From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

From Balloons to Drones – One Year On

By Dr Ross Mahoney

It has just been over a year since From Balloons to Drones was established as a platform for the discussion of air power broadly defined. Since our first post, we have published 40 pieces on a variety of subjects ranging from the historical to the contemporary. We have had articles dealing with issues related to the efficacy of air power, the topic of military education and the future of air power. We have also recently started a new series, Air War Books, that explores the books that have influenced air power writers. Contributors have come from around the globe including contributions from Finland and Australia. I am grateful to those who have contributed to the site. Without them, there would not be much here. However, most of all, we have received regular traffic from people interested in reading what we have written, and for that we are grateful.

Just as a bit of fun, here are the top five posts by views:

  1. ‘Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria’ by Major Tyson Wetzel;
  2. ‘Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces’ by Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley;
  3. ‘Commentary – The RAF and the F-117’ by Dr Ross Mahoney;
  4. ‘Supporting the Secret War: T-28s over Laos, 1964-1973 – Part 1: Training’ by Jeff Schultz;
  5. ‘‘Integrating’ the Italian Air Force after the Armistice’ by Dr Ross Mahoney.

These are just a selection of the articles that have appeared over the past year, and we look forward to adding regular content as we continue to develop. To do this, we need to expand our list of contributors continually and if you are interested in writing about air power issues – both historical and contemporary – then you can find out how here. If you have any questions, then please leave a comment here or emails us at airpowerstudies@gmail.com.

Header Image: English Electric Lightnings of No. 56 Squadron RAF during an Armament Practice Camp at Akrotiri, c.1963. In the foreground, a technician is preparing a Firestreak missile for loading. (Source: Defence Imagery MoD)

Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria

Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria

By Major Tyson Wetzel

On 8 June 2017, a United States Air Force (USAF) F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an Iranian-produced Shahed 129 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Syria, followed just twelve days later by a second identical event. Earlier this year an Israeli fighter aircraft shot down a Hamas drone, just the most recent of at least half a dozen Israeli UAV kills occurring since October 2012. The face of aerial combat has changed in this era of UAVs, or ‘drones’ as they are commonly called. Aircrew are now more likely to engage UAVs than manned fighters in current and future aerial combat.

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A Shahad-129 UAV.

The question of whether UAV kills should be counted as official aerial victories is unresolved and has recently been hotly debated on social media. In a small sampling of air power enthusiasts conducted by the author on Twitter, just 58% of respondents were in favour of counting UAVs as official kills that count towards ‘ace’ status (five aerial victories). Current USAF policy does not recognise UAV shoot downs as ‘kills,’ but it should. Aircrew should receive proper recognition for the destruction of an adversary’s air assets.

Based on the author’s discussion with current USAF pilots, operators, and air power historians and theorists, there are at least four clear arguments against counting UAV kills as official aerial victories that count towards ace status. First, shooting down a UAV does not require the skill associated with shooting down a manned aircraft. Second, UAVs cannot shoot back. Thus there is a limited risk in this type of engagement, a critical component of aerial combat. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is not another pilot in the UAV, meaning the UAV cannot respond to adversary actions. Thus there is no ‘sport’ in the shoot down. Finally, there is a risk that allowing unmanned aircraft to count as official kills will open the floodgates to allow the destruction of all airborne objects to count as official aerial victories. I will provide counter-arguments to each of these points as part of my advocacy for modifying current USAF aerial victory criteria to include some classes of UAVs.

While UAVs may be relatively low and slow targets, shooting them down still requires skill and precise aerial employment. Detecting and engaging a UAV is not easy, its low altitude and speed can potentially cause problems for fighter pulsed-Doppler radars. The reduced radar cross section (RCS) of some UAVs also increases the difficulty of engagement. Shooting down a UAV requires detecting a small size and small RCS aircraft, positively identifying that aircraft (often difficult with small systems that do not emit many of the detectable signatures US aircraft typically use to identify adversary aircraft electronically), and guiding a weapon to kill the UAV. These functions; detecting, tracking, identifying, and guiding a weapon to the target are the same functions a fighter pilot would need to shoot down a MiG-29 FULCRUM or a Su-27 FLANKER. Based on my experience, most fighter pilots who have tried to engage a UAV in training or the real-world would agree that a significant amount of skill and tactical acumen is required to complete such a kill.

Airstrikes in Syria
A USAF F-15E Strike Eagle receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, 23 September 2014. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (Source: Wikimedia)

The second argument is based on the fact that most currently fielded UAVs are incapable of firing back at an adversary. Multiple arguments counter this point. First, an aircraft need not be able to return fire to be officially counted as an air-to-air kill. In Operation DESERT STORM, USAF F-15C pilot Greg ‘Dutch’ Masters was given credit for a kill on an Iraqi Air Force (IAF) IL-76 CANDID cargo aircraft. Second, most UAVs do have propelled munitions that could provide a limited ability to respond to an aerial attack. In 2002, a USAF MQ-1 PREDATOR fired an AGM-114 HELLFIRE air-to-ground missile (AGM) against an IAF MiG-25 FOXBAT, though the FOXBAT successfully shot down the PREDATOR. The Shahed 129s that were recently shot down were reportedly equipped with similar AGMs that could conceivably be used to fire on an adversary fighter aircraft. Lightly armed air-to-ground aircraft have always been counted towards official kill counts. In DESERT STORM, US aircraft shot down six helicopters and one aircraft armed with only limited air-to-ground munitions, and no dedicated air-to-air capability (three Mi-8 HIPs, one Mi-24 HIND, one Bo-105, and one Hughes 500 helicopters, and a PC-9 light attack aircraft).

