The Kh-101 and Syria: Maturing the Long-Range Precision-Strike Capabilities of Russia’s Aerospace Forces

The Kh-101 and Syria: Maturing the Long-Range Precision-Strike Capabilities of Russia’s Aerospace Forces

By Guy Plopsky

On September 26, 2017, modernised Tupolev Tu-95MS bombers of the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) Long-Range Aviation Command executed another strike with Kh-101 air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs) against targets in Syria. According to Russia’s Defense Ministry, the missiles targeted ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra ‘command posts, hardware and manpower concentration areas as well as ammunition depot.’[1] As with previous Russian ALCM strikes during the conflict, the heavily publicised September 2017 strike was intended to serve yet another reminder to the United States and NATO (as well as to other potential adversaries) of the Russian Aerospace Forces’ growing long-range precision-strike capabilities.

 A line up of Tupolev Tu-95MS’ at Engels Air Base c. 2005 (Source: Wikimedia)

Designed by MKB Raduga, the Kh-101 is an advanced conventionally-armed cruise missile with low observable characteristics. The missile has a reported operational range of 4,500km (2,800 miles),[2] and features a guidance package that includes an inertial navigation system (INS), a terrain contour matching (TERCOM) system, a digital scene-matching area correlation (DSMAC) system, and a GPS/GLONASS receiver.[3] Compared with the older, conventionally-armed Kh-555 ALCM, the Kh-101 features significantly improved accuracy and a larger payload, making it suitable for use against hardened targets.[4] Drone footage of Kh-101 strikes from Syria, including the September 2017 strike, appears to attest to the missile’s high-accuracy (though the impact of only several missiles is shown).[5]

Russian bombers first utilised Kh-101s in combat on 17 November 2015, when Tu-160 bombers delivered the new cruise missiles against targets in Syria.[6] The strike, which also included Tu-95MS bombers armed with older Kh-555 ALCMs, marked the combat debut of both the Kh-555 and Kh-101 as well as the Tu-160 and Tu-95MS. Exactly one year later, on November 17, 2016, modernised Tu-95MS bombers executed their first strike with Kh-101 cruise missiles.[7] Before the integration of the Kh-555 and Kh-101 on the Tu-95MS and the Tu-160, and their subsequent employment in Syria, the two bombers were utilised solely for the nuclear deterrence role and did not participate in conventional conflicts.

The only Russian bomber currently in service with the Long-Range Aviation Command to have seen combat before Syria is the Tu-22M3, which flew sorties in the Soviet-Afghan War, the First Chechen War and, more recently, the 2008 Five Day War with Georgia. In all three conflicts, the Tu-22M3 was used exclusively for delivering unguided (or ‘dumb’) bombs – a mission which it continues to fulfil in Syria.[8] Given that bombers delivering unguided munitions are likely to find themselves within range of enemy fighter aircraft and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), such an approach is only viable for low-intensity conflicts in which the adversary lacks credible air defences. Even then, multiple sorties against a single target may be required, and excessive collateral damage may be caused due to the poor accuracy of unguided bombs. Russia witnessed the difficulty of operating its bombers in a contested airspace first hand in August 2008, when one of its Tu-22M3s was shot down by a Georgian SAM during a strike sortie against a Georgian military base.[9]

The introduction of the Kh-555 and Kh-101, therefore, represents a crucial new capability for Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Command, one which allows it to partially compensate for the lack of a long-range very low observable platform. Unlike the USAF, which operates the B-2A stealth bomber, the VKS does not currently field a long-range very low observable platform capable of penetrating modern integrated air defence systems (IADS) and won’t be fielding one until at least the end of the next decade.[10] Hence, to avoid being targeted by adversary fighter aircraft and ground-based air defences in the event of a conflict, Russian bombers will need to launch long-range conventionally-armed ALCMs from stand-off ranges. This is particularly true for the cumbersome turboprop-powered Tu-95MS – the backbone of Russia’s Long-Range Aviation Command, – which, unlike the Tu-160 and Tu-22M3, is not capable of operating at supersonic speeds.

