Attrition in Fifth-Generation Air Forces during #highintensitywar

Attrition in Fifth-Generation Air Forces during #highintensitywar

By Rex Harrison

Editorial Note: From February to 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 being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Rex Harrison discusses the challenge of attrition during high-intensity conflicts and its implications for fifth-generation air forces.

Technology has continued to advance in both disruptive and surprising ways. It is consequently difficult to forecast the exact way fifth-generation air power will be applied in 2035, nor the precise character of future high-intensity conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, however, history proposes broad themes and continuities in the nature of war. One such example is the persistence of attrition of the force once committed to battle.

While Western air forces have been able to somewhat control their level of exposure to adversary action since the 1991 Gulf war, this may not always be the case. This level of control has been achieved through conducting operations beyond the engagement range of adversaries and behind a shield of (generally unchallenged) air defences. This technique has enabled air power to inflict significant losses without absorbing such losses themselves.

This happy circumstance has been the exception rather than the rule in human history. This is particularly the case when considering the history of air power, where few combatants have had the luxury of picking and choosing the intensity and duration of the conflict. No matter how successful fifth-generation air power is in enhancing its lethality and minimising risk to the force, it is doubtful that a combat exchange in high-intensity combat will result in a ‘0’ in the ledger of either side.

This being the case, I believe that success in high-intensity conflict will require a fifth-generation air force to ensure it can absorb and recover from the attrition of its forces. While it will be difficult to predict the outcomes of future air combat or the mix of technology and tactics that will provide the necessary advantage, history does provide a guide that may better inform our preparations for the future.

Historical Examples

Yom_Kipur_war
An Israeli pilot, Shimshon Rozen, climbing into a McDonnell Douglas F-4E Phantom II during the Yom Kippur War, c. 1973. (Source: Wikimedia)

The significant impact of attrition is demonstrated by the experiences of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. In this example, Israel was surprised by the new-found technical prowess of the Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria. The IAF was required to expend a sizable portion of its fighting strength to provide time for mobilisation. Surprised by the technical mastery of their opponents, in a matter of days, 102 aircraft were lost (roughly 25% of available combat aircraft), along with 53 aircrew. The crisis was only resolved by the rapid shipment of replacement aircraft from the US inventory under Operation Nickel Grass.

While certainly an example of high-intensity conflict, the requirement for Australia to fight for its existence as Israel did is unlikely or would be, at the very least, preceded by warnings such that the nation could be mobilised and prepared for such a conflict. It is partially through Australia’s preferred method of warfare, the controlled commitment of forces in expeditionary wars, that such attrition has been avoided.

A more pertinent example for Australian forces is the experience of No. 77 Squadron during the Korean War (a perhaps timely example given ongoing tensions on the Peninsula). The deployment of a single fighter squadron in June 1950 would seem at face value to match the characteristics of more recent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commitments; the level of attrition, however, was not comparable. Over a three-year commitment, 41 pilots died, and six were captured. At the peak of fighting the squadron replaced 25% the pilot force over an eighteen-month period. Finding the Second World War era North American P-51 Mustang to be outmatched after losing 13 aircraft, No. 77 Squadron was re-equipped in May 1951 with the Gloster Meteor. Of the 94 Meteors acquired by Australia, 30 were subsequently lost to enemy action, delivering a significant portion of the 54-aircraft lost in total over Korea and Japan.[1] The consequence of this action was that No. 77 Squadron, in effect, replaced all of its aircraft at least once, and in a handful of years, expending the bulk of the entire RAAF fleet.

JK0901A
Squadron Leader Ross Glassop and Flight Lieutenant Sainer Rees, pilots, serving with No. 77 Squadron RAAF chat with the crew of No. 36 Squadron RAAF which had flown from Japan with supplies of rockets and aircraft spares. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

One should hope that future deployments would avoid committing forces in obsolete aircraft. However, it should be noted that the Australian government maintained the force commitment in Korea despite these and other subsequent losses.

What Does This Mean?