The third argument is that UAVs do not have a pilot in the cockpit, and thus should not be counted as an aerial victory. Virtually all UAVs, even micro UAVs and drones, have an operator who is controlling the system; few UAVs simply fly a pre-programmed route without operator input. Most UAVs, especially the larger and more capable systems, also include a crew on the ground, typically a pilot and a sensor operator, who can build situational awareness of the operational environment, react to, avoid, and attempt to counter adversary attempts to shoot it down. Additionally, this argument ignores the changing face of aerial combat. The preponderance of air assets in future conflicts are likely to be unmanned in the future.

The final argument is that inclusion of UAVs into official kill criteria will risk widening the aperture of official aerial victories to include any airborne objects. Taken to its extreme, one could imagine the destruction of a mini drone or quadcopter being counted as an official kill. The simple solution to this problem is to specifically delineate the types of UAVs that will be considered official kills.

Not all UAV or drone kills should count as official air-to-air kills; the USAF should modify its existing kill criteria to include some classes of UAVs based on size and function of the system. The Department of Defense (DOD) has defined Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) groups in their 2011 UAS Airspace Integration Plan. These groups are used to distinguish US classes of UAS’, but they also provide a useful method to make a distinction between adversary systems that should officially count as an air-to-air kill.

UAS Table
Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems Group Descriptions. (Source: 2011 Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Integration Plan)

UAS Groups 1-3 are small airframes, have no or very limited ordnance, and are hand or catapult launched. These ‘micro UAVs’ and ‘drones’ should not officially count as a kill because of their limited ability to react or counter adversary actions, and to avoid the precedence of allowing all airborne assets to count for a kill (think about the ridiculousness of a silhouette of a remote-controlled quadcopter on the side of an F-15). UAS Groups 4 and 5, however, are UAVs that are typically operated by a pilot, are capable of medium-to-high altitude flight, longer range and endurance, beyond line-of-sight operations, and frequently carry propelled munitions that can conceivably be used for self-protection (as a frame of reference, the Shahed 129 would be classified as a Group 4 UAS). These capabilities mirror previous non-fighter aircraft which have been counted as official kills, such as heavily-armed but non-maneuverable balloons in World War I (5 of American ‘Ace of Aces’, Eddie Rickenbacker’s 26 WWI kills were balloons), cargo aircraft (IL-76 in DESERT STORM), and lightly armed helicopters (Bo-105 and Hughes 500 helicopters in DESERT STORM).

The US went 18 years between manned aircraft shoot downs, from the last MiG-29 kill of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999 to last week’s Su-22 FITTER kill. However, during this period UAVs have expanded exponentially in number and type, and recently have been targets for US aircrew flying over Syria defending coalition forces. It is time for the USAF, and DOD writ large, to recognise the changing character of aerial combat and designate kills on particular types of UAVs as official aerial victories. Such a decision would legitimately recognise tactical excellence in air combat and bring official aerial victory criteria up to date with changing character of 21st Century warfare.

Header Image: A pair of USAF F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of 23 September 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (Source: Wikimedia)

Has Air Power Reached its Zenith?

Has Air Power Reached its Zenith?

By Dr Sanu Kainikara

In the past few decades, air power, and its application as a weapon of war or force projection capability has seen an enormous improvement in capabilities. In keeping with the current global ethos of avoiding excessive use of force while fighting a war, air power now has the ability to deliver extreme destructive power with precision, proportionality, and discrimination. Based on this capability, air forces have also developed into deterrent and coercive forces second to none. Considering that the military employment of air power is only a century old, these are great achievements. Even so, military forces are continually looking to improve their effectiveness through fine-tuning already sharp force application capabilities. This brings out the question—how much more effective can air power become?

The answer is not straightforward, and the term ‘effectiveness’ needs to be understood in a nuanced manner to arrive at a reasonably argued answer. Effectiveness—the ability to serve the purpose or produce the intended or expected result—in air power terms involves not only the ability to create the necessary effect but to do it while minimising the chances of own forces being placed in danger. Therefore, the increasing efficacy of the application of air power should be tempered with ensuring that the safety of own forces is also assured to a minimum accepted level. This dual requirement led to the development of uninhabited aerial vehicles (UAVs) that have now become armed with precision strike weapons to become uninhabited combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs), a misinterpretation of the word ‘combat’.

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The X-45A Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle technology demonstrator on its sixth flight on Dec. 19, 2002. (Source: Wikimedia)

The introduction of UCAVs into the battlespace opened a hitherto unknown and uninvestigated arena of military operations. Not only were there technological hurdles to overcome, but a whole plethora of moral, ethical, and legal aspects of warfare also started to be questioned. In the beginning, the UAVs were considered to be purely intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, which could be employed in benign airspaces where long-term ISR collection was required. By arming them, the technologically advanced military forces changed the existing equation of applying lethal force.

Going back to the primary reason for the introduction of UAVs, the need to safeguard one’s own combatants, there should be no argument regarding the arming of these vehicles. However, the so-called ‘drone strike’, a misnomer if ever there was one, has become an emotive issue not only with the people at the receiving end of the strike but also with the ‘politically correct’ media. Why is this so? Before analysing this, it must be stated here that an air strike can now be carried out with equal efficiency and precision by either a manned fighter or a UCAV. The only difference is that the human in the decision-making loop that permits the release of the weapon is placed at different places in each case. In the case of the manned fighter, the human is at the sharp end of the loop whereas, in the case of a UCAV, the human is almost at the beginning of the loop. In other words, in one case the human is placed in immediate danger while in the other, there is no danger to the human from the repercussions of the actions that are being initiated.

