By Maria E. Burczynska

The introduction to the recent #highintensitywar series run by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue suggested that the character of military conflict is changing due to the increased possibility of high-intensity war, which, in turn, will present significant challenges to Western militaries. While the series introduction suggested that post-Cold War conflicts presented few challenges for air forces seeking to maintain control of the air the increasing likelihood of a high-intensity war may well change that scenario. In such a case, not only will the ability to achieve air dominance be challenging but also, if that is not achieved then the ability to perform the full spectrum of air power roles and using all capabilities available may be restricted too. Such a situation may prove especially difficult for small air forces which often lack specific capabilities in the first place.

This article focuses predominantly on small European air forces with Poland and Sweden as case studies. It discusses the situation in which these two air forces find themselves after the end of the Cold War and the changes they have undergone. In doing so, this article also briefly introduces some of the general trends and challenges that took place during the post-Cold War years in Europe such as decreasing defence budgets and the downsizing of armed forces. The article identifies principal areas where small European air forces suffer from capability shortcomings and then moves on to discuss the role of multinational cooperation as a means to make up for these gaps.

What is a Small Air Force?

When speaking of a small air force, one could think of it looking at its actual size, its number of the aircraft and its number of personnel. However, this article defines a small air force according to its capabilities. This follows the definition provided by Sanu Kainikara who recognised four categories of air forces; the US Air Force, large air forces, small air forces and niche air forces. These differ from each other regarding the scope of their capabilities, their ability to pursue operations independently as well as the presence of an indigenous industry supporting the air force’s needs at the national level.[1] According to this classification, small air forces can perform the four fundamental roles of air power; control of the air, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), attack and air mobility. On the other hand, small air forces do not have the resources necessary to undertake such roles to a considerable extent and over a prolonged period. Therefore, small air forces would not be able to conduct independent large air operations. However, they are often the desired ally that can efficiently work within a coalition.

Both the Polish and Swedish Air Forces (AF) comfortably fit into the category of a small air force. They have necessary resources to perform the full spectrum of capabilities within the already mentioned air power roles. However, their resources are insufficient, sometimes falling to single numbers of an aircraft of specific types. That makes them unable to perform independent large-scale military operations. Finally, both countries have some industrial capacity to support national air power capabilities, such as PZL Mielec and PZL Świdnik, now part of respectively Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation and Leonardo-Finmeccanica’s Helicopter Division in Poland, or Saab in Sweden.

European Air Power after 1991

In the post-Cold War years European air forces and militaries, in general, underwent certain transformations. Primarily, military expenditure by European states has dropped noticeably. In Poland, defence expenditure has decreased from 2.6% of the GDP in 1990 to 2.0% in 2016 while in Sweden it has dropped from 2.6% to 1.0% in the same period.[2] In line with decreasing defence budgets was the gradual downsizing of air forces and the armed forces in general. For example, in Poland, the number of active personnel has dropped from 86,200 men in 1990 to 16,600 in 2015.[3] At the same time, the number of officers serving in the Swedish AF fell from 8,000 to 3,300.[4] Moreover, it was not only manpower that dropped in numbers but also available equipment. The Polish AF reduced from 800 aircraft in 1990 to 300 in 1998 with the target of 100 to be reached in 2002.[5] A similar process also took place in the Swedish AF, but, in this case, it was initiated as early as the 1960s when the number of combat aircraft started to drop from 800 and reached 400 in the 1990s.[6]

The above situation led to specific organisational and structural changes within both the Polish and Swedish AFs. In case of the Polish AF, these transformations started at the very top when the Air Force (Wojska Lotnicze) and the Country Air Defence Force (Wojska Obrony Powietrznej Kraju) merged to form the Air Force and the Counter-Air Defence Forces (Wojska Lotnicze i Obrony Powietrznej). In 2004, the latter formation was finally re-named as the Polish Air Force (Siły Powietrzne). Also, the building blocks of the Polish AF was changed by replacing two of its existing squadrons with regiments.[7] Similar re-organisation took place within the Swedish AF when out of its 12 Wings, and the main air bases, only four remained operational while the other eight were closed.[8]