 A Tupolev Tu-160 launching an Kh-101 against a target in Syria, c. 20 November 2015 (Source: Wikimedia)

In this regard, the integration of the Kh-101 on the Tu-95MS dramatically expands the legacy bomber’s conventional strike capability, which until recently, was limited to dropping unguided bombs, transforming it into a formidable long-range precision-strike platform capable of accurately engaging hardened targets in heavily defended areas. At present, Russia is also outfitting its Tu-95MS bombers with SVP systems (developed by ZAO Gefest i T), which will enable Russian bomber crews to retarget their missiles before launch.[11] This will further enhance mission flexibility, allowing modernised Tu-95MS bombers to strike not only fixed but also relocatable targets. The ability of the Kh-101 to cover very large distances also reduces the Tu-95MS (and Tu-160’s) need to rely on in-flight refuelling for long distance missions. This, as several analysts have noted, makes the Kh-101 a particularly valuable asset given Russia’s relatively small fleet of aerial-refuelling tankers and limited overseas basing options.[12] A modernised Tu-95MS can carry up to eight Kh-101 ALCMs on four externally-mounted two-station pylons, while a Tu-160 can carry up to 12 such missiles on two internally-mounted six-station rotary launchers.

Considering that neither ISIS, nor the other factions with whom Russia is presently engaged in active combat with field capable air defenses, the Long-Range Aviation Command’s use of modernized Tu-95MS and Tu-160 bombers with Kh-101 ALCMs in Syria stems from Moscow’s desire to test both the reliability of its new air-launched weapon and its carrier platforms as well as the proficiency of Russian bomber crews under real combat conditions. As with the occasional use of conventionally-armed Kalibr sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) in the Syrian conflict, the employment of Kh-101s is likewise intended to convey a strong signal to Russia’s potential adversaries and reflects Moscow’s desire to place greater emphasis on conventional deterrence. The need to expand precision-strike capabilities and increase reliance on conventional weapons for deterrence has been highlighted in Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine and has been voiced by Russian military officials.[13] As Russian Defense Minister, Sergei Shoigu, noted in February 2017, though:

[t]he development of strategic nuclear forces remains an absolute priority for us […] the role of nuclear weapons in deterring a potential aggressor will decrease first of all due to development of high-precision weapons.’[14]

For the United States and NATO, Russia’s growing emphasis on conventional long-range precision-strike weapons such as the Kh-101 represents an increasingly pressing need to bolster missile defences.

Header Image: A Russian Tupolev Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ in flight over Russia. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] For a description, see: Russian Ministry of Defense, ‘Нанесение авиаударов Ту-95МС крылатыми ракетами Х-101 по объектам ИГИЛ в Сирии [Tu-95MS Airstrikes with Kh-101 Cruise Missiles Against ISIS Objects in Syria],’ YouTube video, 3:01. Posted September 2017.

[2] ‘Министр обороны России генерал армии Сергей Шойгу провел военно-техническую конференцию [Russian Defense Minister Army General Sergei Shoigu held a Military-technical Conference],’ Russian Ministry of Defense, October 6, 2016

[3] Piotr Butowski, ‘All missiles great and small: Russia seeks out every niche,’ Jane’s International Defense Review, October 2014, pp. 48-9.

[4] Anton Lavrov, ‘Russia’s GLONASS Satellite Constellation,’ Moscow Defense Brief, 60:4 (2017).

[5] For example, see the video footage from September 2017 strike in fn1.

[6] David Cenciotti, ‘Russian MoD Video Shows Tu-160, Tu-95 and Tu-22 Bombers (with Su-27 Escort) Bomb ISIS in Syria,’ The Aviationist, November 17, 2015.