If there is no danger to own forces in the second case then why is there such a hue and cry regarding strikes carried out by UCAVs? Here, the survivability of the UCAV in a contested airspace, because of its low speed, restricted manoeuvrability, and lack of self-protection measures, is not being analysed since it is extraneous to this discussion. The fundamental reason for the discomfiture with the use of UCAVs is the fact that in the majority of cases, the opposing parties do not have air power capabilities and therefore such strikes are considered unethical. When the instances of collateral damage are added to the dialogue, the pendulum of public opinion decisively swings away from the use of UCAVs and air power. The real reason, however, is that in most of the Western democratic nations, the public opinion regarding national security and the employment of defence forces has been dominated by left-wing, anti-war groups. Once again, this discussion does not need to go into political debates and is curtailed here.

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HTV-2 on the upper stage of the launch vehicle after jettisoning of the payload fairing. (Source: Wikimedia)

So, what is going to be the next breakthrough in terms of air power efficacy? Currently, the accuracy achieved by air-launched weapons, the clarity of airborne ISR and the global reach of air transportation are such that no further improvement seems possible or warranted. There can definitely be improvements in the speed with which response options can be provided and delivered. The realm of hypersonic flight is already very close to becoming a reality.

The next step change in the functioning of air power and related systems will take place when artificial intelligence (AI) becomes operational and is accepted as such. This statement needs clarification. AI is already a reality in many applications. However, complete autonomy has not yet been granted to AI in the case of weapon release functions. It is also true that AI has already proven to be fail-proof when tested under controlled conditions. There are many reasons for AI not being granted complete autonomy—capable of individual thought and decision-making rather than a pre-programmed response—the fundamental one being the question whether it is ethical to permit a ‘machine’ to make the decision whether or not a human being is to be ‘killed’ or eliminated.

In the case of fully autonomous airborne systems, further complications arise. In combat situations would it be ethical for a manned fighter to be destroyed by a ‘machine’? Would it be possible to program the machine only to destroy another machine, and in that case, does it mean complete autonomy for the AI? The question of legality in the use of fully autonomous combat systems is another area that has not been clarified. In fact, the process of creating laws that could govern the use of AI has not even got under way, and there is certainty that under the current geopolitical environment, agreement will not be reached.

In these circumstances, where ethics are being questioned, and there is no legal coverage for its employment, it is highly unlikely that AI will be employed to its full capacity in the near to mid-term future. In turn, it would mean that developments in air power capabilities and more importantly in its application will remain curtailed for the foreseeable future. Yes, the missiles will go further; space will become more pervasive; airborne platforms will fly faster, compute solutions at a much more rapid pace; and air power will entrench its place as the first-choice weapon in the vanguard of power projection. However, these are but refinements of what air power already does. For example, when a hypersonic flight becomes a normal reality, how much more effective will air power become? A reasonable answer would be, not by very much from what it does now.

The future of air power is going to be the same as it is today unless the next step-change takes place—AI is going to be the next technology that elevates air power further into being the most potent capability that the human race has yet invented.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: A three-ship formation of F-22 Raptors flies over the Pacific Ocean 28 January 2009 as part of a deployment to Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. The Raptors were deployed from Elmendorf AFB, Alaska. (Source: Wikimedia)

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

By Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Jyri Raitasalo

Editor’s Note: In this two-part article, Dr Jyri Raitasalo considers what he argues are the two fundamental fallacies concerning the application of strategic air power by Western states in the modern era. In this first part, he considers the challenge of the use of military forces as a tool for solving political problems. The second part of this article can be found here.

Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, the Western strategic discourse on air power has accentuated the role of high-tech precision-guided weapons together with good situational awareness and reliable command and control systems in solving modern conflicts. After the lessons learned from Operation DESERT STORM were drawn, one of the main tenets of western strategic thinking has been the (over-)reliance on the possibilities to solve political conflicts with modern weaponry – from the air. This notion did not emerge out of thin air. It was one answer to the many demands that Western statesmen – first and foremost among them the President of the United States – made immediately after the Cold War had ended. Since the early 1990s, the international security environment developed positively – at least from the western states’ perspective. However, the world was still infected with many low-level threats that rose in significance simultaneously as the Soviet threat evaporated.

The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has been expected to deliver positive outcomes to political crises with little risk to Western soldiers or national interests – whether in Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) or Libya (2011). Many western ‘wars of choice’ – under the headings of ‘humanitarian interventions’, ‘military crisis management operations’ or ‘expeditionary missions’ have been made possible – and in some cases necessary – by the demands of the contemporary 24/7 media, high-tech ‘revolutionary’ warfighting capabilities and the fading of the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Display of might
A US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress of the 2d Bomb Wing static display with weapons, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, in 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the 25 years of the post-Cold War era, Western air power ‘theory’ – based on the expectations of Western political leaders – has entertained the notion of strategic success in war just by deploying air assets against chosen adversaries. During this time we have witnessed the mystification of air power – the new ‘silver bullet’ – to epic proportions in a way that practical results from recent wars lend little support. Analysing recent western air wars from Bosnia (1995) to Libya (2011) one can easily detect that none of them has proved to be strategic successes for the west. Thus the ‘brand’ of contemporary Western air power is better than its actual track record. None of the often mentioned ‘successes’ have facilitated long-term positive outcomes.

The contemporary Western air war paradigm is based on two fallacies: the idea that high-tech military capabilities facilitate easy solving of political problems and the notion of almost casualty-free warfighting. Both of these should be subjected to strict scrutiny. It should be noted that it is not the militaries’ fault that political leaders have expressed repeated demands to the use of military force that are beyond the boundaries that existing military capabilities can deliver. However, to facilitate better strategies in the future, these fallacies will be elaborated next.

Fallacy 1: The use of military force is an effective tool to solve political problems

It is good to acknowledge that the number of armed conflicts – and the average number of people killed in these conflicts – has decreased during the post-Cold War era. As the Human Security Report Project noted in 2014, we have witnessed:

the rapid decline in international wars (anti-colonial wars are included in this category) over the past 60 odd years. The average number of international wars being fought every year per decade shrinks dramatically – from over six in the 1950s to less than one in the 2000s. […] From the early 1990s to the present day, overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.