In preparing for future conflict, any fifth-generation air force must ensure access to both the physical (hardware) and human resources required to replace those lost.

The procurement of aircraft and their associated supporting hardware may be the most straightforward requirement to meet, assuming access to global markets. While contemporary production rates are much lower than those of the Second World War, they are still significant for those aircraft in full production. While the Israeli losses in 1973 were substantial, production of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the mainstay multi-role aircraft of the period, averaged 19 aircraft per month, over the life of production.  Israel’s losses of this aircraft type (32 of the 102 total), while critical to the IAF, were only the equivalent of less than two months production out of the Fort Worth factory.

The replacement of human resources, specifically aircrew, will be determined by a combination of the resources allocated to training (rather than fighting), and the desired quality of the resulting product. Given our resource-constrained environment, it may well be that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’. In this context, a fifth-generation air force will need to accept that its workforce may not have not quite mastered the full spectrum of fifth-generation fighting techniques; however, it will need to employ them regardless.

A fifth-generation air force will also need to incorporate these replacements within the chosen operational approach. Concerning hardware, it will be rare that the exact aircraft lost from the inventory will be in production. With platforms potentially being fielded for decades, it is to be expected that subsequent variants will be produced, or entirely new platforms created in the decades following acquisitions. As such, while a replacement platform may be found, the capabilities are unlikely to be identical to that it replaces.

More critically to the networked fifth-generation force, it is unlikely that replacement assets will be fitted with the exquisitely detailed set of combat data and information exchange systems specified as part of the fifth-generation force structure. This will particularly be the case if the preferred supplier of our platforms is otherwise occupied. Returning to the example of No. 77 Squadron, when the Mustang was determined to be unsuitable for the Korean conflict, the RAAF initially sought the North American F-86 Sabre from the United States, however, as production was already committed to US customers, the British Meteor was chosen instead. While this aircraft was first flown in 1944 and was far from the cutting edge of technology, the war marched on, and Australia could not wait until it was ready to fight on its terms.[2]

Conclusion

While the aim of the technologically and professionally-advanced fifth-generation force is admirable, planning and foresight cannot overcome the uncertain nature of war, precisely the inevitability of loss. At its heart, a fifth-generation force requires flexibility to adapt to any environment. In this context, the squadron must become less of an exquisite implementation tool, and more a delivery mechanism through which aircraft and aircrew are ground against the enemy at the point of friction. In such a situation, ‘good enough’ may quickly become the new normal.

Rex Harrison is an Air Combat Officer in Royal Australian Air Force officer. He can be found on Twitter at @spacecadetrex. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An Israeli Air Force F-4E Phantom II at Tel Nof, c. 2013. This type of aircraft was used by the IAF during the Yom Kippur War. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Alan Stephens, Going Solo: The Royal Australian Air Force, 1946-1971 (Canberra: AGPS Press, 1995), p. 241.

[2] Ibid, p. 240.

#highintensitywar – A Series Introduction

#highintensitywar – A Series Introduction

By the editors of The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones

During 2017, a major war on the Korean Peninsula became a distinct possibility. As the rhetoric over North Korea’s nuclear program heated up, the preparedness of Western militaries to engage in a major war, and the likely cost of such a conflict became regular features in the news cycle. This has had the effect of transforming discussions of a major state-on-state war in Asia away from abstract, Thucydides-inspired notions of a China-United States conflict, to the uncomfortably realistic prospect of a preventative strike against North Korea precipitating full-scale war.

The discussion and analysis that has occurred in the media in light of these growing tensions have raised public awareness of the potential costs of a modern state-on-state conflict. The West’s experience of conflict since the end of the Cold War has created unrealistic expectations within the general population as to the realities of modern conventional high-intensity warfare. This is not to trivialise the deaths that have occurred in these low-intensity conflicts, every death in war is a tragedy; however, the level of attrition that the West should expect from a modern state-on-state conflict in Europe, the Middle East, or Asia will likely be on a scale unseen since the Second World War. Concerning the prospect of war on the Korean peninsula, General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has remarked that:

Many people have talked about military options with words like ‘unimaginable’ […] I would probably shift that slightly and say it would be horrific, and it would be a loss of life unlike any we have experienced in our lifetimes, and I mean anyone who’s been alive since World War II has never seen the loss of life that could occur if there’s a conflict on the Korean Peninsula.