[7] ‘РФ впервые применила в Сирии новые ракетоносцы Ту-95МСМ с крылатыми ракетами Х-101 [Russian Federation Employed new Tu-95MSM Missile Carrier with Kh-101 Missiles in Syria for the First Time],’ TASS, November 17, 2016.

[8] For example, see: Russian Ministry of Defense, ‘Боевой вылет дальних бомбардировщиков Ту-22М3 с территории РФ по объектам террористов в Сирии [Combat Sortie of Long-range Tu-22M3 Bombers from the Territory of the Russian Federation Against Terrorist Targets in Syria],’ YouTube video, 2:10. Posted January 25, 2016.

[9] Anton Lavrov, ‘Russian Air Losses in the Five-Day War Against Georgia,’ in Ruslan Pskov (ed.), The Tanks of August (Moscow: Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, 2010), p. 100.

[10] ‘PAK DA: Russian Defense Ministry Reveals When New Bomber Will Fly,’ Sputnik, April 27, 2017.

[11] Dave Majumdar, ‘One of Russia’s Most Deadly Bombers Now Has a Scary New Capability,’ The National Interest, July 5, 2017.

[12] For example, see: James Bosbotinis, ‘Russian Long-Range Aviation and Conventional Strategic Strike,’ Defense IQ, March 5, 2015.

[13] For an English translation of Russia’s 2014 Military Doctrine see

[14] ‘Russian Shield: Nukes Priority, but High-Precision Weapons to Play Greater Role,’ Sputnik, February 21, 2017.

Unseating the Lancer: North Korean Challenges in Intercepting a B-1B

Unseating the Lancer: North Korean Challenges in Intercepting a B-1B

By Andy Zhao and Justin Pyke


When North Korea threatened to shoot down a B-1B Lancer in response to a September 23rd flight operating off its east coast, a reasonable amount of discussion centred around if the North Koreans have the capability to carry out their threat.[1] This article outlines some of the challenges faced by North Korea if it attempts to shoot down a B-1B operating off the coast in international airspace. Any scenario where United States (US) or South Korean aircraft attempt to penetrate the airspace of North Korea is outside the scope of this discussion.

North Korean Equipment

An East German SA-2 ‘Guideline’ similar to that currently operated by the KPAF. (Source: Wikimedia)

North Korea’s primary air defence is provided by the Korean People’s Army Air Force (KPAF). It operates a wide assortment of Soviet/Russian and Chinese equipment, consisting of everything from Chinese J-5s (a MiG-17 ‘Fresco’ derived aircraft) to the Russian MiG-29 9.13s ‘Fulcrum.’ Due to the secretive nature of the KPAF, it is hard to determine the true readiness of these aircraft in inventory. Many KPAF aircraft originate from the 1960s and are likely reaching their maximum airframe flight hours and/or are suffering from a lack of spare parts as indicated by the decreasing numbers of operational aircraft visible on airfields. This appears to be a major concern of the KPAF as in 2013 they attempted to import equipment and spare parts from Cuba. Numerous other problems plague the KPAF, from poor pilot training to the possibility of a largely expired inventory of air-to-air (A2A) missiles (i.e. R-60MKs (AA-8 ‘Aphid’) and R-27Rs (AA-10 ‘Alamo’) were received in 1987).

The KPAF also operates larger ground-based air defence platforms, such as:

North Korea also possesses a formidable array of short-range air defence systems. These are not relevant to the discussion as their range is too limited to pose a threat to a B-1B operating in international airspace.

Understanding the Kill Chain[4]

The process required to intercept an aircraft can be broken down into various steps:

  1. Detect and identify the target;
  2. Acquire the target with fire control;
  3. Identify range and the target direction/angles, paint/illuminate (literally lit up with radar waves) the target for the missile;
  4. Launch the missile;
  5. Guide the missile onto the target;
  6. The missile detonates/impacts near the target;
  7. Observe the target, repeat chain if necessary.