Despite the positive trend in warfare since the end of the Cold War, there have been many brutal cases where large-scale human suffering and damaged infrastructure have caused concern within the western security community. First of these instances was ‘born’ out of the result of the 1991 Gulf War: the predicament that the Kurds (in the north) and the Shia population (in the south) faced after Saddam Hussein was defeated – but remained in power. Moreover, many others have followed: from Somalia to Haiti, and from Timor-Leste to Kosovo.

The humanitarian suffering brought to our living rooms by the 24/7 media – and later by social media, smartphones and tablets – has become a new factor influencing western decisions in the use of military force in the world. Although most of the (air) wars that the West has waged during the post-Cold War era have almost nothing to do with Western national security directly, there has been the need to do something to ease humanitarian conditions and suffering around the world in the many crises that have been ongoing – from Iraq to Somalia and Haiti to Libya. Thus, the western approach to ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) emerged to fill in the void that the end of the Cold War caused within the western threat perceptions.

Facing no existential threats, for the past 25 years, Western states have had the luxury of focusing on crises around the world where large masses of people have been violently oppressed. Moreover, the tools of the ongoing RMA – precision air strikes as the forerunner – seemed to propose a possibility to manage these humanitarian crises with little cost – in either blood or treasure. As was noted after the Gulf War:

A significant part of that edge [US’s edge versus Iraq] can be attributed to the revolutionary new military technology used by U.S. forces for the first time in Gulf War.

In other words, the lessons learned from the Gulf War – where Saddam Hussein’s big Army was easily defeated on the battlefield – have influenced the way that Western political leaders have been trying to solve violent political crises out-of-area.

However, the problem lies exactly here: the complex, violent crises around the world cannot be solved by precision bombing or by killing the ‘bad guys’. The politicisation of ethnicity and religion, the criminal elements involved and the contradictory political goals of multiple adversaries in most of the contemporary violent crises mean that externally imposed military solutions will not work. As has been noted in connection with the 2001 US-launched Global War on Terror, it is hard to kill enough terrorists without at the same time facilitating additional terrorist recruiting and providing additional PR for the terrorist cause.

It is understandable that political leaders resort to the use of military force relying on advanced weaponry to solve nasty crises around the world. The humane instincts of Western strategic decision-makers are understandable and praiseworthy. However, the sad part is that strategically, the use of military force has not been able to bring about political reconciliation or stability into ongoing conflict zones. On the contrary, the first ‘RMA air-war’ in history – the 1991 Gulf War – produced a political stalemate that resulted in a war of attrition against Iraq between 1991-2003. This attrition warfare manifested itself through the enforcement of no-fly zones and punitive air strikes against Iraq every time Saddam’s troops violated the rules imposed on them.

Even though the first Gulf War did not bring a politically favourable outcome vis-à-vis Iraq, the lessons drawn from that campaign at the operational level influenced how air power was used in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. The two air wars in Europe – in Bosnia 1995 and over Serbia in 1999 – have not till today produced lasting strategic outcomes that would be favourable to western states. Both are practically failed states, which can take a turn for the worse at any time. Also, in today’s tense international environment, the very unstable situation in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample opportunities for Russia to manipulate the West.

It is noteworthy that immediately after the Kosovo air war, the US Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted that:

[…] what we were able to achieve through this [Kosovo] campaign reminds all of us that the revolution in military affairs is fundamentally changing the way in which we fight. […] In Operation Desert Storm, […], there were only a handful of sophisticated aircraft that could carry precision-guided munitions, […] In Kosovo, nearly all of our fighters could deliver these devastating weapons.

Cohen’s remarks are spot on when looked from tactical or operational perspectives. On the strategic level, however, the effects of “devastating weapons” do not automatically turn into political objectives.

To be fair, it must be noted that air power was eventually able to stop ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, but whether the level of violence increased because of the air wars or not, is still debatable. In any case, both Bosnia and Kosovo have shed light also on the negative impact of western air power:  the mere existence of highly capable western (read: US) Air Forces – together with the global 24/7 media – facilitated the increase of violence both in Bosnia and Kosovo as the West was lured into these crises by attacks on the ground that aimed to escalate the conflict – not to end it. The Western humanitarian intervention approach was in its formative years, and the belligerents on the ground in Bosnia and Kosovo knew how to take advantage of it. After the terrible case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it was easy to exploit the willingness of the West to do more – even by escalating ethnic cleansing to draw the West into the conflict.

The second round of large-scale air warfare against Iraq took place through a campaign of ‘shock and awe’ in 2003. It was accompanied and followed by mechanised thrusts to destroy Saddam’s Army, a task that the United States and its allies succeeded to do. However, this operational success was not followed by the fulfilment of strategic goals. Air power was not able to solve the post-Saddam political crisis in Iraq – a fate also shared by the Army and the Marine Corps throughout the subsequent counter-insurgency (CI) operation, which resulted in the withdrawal of US troops after years of fighting and thousands of casualties. The breaking up of Iraq’s state structures, administrative routines and security forces also facilitated the birth of ISIL and the increase of violence and instability in the region. In all, the 2003 war in Iraq – and the chaos that has followed – has proved to be a strategic mistake of massive scale. The possibilities of quick high-tech warfare against much weaker traditional conventional army lured the US into a process that eventually became uncontrollable. This is the true essence of war – that competitive advantage in one sphere of war-fighting (e.g. technology) can be mitigated or even nullified by another (e.g. tactical asymmetry). There are no ‘silver bullets’ – at least not for long.

