C.R. Anderegg, Sierra Hotel: Flying Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam. Washington DC: US Air Force History and Museums Program, 2001. Notes. Illustrations. Appendices. Glossary. Bibliographic Notes. Index. xvii + 210 pp.
When From Balloons to Drones put out a call for reviews of historic air power books, I immediately thought of my favourite book on United States Air Force (USAF) history, Sierra Hotel: Flying Air Force Fighters in the Decade After Vietnam by C.R. Anderegg. I presented this book to each of my mentees that graduated from the USAF Weapons School with the same message; this book shows the power of a small group of dedicated and highly competent officers, and their ability to change the Air Force for the better fundamentally. The officers that receive top billing in Anderegg’s book are young combat veterans; virtually all of whom were Captains and Majors at the time. These men took the hard lessons of Vietnam and turned them into the ideas and concepts that revolutionised USAF training and employment and can be rightly given much of the credit from the phenomenally successful DESERT STORM air campaign.
The period between the end of the Vietnam War and the beginning of DESERT STORM is my favourite era of USAF history to study. The USAF was embarrassed by its lacklustre performance in Vietnam, and it embarked on an aggressive reform path that recapitalised the fighter force, procured revolutionary aircraft and weapons, developed new standards for tactical employment, and most importantly, revamped the way pilots were trained for combat. This period in USAF history has been studied and written about extensively. Notably, Brian Laslie’s The Air Force Way of War is the definitive text on the birth and growth of the RED FLAG exercise while Steve Davies’ Red Eagles is a key source on the clandestine MiG squadron flying out of Tonopah Test Range Airfield at the time. Ben Rich’s Skunk Works described the fascinating history of the origins of the F-117 and the stealth revolution, and most recently, Steven Fino’s Tiger Checkdetailed the development of the fighter pilot and fighter tactics during this period. Anderegg’s work focused on the people who were at the centre of the tactics and training revolution that had its epicentre at Nellis Air Force Base. According to Anderegg:
[t]his book is about the young officers, the line pilots, and weapons system operators (WSOs), whose innovation, devotion to duty, intelligence, flying skills, and sheer determination made indelible marks on combat capability. (p. xi)
Anderegg began Sierra Hotel by detailing the myriad of problems that plagued the USAF in Vietnam. There was a litany of reasons for the service’s poor performance, but Anderegg concluded (p. 71) that ‘the most important one was training. Air-to-air, or dogfight, training, though, was poor to nonexistent.’ Young combat veterans returned from Vietnam frustrated and angry at the lack of preparation they received before combat. They were determined to remake their service to ensure fighter pilots were never again so unprepared for aerial combat. A group of young, combat proven, pissed off, and supremely talented aviators set about remaking fighter tactics and training:
Fighter pilots returning from Vietnam to the peacetime Air Force did not come home with their tails between their legs […] They were proud of the effort they put forth under difficult circumstances […] They also knew that the things that were wrong needed repair, and that the things that had gone right probably would not work in the next war anyhow. For creative tacticians like John Jumper, Ron Keys, Joe Bob Phillips, and Earl Henderson there was only one direction to go – forward. (p. 181)
The revolution in tactics and training began from the ground up at Nellis, the ‘Home of the Fighter Pilot.’ An unwritten axiom in the USAF is that ‘as Nellis goes, so goes the Air Force.’ Sierra Hotel looks at the base at the height of its influence on the service. Anderegg also introduced the reader to a generation of officers who left a legacy on not their service, but truly the history of air combat.
In Sierra Hotel, Anderegg described the cultural influence of then-Major Larry Keith, a Vietnam veteran hand-picked to reform the F-4 Fighter Weapons School (FWS), which he did first as the Operations Officer, and then the Commander of the 414th Fighter Weapons Squadron. Keith, who retired as a Brigadier General, led a ‘murderers row’ of USAF legends to be who were instructors at the FWS in the mid-1970s. For example, Richard ‘Dick’ Myers went on to become the fifteenth Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, John Jumper would eventually serve as the seventeenth Chief of Staff of the Air Force, and Ronald ‘Ron’ Keys retired as the Commander of Air Combat Command. These men, though destined for greatness, were simply ‘Iron Majors’ at the time; pilots determined to improve the tactics and training of their service.
Anderegg detailed the role a young John Jumper played in the revolution in pilot training. Jumper wrote a series of watershed articles on fighter training, describing a ‘Building Block Approach’ to instruction that was revolutionary at the time but is used today to train not just fighter pilots, but every combat speciality at the USAF Weapons School, successor to the FWS. Anderegg recapped the fight Moody Suter had to convince USAF leaders to accept greater risk in aerial combat training in a large force employment exercise that became RED FLAG. Pilots who are lesser known today also play a major role in Sierra Hotel. Randy O’Neill, an early and passionate advocate for a squadron of dissimilar aircraft to be used as adversary training, a radical idea that was the genesis of the Aggressor squadrons of today, is mentioned. While Roger Wells, whose determination to pry open the doors of the intelligence community to release its treasure trove of data on Soviet pilots led to a ground-breaking brief on Soviet fighter pilots of the day, is also cited. These officers risked their careers pushing ideas that were not always embraced by USAF senior leaders. Anderegg described their courage in fighting for change:
[s]howing the same determination and heroism they had in the skies of Vietnam, the young fighter pilots pressed on, dismissing the risks to their careers to build a better Air Force. (p. 78)
Anderegg’s depiction of this period is made even more vivid since he was a peer with these men, a fellow instructor at the F-4 FWS.
As a bonus, Anderegg’s two appendices are required reading for any USAF member or aficionado and are a good enough reason to pick up the book. If you have ever gulped down a shot of Jeremiah Weed and asked yourself how this God-awful excuse for bourbon became a fighter pilot and USAF tradition, you can read the origin story in Appendix A, told by someone that was there. Or, if you have heard about Ron Keys’ original ‘Dear Boss’ resignation letter, in which he told the Commander of Tactical Air Command that he was sick of the USAF and was hanging it up because of the incompetence he saw throughout the Air Force, or have seen one of the many copycat letters in the four decades since, you can read the original in Appendix B and marvel at its applicability to today’s Service.
Anderegg’s book is an easy read and good fun. More importantly, however, it fills a critical role in describing the USAF’s post-Vietnam era. The ‘Iron Majors’ at Nellis drove the revolution in USAF tactics and training:
During those ten years, fighter pilots fundamentally changed the way they trained, how they employed weapons, even how they thought about themselves. Essentially, they built a new culture and the anvil upon which the success of Desert Storm would be forged another decade later. (p. xi)
There are clear parallels between the post-Vietnam era in USAF history and today. Frustrated combat veterans are convinced the service must improve rapidly if it is to win a future high-intensity conflict. Sierra Hotel provides a roadmap for institutional change; embrace the disruptive thinking of the ‘Iron Majors,’ those who have seen the errors made over the past 17-years of non-stop combat, those who can envision a better way of doing business. If the USAF is going to position itself to dominate air, space, and cyberspace in future conflicts, it must listen to those young and innovative thinkers who believe they do not have a voice and cannot affect service-wide change. War winning ideas are percolating in their minds, being printed in blogs, and being debated in the squadron bars over Jeremiah Weed shots. Anderegg’s lesson is that the service must listen to those voices, nurture those future leaders, and take some risk in implementing their ideas. Nothing less than the USAF’s ability to dominate future conflicts is at stake.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the U.S. Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: A flight of Aggressor F-15 Eagles and F-16 Fighting Falcons fly in formation, 5 June 2008, over the Nevada Test and Training Ranges. The jets are assigned to the 64th and 65th Aggressor Squadrons at Nellis Air Force Base. (Source: US Department of Defense)
To say that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’ is a hackneyed quote is an understatement. Indeed, the critical problem here is that the phrase is used so often that it has increasingly lost any meaning to be useful as a lens through which to analyse organisational behaviour. What do we mean by culture? Why does it eat strategy for breakfast? What is the relevance of culture to air forces and how can we conceptualise its meaning for a force structure seeking to grapple with the challenge of high-intensity warfare.
Broadly speaking culture is the values, beliefs and assumptions that shape the behaviour of a group. Culture exists at several levels and finds its outgrowth in both ideational and materialist areas. Regarding levels of culture, authors often discuss strategic, organisational, sub- and countercultures as critical areas of analysis, though not often together. However, while understanding the culture of an organisation is useful for conceptualising the ideas that underpin the behaviour of a group, the term is not without its challenges. Primarily, the issue of definition remains contested, and the term culture has become malleable and nebulous. Added to this is the unwillingness of some to engage deeply with the anthropological origins of culture. Nonetheless, several of the articles in this joint high-intensity war series run by From Balloons to Drones and The Central Blue have alluded to the importance of establishing the ‘right’ culture in an organisation. As such, this article, which forms part of a larger project by the author on the culture of small air forces, seeks to offer some thoughts on the meaning of culture and unpack its ‘black box’ of tricks.