For the target to be intercepted, every aspect of the chain must be followed and must be successful. It is a delicate process, and if any step is interrupted, the target is unlikely to be successfully engaged. The kill chain will be similar regardless of the method used to conduct the interception.

Intercepting the B-1B using S-200 Angara (SA-5 ‘Gammon’) for Interception

S-200 Battery
North Korean S-200 Battery (Onggodok) located on the East Coast [39°19’03” N , 127°20’04” E] – Dated May 25, 2015

We will now take a closer look at the possible engagement of a B-1B by an S-200 surface-to-air missile (SAM) battery. This was the only SAM system likely to be in range of the B-1B flight on September 23rd, though even that is in doubt. For the sake of argument, we will assume a B-1B and its fighter escort stray into this outer layer of North Korea’s air defence. Firing an S-200 would be North Korea’s best shot at a successful engagement against a B-1B, as fighter interception would take more time and have to contend with a US and/or South Korean fighter escort of vastly superior quality. An S-200 SAM battery consists of several components:

An S-200 SAM battery consists of several components:

  • 5N62 (‘Square Pair’) Engagement Radar;
  • SM-106 5P73 Launchers;
  • V-601P 5V28 (S-200) Surface-to-Air Missile.

However, this is not an exhaustive list as the S-200 can also draw on higher assets, such as early warning/intercept radars (ex. P-14 ‘Tall King’ or ST-68 ‘Tin Shield’), or share information along with an integrated air defence network. It must be noted that the S-200 was developed in the 1950s through 1960s with the intention of engaging high-altitude bombers like the B-52 Stratofortress. The heavy missile is not ideal for engaging smaller and more manoeuvrable targets, particularly near its maximum range. The S-200 battery requires a constant feed of range and azimuth data to guide the missile onto the target and uses the 5N62 Engagement Radar to accomplish this task. Once the B-1B has been painted, the SAM battery can attempt to engage it.[5]

US aircraft are equipped with radar warning receivers (RWR), such as the ALQ-161A on the B-1B, that can detect radar emissions and alert the pilot. The pilot can then perform various actions (‘defending’) to attempt to break the lock. The most obvious of these is taking evasive action, but countermeasures such as chaff (small pieces of plastic and fibre with a conductive coating), jamming (providing false signals at the specific frequency used by the radar), and towed decoys (mimics the appearance of the parent aircraft) can also be employed.

Additionally, the S-200 has a poor record of target interceptions. On March 24th, 1986, Libya fired at least four S-200 missiles against two F-14 Tomcats when they were 40km off the Libyan coast. All of them missed their targets, and the engagement radar was destroyed by an AGM-88A High-Speed Anti-Radiation Missile, rendering the S-200 battery inoperable. In March 2017, Israeli aircraft launched airstrikes in Syria and were targeted by an S-200 battery, escaping unscathed.[6] In fact, the authors were unable to find a single example of a successful S-200 interception in a combat environment. In summary, the chance of an S-200 successfully downing a B-1B or its fighter escort is very low. The system was simply never designed to engage these types of aircraft effectively.

On September 23rd, the kill chain did not proceed past the first stage. According to Yonhap, the South Korean National Intelligence Service claimed that ‘North Korea did not take any immediate action in response to US’s strategic bombers’ flight.’ A member of the US intelligence community (IC) reached out to the authors and stated that the North Koreans picked up the flight on their early warning radars, but not engagement radars and that seemingly no alerts were sent to any airfields or SAM batteries. The source was unsure of the reason why the North Koreans did not send out alerts, and suggested possibilities varying from confusion/incompetence to a willful decision not to notify air defence assets. Ultimately, the North Koreans were either unable to acquire the B-1B flight with their engagement radars, or decided not to escalate the situation further by doing so.

As an aside, it is worth noting that the eastern S-200 battery’s (Onggodok) engagement radar was no longer present on the newest Google Earth imagery (October 19th, 2015), and was still missing as of May 5th, 2017. The US IC source stated it was likely just routine relocation training, and that there is another S-200 battery located on the east coast. Unfortunately, the authors could not confirm if the new site has the engagement radar, or if the battery was even operational during the September 23rd flight.