RAF Tornado GR4 Aircarft During Operation Ellamy
Two fully armed RAF Tornados from RAF Marham transit the Mediterranean Sea en-route to Libya as part of the UK’s Operation ELLAMY to enforce the UN no-fly zone in March 2011. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

Finally, the air war against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 – NATO operation Unified Protector – helped to set in motion a crisis that will influence European security for years to come – negatively, not to mention the additional suffering to ordinary Libyans. Today Libya is a failed state with multiple armed forces fighting over power and economic benefits. Also, Libya has become one of the bases for extremist terrorism. Operation Unified Protector showed the might of advanced air power by destroying the Gaddafi regime, but the strategic consequences of the operation will haunt the West – and Europe particularly – for years to come.

Header Image: An F/A-18 Hornet of VFA-94 carrying out operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Visible on the wing are two 500-pound Laser Guided Bomb Units (GBU-12) (left), and an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. (Source: Wikimedia)

The Aero Club Which Never Was: Gentlemanly Aeronauts versus The New Breed

The Aero Club Which Never Was: Gentlemanly Aeronauts versus The New Breed

By Dr Michele Haapamaki

The accepted anecdote is that the Aero Club of Great Britain was imagined during a hot air balloon outing over the lush countryside of Kent in 1901. Its instigators were Frank Hedges Butler, officially a partner in his family wine merchant business but more of a gentleman adventurer, his daughter Vera Butler, and the young Hon. Charles Rolls – who would lend his name to the famous automotive company and become one of the first licensed pilots in Britain. The organisation they founded would serve as a sort of gentleman’s club for aviators and gained the patronage of the King in 1910 – thereafter referred to as the Royal Aero Club.

Besides establishing some of the first training fields for flyers, the Aero Club was the sole body tasked with granting pilot’s licenses prior to the First World War. All the men who would join the newly formed Royal Flying Corps or naval flight units first obtained this qualification at their own expense. In the postwar years, the Club was the political and social centre of British flying, hosting annual dinners for the winner of the King’s Cup Air Race. The heydey of the Aero Club is now identified with the apex of British aerial achievement in the interwar years. The early Club, however, invested little energy promoting new technical or scientific developments in the direction of heavier-than-air flight, instead of fulfilling its initial brief as a leisure and sport-oriented ballooning for gentleman amateurs. Hedges Butler seemed preoccupied with rural ballooning competitions and his hobby-horse idea of a volunteer Army Balloon Corps, which initially gained half-hearted endorsement by the War Office but was scuttled prior to the First World War.

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The Wright brothers aircraft at Farnborough being inspected by a small group of soldiers, c. 1910. (Source:  © IWM (RAE-O 615))

A little-known controversy over the Aero Club and a rival club which was never formed is a fascinating way to access larger questions about the development of heavier-than-air flight in early British aviation. Aviation historians will be familiar with the debate over whether ‘official’ Britain – be it government or quasi-official institutions – exhibited a characteristic, haphazard approach to the development of national aviation. Critics, both contemporary and historical, have argued that this lassitude allowed British ‘wings’ to fall behind other nations. Among other shortcomings, the British government may have been amateur in efforts to contact the Wright Brothers or probe their technology.[1] Hugh Driver, in his detailed history of early British military aviation, argued that the lengthy emphasis on ballooning by the Aero Club had ‘a material effect on the development of aviation generally’.[2]

Prior to the inception of the Hedges Butler Club, motor engineer and founder of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, Frederick Simms, was the first to distribute a prospectus for an aeronautical club based on the existing French model. Its primary goal was directed towards the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight and in support of inventors. (Though it should be noted that at the time the French Aero Club also had an early emphasis on ballooning and dirigibles.) Simms was also a successful businessman who acquired rights to the UK manufacture of the internal combustion engine. He founded several eponymous companies, developing the magneto spark plug. As outlined by Driver, ‘Simms had the prior claim to found an aero club as such’.[3] Not only was he the founder of the Automobile Club in 1897, but he was also interested in heavier-than-air flying machines as early as 1896 – cooperating with Hiram Maxim’s attempt to build a steam-driven aeroplane.

His proposed group – the ‘Aero Club of Great Britain and Ireland’ – was intended as a spur to the development of ‘aerial navigation’. With characteristic enthusiasm, he claimed:

I am convinced that it only wants a Club or Society on modern lines to bring together the many British enthusiasts [to solve] this great problem.[4]

The Aeronautical Society, in existence since 1866, would have seemed – at least in theory – to fit the bill. However, it too was established as a ballooning Society and was in a somewhat moribund state at the turn of the century. At the time of Simms prospectus there indeed was a perceivable gap in organised enthusiasm for flight. After several acrimonious exchanges, Simms’ idea lost out to rival Aero Club. Simms and Hedges Butler were probably already acquainted, the latter having been appointed an honorary treasurer of the Automobile Club in 1898. It is therefore doubly unfortunate that the acrimony over the Club remained unresolved.

Class identity was one of the most salient characteristics of the Aero Club. In short, the emphasis was understood to be on the ‘club’ aspect of the name. It consciously modelled itself on the gentleman’s clubs of Pall Mall and St. James and acquired grand premises to match. Stanley Spencer, the aeronaut who piloted the three founders on the balloon outing when they conceived of the Club, was barred from membership due to his status as a ‘professional’. Many engineers, such as Simms, did not adapt readily to the image of an Aero Club man. He was an uneasy attendee at the first meeting of the Club on 3 December 1901 and was not placed on either the Organising or Balloon committees. The hierarchy and direction of the club were firmly established, ensuring that Simms was effectively sidelined from the new organisation, with the result that his prodigious energy (and those of like-minded men) for aeroplane flight was not utilised. To add insult to injury, Simms was asked for a £10 contribution to a balloon fund which he, understandably, refused.