Sources of Culture
Broadly, military culture is derived from two sources. ‘First, culture is derived from what individuals bring to the military from broader society and second, it is a consequence of military experience and training.’ Concerning the former; social, educational, and economic backgrounds are essential frames of reference. For example, due to the social background of its officer class, many of the ideas underpinning early Royal Air Force (RAF) culture, such as honour, strength of character, sympathy, resolution, energy, and self-confidence found parallels with those present in public schools of the period. This was because it was from this source that the RAF sought its preferred recruits. The latter issue of operational experience is especially critical for small air forces, such as the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), as they typically operate in a coalition context. As such, it is axiomatic that large air forces with whom small air forces operate will have influenced their cultural evolution. Indeed, in the RAAF, and other Commonwealth air forces, we see a degree of mimetic isomorphism in their evolution at both the ideational and materialist levels with regards to the influence of the RAF. However, in more recent years, the US military has become a more pervasive influence, and this is especially noticeable in areas such as the such as operating American military hardware.
As well as societal factors and experience, broader environmental considerations also influence culture. Specifically, the environment in which air forces operate has helped shaped their culture. As Ian Shields reflected, the conception of time and space by air force personnel is different from those of the other services, in part, because of the nature of the air domain. Characteristics such as speed, reach and height are seen as defining the use of the air domain, and factors such as the large area of operations, flexibility, tempo, and the number of personnel directly involved in the delivery of air power continue to shape the culture of many air forces. While it is possible to suggest that this is a parochial single service observation, it is worth considering that this is not limited to air force personnel. For example, Roger Barnett, a retired US Navy Captain, has suggested that the US Navy thinks different to its sister services, in part, because of its maritime context. However, while differences do exist, there are often shared aspects of culture between the services, which have been underexamined.
A Transnational Air Force Culture?
National air forces have, like any other organisation, their own inherent culture and ethos. The ideas underpinning air force culture frames the way in which air forces view their role in a countries national security structures. It is the values and ethics of these organisations that make them distinct. These values are often derived from a countries national character and influenced by sources such as social background. For example, in 1919, Air Marshal Sir Hugh Trenchard espoused the RAF’s values as that of the ‘Air Force spirit.’ Underpinning this value was a recognition that for the RAF to develop and survive, there was a need to generate a culture commiserate with the organisation defence mission. For Trenchard, central to this process was the development of the RAF’s social capital through the ‘Extreme Importance of Training.’
While national character and environmental factors have influenced the values of air forces, it is possible to suggest that there are several broad ideas can be seen to transcend national barriers when it comes to discussing the culture of air forces. Specifically, the belief in command of the air and assumption of independence pervades the structure of air forces to a greater or lesser degree depending on national proclivities. Command of the air stems from the belief that to enable the effective use of the battlespace requires control of the air. This view is as much cultural as it is conceptual as it resonates with the idea that to command air power efficiently requires a force well versed in the employment of aviation at the strategic level. However, this is an idea that increasingly became associated with strategic bombing rather than a broader conception of the strategic use of the air domain to achieve effect. This is unfortunate as while bombing may have for a time been seen as the means through which to employ air power it ignores broader thinking on its application often evident in doctrine. Indeed, if doctrine is not only a guide on how to apply military force but also an illustration of how military organisations think, then a careful analysis of these critical ‘stories’ illustrates a more nuanced way of thinking than often suggested. For example, AP1300, the RAF’s capstone doctrine of the interwar years, dealt with more than just bombing. Moreover, while written in the context of a period when the RAF provided Britain’s strategic nuclear deterrent, the fourth edition of AP1300, published in 1957, recognised the need for a balanced air force to deal with different contingencies.
The assumption of independence has become the cornerstone of most air forces and has been a contentious area for debate amongst the services and external parties. Indeed, some have viewed the emergence of independent air forces as an impediment to national security. For example, as Robert Farley has written, ‘The United States needs air power, but not an air force.’ While it is true that the emergence of a third service in many countries has generated tension between the services, it is overstating the argument to lay much of this blame at the door of air forces. For example, many of the interwar debates between the RAF and its sister services can be seen as an issue of control and the desire of the British Army and Royal Navy to see returned what they perceived as their air arms. However, if military aviation is to be efficiently utilised in any future conflict, then there is a need to have personnel well versed and educated in the strategic application of air power who can sell its relevance and use in the joint sphere to both the other services and policymakers. Indeed, in many respects, it is this idea that underpins recent developments in the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF). It can be argued that since unification in 1968, while Canada had military aviation, it did not do air power thinking at the strategic level. This has begun to change.
The Need for Strategic Builders
While the ideas underpinning the culture of an air force has many sources, senior leaders are central to driving the development of the organisation. A crucial role of the senior leader is that of the strategic builder, in that they set the vision and pace for an organisation’s development. Senior leaders provide the necessary architecture that ensures an organisation moves in a consistent direction and is fit for purpose. The clearest example of a strategic builder in the development of an air force’s culture comes from the experience of Marshal of the Royal Air Force Viscount Trenchard. When Trenchard returned as the RAF’s Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) in 1919, he had to deal with several crucial strategic challenges as the Service transitioned from wartime to peace. First, Trenchard had to deal with demobilisation, which linked to the second challenge of establishing the permanency of the RAF. This, of course, was also linked to the final issue of finding a peacetime role for the RAF. Trenchard quickly recognised the utility of aerial policing in the British Empire as a means of ensuring the final challenge. However, to ensure the longevity of the RAF, Trenchard espoused the value of the ‘Air Force spirit,’ which focused and the development of the Service’s personnel. Central to this was the establishment of three key institutions that helped transfer the RAF’s culture and ethos. These were the RAF (Cadet) College at Cranwell, the RAF Staff College and the apprentice scheme at RAF Halton. Through these institutions and other schemes such as Short Service Commissions, Trenchard ensured the RAF’s independence. As the RAF noted in 1926 a ‘spirit of pride in [the RAF] and its efficiency permeates all ranks.’ However, this was not without its problems.
Modern air forces also face numerous challenges in a disruptive world ranging from issues of retention to dealing with the changing geostrategic environment while still operating in persistent counterinsurgency operations. To deal with these challenges, air forces such as the RAF, RCAF, and the RAAF have launched several initiatives to reinvigorate themselves and promote cultural change in their organisations. For example, the RAAF’s Plan Jericho, launched in 2015, seeks to:
[t]ransform [the RAAF] into a fifth-generation enabled force that is capable of fighting and winning in 2025; a modern, fully integrated combat force that can deliver air and space power effects in the information age.
Such a forward-looking aim will not only need to see a change in the way the RAAF works and operates but also supportive strategic builders who will provide the support and architecture that will lead the project to fruition and success. Indeed, Trenchard’s advantage over his modern-day counterparts is that he served as CAS for just over a decade and was able to leave the RAF when he felt it was safe to do so. In the modern era, no air force chief serves for such a tenure. As such, it will be necessary for the successive chiefs to buy into the vision created by their predecessors to ensure cultural change is not only generated but becomes established in the way air forces think and operate. For example, the ideas promulgated this series on the need for Australian expeditionary air wings and exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum will require the support of senior leaders who not only support such ideas but can communicate their effectiveness to the other service and government departments. This, as Randall Wakelam suggested, will need air force officers who emerge into senior leadership positions to be well educated in the profession of arms and air power.
Power and Consent
The maintenance of a culture that allows air forces to fulfil their stated defence mission requires not only strategic builders but also the development of a power and consent relationship between the many ‘tribes’ that make up these organisations. Air forces consist of several different subcultures, or tribes, such as pilots, aircrew, and ground crew. The emergence of such cultures can potentially affect the performance of air forces. As such, it is a crucial role of strategic builders to ensure that the challenges created by the existence of these different ‘tribes’ in air forces are managed to ensure the organisation is fit for purpose. All personnel need to feel as if they are members of the same organisation seeking to achieve shared goals. It is arguably for this reason why we have seen the emergence of management phrases such as the ‘Whole Force’ in modern air forces such as the RAF. However, such constructs are made challenging by the dominance of pilots who only make up a small proportion of air force personnel but dominate senior leadership positions. As Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss reflected, ‘It’s a pilots air force,’ and ‘pilots have always been more equal than others.’ Curtiss was the Air Commander during the Falklands War and a navigator in RAF Bomber Command during the Second World War. Curtiss’ reflection neatly sums up the ethos of the RAF and many other air forces with their focus on pilots and flying. For the RAF, this ethos was codified by the emergence of the General Duties Branch in the interwar years and that, apart from professional branches, officers had to be pilots and then specialise. While this model became increasingly untenable and a bifurcation of the RAF branch system emerged, pilots remain the Service’s preferred senior leaders. This remains true of many air forces. For example, while the RAAF have had an engineer as their CAS, Air Marshal Sir James Rowland was required to transfer to the General Duties (aircrew) Branch to take up his position thus illustrating the power of this construct. Rowland had also served as a pilot during the Second World War. The United States Air Force has taken this model even further with senior leaders being broadly split between the so-called ‘Bomber Barons’ during the Service’s early years and then the emergence of the ‘Fighter Generals’ after the Vietnam War.