The requirements for engaging in a high-intensity conflict against a capable and committed state actor will challenge Western militaries. For airmen, in particular, assuring the use of the air domain – an air force’s prime responsibility – has not been seriously challenged since the Vietnam War. However, there is a realisation that circumstances are changing, and, as Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Hillier, Chief of the Air Staff of the Royal Air Force, pointed out in 2017:

[t]he long-expected – by airmen at least – challenge has arrived to the air power supremacy we have enjoyed for the last couple of decades. We will now have to fight – and fight hard – to achieve and maintain control of the air and space.

The need for airmen to re-engage conceptually with the possibilities and requirements of high-intensity warfare has led the Sir Richard Williams Foundation to run a seminar on ‘The Requirements for High-Intensity Warfare’ on 22 March 2018 in Canberra, Australia. The seminar will draw together senior officers from around the world, as well as leading academics, to discuss the past, present, and future of high-intensity warfare. Although it is likely the presenters will raise more questions than they will answer, the presence of so many senior leaders at the podium and in the audience will hopefully give impetus to the intellectual, conceptual, and organisational changes that the possibility of high-intensity warfare requires.

Unfortunately, not everyone will be able to attend the seminar, and summaries can never fully capture the presentations or the follow-up discussions that occur during the breaks. Moreover, not every topic of interest can be covered in a single day. Accordingly, in the lead-up to the seminar, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones are publishing a series of articles that will bring the discussion of the requirements of high-intensity warfare to a broader audience. By running this as a collaborative series, we hope to engage a broader audience in this debate that must be had. However, more importantly, this collaboration has allowed us to diversify the perspectives that can be brought to bear on the issue. This diversity of perspective has been made possible by contributors from around the world and from different backgrounds putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboards) to provide their views. Moreover, these views matter.

Although the seminar will bring together a number of high power individuals, they do not have the monopoly on ideas. High-intensity warfare is a complex challenge for militaries irrespective of their size and operational experience. By contributing to the discussions, the contributors to this series are an essential addition to the seminar.

Twice a week over the next six weeks (possibly more as more potential contributors become engaged in the discussion) The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones will simultaneously run posts that explore different aspects of the topic of high-intensity warfare. Topics will include:

  • Historical examples of high-intensity air warfare
  • The future of war
  • Training and education for a changing paradigm
  • Cultural change in light of a changing operational focus
  • Organisational requirements for high-intensity operations
  • Logistics support to high-intensity operations
  • Use of fiction to frame the future battlespace

As with the seminar itself, we expect that our contributors will raise more questions than they answer. However, unlike the seminar, it is the nature of our articles to encourage ongoing debate and discussion. As such, we ask our readers to be engaged, challenge our contributors, test their assumptions and take their arguments further. Through comments and additional contributions (see here on how to contribute) it is the hope of the editors of both The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones that this series will support and encourage a deeper and more nuanced understanding of what high-intensity warfare will mean for modern military forces and how we can best prepare for its challenges.

To reinforce the relevance of the topic to which we now shift our focus, it is worth quoting from a recent (27 January 2018) special report from The Economist:

[p]owerful, long-term shifts in geopolitics and the proliferation of new technologies are eroding the extraordinary military dominance that America and its allies have enjoyed. Conflict on a scale and intensity not seen since the second world war is once again plausible. The world is not prepared.

Header Image: An RAF Eurofighter Typhoon FGR4 during Exercise GRIFFIN STRIKE, c. 2016. (Source: UK MoD Defence Imagery)

Contested Skies: Australia’s Uncertain Air Superiority Future

Contested Skies: Australia’s Uncertain Air Superiority Future

By Dr Peter Layton

In war, there’s a constant to and fro. At times defence dominates, at other times offence. Technologies arise and fall. Disruption rules. This is noticeably so in today’s arcane world of air superiority. While much investment has gone into the ADF’s air superiority capabilities—with more coming with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the operational environment is not standing still.