The transformation of the two air forces also involved modernisation of their already reduced fleets. In Sweden, that process focused on three areas. First, the Swedish AF replaced its AJ/JA-37 Viggen aircraft with JAS-39 Gripen. Second, it introduced more advanced types of munitions and then finally it has sought to upgrade its command, control, communications, and intelligence system.[9] For Poland, the air force modernisation was challenging because the overwhelming majority of the country’s aircraft was built either in the Soviet Union or under licence from them. In the post-Cold War years, these aircraft delivered little modern combat capability. As such, in the process of modernisation, the Polish AF replaced its MiG-21 and MiG-23 fighters with 22 MiG-29s bought from Germany in 2003 and 48 F-16s delivered in years 2006–2008 from the US. They also acquired 17 CASA C-295M transportation aircraft.[10] Finally, on the 1 January 2016, Poland opened the twelfth unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) base that was the first of its kind in the country.

105 Polish Air Force MiG-29A Fulcrum ILA Berlin 2016
A Polish Air Force Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29A Fulcrum at the ILA Berlin Air Show 2016. (Source: Wikimedia)

Limitations of European Air Power

Despite all the organisational and structural transformations, and fleet modernisation that has taken place over the last 30 years, the Polish and Swedish AFs remain small air forces and, as such, somewhat limited in their capabilities. Principally, their fleets are relatively small; the Polish AF possesses 283 aircraft in total while the Swedish AF numbers 231 airframes including the inventory of the Armed Forces Helicopter Wing.[11] However, the Polish and Swedish AFs are also limited in areas that are representative of the significant shortcomings of European air power in general, namely air transport (AT), ISR and air-to-air refuelling (AAR). Significant gaps in these three areas were identified as early as the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. However, these capability gaps have become even more evident after the involvement of European air forces in operations over Libya in 2011. Operations over Libya revealed not only the low capacity of European air forces in the areas of AT, ISR, and AAR resources but also their heavy reliance on the US for those capabilities.[12]

Both Poland and Sweden continue to experience significant shortcomings in these three areas. For example, the Polish AF has only 45 transport aircraft while for Sweden that number drops to barely eight.[13] The differences are even more significant when it comes to ISR and AAR. In case of AAR, the Swedish AF has one tanker aircraft.[14] Poland, on the other hand, does not possess any aircraft of that type. However, in 2014, together with Norway and the Netherlands, Poland decided to acquire a fleet of Airbus A330 multi-role tanker transports.[15] The situation is similar in the realm of ISR. Sweden has five ISR aircraft while the Polish have none.[16]

Examples of Multinational Cooperation Initiatives

Multinational cooperation is one way to make up for such shortcomings in small air forces where resources are limited. It is also the cost-effective option. This cooperation takes different forms, from pooling and sharing resources to training programmes but they are always collective initiatives. As such, these initiatives require participating states to be willing to share the costs of running the project in areas such as the acquisition and maintenance of platforms. As a result, multinational cooperation can significantly reduce the financial burden that would be placed on a small air force if it were to develop such capabilities from scratch. Such pooling and sharing of capabilities also present a viable interim solution in the case where a country is already working towards developing a particular capability that has not yet become fully operational. An example of such an initiative is Poland’s involvement in the Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS) programme whereby 15 NATO members are acquiring a system consisting of five RQ-4 Global Hawk UAVs and advanced radar systems, which altogether will allow for providing persistent surveillance from high-altitudes.[17] This initiative presented a viable interim solution for Poland which does not possess any air surveillance capability. While Poland is currently developing a UAV fleet which could provide that capability, until it becomes fully operational, AGS can fill that gap. Poland had been a member of the AGS programme until 1 April 2009 when the country withdrew due to financial reasons. Poland later re-joined the programme in April 2014.[18] Another way to make up for the lack of national ISR capability is participation in the NATO Airborne Early Warning (NAEW) system. The initiative started in 1982 and, as such, is one of the oldest and the most successful cooperative initiatives in NATO and Europe. Poland joined NAEW in 2006.[19]