There are undeniable examples, such as in the early years of the RAF, where the development of an ethos framed around pilots and flying was essential both for the maintenance of independence and for maintaining the focus of air forces on the delivery of air power. However, a critical question that needs to be asked by modern air forces is whether this ethos needs to change so that they remain effective in the twenty-first century. While having an aviator as the professional head of an air force makes a degree of sense, that person need not necessarily be a pilot. They need to have experience in the delivery of air power and have professional mastery of the subject but does the number of hours flown make them well suited for senior positions? Also, are aviators, in general, the right people to run, for example, the personnel department of an air force? Indeed, there is a need to change the organisational models used by air forces to broaden the base of power and consent and diversify the opportunities for all tribes by efficiently managing talent. This will require a change in culture to ensure air forces remain effective.
Summary – Why does this Matter?
Culture remains a complex and contested area of study, and some might argue whether it matters in the modern world. However, in a disruptive world where military forces are called on to operate in increasingly complex environments, having the right culture is paramount. Moreover, while this series of articles have focused on the requirements of so-called high-intensity warfare, the reality is that while future warfare is likely to be a case of Another Bloody Century, conflicts will be conducted in and across all domains utilising both conventional and unconventional means. Additionally, as the UK Ministry of Defence’s Future Air and Space Operating Concept noted in 2012, the ‘future operating environment is likely to be congested, cluttered, contested, connected and constrained.’ As such, air forces will need to adapt to the changing character of warfare and ask some complicated questions about both their culture and organisation to be effective and fit for purpose. For example, should air forces be the controlling agencies for the overall management of the space and cyber domains? Alternatively, does the management of these domains by air forces move them away from their primary task of generating air power? To answer these questions, it is imperative that air forces understand their culture and from whence it comes as it shapes how they confront and adapt to emerging challenges. This is not something that air forces, and the military more broadly, has been good at and that needs to change.
Dr Ross Mahoney is an independent historian specialising air power and the history of air warfare. He is the editor of From Balloons to Drones, an online platform that seeks to provide analysis and debate about air power history, theory, and contemporary operations. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum in the United Kingdom, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (BA (Hons) and PGCE). To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. In 2016, he was elected as a member of the Royal Historical Society, and in 2011 he was a West Point Fellow in Military History at the United States Military Academy as part of their Summer Seminar in Military History programme. He is an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group
Header Image: RAF Remotely Piloted Air System ‘Wings’, which differ from the current RAF pilot badge by having blue laurel leaves to identify the specialisation. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)
 For this author’s discussion of early RAF culture, see: Ross Mahoney, ‘Trenchard’s Doctrine: Organisational Culture, the ‘Air Force spirit’ and the Foundation of the Royal Air Force in the Interwar Years,’ British Journal for Military History, 4:2 (2018), pp. 143-77.
 Ole Jørgen Maaø, ‘Leadership in Air Operations – In Search of Air Power Leadership,’ RAF Air Power Review, 11:3 (2008), pp.39-50.
 Roger Barnett, Navy Strategic Culture: Why the Navy Thinks Differently (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2009).
 The National Archives, UK (TNA), AIR 8/12, [Cmd. 467], Permanent Organization of the Royal Air Force, A Note by the Secretary of State for Air on a Scheme Outlined by the Chief of the Air Staff, 11 December 1919, p. 4.
 AP1300 – Royal Air Force Manual: Operations, Fourth Edition (London: Air Ministry, 1957), p. 24.
 Robert Farley, Grounded: The Case for Abolishing the United States Air Force (Lexington, KT: University Press of Kentucky, 2014), p. 1.
 Brad Gladman et al, ‘Professional Airpower Mastery and the Royal Canadian Air Force: Rethinking Airpower Education and Professional Development,’ Royal Canadian Air Force Journal, 5:1 (2016), p. 10.
 David Connery, ‘Introduction’ in David Connery (ed.), The Battles Before: Case Studies of Australian Army Leadership after the Vietnam War (Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2016), pp. x-xi.
 TNA, AIR 8/97, The Organisation of the Royal Air Force, 1919-1926, p. 5.
 Anon, Jericho: Connected, Integrated (Canberra, ACT: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 3.
 Air Marshal Sir John Curtiss, ‘Foreword to the First Edition’ in Wing Commander (ret’d) C.G. Jefford, Observers and Navigators: And Other Non-Pilot Aircrew in the RFC, RNAS and RFC, Updated and Expanded Edition (London: Grub Street, 2014), p. vii.
 The RAF did at one point have airman pilots in the interwar years and during the Second World War.
 Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence: Volume II – The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne, VIC: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 296.
 Development, Concept and Doctrine Centre, Joint Concept Note 3/12 – Future Air and Space Operating Concept (London: Ministry of Defence, 2012), para. 202.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader James Owen of the Royal Australian Air Force examines the importance of fully exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum in future high-intensity war.
The introduction in 1915 of the so-called ‘interrupter’ gear allowed pilots to fire a machine gun through the propeller arc of First World War combat aircraft. This was a decisive change; pilots could now find and track targets in their field of view, assess their situation, manoeuvre their aircraft and engage threats with some degree of accuracy. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.
This critical development turned aircraft into competent air-to-air combat machines that could have a significant effect in their contemporary battlespace. Presently, and moving into the future, high-intensity warfighting operations against a peer adversary will require a level of dynamic joint and combined integration in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) that is akin to an organisational interrupter gear. The electromagnetic interrupter gear will need to synchronise spectrum requirements for communications, radars and precision navigation and timing as well as requirements for understanding what the similar threat systems are doing, and the conduct of offensive electronic warfare to degrade and disrupt the threat’s use of the spectrum. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) and its allies will need to be able to find and track threats in the EMS, assess their future courses of action, manoeuvre both physically and in the EMS and engage through the most appropriate warfighting domain. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.
Potential threat nations learned from the West’s way of war after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign; the strength of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese integrated air defence systems are a testament to this. Similarly, potential threat actors have observed the West’s recent campaigns and adapted to meet them. Threat actors are exploiting the ‘grey zone’ that precedes a declared conventional war; they have sophisticated approaches for leveraging multi-domain effects to achieve their objectives. Experiences from Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea demonstrate that the ‘unconventional’ and hybrid are now conventional and will be part of the reality of high-intensity warfare. The presence of proxy, paramilitary or deniable forces of little green men or little blue men, an array of remotely controlled or robotic threats and a complex multi-pronged contest in the EMS should now be assumed in high-intensity warfare, and the grey zone of conflict escalation that precedes it. It is therefore valuable to review some significant themes in recent campaigns to identify signposts for the role of EMS operations in high-intensity warfare.
Manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum can be Decisive in the Physical Domain
Much has been written elsewhere over the last decade about the ‘unconventional’ threat that western militaries faced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Western militaries were caught on the hop by the proliferation of improvised threats that exploited the EMS, particularly during the initial counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remote controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had a huge impact on the approach to manoeuvre by western forces. IEDs targeted the strategic centre of gravity of the West; casualty numbers. Arguably the constraints that these devices placed on the ability of western forces to manoeuvre at will in the physical domain and engage freely with the population had a strategic impact on the course of those wars. Behind the explosions, there was an unforeseen and dynamic battle of cat and mouse in the EMS. There is a significant amount written elsewhere about the importance of being able to ‘manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum’; the IED contest is a useful and tangible lesson in what that phrase means. As IED makers developed new means of activating IEDs remotely, western forces developed jammers to defeat those devices; the IED makers then quickly adapted to another remote device in another part of the spectrum, and the dance continued.
Control of the Air depends on Control of the EMS – Examples from Hybrid Warfare
The Air Power Manual, AAP-1000D, Australia’s current capstone air power doctrine, defines Control of the Air as ‘the ability to conduct friendly operations in all three dimensions without effective interference from enemy air power.’ Recent and ongoing conflicts have demonstrated that the air is now contested through an array of remotely controlled and robotic devices; to defeat those devices requires an equivalent ‘Control of the EMS’. The following examples will explore some recent examples that signpost the requirements of EMS operations in a high-intensity conflict.
In January 2018, non-state actors conducted a co-ordinated strike mission against Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria with a total of 13 improvised unmanned air systems (UAS). According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, all the UAS were ‘detected […] at the safe distance (sic) from the base’ and neutralised without hitting their target. Control of some of the UAS was ‘seized’ by Russian ‘Electronic Warfare hardware’ which forced them to land; short-range air defence systems destroyed some. The Russian Ministry of Defence indicated that they used a layered system of multi-domain air defence that integrated EW and air defence batteries.