KC-30 Tanker Test fuel transfer to F-35A
An RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport conducted refuelling trials with a US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

The skies are increasingly contested. Emerging threats are making Australia’s tanker, and AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) aircraft more vulnerable and advanced surface-to-air missiles, stealth-fighter technology, long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and even hobbyist drones are proliferating. The US Air Force (USAF) recently studied what all this means in practice and determined that its ‘projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the expected] array of potential adversary capabilities’. If the USAF’s force structure is becoming stretched so, surely, is ours.

Some warn that the 2030 date may mislead, asserting that ‘Integrated Air Defence Systems covering areas in the Western Pacific … may now be able to deny access to all but the stealthiest of aircraft’. The ‘stealthiest of aircraft’ refers to the flying wing B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and forthcoming B-21 Raiders. It seems that F-35s with their vertical tails have some vulnerabilities to emerging multiband digital radars. A RAND study echoes these concerns about current and growing air-superiority shortcomings.

Even so, 2030 isn’t far away in defence terms. It is only seven years after Australia’s F-35 fleet will have—hopefully—reached final (or full) operational status. That is not long in the planned 25- to 30-year life of the aircraft.

Australia has committed to its major air superiority investments, which makes them a good starting point to discuss the strategic impacts of known and emerging changes in the air superiority operational environment. In my new paper published by ASPI titled Contested Skies, I use current air superiority force structure plans to develop three practical strategic options to address these changes.

Two of these options require modifying the current plans. That may worry some, but strategic ‘ends’ can’t be determined independently of the capability ‘means’. The two are interdependent. When the means are fixed, it makes sense to discuss alternative ‘ways’ that might reasonably bring strategic ends into alignment.

The three options are:

  • Continuing present plans. Maintaining our current operational plans and future equipment programmes means lowering our national ambitions to simply the defence of Australia. This ‘back to the future’ approach implies abandoning Southeast Asian nations to do the best they can as China rises and its sphere of influence expands. Strategically, this shifts the burden of conducting offensive air operations onto our American ally. While we could contribute by providing a safe base area in any conflict in which the skies were seriously contested, this level of involvement would not give us much influence on overall allied strategy or in any war-termination negotiations. Our current air superiority plans doom us to being a bit player.
  • Going ‘air defence heavy’. This option changes our current capability development plans to stress air defence. A start would include acquiring significant numbers of advanced SAMs and sensors for integrated air and missile defence, changing present F-35 upgrade plans and focussing on making airbases more resilient. Strategically, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach would allow Australia to remain deeply engaged in Southeast Asia and make a meaningful—perhaps decisive—contribution in times of serious conflict. Because this approach is less reliant on US support, it would allow us to mount independent operations in an area critical to our future. This has some echoes with the Pacific War’s later stages, when the US relied on Australian forces to conduct operations in Borneo while it focused on the Philippines and beyond.
  • Rebuilding our strike capability. This option entails adjusting our current plans to focus on reconfiguring our strike capability to be effective in contested airspace beyond 2030. We would also need to make a limited investment in integrated air and missile defence. The USAF study mentioned earlier foresees the F-35 losing its strike role at the end of the next decade and then becoming an air defence fighter—taking the ‘strike’ out of ‘Joint Strike Fighter’. This applies to all of the elements that comprise the ADF’s strike capabilities, not just to the F-35. If we want to maintain a genuine strike capability into the future, we need to take positive steps to do so. However, this will not be easy or low cost—or maybe even doable.
20170221raaf8207218_002
Two F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters conduct the first ever trans-Pacific flight from the US to RAAF Base Amberley, Australia to be displayed for the first time at the Australian International Air Show at Avalon, Victoria.(Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

In broad terms, the status quo ‘defence of Australia’ option implies burden-shifting onto the US, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach implies a reduced dependency on the US—perhaps lessening America’s burdens—while the rebuilding of our strike capability implies continuing to share the burden with the US in major ‘must-win’ wars past 2030.