An exciting initiative addressing both the lack of AT and AAR capability, but pursued outside of NATO and EU frameworks, is the Air Transport, Air-to-Air Refuelling, and other Exchange of Services (ATARES) programme developed by the Movement Coordination Centre Europe (MCCE). This project promotes the exchange of services – AAR for AT calculated using Equivalent Flying Hour (EFH).[20] For example, Poland does not have an AAR capability. Therefore, Poland uses ATARES to give aircrews an opportunity to train on those particular platforms and, in return, offers AT capabilities.[21] Interestingly that capability does not have to be provided to that particular country from which AAR was used in the first place. The agreed number of EFH need only to be returned to the initiative and therefore may be used by any one of its members. Sweden offers its AAR services within ATARES even though there is only one tanker in the Swedish AF. For example, in 2017, MCCE provided refuelling support during the Arctic Challenge Exercise, and that support involved the Swedish aircraft.[22]

Other examples of multinational initiatives addressing limitations in national AT capabilities are the Strategic Airlift Interim Solution (SALIS), and the Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC) started in 2005 and 2008 respectively. These are pooling and sharing projects whereby participating states maintain a certain number of aircraft and use these according to their needs. For example, SALIS was created to transport heavy cargo and Poland used the programme to transport helicopters and armoured vehicles to Afghanistan.[23] SAC was designed to support the participating states in their defence or logistical needs at the national and international level. It operates through the Heavy Airlift Wing (HAW) located in Papa Air Base in Hungary. The Polish AF used SAC’s C-17s to transport the bodies of the victims of the Presidential Tupolev crash in Smolensk in April 2010.[24] Sweden, on the other hand, used SAC for a very different purpose – to deliver cargo from Karlsborg Air Base to Mazar-e-Sharif in Afghanistan in September 2009.[25] This was HAW’s first mission done in support of ISAF. Swedish and Polish officers were also among the crew members during the first HAW mission performed in support of ISAF but without any Americans on board.[26]

Of course, none of the members in initiatives such as these has unlimited access to all the available resources. The share they get is usually proportional to their involvement. For example, the annual total of flying hours available under SAC is 3,165, which is divided among the 12-member nations. Both Poland and Sweden have entirely different shares equalling, respectively, 4.7% and 17.6%.[27] That gives 148.8 flying hours to be used by the Polish AF and 550.7 by the Swedish.

Red versus Blue
A Swedish JAS-39 Gripen returns to the play areas of the Arctic Challenge exercise over Norway, after taking on fuel from a U.S. Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker on 24 September 2013. (Source: Wikimedia)

Conclusion

This article has discussed some of the challenges confronting small air forces and whether multinational initiatives can increase their capabilities with specific reference to the Polish and Swedish AFs. The answer is yes. First, the examples discussed show that these projects are successful tools in building and strengthening capabilities such as AT, ISR and AAR. For small air forces, multinational cooperation gives an opportunity to develop these three areas to the extent that could not be afforded otherwise, or that would incur much higher costs.

Second, it is not only the pooled and shared fleets that the participating air forces can benefit from, but also training. The aircrews delegated to take part in any multinational initiatives return home with the experience they would often not have had a chance to develop otherwise. Here, it is also worth mentioning, that, along with pooling and sharing arrangements there are also programmes designed specifically for training purposes. These programmes present an excellent opportunity for air forces, especially the small ones, to exercise together towards capabilities that, in their home country are not available at all, or that are available but on an insufficient scale. Examples of such initiatives are the European Air Transport Training (EATT), and the European Advanced Airlift Tactics Training Course (EAATTC) started in 2012 and 2014 under the umbrella of the European Air Transport Fleet programme. The Polish AF has participated in both training initiatives in 2016 and 2017 while in 2015 it held observer status in EATT. Sweden also took part in EATT in 2013 and 2015 and was an observer nation in 2014. Another prominent example of a training arrangement involving the Swedish AF is the Cross-Border Training programme established in 2009. This project brings together Sweden, Norway and Finland and enables their air forces to use each other’s airspace to train together on a weekly basis.

Third, involvement at the multinational level in different forms of cooperation – pooling and sharing arrangements, expeditionary missions, air policing, and exercises, gives credibility to small air forces. The more often they work together with other nations, the more they will be perceived as a valuable and reliable potential partner. At the same time, such involvement requires certain work to be done, for example, making sure that one’s air force and its procedures, equipment, personnel’s knowledge, and abilities, are interoperable with potential partners in a coalition. This may incur additional costs, which may be challenging for small air forces.