Ironically, this kind of unconventional targeted strike seems to have learned from and built upon the tactics recently employed with devastating success against ammunition dumps in Eastern Ukraine. In those instances, the actor that conducted the attack is not clear or declared. The attacks were reportedly conducted by unidentified drones which dropped Russian thermite grenades onto their targets. The results indicate that the Ukrainian armed forces either could not find and track these drones, or the ability to engage them to prevent the successful conduct of their missions. It is possible that they had neither.
In both examples non-state, proxy, or deniable forces demonstrated intent and capability to deliver effects through the air to disrupt logistics and operations in depth. In the Syrian example, the Russians demonstrated that control of the EMS contributes significantly to control of the air in hybrid warfare; the Ukrainian example demonstrates that the absence of at least one essential part of the EMS interrupter gear undermines control of the air.
In February 2018, an Iranian ‘Saeqeh’ UAS conducted an incursion into Israeli airspace and was engaged and destroyed in around 90 seconds after crossing the border by AH-64 Apaches. This event has an interesting history that is very useful for understanding the relevance of effective EMS operations in high-intensity warfare. The ‘Saeqeh’ UAS itself is a clone of the US RQ-170 UAS. This cloning was made possible for Iranian defence and industry through an opportunity to reverse engineer a US RQ-170 low observable UAS that landed in Iran while on a reconnaissance mission in 2011. The Iranians claim that they forced that RQ-170 to land through a combination of datalink jamming and GPS spoofing by their EW Force, which fooled the RQ-170 into landing in Iran. Regardless of the truth in that event, the techniques that the Iranians claim to have used are plausible and point again to the role of EMS operations in control of the air.
Following the reverse engineering of the RQ-170 outlined above, the subsequent clone, called the ‘Saeqeh,’ conducted an incursion of Israeli airspace on February 18. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) reported that they were able to track the ‘Saeqeh’ throughout its mission from its launch site near Palmyra in central Syria. It is not clear how this tracking was achieved, but it was almost certainly through the EMS through an electronic signature. Based on this tracking information the IDF assessed the route of the UAS and manoeuvred AH-64 Apaches to wait for it when it crossed into Israel. The Apaches engaged and destroyed the Saeqeh. Based upon the active exploitation of information from the EMS and integration with operations the IDF was able to find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage in neutralising this UAS; in this case with kinetic effects.
These RQ-170 and Saeqeh examples took place in the legal and political grey zone of armed conflict; the US and Israel, Iran and Syria are not in a formally declared war, and the borders are static. In both cases, it is likely that the defenders knew enough about the presence and nature of the UAS in question to have anticipated its activity and prepared a response; one kinetic, one non-kinetic but both appropriate responses based upon the fact that the engagements took place in the defender’s airspace. These scenarios were very predictable for all sides and not a complex or dynamic operational EMS challenge. In both circumstances, the ‘penetrating’ nation attempted to exploit low-observability and control of UAS through the EMS to achieve control of the air sufficient to achieve their mission. In both cases, the superior exploitation of the EMS by the defending force enabled them to maintain control of the air in their airspace.
It is apparent from the examples above that both the Russians and the Israelis demonstrated control of the air sufficient to defeat the threat that they faced. They both demonstrated that they have been able to manoeuvre both physically and, in the EMS, to meet their threat. They were able to find, track, assess and engage with EW or kinetic effects. It is apparent that the Ukrainian armed forces did not have Control of the Air sufficient to defeat the UAS attack through either kinetic or EMS effects and suffered the devastating success of the attack as a result.
The Russian and Israeli EMS ‘interrupter gears’ in these situations demonstrated an ability to anticipate and address threat manoeuvre in the EMS. It is important to recognise that the EMS environment that these defensive systems faced were essentially predictable and informed by several opportunities to understand the pattern of activity and character of their threat in the EMS. Aside from the UAS involved, the defensive forces that were involved or affected by these EMS operations were also largely static and well established. The respective Iranian and Israeli EMS command and control then only needed to deal with an EMS threat that could evolve or change over time periods such as weeks or months.
EMS Operations in High-Intensity Warfighting
In future high-intensity warfare, EMS operations are likely to be more complex than the scenarios above, but they will be an extension of the same themes and activities. The operating environment itself is likely to be more dynamic with a broad range of manoeuvring actors in the area. A peer adversary is likely to attempt to conduct multiple coordinated incursions into friendly airspace and territory with a broad range of remote weapon systems, many of which will use data links, sensors and transmitters that are hard to detect, characterise and track. The joint force will need to counter these across a coalition through integrated command and control of effects across the EMS and the warfighting domains. High-intensity warfighting will place extraordinary demands on the EMS interrupter gear, which will be critical to the success of operations by the joint and combined force.
A Way Ahead for ADF EMS operations
The solution for EMS operations is not just a technological one; effective EMS operations will also require significant evolutions in doctrine, organisation and training. For the former, the US has developed a doctrinal concept that they call ‘Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations’ (JEMSO). JEMSO is a strategic ‘top-down’ concept. JEMSO should create a common lexicon and a joint ‘umbrella’ framework for the US services to integrate their service-specific structures and approaches to EMS into a common command and control system at the joint force level. The ADF will similarly need an ability to conduct this integrated command and control of EMS operations on its own and to be interoperable with the US framework.
Organisationally, the ADF will need to adapt the joint force so that it can integrate, plan, and execute EMS operations. To properly exploit the potential of the EA-18G Growler and future electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, the ADF will need EMS Operations cells in operational and tactical level joint and single-domain headquarters. High-intensity warfare will demand that this capability is networked and synchronised throughout the joint force.
Innovation, Acquisition, and the EMS
It is not just the operational force that requires adaptation to meet the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the EMS. Threat evolution requires rapid development, acquisition, and integration of new technologies into the force. Intelligence will need to be geared to keep ahead of this threat and to inform the direction of capability management. To keep ahead of the threat, technological development and innovation will need to leverage the ideas of industry, academia and Australia’s own Defence Science and Technology Group; threat capabilities and warfighter requirements should lead this, not the availability of technology. To achieve sufficiently cutting-edge technology, this requires an agile acquisition system. A heavy appetite for innovation risk will be required; we should be prepared for projects to ‘fail’ when developing cutting-edge technologies, without seeing the activity as a failed effort.
Innovation and technological solutions will need to be lockstep with the warfighter to ensure that the appropriate training, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) are developed by services or the joint force to introduce them to service. My previous review of The Hunter Killers highlighted the incredibly high casualty rate suffered by the first Wild Weasel surface-to-air missile hunting squadrons; half of the aircrew of the first squadron was killed-in-action. Within the early Wild Weasel programmes, technological developments were poorly integrated with intelligence for the warfighter which manifested in weak tactics development before their initial deployments. The high mortality rate is a testament to this lack of integration. To avoid a similar fate, the joint force will need a means of rapidly developing, prototyping, and fielding new technologies and a coherent means of integrating intelligence-led TTPs development to employ them effectively.
Train the Force to Operate in the EMS
Technological solutions can enable us to move EW effects to the frequency band that the threat is in, but only education and training can deliver the ‘skill and care’ necessary for effective EMS manoeuvre. The effective conduct of EMS operations needs educated warfighters that understand not just the technical aspects of this contest, but the operational concepts and inter-relationship with the other warfighting domains.
The Russian military has integrated EW capabilities throughout their forces:
Russian EW activity is integral with but not subordinate to signals intelligence, cyber and conventional combat capabilities. Along with the distinct operational advantages of EW integration into combined arms units and formations, this has a significant second-order effect; Russian officers become familiar and comfortable with the integration and use of EW at a very early stage of their career. They train to fight in and with it. Education provides warfighters with the understanding to identify operational changes and adapt promptly; most significantly it enables warfighters with the ability to adapt to unique and unforeseen circumstances in an innovative but logical fashion.
The ADF does not have such familiarity with EW within the joint force. It will require a new cadre of EW generalists throughout the force that can assist in the integration of EW at the lowest level; it will also require specialist planners at the tactical and operational levels.
The examples above demonstrate clear patterns in the exploitation of the EMS by state and non-state actors in hybrid warfare; use of remote devices in land and air to attack high profile and high payoff targets at the front line and in the rear area should be assumed to be the new baseline threat in hybrid warfare. Non-state actors increasingly have access to ever more sophisticated capabilities. However, it is apparent that conventional forces in future high-intensity warfare will use a broad spectrum of remotely controlled devices in land, sea and air that have much better range, are much faster, agiler in the EMS and more destructive than their non-state peers.
