Mexico is essentially an ungoverned space where anyone with money and imagination can operate freely.  This refocusing of collection priorities is going to mean hard choices at the national level in the dedication of ISR assets until more assets can be acquired.

It also means that there needs to be a quick clearing house for the cross leveling of information and reports and algorithms for data analysis so that no key report is lost in the volume.  Much of the Homeland Security apparatus will have to be repurposed and many of its performative (but expensive) functions – such as TSA will have to be either discontinued or significantly downsized to pay for the necessary changes.

  1. Establish defenses at key SPOEs, APOEs and high value target installations:  The massive coastal artillery forts of the Endicott Period of 1890-1920 (whose ruins still overlook key harbors in CONUS) and the Nike Hercules Batteries around major installations and population centers from the late 1950s to the early 1970s never fired a shot in anger.  I doubt we will be so fortunate in the future.  The US needs to establish defenses at our key installations in CONUS.  


    1. What’s a key installation?  This is a hard question because virtually everything in the US is vulnerable to the threats I’ve described.  Currently we exist in a topsy turvy situation where the first things we should protect are installations and assets that have direct OPERATIONAL impact on the execution of an overseas campaign – APOEs, SPOEs, Air and Maritime mobility assets as well as major naval and air combatants that cannot be replaced.  STRATEGIC ASSETS (production facilities, refineries, key internal transportation nodes...etc.) will have to be a secondary priority.  If we can’t get the forces we have to theater without disruption, in most cases what we can produce for a long conflict won’t matter – because it won’t be a long conflict.


    1. Force structure and acquisition implications:   The force structure of the Army in WW2 gives a hint as to the scope of the issue.  While most popular histories dwell on the expanded number of maneuver divisions in the Army, what’s often neglected is the role the Army units played in defending key SPOEs in CONUS and bases along the Lines of Communication (LOCs) as well as Sea Ports Of Debarkation (SPODs) in theater.  The unit and manpower intensive defense of Antwerp as an SPOD from German cruise missiles (V-1s) in the fall-winter of 1944/45 is a good example of how costly this kind of effort can be.  The potential for attack against our CONUS Bases/SPOE/APOE, Theater Service Area, Communications Zone (COMZ),LOCs and SPODs is even greater now than it was in WW2 and in potential conflict against peer competitors / regional threats we won’t have the luxury of years to build the necessary force structure (the units that defended Antwerp in 1944 didn’t exist in 1942). 

We will have to build a military now that can fulfill its role in defending our power projection from day-1 of any conflict.  For the Army this means developing hybrid air defense units that can protect assets across the spectrum of air threat from small drones to ballistic missiles.  For the Air Force it means increasing base security and developing hardened dispersal sites to avoid the close parked “Wheeler-Field-1941” syndrome so prevalent on many of today’s Air Force Bases.  For the Naval forces and Coast Guard it means re-evaluating naval bases and SPOEs for updated Naval Special operations threats and acquiring/ configuring their defenses accordingly.  This is going to be a big bill. It’s an uncomfortable thought to consider having to defend places like San Diego SPOE and Travis AFB in California or Hickam AFB in Hawaii from conventional enemy cruise/ballistic missile, drone, or UW attacks over three dimensions (land, sea and air), but that’s the world we live in now.


            Due to the decisions of our elected leadership America of 2024 is more vulnerable to outside conventional and unconventional attack than it has been in over 200 years.  We’re also in a position where the possibility of conflict with nations who can conventionally and unconventionally attack us grows greater with each passing year.  Our open borders, inattention to the illegal alien invasion and inability to monitor our own Western Hemisphere neighbors effectively could cost us hugely, both as open highway for terrorists to attack us and an open flank for enemy nations to exploit.  We (the US) need to fix this, fast.


About the Author(s)

Martin Stanton is a retired Army officer currently residing in Florida.  The opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect any official DOD or USG position.