Minutes of early Aero Club meetings, indeed, provide little indication of interests beyond ballooning. A certain Mr A. Verdon Roe was elected to membership in 1906, only for the name to be soon withdrawn. The Club did institute a ‘Technical Committee’ later that year with Charles Rolls, Simms, and John Moore-Brabazon as members. The latter was to become one of the best-known among the early generation of British aviators, though he learned more from time spent in Paris among French pioneers.

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British Army Aircraft I during the first sustained flight. Cody began building the British Army Aircraft I in 1907 with the design similar to the kites and glider that he had successfully flown. Cody made the first sustained flight (lasting 27 seconds and for a distance of around 1390 feet) on the 16th October 1908. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 995))

It is, however, one thing to make observations about the Aero Club and its early focus and yet another to conclude that they had any substantial impact on the larger course of British aircraft pioneering. There are substantial points to be made for a counterview. David Edgerton is well-known for his consistently presented case that the British aeronautical industry was thriving and well-supported in the Edwardian years and prior to the First World War.[5] Some evidence for this is the fact that the first flight on British soil, by the flamboyant American showman Samuel Cody, was in an army aircraft produced by the Balloon Factory at Farnborough.

Others have suggested that British aviation needed to take its own course in its own time, and in fact benefited from a lack of meddling from ‘boosters’ of different varieties. For the most part, no amount of progress was ever enough for some aviation buffs who tended to be of strong and unmoderated feeling; it could be argued that the hand-wringing was merely that. Aviation journalists, such as C.G. Grey of The Aeroplane, traded on histrionics over the fate of the British nation due to some aerial oversight or another by both government and, on occasion, private industry.

There is also the view that there was little of concrete import that an Aero Club could have produced in the pursuit of heavier-than-air flight in the early 1900s. Indeed, when it did become a reality on European soil with the 1908 demonstrations of the Wright brothers at Le Mans, France, the Club soon pursued these capabilities. They established one of the first aerodromes at the Isle of Sheppey, near the mouth of the Thames, and partnered with the Short Brothers – who brought characteristic British inventiveness to the manufacture and testing of new aircraft.

One conclusion we may reach is that discussion about the omissions of the organisations such as the Aero Club, both then and now, suffice to highlight the level of anxiety within British aviation circles – whether the basis for these worries was real or imagined. Was it inevitable that any such Club conceived during the Edwardian years would be (at least initially) unimaginative, snobbish, and genteel? Perhaps so. The episode of the duelling Clubs does provide an illuminating insight into the early world of British aviation, which the self-taught engineers and inventors were just on the cusp of breaking into. Those of the Hedges Butler ilk would soon be superseded by a new aviation elite which was, while not entirely a meritocracy, certainly closer to it than the sporting aeronauts would have imagined.

Header Image: A close-up of Cody in the cockpit of Cody aircraft mark IB. The cloth seat as opposed to a plough seat along with the control that Cody is moving differentiate this from the other marks of aircraft that Cody built. According to the caption, this was the aircraft that Cody intended to fly from London to Manchester in. Due to a mechanic failing to close a tap between the sump and the freshly filled oil tank the engine ceased up after fifteen minutes of flight. Fortunately, Cody was able to land safely. Shortly afterwards this aircraft was scrapped and Cody started work on a new one. (Source: © IWM (RAE-O 1075))

[1] See; Alfred Gollin, No Longer an Island: Britain and the Wright Brothers, 1902-1909 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1984) and The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government, 1909-14 (London: Macmillan Press, 1989)

[2] Hugh Driver, The Birth of Military Aviation: Britain, 1903-1914 (Woodbridge, Suffolk: The Boydell Press, 1997), p. 32.

[3] Ibid, p. 33.

[4] Ibid.

[5] David Edgerton, England and the Aeroplane: An Essay on a Militant and Technological Nation (Basingstoke, Hampshire: Macmillan, 1991).

Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces

Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces

By Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley

On 17 March 2017, Israel launched the Arrow missile interceptor for the first time, and a new dimension was added to the relationship between the air and ground forces. This was the first operational employment of the Arrow system but that it is not the wholly new aspect of this incident. What was special was the type of target the Arrow engaged. The Arrow was designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles at high altitudes. In this case, the missiles it intercepted were SA-5 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) targeted at Israeli strike aircraft. This event, whether a one-off or part of a new doctrine, shows a way forward for the integration of ground and air forces in which the ground forces can help provide a reciprocal umbrella to their colleagues in the air.

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Arrow 2 launch on 29 July 2004, at the Naval Air Station Point Mugu Missile Test Center. (Source: Wikimedia)

Attempting to disable and destroy SAMs is not new.  It is a critical mission for which air forces around the world train and which they regularly undertake. The coordination of ground and air systems in the most general sense is by no means a new phenomenon. As early as the Second World War, the German military integrated their ground-based flak defences with their fighter aircraft to create integrated zones of operations through designating flak boxes. At times, such as during the 1973 War, ground forces have been used to punch a hole through SAM umbrellas to allow the air force to conduct strike operations.

In all of these cases, the fundamental relationship between air and ground forces has remained consistent. The air forces have the ability to intervene in the ground domain and provide an umbrella for the ground forces, supporting them and protecting them from threats. So what changed on 17 March? Ground forces demonstrated their ability to enter the aerial domain and provide an umbrella covering the air force and protecting them from harm.