JEMSO offers the ADF a suitable model to develop an organisational EMS interrupter gear and a vector for the supporting capability management and force generation structures that are required to underpin it. Dynamic joint force acquisition and capability management will be a vital element of preparing the ADF to win the EMS contest in high-intensity warfighting; however, and while it has not been considered in this article, it remains a truism that the human component is likely to be the key to winning or losing. Ultimately, the ADF will need appropriately educated and trained warfighters able to anticipate, integrate and exploit the EMS. Warfighters empowered with education in operations in and through the EMS will be the foundation of victory in #highintensitywar.
Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.
Squadron Leader Jimmy is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: Technicians from No. 6 Squadron RAAF perform an after flight inspection on an EA-18G Growler at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1, 2018. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)
In 1941, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams was on vacation in the South-West of America within the famous Carlsbad Caverns. While exploring Carlsbad’s vast expanse, he observed it hosted thousands of indigenous Bats. Adams was monumentally impressed by what he saw and then just as history has often taught us previously, the most remarkable ideas often derive from the strangest of places, at a random moment, when separate paths conjoin. Much like Sir Isaac Newton when the Apple hit his head, thus propelling him in founding the theory of gravity. Adams’ similar ‘eureka’ moment did not derive from when he observed the Bats in Carlsbad’s deep and damp expanse; it was when he turned on his car radio when departing, which amplified that the Imperial Japanese Navy had devastatingly attacked Pearl Harbor. Adams at that precise moment began plotting an unorthodox plan of revenge against America’s new enemy; the Japanese, using what he had seen previously that day; the Bats.
The idea that developed from Adams’ eureka moment was to attach incendiary material onto swarms of collected Bats, who previously (through the research and development stages of the idea) were trained to hibernate in large storage refrigerators. The final phase of Adams’ plan was for these Bats to be dropped from an aircraft in a bomb casing encompassing similar properties to the aforementioned refrigerators. These would then open mid-air, dispersing the Bats outwards onto Japanese cities below to seek warmth and sanctuary within enemy building structures, inside eaves and roofs, which during that period in Japan were made of highly flammable material. The Bats would then go kinetic, catch fire, and subsequently demolish their host building target. Adams’ own words would describe the predicted results of the later titled Project X-Ray. ‘Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped.’ He later recalled that ‘Japan could have been devastated, yet with a small loss of life.’
Adams’ creation of Project X-Ray could be perceived as pure lunacy to the untrained eye, however, with the present-day parameters of modern warfare constantly evolving, sometimes a little bit of lunacy can be effective in achieving the desired strategic aim. Adams’ premise of causing considerable amounts of effective damage upon one’s enemy, with the least amount of innocent lives taken, through the hostile deployment of these mini-warfare-vessels might, in the future, be a viable solution. Project X-Ray’s legacy, concept and its underpinning tactical peripherals of swarm-based aerial strategies will be forwarded within this narrative as still being relevant and possible within the delivery of modern warfare. This will be proven by substituting the Bats for the new technological assets: MAVs, which when deployed would give a modern force, like the RAF, a viable tactical equaliser and advantage within wider strategic operations.
Project X-ray principles of tactical swarm-based aerial attack have possible relevance within historic, present-day, and future western military operations due to two distinct and transcending reasons. The first is the current evolving development and procurement of military platforms and assets, which are now gravitating towards small, smart, and cheap technology that encompasses the ability to deploy in swarm formations. This ability includes overpowering your enemy within all areas through greater aerial deployments while retaining a cheaper overall financial outlay. The second reason is the potential future opportunity to reduce the amount of military and civilian deaths caused by historic and currently deployed air operations. Below we will explore these two reasons in depth while answering if aspects of Adams’ idea could be implemented within future UK warfare scenarios by using the vast range of MAV technology available and placing them in historical conflict case studies, which will position how they will affect future air-centric operations globally.
As a platform, MAVs are a small remotely, or autonomous air-asset. Typically, they exist in three size classifications; small, medium, and large. This article focusses on small and medium-sized MAVs. Small MAVs, which the US Department of Defense defines as being 20lbs or lighter, are typically hand sized, like the U.S ‘Cicada,’ which is a Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft used for carrying out undetected missions in remote battlefields. Medium MAVs are typically ‘dinner-plate’ sized like the ‘Quad,’ ‘Hexa’ or ‘Octo’ copters, currently used by UK police forces for surveillance operations within the airspace of airports like the ‘Aeryon-Skyranger’ drone. There are also large MAVs like the ‘Harpey’ Drone, which is currently used by the Chinese military and has a nine-foot wingspan and 32 Kilogram warhead payload that is guided by radar, can loiter in the air and can deploy with 17 others systems from a single five-ton truck.
This article will start where the Bats ended. Although the aforementioned ‘Project X-Ray’ was not implemented operationally during the Second World War, its premise – to inflict regional mass damage to Japanese cities without mass fatalities – is a tactic that is still desired today by the majority western militaries and governments. The Cicada as an individual platform has the same tactical properties and potential as Adams’ Bats in that they can be deployed en-masse, equipped with small thermobaric NANO munitions, which could easily perform the small kinetic solution positioned during the Project’s design stage, and are also more importantly incredibly small. The potential capability of this MAV within a swarm configuration has already been adopted again by the US Air Force (USAF) when it deployed ‘Tempest’ tactical balloons at high altitude. These then released medium Tempest MAVs who during mid-flight then distributed smaller Cicadas MAVs en-masse (again all at high altitude) to collect environmental data. A more warfare centric illustration of Cicada’s possible capability was demonstrated during the recent deployment of 103 ‘Perdix’ MAVs from an American F/A-18 fighter jet, which once deployed (mid-air) flew to three different target locations and simulated a swarm attack scenario on each designated enemy position. A Chinese civilian corporation who specialises in MAV development had also illustrated this possible small-MAV swarm scenario when it deployed 67 MAV’s simultaneously which performed a ‘saturation’ attack on an enemy anti-aircraft battery, subsequently neutralising the anti-air threat. The U.S Navy has also recently reinforced the effectiveness of mass MAV strategy when it deployed 8 LOCUST (medium) MAVs simultaneously towards one Aegis-class destroyer warship (the most effective global air-defence system currently available). This exercise resulted in 2.8 of the 8 MAVs penetrating the ships defence system, causing subsequent damage and the conclusion that if this deployment were increased by 10 or a 100, the consequences would be more devastating, proving that smaller, smarter and more lethal technologies are the future of air-centric warfare.
The potential benefits of these attacks can be dissected further. The Bat inspired slow-burn-combustion Cicada MAV attack would, as Adams conceived initially, cause the necessary damage to enemy territory, buildings, and infrastructure while reducing the human-centric ‘collateral damage.’ This reduction in lives taken by this type of operation (if appropriately deployed) would achieve its aim by allowing the residing population the choice to flee their residencies and disperse the area, therefore allowing a secondary larger tactical air-strike to occur on key infrastructure targets like nuclear reactors, power stations and government/military buildings. If civilian dispersal was not forthcoming then maybe using MAVs to deploy dispersal gas, or even recorded PA warnings played through speakers on the MAV’s could be utilised. The former ability already exists and was demonstrated by the Skunk MAV, which were bought by a South African Mining company which deployed 25 of these (medium) multi-rotor MAVs to quell potential protester uprisings. Skunks have four barrels which fire pepper-spray or paintball rounds at protesters. Less potent aerosols could potentially be designed to encourage the necessary civilian movement and dispersal passively.
This above mentioned strategy would in the first instance reduce the mass-death scenario created from current air-strike strategies, and also decrease the erosion of a state’s global-moral currency, a process which was demonstrated when the US disclosed 116 innocent civilians were killed through its UAV centred strategy in Afghanistan in 2016, and in response culminated in extensive global condemnation. The erosion of a state’s moral-currency is not outwardly/globally post-strike, it is also internally eroding within the conflict itself as air-strikes can have an extensive degrading effect on the local population, which has historically been the catalyst for the worlds emerging and multiplying insurgencies in Middle Eastern conflicts.
It Always Comes Down to Money!
From a fiscal perspective using small MAVs as weapons could also be highly beneficial in future tactical strikes. MAVs as a platform can now be designed and created using additive 3-D printing. Within the West geographically, 3D printing has already transcended into the world of MAVs through pioneers such as Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University of Southampton University, who, through 3-D printing, produced a drone with a five-foot wingspan. This process has further expanded globally through the online ‘Maker movement’ which shares 3D drone designs and do-it-yourself guides for anybody who wishes to construct a Drone. Ang Cui, a Columbia University PhD, also has a ‘Drones at home’ blog with step-by-step instructions for would-be drone makers to follow. The first commercial and military MAV produced at scale through 3D printing was the small ‘Razor’ drone, which is not only highly effective but can be printed in one day in the US for $550 there are also cheaper variants which cost $9 per unit.