Air superiority may seem narrowly technical, but it can have a significant impact on the range of strategies that can realistically be considered. It is time for a big air-superiority rethink.

This post was originally published by The Strategist, the commentary and analysis site of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Canberra.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. He has extensive defence experience including teaching grand strategy at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on the subject of grand strategy and undertook a Fellowship at the European University Institute. His research interests include grand strategy, national security policies particularly relating to middle powers, defence force structure concepts, and armed non-state actors.

Header Image: On 29 September 2014, an Australian F-35A Lightning II aircraft took off from Fort Worth, Texas, USA. It was the maiden flight for the Australian F-35A, which was flown by Alan Norman of Lockheed Martin, lasting approximately two hours. (Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

From Balloons to Drones – Editorial Changes and Future Developments

From Balloons to Drones – Editorial Changes and Future Developments

Twenty eighteen marks the start of the second full year of operations for From Balloons to Drones. With this, we are pleased to announce a significant change in our editorial line-up. Dr Brian Laslie, Mike Hankins and Alex Fitzgerald-Black have all agreed to become Assistant Editors of From Balloons to Drones. Brian, Mike, and Alex have been keen supporters of From Balloons to Drones since day one, and we are grateful to them for coming on board to add some depth to our operations. You can read their biographies here.

What does this mean for From Balloons to Drones? In short, it means we can come up with more ideas on how we might take the website forward. At the moment we are discussing several ideas which will hopefully see the light of day. One idea being discussed is a series of historic book reviews of crucial air power titles that will sit alongside our already established series of book reviews. We are coming up with a list of titles but if you think of a volume that is deserving of being reviewed then let us know.

Another project that we are currently working on is a collaborative series with The Central Blue, which is the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation in Australia. This set of posts will focus on some of the challenges related to high-intensity warfare in the 21st century, and they will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a seminar being held in Canberra in March on this topic. Posts will start appearing in February and will be posted here and at The Central Blue simultaneously. If you are interested in contributing to this series, then get in contact.

Finally, we are always on the lookout for new contributors to the site as well as ideas for future articles. We encourage potential submissions from postgraduates, academics, policymakers, service personnel and relevant professionals involved in researching the subject of air power. More details can be found here. Also, do not forget that we can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Header Image: A French Air Force Mirage 2000C drops away from a United States Air Force KC-135R Stratotanker after refuelling during a combat air patrol mission while participating in Operation ALLIED FORCE, c. 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)

Call for Contributions – High-Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century

Call for Contributions – High-Intensity Warfare in the 21st Century

Since the end of the Cold War, the West’s militaries have been engaged in a series of protracted and persistent low-intensity counterinsurgency campaigns. For air forces, this has broadly meant involvement in campaigns where there have been few serious challenges to control of the air and air dominance was assumed. However, as we move further into the twenty-first century, that scenario is likely to change with the likelihood of peer-on-peer high-intensity conflict increasing. In such conflicts, air dominance will have to be fought for, and maintained, to utilise the full spectrum of capabilities afforded by the exploitation of the air domain.

Aim

The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones seeks to commission a series of articles that examine critical themes related to the challenge of preparing modern air forces for the possibility of high-intensity conflict as they transform into 5th generation forces. As well as informing broader discussions on the future of conflict, these articles will provide the intellectual underpinnings for a Williams Foundation seminar on the subject of the requirement of high-intensity conflict to be held in Canberra, Australia in March 2018.

Themes

The editors seek contributions that provide a variety of perspectives on the following key themes:

Strategy and Theory | Future Roles | Emerging Threats | Air Force Culture

Force Structure | Technology and Capabilities | Ethical and Moral Challenges

Doctrinal Trends | Education | Training

Articles can range from historical discussions of the above themes through to contemporary perspectives. Perspectives can also come from a number of related disciplines including history, strategic studies, international relations, law, and ethics.