The Israeli use of ground-based missiles to provide screening fires for manned strike aircraft has opened a window for the exploration of new concepts.  The soon to be released US Army ‘FM 3-0 Operations’ manual anticipates the future possibilities of land forces as enablers for air and maritime forces. This is a break from the previous doctrine, which only envisioned that air and sea forces would act as enablers for land combat.  Extrapolating from the Israeli case provides a vision of the possibility of US Army forces using ground-based air-defense missile systems such as Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) for a SAM interdiction capability.  Forward deployed batteries could provide this covering fire along ingress and egress routes of strike aircraft where the Threat Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) is still capable or of an unknown status.  Sea-based forces such as Guided Missile Cruisers might also provide this type of coverage.

It is possible to push this vision further in considering the possibilities of ground or sea-launched Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Envision a weapon that has to loiter and hypersonic propulsion which could target ground based IADS launchers, radar, and SAMs in-flight.  Such systems would no longer be dependent upon ground basing within direct fire range and the flight time of a Patriot or THAAD type battery. They could loiter, or even swarm to cover friendly air-breathing and manned mission aircraft in a contested area.

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MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system. (Source: Wikimedia)

Each year, the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) conducts a planning exercise using a Joint Forcible Entry scenario.  In such a scenario, students must plan for the entry of US forces into a hostile environment against armed opposition. Students learn about the need to destroy hostile IADS capability before risking a single airlifter either to conduct an airborne assault or establish an Aerial Port of Debarkation (APOD).  Operations to remove the IAD threat can be time-consuming. Since the action on 17 March, it is now possible to imagine a US force conducting a Joint Forcible Entry within hours of deployment alert because the US no longer has to conduct a prolonged “IADS takedown” phase within the air campaign. A covering force of counter-IADS UASs could protect the strike and air assault forces through an array of tactics such as escort, prepositioning swarm, or forward sense and attack.  Using such a capability could radically redefine the approach to forcible entry and enhance the ability of airborne inserted ground forces as a US flexible deterrent option.

Whatever the future holds, the 17 March incident demonstrated the ability of missile defence technology to provide cover for aircraft engaged in strike operations. No more does dealing with SAMs need to be solely the role of the air force: ground forces can provide cover.  In doing so, this sets up a new dynamic of reciprocity in which air forces provide cover to ground forces, which in turn protect air forces. As missile defence technology such as that employed by Israel proliferates, this has the potential to revolutionise the way SAM threats are negated and alter the relationship between air and ground forces and give new meaning to ‘joint operations’.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College or any other government agency. (References to this study should include the foregoing statement.)

Header Image: A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being fired during an exercise in 2013 (Source: Wikimedia)

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

Air Power and the Battle of the Bismarck Sea

By Alan Stephens

This week marks the 74th anniversary of the Battle of the Bismarck Sea, arguably the most significant action fought by Australians during World War II.

Between December 1941 and April 1942, Imperial Japanese forces shocked Australians with their victories over the United States at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines; and over the British Commonwealth in Malaya, Singapore, the Dutch East Indies and Rabaul. When enemy forces occupied northern New Guinea, an invasion of Australia, with its unthinkable consequences, seemed possible. However, supported by their American and British allies, Australia’s servicemen and women regrouped and fought back.

From mid-1942 onwards, Australian victories with American support at Milne Bay and Kokoda, and the triumph of American naval air power at Coral Sea and Midway weakened Japan’s hold on New Guinea. Further Allied successes on New Guinea’s northeast coast at Buna, Gona and Sanananda between November 1942 and January 1943 left the Japanese position substantially weakened.

Then, intercepted radio messages revealed that an enemy convoy would sail from Rabaul with reinforcements for the vital Japanese garrison at Lae on the northeast coast of New Guinea in late-February. This was likely to be Japan’s last throw of the dice in New Guinea. If the convoy were stopped, then so too would be the likelihood of an invasion of Australia

Allied Air Forces under the command of the American General George Kenney immediately began preparing for an all-out assault against the convoy. A critical factor was the brilliant plan largely conceived by the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Group Captain William “Bull” Garing. Garing had already fought in Europe for two years with the RAAF’s No. 10 Squadron, and his experience of maritime warfare was to prove decisive.

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Group Captain Garing RAAF (standing, right) hands over information to his successor Group Captain McLachlan, seated at the office desk, c. 1943. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

It was Garing who convinced General Kenney of the need for a massive, coordinated attack. Garing envisaged large numbers of aircraft striking the convoy from different directions and altitudes, with precise timing.

Initially, the allies would rely on reconnaissance aircraft to detect the convoy, which would then be attacked by long-range United States Army Air Force (USAAF) bombers. Once the convoy was within range of the allies’ potent anti-shipping aircraft – RAAF Beaufighters, Bostons and Beauforts, and American Mitchells and Bostons – a coordinated attack would be mounted from medium, low, and very low altitudes.

During the waiting period, crews practised their navigation and honed their formation flying, bombing, and gunnery skills.

Six thousand four hundred Japanese troops embarked at Rabaul between 23 and 27 February 1943, and the convoy of eight merchant ships and eight destroyers sailed just before midnight on the 28th, planning to arrive at Lae on 3 March. Air cover was provided by about 100 fighters flying out of bases in New Ireland, New Britain and New Guinea.

The enemy convoy initially was favoured by poor weather, which hampered Allied reconnaissance. It was not until mid-morning on 2 March that USAAF B-24 Liberators sighted the ships. General Kenney immediately launched eight B-17 Flying Fortress heavy bombers, followed shortly afterwards by another 20. The B-17s attacked from an altitude of 2000 metres with 450-kilogram demolition bombs. Later in the day, another strike was made by 11 B-17s whose crews reported that vessels were ‘burning and exploding […] smoking and burning amidships’ and ‘left sinking’.