The Razor’s wingspan of forty inches, cruise potential of 45mph and a flight capability of forty minutes comes in complete form for $2,000, and its production company MITRE believe future projects will arrive under $1,000, or cheaper as the MAV market expands. Further evolutions include Voxel8 a 3D electronic printing company whose $8,999 3-D printer can print an operational drone with electronics and engine included.
Commercial American companies have also illustrated the MAV mass production potential of 3D technology, such as United Postal Service (UPS) who have established a factory with 100 3-D printers, which accepts orders, prints them, allocates a price, and then ships them the same day. Furthermore, UPS plan to increase its plant size to 1000 printers to support major production runs. China has also recognised the benefits of embracing civilian technological advancement to improve military procurement. The expansion of 3D printing within China’s commercial sector has recently empowered its military to evolve its procurement of warfare assets and platforms effectively. This was demonstrated to observing media by the Chinese Army who repaired a broken military class oil-truck in an austere battlefield environment using only a single 3D additive manufacturing machine. This process allowed the crew to replicate and replace the unserviceable components both on-site and within a short period. Furthermore, this demonstration revealed the ease, skill, convenience and reliance China places on 3D printing, which in this instance prevented them experiencing routine operational issues like losing their re-fuelling capability, the requirement for a truck recovery team to deploy and the need to wait for an expensive part from a geographically distant manufacturer to arrive. A final and more strategic advantage this 3-D process has provided is removing China’s potential reliance on global commercial industry to provide these technical parts en-masse as the US does within its own present-day military procurement cycles.
Not only does 3D printing provide numerous tactical and speed efficiencies, but it could also, if correctly exploited, arrive at an incredibly cheaper cost financially. Using the Razor as an example, it currently costs $2000 per individual platform (complete). Therefore, a smaller Cicada MAV would arrive if produced within the same process at $250 or cheaper due to its smaller size, reduction of material required and after necessary production efficiency has been achieved. Once assembled, if a small incendiary were then attached at an estimated cost of $200, it would make the platform an incredibly cheap and deadly weapon. This overall manufacture-to-deployment financial pathway compares favourably to the recently released UK Ministry of Defence figures that an average Tornado aircraft operational flight costs £35,000-per hour. This figure, when plugged into an operational scenario, creates the following financial outlay; two Tornados performing a six-hour (one stop) strike operation carrying four Paveway bombs (£22,000) and two Brimstone missiles (£105,000) would cost on average £1 Million. If the Paveway munitions were later exchanged for the Storm-Shadow munition variant (£800,000), the cost would increase exponentially. This price, even without the latter munition, would allow you to purchase 2,000 Cicada’s with the ability to be dropped from a more fiscal efficient platform and would then as a swarm fly straight to the target area with a potential kill radius of 2 metres per MAV depending on incendiary attached. This type of attack would reduce the possibility of human collateral damage, firstly from a surface-to-air threat to the pilot and innocents on the ground exposed to the aerial kill-chain, while giving the swarm operator the ability to increase or decrease the swarm size depending on the amount of damage desired or required. The financial benefits continue to expand in favour of small MAVs when they are compared to rival high-technology air platforms like the fifth generation F-35. Using the previous larger Razor MAV as an example; it costs $2,000 per fully functioning drone, which when compared to the cost of 16 F-35s would allow you to purchase for the same price one million Razors. If the F-35s and these Razors were then deployed against each other in active hostile deployments, the Razors would retain the tactical potential if designed correctly to swarm the 16 F-35s, destroying them, even without incendiaries, through intended foreign object debris damage. Therefore, eradicating the superiority that the F-35 previously held. Of course, scenarios, testing and system advancement would dictate these hypothetical scenarios, however as all the scenarios suggest there is a new dimension in modern warfare and it is the MAV.
Sergeant Lee Tomàs is a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Royal Air Force. In a 13-year career in the RAF, he has deployed to the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Oman, and Cyprus. He holds a Post Graduate Certificate from Brighton University, an MA from Staffordshire University, and an MA from Kings College London. He runs a political online blog and lecture series at RAF stations which tries to develop junior Ranks knowledge of current affairs. In 2017, he won the prestigious CAS ‘Fellow of the Year’ award.
Header Image: A Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle flies over a simulated combat area during an operational test flight, c. 2006.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Rodney Barton examines and discusses the importance of tactical level reconnaissance in support of operations in a contested environment. In examining the importance of such a capability, Barton makes a case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to reacquire the ability to undertake such missions.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not maintained an airborne tactical reconnaissance capability since the retirement of the reconnaissance variant of the F-111 in 2010. Instead, the ADF has shifted focus to ‘traditional’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon and G550 Gulfstream aircraft, with unmanned ISR capabilities soon to follow. These platforms are not designed to operate in a contested environment; a degree of air superiority is required to ensure optimised collection. The ADF has been comfortably reliant on satellites to penetrate denied areas that require imagery collection, but the emergence of counter-space capabilities now puts this access at risk. This article will discuss the role of airborne tactical reconnaissance, why it still exists, why the ADF needs a tactical reconnaissance capability and the innovative methods of applying tactical reconnaissance in small air forces like the RAAF.
For as long as airframes have existed – the airborne reconnaissance role has existed. From the very first balloons in the nineteenth century through to the modern age, aircraft have flown in the vicinity of the adversary to understand their posture and intentions. Tactical reconnaissance aircraft have developed gradually with speed and altitude to penetrate defended airspace and gain access to sensitive areas. These aircraft were typically unarmed to maximise their operating speed, height, range and most importantly, survivability. At times during the Second World War, a lack of dedicated tactical reconnaissance assets necessitated modifications to existing fighter aircraft to meet the collection requirement. This specific mission was known as ‘dicing’ – short for ‘dicing with death’ – due to the risk the aircraft faced while conducting the mission, particularly the post-strike bomb assessment. During the Cold War, the tactical reconnaissance mission took on a strategic reconnaissance focus epitomised in the US by the U-2 Dragonlady and SR-71 Blackbird respectively. The advent of a satellite imagery capability led to less reliance on these platforms for strategic collection – although the U-2 remains in service and high demand, albeit in permissive airspace.
Despite the developments of space-based imagery and high-altitude collection platforms, the requirement for tactical reconnaissance in the US remained evident during the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. The US Air Force (USAF) operated several modified fighter aircraft (RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4C Phantom) and aircraft-launched drones during the Vietnam War, particularly for the collection of target intelligence and post-strike assessment. RF-4C Phantom aircraft continued to serve through the First Gulf War providing vital intelligence on Republican Guard movements and Iraqi Air Force disposition. They were also misused to a certain degree, in the bid to find and fix Iraqi mobile missile launchers. The inability to view or disseminate the imagery real-time from the venerable Phantoms no doubt compounded this issue. The USAF retired the RF-4C in 1995 and has not sought a replacement since – most likely due to the emergence of unmanned ISR platforms and reliance on space-based assets.
Advances and growth in satellite imagery collection, along with the increasing sophistication of ground-based air defences, have challenged the utility of tactical reconnaissance. Not only do imagery satellites collect more persistently against denied areas, but they are not subject to air defence systems which increasingly have greater reach and lethality. The shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4E in Syrian airspace in 2012 highlights the threat that air defence systems pose. Despite these factors, countries with small air forces still invest and implement airborne tactical reconnaissance capabilities. Why? The simple answer is cost, access and availability. Not every country has access to satellite imagery. Even when they do, the imagery may not be available when it is required due to weather, communications, or other priorities. Given satellite’s strategic nature and scarcity, a local commander’s tactical requirements may be lost amongst national strategic priorities. Tactical reconnaissance missions can be employed locally and responsively to support immediate requirements.
Local control and accessibility are two key reasons why the US Navy (USN) still operates a tactical reconnaissance capability through the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) carried on the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. For a deployed carrier battle group operating in a potentially contested environment, satellite imagery will not be on tap for perusal. Many European and Middle-Eastern nations have also invested in tactical reconnaissance capabilities due to their low cost and accessibility of the imagery collected. Podded electro-optical/infra-red sensors such as the DB-110 (a tactical derivative of the U-2 sensor) have proven popular in these countries due to their platform agnostic versatility with carriage options on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, GR-4 Tornado, or F-15 Eagle. The DB-110 can collect almost 26,000 square kilometres of imagery per hour from a stand-off range of 150 kilometres. Low cost, seamless pod integration onto fighter platforms and flexibility of use provide significant benefits to small air forces that cannot afford to invest heavily in ISR space or air-breathing assets.