Intercepting the B1B using MiG-29 9.13s ‘Fulcrum’ for Interception

KPAF Mig-29
 A KPAF MiG-29 unit being visited by Kim Jong-Un. (Source: Unknown)

The same Yonhap article notes that North Korea has moved additional aircraft to the coast, and CNN claims that they are MiG-29s. A ‘best case’ example of MiG-29 9.13s equipped with R-60MKs and R-27Rs will be used as this is the most capable A2A combat system in the KPAF inventory. North Korea only has around six of these MiG-29 models.[7] If the MiG-29s are fully combat loaded, they only have a 180km combat radius. This can be extended to ~276km with the use of a drop tank. Additional drop tanks can be fitted, but the MiG-29 9.13s would have to forgo the R-27R medium-range A2A missiles that would be critical to a successful interception.[8] Given the locations of North Korean airfields in the eastern part of the country, the MiG-29s would have only slightly more reach than the S-200 battery at best, and would just have one brief shot at the interception before needing to return to base. Additionally, the intercepting MiG-29s would likely not have time to engage with the US and/or South Korean fighter escort. For the sake of argument, the assumption will again be made that a B-1B flight comes within range of fighter interception.

Using aircraft to intercept the B-1B would follow the same general kill chain as mentioned for the S-200. First, the B-1B would need to be detected. This could be done with early warning radar before scrambling the MiG-29s to intercept. KPAF fighters could also be assigned to patrol the airspace around-the-clock, with ground radar assisting the aircraft in attempting to detect the B-1B. The latter is an unlikely option given the limited range of the MiG-29 and is demanding on the aircraft as well as the pilots. There may also be a significant delay between detection of the B-1B and the scrambling of aircraft. The MiG-29s would likely be detected by US or South Korean early warning assets in the region, which would communicate an advanced warning to the B-1B. It could use this time to leave the area, putting an end to the interception. However, if the B-1B is identified and does not leave the area, the MiG-29s still need to acquire it visually to engage with infrared missiles (R-60MKs) or on the radar to engage with radar-guided missiles (R-27Rs). Once again, countermeasures could be deployed, and evasive manoeuvres could be taken to defeat the missiles.

US Marine Corps F-35B Lightning II stealth fighters assigned to the Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, fly alongside 2 US Air Force B-1B Lancers assigned to the 37th Expeditionary Bomb Squadron, deployed from Ellsworth Air Force Base, South Dakota, over waters near Kyushu, Japan, Aug. 30, 2017, and 2 Koku Jieitai (Japan Air Self-Defense Force) F-15J fighters. Source: US Pacific Command)

If fighters are escorting the B-1B, as was the case on September 23rd, they could intercept the MiG-29s. This would put the escorting fighters at risk. However, it must be made clear that even if the interception were conducted by the best KPAF fighters available (MiG-29 9.13s) using the best KPAF A2A missiles available (R-60MKs and R-27Rs), they would still be at a large disadvantage against US and South Korean aircraft. The countermeasures and missiles are both inferior at the least. For example, the R-27R relies on semi-active guidance, meaning the parent aircraft must keep its nose pointed at the target and maintain a lock with the onboard radar until impact.[9] By contrast, the AIM-120 AMRAAM used by US and South Korean fighters can be fired at an extended range, and course corrected using data from the parent aircraft without the need to keep the MiG-29 painted with radar. The pilot of the MiG-29 would not be alerted by their RWR that a missile was inbound until the AIM-120 reaches its terminal phase, providing little warning of its approach. This gives the US, or South Korean pilots added tactical flexibility over their North Korean counterparts. Any lesser aircraft in the KPAF inventory, such as MiG-23MLs ‘Flogger,’ would be even further disadvantaged.