By nightfall, the enemy was only hours from Lae, which meant that in the morning it would be within range of the entire allied strike force. If the coordinated attack were to succeed, the precise location of the convoy had to be known at daybreak; consequently, throughout the night, it was tracked by an RAAF Catalina from No. 11 Squadron, which occasionally dropped bombs and flares to keep the Japanese soldiers in a state of anxiety. Also during the night, eight RAAF Beaufort torpedo bombers from No. 100 Squadron took-off from Milne Bay to try to use the darkness to their advantage. The heavy frontal weather made navigation hazardous, and only two aircraft found the convoy. Neither scored a hit.

The moment the Allied Air Forces had been waiting for came on the morning of 3 March 1943, when the Japanese convoy rounded the Huon Peninsula. For much of the time the adverse weather had helped the enemy avoid detection, but now clear conditions favoured the allies. Over 90 aircraft took-off from Port Moresby and set heading for their rendezvous point. While the strike force was en route, RAAF Bostons from No. 22 Squadron bombed the enemy airfield at Lae.

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By 9:30 a.m. the AAF formations had assembled, and by 10:00 a.m. the Battle of the Bismarck Sea had begun.

The allies attacked in three waves and from three levels, only seconds apart. First, 13 USAAF B-17s bombed from medium altitude. In addition to the obvious objective of sinking ships, those attacks were intended to disperse the convoy by forcing vessels to break station to avoid being hit.

Second, 13 RAAF Beaufighters from No. 30 Squadron hit the enemy from very low level, lining up on their targets as the bombs from the B-17s were exploding. With four cannons in its nose and six machine guns in its wings, the Beaufighter was the most heavily armed fighter in the world. The Australians’ job was twofold: to suppress anti-aircraft fire, and to kill ships’ captains and officers on their bridges.

The Beaufighters initially approached at 150 metres above the sea in line astern formation. The pilots then descended even lower, to mast-level height, set full power on their engines, changed into line abreast formation, and approached their targets at 420 kilometres an hour.

It seems that some of the Japanese captains thought the Beaufighters were going to make a torpedo attack because they altered course to meet the Australians head-on, to present a smaller profile. Instead, they made themselves better targets for strafing. With a slight alteration of heading the Beaufighters were now in an ideal position to rake the ships from bow to stern, which they did, subjecting the enemy to a withering storm of cannon and machine gun fire.

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 A Japanese transport on fire during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

According to the official RAAF release:

[e]nemy crews were slain beside their guns, deck cargo burst into flame, superstructures toppled and burned.

With the convoy now dispersed and in disarray, the third wave of attackers was able to concentrate on sinking ships. Thirteen American B-25 Mitchells made a medium level bombing strike while, simultaneously, a mast-level attack was made by 12 specially modified Mitchells, known as ‘commerce destroyers’ because of their heavy armament. The commerce destroyers were devastating, claiming seventeen direct hits. Close behind the Mitchells, USAAF Bostons added more firepower.

Following the coordinated onslaught, Beaufighters, Mitchells and Bostons intermingled as they swept back and forth over the convoy, strafing and bombing. Within minutes of the opening shots, the battle had turned into a rout. At the end of the action:

[s]hips were listing and sinking, their superstructure smashed and blazing, and great clouds of dense black smoke [rose] into a sky where aircraft circled and dived over the confusion they had wrought among what, less than an hour earlier, had been an impressively orderly convoy.

Overhead the surface battle, 28 USAAF P-38 Lightning fighters provided air defence for the strike force. In their combat with the Zeros which were attempting to protect the convoy, three of the Lightnings were shot down, but in turn, the American pilots claimed 20 kills. Apart from those three P-38s, the only other allied aircraft lost was a single B-17, shot down by a Zero.

With their armament expended the allied aircraft returned to Port Moresby. However, there was to be no respite for the enemy. Throughout the afternoon the attacks continued. Again, B-17s struck from medium level, this time in cooperation with Mitchells and RAAF Bostons flying at very low level. (Incidentally, the Bostons were led by Squadron Leader Charles Learmonth, after whom the RAAF’s present-day base in north-west Australia is named.) At least 20 direct hits were claimed against the by-now devastated convoy.

That was the last of the coordinated attacks. The victory had been won. For the loss of a handful of aircraft, the Allied Air Forces had sunk twelve ships – all eight of the troop transports and four of the eight destroyers – and had killed more than 3,000 enemy soldiers.

The brilliantly conceived and executed operation had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea and had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded. In the words of the supreme command of the Southwest Pacific Area, General Douglas MacArthur, the Battle of the Bismarck Sea was ‘the decisive aerial engagement’ of the war in the Southwest Pacific.

However, there was still a terrible yet essential finale to come. For several days after the battle, Allied aircrews patrolled the Huon Gulf, searching for and strafing barges and rafts crowded with survivors. It was grim and bloody work, but as one RAAF Beaufighter pilot said, every enemy soldier they prevented from getting ashore was one less for their Army colleagues to face. Moreover, after fifteen months of Japanese brutality, the great immorality, it seemed to them, would have been to have ignored the rights of their soldiers.

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A Japanese destroyer steaming astern while under attack by USAAF bombers during the Battle of the Bismarck Sea. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Japanese media never mentioned the battle, but in a macabre footnote, two weeks later, Tokyo announced that in future all Japanese soldiers were to be taught to swim.

The Battle of the Bismarck Sea was a master-class in air power. The RAAF and the USAAF had smashed Japanese hopes of regaining the initiative in New Guinea; they had forced the enemy into a defensive posture from which ultimate victory was unlikely, and they had eliminated any possibility that Australia might be invaded.

This was arguably Australia’s most important victory in World War II.

This post first appeared at The Central Blue, the blog of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation.

Header Image: During the Battle of the Bismarck Sea in which the Japanese suffered heavy losses while attempting to reinforce their garrison at Lae, a RAAF Beaufighter attacks a camouflaged Japanese transport. A burst is poured into the burning vessel. (Source: Australian War Memorial)