Further advances in tactical reconnaissance sensor capability also provide value for money. Take for example the development of multi-spectral sensors for detection of camouflaged and concealed targets at longer stand-off ranges. Additionally, tactical reconnaissance sensors now have datalink connectivity resulting in an ability to pass image chips forward via airborne assets for early exploitation and analysis. Tactical reconnaissance vendors are also promoting requirements for expeditionary processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) cabin for deployed operations. Expeditionary PED is critical to the tactical reconnaissance mission, particularly if it is likely that communications bearers are at risk. Furthermore, the transmission of terabytes of imagery through a communications bearer for analysis may not be viable due to bandwidth constraints on protected networks. The significant volume of imagery data collected from tactical reconnaissance pods will necessitate a form of ‘triage’ of the imagery to focus analytical efforts on priority information requirements. Therefore, sending analysts closer to the fight may be required to overcome the effects of a contested communications environment.
In a future high-intensity war, ADF will not have the unfettered use of space and Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) to which it has become accustomed. Near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have made their intentions clear regarding the denial of space and communications bearers for the US and its allies during any potential conflict. Therefore, the ability to carry an imagery collection sensor on an aircraft that can penetrate and survive in contested airspace, conduct a tactical reconnaissance mission, and return the imagery for exploitation is vitally important. Early phases of a high-intensity war against a sophisticated integrated air defence system (IADS) will see our traditional ISR assets operating at significant stand-off ranges that will degrade their operational utility. The F-35 can penetrate IADS; however, the sensor suite is not optimised for long-range, wide field-of-view imagery collection. The high-end battle may require traditional reconnaissance methods to get the job done. This is particularly important for targeting intelligence and post-strike assessment – to ensure the commander apportions the right platforms and weapons against the right target sets to achieve the desired effects at the lowest risk available.
For a small but technically advanced air force like the RAAF, the acquisition of imagery sensors that can be carried in a fast jet-configured pod would provide a low-cost capability for imagery collection for use during high-intensity war, complementing available satellite and larger airborne imagery collection systems. The tactical reconnaissance pods can also be utilised in permissive environments when tasked and could be considered for use to support the full spectrum of operations. The most likely candidate platform for the ADF tactical reconnaissance capability would be the F/A-18F Super Hornet, given the already demonstrated role with the USN and SHARP. The flexibility of a podded sensor allows the fighter aircraft only to carry the pod when required vice having a permanently fixed sensor with inherent penalties of sensor carriage. An airborne tactical reconnaissance capability could provide responsive, survivable, and high-quality imagery to the joint force a range of scenarios.
Imagery collection capabilities are facing increasingly sophisticated threats across the air, electromagnetic, space and cyber domains. The development of an ADF airborne tactical reconnaissance capability would add another layer to Australia’s tactical imagery collection requirements while also enhances its self-reliant military capability and its value as a contributor to coalition ISR operations. Tactical reconnaissance provides necessary redundancy, survivability, and responsiveness required when the high-intensity war means commanders cannot access strategic collection capabilities – due to access or priorities – and reduces the information gush to a trickle. In high-intensity war and pulling the digital ‘wet-film’ imagery from a pod-equipped fighter jet may be the only viable reconnaissance method available to reveal adversary posture and intent.
Squadron Leader Rodney ‘Neville’ Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An RAF Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham in Norfolk with a RAPTOR airborne reconnaissance pod fitted beneath the fuselage, c. 2009. The images received by the pod can be transmitted via a real-time data-link system to image analysts at a ground station or can be displayed in the cockpit during flight. The imagery can also be recorded for post-flight analysis. The RAPTOR system can create images of hundreds of separate targets in one sortie; it is capable of autonomous operation against preplanned targets, or it can be re-tasked manually for targets of opportunity or to select a different route to the target. The stand-off range of the sensors allows the aircraft to remain outside heavily-defended areas, to minimise the aircraft’s exposure to enemy air-defence systems. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)
It was the 19th century British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston who famously remarked that in international relations there are ‘no eternal allies […] only interests.’
Palmerston’s hard-headed worldview has particular relevance for small- and medium-nations that find themselves drawn into high-intensity warfare. The October 1973 war in the Middle East and the 1982 war in the Falklands illustrate the point.
The 1973 war began on 6 October when Egypt and Syria launched a sudden attack against Israel. Over-confident Israeli commanders were shocked when their previously dominant air force found itself unprepared for the quality and tactical disposition of the Arabs’ ground-based air defence system. The Israeli Air Force (IAF) started the war with about 290 frontline F-4 and A-4 strike/fighters, and within days some fifty had been shot-down. It was an unsustainable loss rate.
A week later, as the war in the air began to turn and the Israelis started to assert their expected dominance, it was the Arabs’ turn to experience unsustainable losses.
Now, both protagonists faced the same urgent problem: neither had the reserves nor the local capacity to rapidly reinforce their fighting units.
There is a limit to how much a nation can spend on otherwise non-productive war industries and stockpiles. Governments have to make fine judgments regarding how many weapons – which represent stranded assets until they are used – they can afford to have parked on ramps or stored in warehouses against the possibility of a contingency that might never arise.
That economic imperative is especially pronounced in the war in the air, in which platforms and weapons are exceedingly expensive. Moreover, in high-intensity fighting, extreme loss and usage rates accompany extreme unit costs. Thus, during the nineteen days of the October War, the Israelis lost 102 strike/fighters and the Arabs 433, and the Arabs fired 9,000 surface-to-air missiles. Those numbers alone amounted to thirty aircraft and $560 million per day.
What that meant was that neither the Israelis nor the Arabs were capable of fighting a high-intensity air war for more than about a week without direct assistance from their American and Soviet sponsors. Moreover, that is precisely what happened. On 9 October, the Soviets started a massive airlift to resupply the Egyptians and Syrians with missiles, ammunition, SAM components, radars, and much more; shortly afterwards, the US did the same for Israel. The US also made good the IAF’s aircraft losses by flying-in about 100 F-4s, A-4s and C-130s, some of which arrived still carrying United States Air Force markings.
Without that resupply, Israel and the Arab states could not have sustained such a high-intensity conflict.
This point bears emphasis. Israel was far superior militarily to the Arab states, and its excellent indigenous industry enabled it to develop essential capabilities (such as electronic warfare counter-measures) during the conflict. Nevertheless, it is not unreasonable to suggest that, had Egypt and Syria been resupplied and Israel had not, the war would have ended differently.
Sustainment in the form of aid from an external source was again crucial during the 1982 Falklands War between the United Kingdom and Argentina.
The UK’s armed forces are among the world’s very best, and the nation is one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful. Argentina in 1982 was a dysfunctional, second-world nation led by an incompetent cabal of military dictators. According to both the key foreign affairs advisor to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Lord Charles Powell, and the US Assistant Secretary of Defense, Richard Perle, ‘Britain probably would have lost the war without American assistance.’ That assistance extended to providing vital intelligence, and to ‘stripping part of the frontline US air forces’ of the latest version of the Sidewinder air-to-air missile.
Argentina, by contrast, found itself the dismayed subject of Lord Palmerston’s unsentimental characterisation of alliances, when it was abandoned by two nations which, until the day the shooting started, it had believed were its friends. The first, the US, cut-off intelligence and diplomatic assistance; and the second, France, which had sold the Argentine Navy Super-Etendard strike fighters and Exocet missiles, withdrew the technical support needed to make that capability fully effective.
In the event, the Argentines managed to fire five Exocets, sinking two ships from the British war convoy and severely damaging a third. It is feasible that, with better targeting information and only a half-dozen more operational missiles, the Argentines might have inflicted sufficient damage on the convoy to have compelled it to turn back before it got within 100 kilometres of the Falklands.
Should Australia become involved in a high-intensity conflict in the next ten years, we can confidently expect that our air power would be well-trained and well-equipped. Those attributes would be insufficient in themselves, however, if they were not underwritten by a strong and reliable alliance.
N.B. This article was first published in the April 2018 issue of Australian Aviation.
Dr Alan Stephens is a Fellow of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation. He has been a senior lecturer at UNSW Canberra; a visiting fellow at ANU; a visiting fellow at UNSW Canberra; the RAAF historian; an advisor in federal parliament on foreign affairs and defence; and a pilot in the RAAF, where his experience included the command of an operational squadron and a tour in Vietnam. He has lectured internationally, and his publications have been translated into some twenty languages. He is a graduate of the University of New South Wales, the Australian National University, and the University of New England. Stephens was awarded an OAM in 2008 for his contribution to Australian military history.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sean Walsh considers some of the issues surrounding the use of Uninhibited Aerial Vehicles with a particular focus the on the implications for ground units who may increasingly come to rely on such platforms that operate at ultra-low-levels.
In the near future air operations will happen at altitudes as low as the heel of a soldier’s boot as aircraft capable of offensive and defensive operations reduce in size and increase in range.
That this is likely is demonstrated by the slaughterbotsvideo that went viral in November 2017. The slaughterbots are autonomous offensive drones that can fit in the palm of a human hand. Fitted with explosive warheads designed to impale human skulls, these very low altitude drones were depicted in the video as having the ability to autonomously select and engage targets based on age, sex, fitness, uniform and/or ethnicity.