Submission Guidelines

Articles framed around one of the above themes should be c. 2,000 words. Submissions should be submitted in Word format and emailed to the addresses below with ‘SUBMISSION – HIGH-INTENSITY WARFARE’ in the subject line. Also, please include a 50-100-word biography with your submission. Please be careful to explain any jargon. Publication will be entirely at the discretion of the editors. These articles will appear on the websites of The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones simultaneously. We will be publishing articles from the middle of February 2018 onwards.

Keen to write but need some guidance? Email us, and we can link you up with a mentor-editor who can assist you before formal submission.

Contact Information

For more information, please contact Wing Commander Travis Hallen (Co-editor, The Central Bluecentralblue@williamsfoundation.org.au) or Dr Ross Mahoney (Editor, From Balloons to Dronesairpowerstudies@gmail.com).

Header Image: An RAF Harrier waits in a hangar at Kandahar, Afghanistan prior to departure, c. June 2009. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

2017 – A Year in Review

2017 – A Year in Review

As we come to the end of 2017, we also come to the end of the first full-year of operations for From Balloons to Drones. Established in the middle of 2016, From Balloons to Drones was created with the aim of providing a platform for the discussion of the air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in its broadest sense. In seeking to achieve this aim, in 2017, we have published around 30 articles ranging from a discussion of the contemporary challenges related the development of Ground-Based Air Defence and Integrated Air Defence Systems through to an analysis of the experience of aircrew as Prisoners of War during the Second World War. We are grateful to our group of contributors who have taken the time to write and publish via From Balloons to Drones.

The website has been visited around 18,000 times by 10,000 different visitors. While visitors from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia predominate, we have also had readers from around the globe including, for example, from South Korea, China and at least one from Tajikistan. We are grateful to those who take the time to read the articles and comment on them.

The ten most popular articles by visits for 2017 were:

  1. Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria;
  2. Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 1 – The 1920s;
  3. Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces;
  4. Commentary – The RAF and the F-117;
  5. Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 2 – 1930-1937;
  6. Air War Books – Dr Brian Laslie;
  7. Blinded by the Rising Sun? American Intelligence Assessments of Japanese Air Power, 1920-41: Part 3 – 1937-41;
  8. Unseating the Lancer: North Korean Challenges in Intercepting a B-1B;
  9. ‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice;
  10. It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1.

Two honourable mentions must also go to Dr Matthew Powell’s article ‘A Forgotten Revolution? RAF Army Co-operation Command and Artillery Co-operation’ and Kristen Alexander’s ‘“For you the war is (not) over”: Active Disruption in the Barbed Wire Battleground.’ Both articles were published in December, and I suspect that had they appeared earlier in the year then they would have been in the top ten.

We have some new and exciting plans for 2018 including a series of articles to be published simultaneously and in conjunction with The Central Blue. We will also be publishing more book reviews while a steady stream of new articles, commentaries and research notes will appear over the year. Remember we can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

Finally, From Balloons to Drones is always seeking to publish new and exciting perspectives on the subject of air power and we encourage contributions from academics, postgraduate students, policymakers, service personnel and relevant professionals. To find out how to contribute then please visit this page.

Header Image: A8-126 performs the last dump and burn in history on the final day of flying the F-111 by the Royal Australian Air Force. (Source: Australian Government)

Commentary – UAVs: An Affordable Defence for Europe?

Commentary – UAVs: An Affordable Defence for Europe?

By Dr Tamir Libel and Emily Boulter

With eyes pinned on Europe´s eastern frontier, it has never been more critical to have the means to reduce tensions between key NATO allies and Russia. Are there ways to help lessen costs that come with such an undertaking?