Finally, while they appear very appealing, it must be remembered that multinational initiatives are not the panacea for capability gaps. For example, in many cases, a country only receives in return what is proportional to one’s contribution. Therefore, the multinational projects allow for the new capabilities to be built but on a limited scale and according to one’s financial input. As a result, collective capability development should not replace national ones. All European air forces, including the small ones, still need to develop their national capabilities. Multinational, collective arrangements may complement them, but they should never replace them altogether.

Maria Ewa Burczynska is a PhD candidate in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham where she is affiliated with the Centre for Conflict, Security and Terrorism. Her primary area of interest is European air forces and their participation in multinational operations and initiatives. She is also interested in the subject of disaster management as another dimension of national security.

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Header Image: A Saab AJS-37 Viggen of the Swedish Air Force Heritage Flight on display at the RAF Waddington air show in 2013. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] See, Sanu Kainikara, At the Critical Juncture. The Predicament of Small Air Force (Canberra: RAAF Air Power Development Centre, 2011).

[2] SIPRI Military Expenditure Database 2017.

[3] ‘Europe’ in The Military Balance, 115:1 (2015), pp. 57-158; ‘The Alliances and Europe’ in The Military Balance, 90:1 (1990), pp. 44-96.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Barre R. Seguin, Why did Poland choose the F-16?, The Marshall Center Occasional Paper Series (Garmisch-Partenkirchen: The George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, 2007), p. 6.

[6] Richard A. Bitzinger, Facing the Future. The Swedish Air Force, 1990-2005 (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1991), pp. 13-5.

[7] Rafał Ciastoń et al, Siły Zbrojne RP – stan, perspektywy i wyzwania modernizacyjne (Warszawa: Fundacja im. Kazimierza Pułaskiego, 2014), p. 54.

[8] Bitzinger, Facing the Future., pp. 11-4; Försvarsmakten, Flygvapnet.

[9] Bitzinger, Facing the Future., pp. 37-45.

[10] Zbigniew Średnicki, ‘Modernizacja techniczna sił powietrznych,’ Przegląd Sił Zbrojnych, 3 (2015), pp. 8-15.

[11] ‘Europe’ in The Military Balance, 118:1 (2018), pp. 65-168.

[12] Elizabeth Quintana, Henrik Heidenkamp and Michael Codner, Europe’s Air Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling Capability: Examining the Collaborative Imperative, RUSI Occasional Paper (August 2014), p. 6.

[13] ‘Europe’ in The Military Balance, 118:1 (2018), pp. 65-168.

[14] Ibid.

[15]European multirole tanker transport fleet takes shape,’ European Defence Agency, 19 December 2014.

[16] ‘Europe’ in The Military Balance, 118:1 (2018), pp. 65-168.

[17]Alliance Ground Surveillance (AGS),’ North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, updated 6 June 2017.

[18] Grzegorz Hołdanowicz, ‘Nieprimaaprilisowe pożegnanie z AGS,’ Raport – Wojsko Technika Obronność, May 2009.

[19] Tadeusz Wróbel, ‘Tysiąc lotów AWACS-a nad Polską,’ Polska Zbrojna, 13 October 2016.

[20] Quintana et al, Europe’s Air Transport and Air-to-Air Refuelling Capability, p. 11.

[21] Colonel in the Polish Air Force and a scholar at the National Defence University in Warsaw, interview conducted by the Author on 30 June 2016.

[22]MCCE support to Arctic Challenge 2017,’ Movement Coordination Centre Europe, 29 May 2017.

[23] Juliusz Sabak, ‘Rosyjskie An-124 nadal wożą sprzęt NATO,’ Defence 24, 13 January 2017.

[24] Colonel in the Polish Air Force and a scholar at the National Defence University in Warsaw, interview conducted by the Author on 22 June 2016.

[25]SAC Milestones 2006 –,’ Strategic Airlift Capability.

[26] Ibid.

[27]The Strategic Airlift Capability (SAC),’ Strategic Airlift Capability.

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