The video ended with one such robot killing an unarmed student lying under a desk in a lecture theatre (a clear-cut war crime). Legitimate militaries have no interest in perpetrating genocide, but the prospect of autonomous drones attacking human combatants with explosives and projectiles is very real.
Very Low Altitude Drones
Future weaponised micro-aircraft will be capable of operations at very low altitudes – just millimetres above the ground. Indeed, some aircraft may become hoppers having the ability to fly through the air and drive on the ground.
This descent to ankle altitude of air power will fundamentally change the nature of army operations. Increasingly, they will come to resemble air force operations. Effective air power is now small enough to fit in a backpack or armoured personnel carrier. This low-altitude air power is mostly used for reconnaissance enabling an infantry unit to have an eye in the sky; however, these systems are starting to become weaponised.
In future high-intensity war, infantry units will need to be familiar with air force logistics and tactics. Future ground troops may need to be airmen as well as soldiers in that they will need to understand low altitude air war in addition to land war. Alternatively, combat airmen may need to be embedded in infantry units. One might argue this is the continuation of a process that started when the cavalry switched to helicopters from horses. Regardless of the institutional arrangements, ground units will need defensive drones, portable anti-aircraft weapons they can carry themselves, or both.
Tiers of Air Superiority
In the near future, it may be there are tiers of air superiority. At low altitudes, the air will be dominated by large numbers of relatively small and cheap aircraft flying at low speed and having relatively low range. At higher altitudes, existing air force concepts of air superiority will continue to apply. There will still relatively small numbers of expensive supersonic fighters clearing the skies of enemy aircraft but F-35s burning through the sky at high speed will be of limited use against swarms of slaughterbots flying less than 10 feet above the ground at relatively low-speed attacking infantry and other ground-based targets.
Indeed, already we have seen how such cheap low altitude drones can be used to attack expensive hi-tech aircraft sitting on the ground. In Syria, in January 2018, a low-tech attack by Syrian rebels was made on hi-tech Russia on its airbase at Hemimim and its naval station at Tartus. Militaries will find it irresistible to develop weapons costing a few hundred dollars that could destroy supersonic aircraft worth tens of millions on the ground. Naturally, countermeasures to guard against such threats have already been developed. The Russians were able to see off the attack.
As an aside, this gives the lie to the claim made in the slaughterbots video that ‘humans will have no defence’ against such attacks. In the history of war, the measure has always led to the development of counter-measures. The spear led to the shield. The submarine led to the depth charge. Barbed wire and machine guns led to tanks. The slaughterbot will lead to counter-measures just like every other technological innovation in military history.
Traditional High-Altitude Air War Will Still Be Critical
Even given the new low-altitude threats, F-35s and other fighter aircraft will still be able to target the transport planes and vans delivering the low altitude ‘slaughterbots’ to a range close enough for them to attack in a conventional war. Destruction of enemy logistics will still be a key to victory as it was in the Battle of Midway and many other historic engagements. However, given suitable terrain, it is conceivable that one belligerent in a future high-intensity war might have air superiority at altitude while the other has air superiority close to the ground.
Even in an asymmetric war, a plucky low-tech belligerent might find a way through the emerging countermeasures and achieve low-altitude air superiority with devastating effect to a high-tech foe. We can expect those who perpetrated the failed attack on the Russians in Syria to go back to the drawing board and try again, this time targeting the low altitude air defence systems first (perhaps with a suicidal or stealthy ground attack) before unleashing the drones on the high-value targets in the hangers.
Increasingly these low altitude aircraft will be autonomous in their combat functions. This is because such craft is far too small for an onboard human pilot. Also, in the near future, a fight between a human-telepiloted Uninhabited Air Vehicles (UAV) and an autonomous UAV will be as fair a fight as Kasparov vs Deep Blue or Sedol vs AlphaGo. There will come a time where the AI has advanced to a point where humans cannot defeat it. A further reason is that existing drone counter-measures use techniques such as jamming GPS and telepiloting frequencies. To counter the counter-measures, drone-makers could resort to dead-reckoning or visual navigation to avoid the GPS vulnerability. To avoid the telepiloting vulnerability, they could disconnect the network card and develop onboard autonomy.
Moral Arguments regarding Lethal Autonomy
There is, of course, a moral argument here in addition to the technical ones regarding lethal offensive autonomy. It is foreseeable that there will be a ban on autonomous weapons but terrorist and criminal groups (narcoterrorists) will readily adopt such low altitude air power because of its low cost and easy availability. Indeed, they already have. ISIS weaponised telepiloted hobby drones in 2016. Drones are now being used to smuggle drugs across borders. It is only a matter of time before cartels use them to assassinate police, judges, and ministers. This will force democratic nations to adopt counter-measures. To be effective, such counter-measures, like existing close-in weapons systems such as Phalanx, will need a high degree of targeting autonomy. Historically, military necessity has trumped moral objections to many new weapons because belligerents will do whatever it takes to win.
Jefferson Davis objected to ‘torpedoes’ (mines) as ‘cowardly’ weapons, but when the Confederacy got desperate, he acquiesced to their use. Submarines and bombers were similarly objected to on moral grounds yet because they were militarily effective and could be used in compliance with principles of discrimination and proportionality, they survived. Military norms changed to accommodate them. The Campaign to Stop Killer Robots may get a ban on autonomous weapons, but these efforts may not bear fruit.
A human officer might say to a swarm of robots, ‘clear that house’ and the robots will autonomously work together to search for threats and clear it. Swarm robotics is a rapidly progressing area of research. If the swarm of robots needs to shoot enemy combatants therein (be they human or robotic) they will do so within the scope the human order “clear that house” gives them.
Similarly, having disposed of the low altitude air defence, a commander could say to his swarm ‘search for and destroy all Sukhois on this airfield’, and the robots would do this. If they needed to shoot airmen trying to defend their craft, they would do so within the scope of their human order and the normative constraints of targeting law.
Such airborne robots would integrate with ground-based robots. Ground-based robots will be primarily logistical with strike ability mostly airborne except for some very particular tasks, such as sneaking up like snakes on enemy low altitude air defence posts. Command and control will be distributed and redundant. Cybersecurity will be critical.
Much research and development will be needed to ensure these drones operate in accordance with targeting law. However, such research is being funded. In the absence of a policy prohibition, the advanced powers will succeed in developing normatively compliant autonomous weaponry. In a climate where major powers do not trust each other, each will keep their guard up.
Increasingly, given the advances in AI and robotics, the front line of combat will be a combination of Uninhabited Ground Vehicles and UAVs on land and Uninhabited Sea Vehicles, Uninhabited Underwater Vehicles and UAVs at sea.
Future War May Be Predominantly Robotic in the Front Line
Future war may well evolve into robot vs robot at the front line. Human resistance against robots may become futile. Should such conditions evolve in war, it may be conventions evolve to take human surrenders in such hopeless circumstances.
Indeed, future war might become as ‘civilized’ as the wars of the Italian condottieri in the Renaissance. Machiavelli wrote of the Battle of Zagonara in 1424 that it was a ‘great defeat, famous throughout all Italy’ and yet ‘no death occurred except those of Lodovico degli Obizi and two of his men, who having fallen from their horses were drowned in the mud.’
Historians doubt the body count in Machiavelli’s report as he had it in for the lack of warfighting prowess of the condottieri, but even so, just as the wars of the condottieri were more about manoeuvre and posture than actual hard fighting, future war might become a matter of destroying material rather than people.
Some would argue war has been as much as about destroying material rather than people since the Second World War as evidenced by the raids on Schweinfurt and Bologna and the U-Boat campaigns in the North Atlantic. Once the opposing robots are destroyed, the humans may surrender as the ability of humans to defeat robots in combat might no longer exist. Resistance without robots may turn out to be as futile as trying to beat Deep Blue at chess without a computer.
In a future high-intensity war, it might be written:
[u]sing a new technological invention, the Red robots wiped out the Blue robots in the first days of the war, compelling the Blue humans to surrender. Some Blue humans tried to fight on, but the Red robots disarmed them, laughing at their slowness. The videos taken by the Red robots went viral.
Header Image: Pictured is a Royal Marine controlling a Black Hornet 2 Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS). This pocket sized and hand launched RPAS uses micro thermal cameras, visible spectrum cameras and proprietary software for flight control, stabilization, and communications. Weighing 18 grams, the Black Hornet helicopter can fly for up to 25 minutes at line-of-sight distances of up to one mile at speeds of 18 km/h. It uses GPS navigation or visual navigation via video and can fly pre-planned routes via its autopilot. The Black Hornet was developed in 2007 and been used by NATO forces in Afghanistan from 2011, with the United Kingdom the first to acquire the type and use it operationally. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)
 Niccolo Macchiavelli, History of Florence, Book IV, Chapter I.