ROYAL AIR FORCE TYPHOONS INTERCEPT 10 RUSSIAN AIRCRAFT IN ONE MISSION
An air-to-air image taken over Baltic airspace by the crew of an RAF Typhoon, intercepting Russian Mikoyan MiG-31 aircraft. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

According to reports, Russian aerial platforms increasingly violate the airspace of its western neighbours, which is generating considerable unease. While NATO is responding routinely by intercepting the invading aeroplanes and increasing the presence of its combat troops on its eastern flank (four battalions stretching from Poland to the Baltic), a question has arisen over whether or not it is possible to beef up defences in Eastern Europe, while de-escalating tensions. Russian officials consistently say that NATO was responsible for openly displaying its anti-Russian intentions by deploying forces in Poland and the Baltic States.

However, NATO’s recent creation of a new Atlantic command and logistics command, with additional reports showing that since the end of the Cold War the alliance has never actually prepared for the deployment of combat troops on its eastern flank, is thus an implicit admission that NATO is not in a position to deploy large-scale forces the way Russia can. In particular, Russia is paying close attention to the defence of its airspace and has made plans to increase its air defence capabilities, to prevent violations. Meanwhile, NATO lacks both combat aircraft and short-range air defences. According to a report issued by the RAND Corporation, If Mr Putin opts to launch a land grab against the Baltic States, his forces could occupy at least two Baltic capitals within 60 hours.

Although the utmost effort should be taken to de-escalate and resolve the current crisis, preparations are necessary to maintain a state of deterrence against Russia, while also reassuring ‘front-line’ members, i.e. Poland, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. Deploying squadrons of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) provide several key benefits: They offer credible ISTAR (information, surveillance, target acquisition, and reconnaissance) and strike capabilities, which help maintain a level of deterrence, but will not pose a threat or spark offensive actions by the Russians.

Drawing upon a study that examined among other things, the rapid expansion of  Israeli Air Force (IAF) squadrons in response to unforeseen needs following the outbreak of the Second Intifada, a committed effort by NATO to amass six to eight armed UAV squadrons (each with 20-24 platforms) over a period of two years should be both feasible and more cost-effective than deploying conventional forces. The recent difficulties in mobilising and deploying a mere 4,500 troops to NATO’s eastern flank indicates that the alliance has a shortage of both combat troops and political capital to enhance recruitment among member states.

Reaper Remotely Piloted Air System
An RAF Reaper at Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, c. 2014 (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

In contrast, turning to unmanned, increasingly autonomous platforms as the first line of defence could not only (at least in the first instance) rely on existing infrastructure (e.g. air force bases, communication infrastructure etc.) but would also sit better with electorates reluctant to send troops to allies in Eastern Europe. Politically, member states probably would be far more willing to finance the acquisition and maintenance of UAVs squadrons by local teams. This would also help solve the issue of mobilisation as was demonstrated with NATO’s brigades. UAVs can help realistically build deterrence and even if there are failures, or even if half of the squadrons are destroyed, no lives, i.e. aircrews, would be lost.

Relations between Russia and the West are in a poor state, and tensions continue to escalate. Those member states who oppose the increased deployment of combat troops and the build-up of more offensive capabilities (e.g. tanks or jet fighters), could be more receptive to opting for cheaper solutions, which negates the need to deploy military personnel. The fact remains that Europe needs better deterrence in the face of Russian aggression. Therefore investing in unmanned autonomous systems, would go some way in providing, the security and surveillance that will be crucial in the years to come.

Emily Boulter is a writer based in Switzerland. She is the creator of the current affairs blog ‘From Brussels to Beirut.’ From 2010 to 2014 she worked as an assistant to the Vice-chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. She is a frequent contributor to Global Risk Insights.

Dr Tamir Libel has just finished a two-year Marie Curie COFUND fellowship at the Barcelona Institute of International Studies (IBEI). In early 2018 he will join the German Institute of Area and Global Studies (GIGA) as an associate fellow. He is the author of European Military Culture and Security Governance: Soldiers, Scholars and National Defence Universities (Routledge, 2016). He can be found at Twitter @drtamirlibel.

Header Image: A Russian SU-27 Flanker aircraft banks away with an RAF Typhoon in the background, 17 June 2014. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)