The possibility of a successful interception of a B-1B operating in international airspace off the coast of North Korea cannot be disregarded entirely. However, the limited reach of North Korea’s air defence, the advanced age and limited capabilities of the systems theoretically in range, and the array of defensive options available to the air forces of the US and South Korea would pose a nearly insurmountable challenge. The high chance of failure (and by extension embarrassment), the possibility of instigating a regime-ending war, and negligible benefits of successfully downing a B-1B leads to the conclusion that North Korea is unlikely to carry out this threat. This is particularly true when North Korea has much more reliable and effective means of provocation, such as continued ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

Header Image: A B-1 Lancer performing a fly-by during a firepower demonstration, c. 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Special thanks to Samuel Stadem, air power enthusiast and current chemistry graduate student at the University of Minnesota Duluth, for providing assistance with the finer points of modern military aviation.

[2] Tony Cullen and Christopher Foss (ed.), Jane’s Land-based Air Defence, 5th ed. (Surrey: Jane’s Information Group, 1992), pp. 261-62, 264.

[3] Richard D. Fisher Jr., ‘North Korean KN-06 Test Confirms Similarity to Chinese and Russian Fourth-Generation SAMs,’ IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 53:22 (2016).

[4] Robert H.M. Macfadzean, Surface-Based Air Defense System Analysis (Norwood: Artech House, 1992), pp. 39-63.

[5] Cullen and Foss, Jane’s Land-based Air Defence, pp. 263-64.

[6] The Syrians claimed that they shot down one aircraft and damaged another. However, no evidence has been presented and the burden of proof lies with Syria.

[7] Yefim Gordon and Dmitriy Komissarov, Soviet and Russian Military Aircraft in Asia (Manchester: Hikoki Publications, 2014), pp. 265-89.

[8] Yefim Gordon, Mikoyan MiG-29, trans. Dmitriy Komissarov (Hinckley: Midland Publishing, 2006), pp. 341, 377. The drop tank combat radius was extrapolated from the given range and combat radius values. The internal fuel capacity gives a 900km range and 180km combat radius, providing a ratio of 5. The given range on one drop tank is 1,380km. Dividing this by 5 results in a 276km combat radius.

[9] Gordon, Mikoyan MiG-29, pp. 364-65, 487-88.

Air War Books – Dr Michael Molkentin

Air War Books – Dr Michael Molkentin

By Dr Michael Molkentin

Editorial Note: In the third instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ Dr Michael Molkentin discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian. If you are interested in contributing to this series or From Balloons to Drones more generally, find out how here.

After I wrote to Dr Ross Mahoney enthusiastically agreeing with several of his choices (always a bad idea!) and suggesting a few others, he promptly invited me to contribute my own ‘Top 10’. I had been saying I would write something for Balloons to Drones for a while and so now he had me cornered. What follows is a list of titles that have had a significant impact on the way I research and write aviation and air power history. As these titles clearly indicate, my area of interest primarily concerns the pre-Second World War period (military and civil) and the people and ideas, rather than the technology, of aviation. 

Denis Winter, The First of the Few: Fighter Pilots of the First World War (London: Allen Lane, 1982). Denis, unfortunately, went on to write a scandalously bad book on Haig that damaged his reputation as a historian. But before that, he produced a couple of genuinely very good ‘face of battle’ type histories of British servicemen in the Great War (the other being Death’s Men). I found The First of the Few in my high school library and later used it as a model for writing my honours thesis on Australian airmen in the Great War. It is a bit dated, relies almost entirely on published accounts and some of Winter’s statistics do not stand up to scrutiny. But it is what got me interested in the subject and stands as the best personal experience study of British airmen in the Great War. I had the pleasure of meeting Denis in Canberra in 2004. He was a kind and gracious man and, when I showed him my work, he encouraged me to keep writing.

Richard P. Hallion, Taking Flight: Inventing the Aerial Age, from Antiquity Through the First World War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). I might have included any of Richard’s numerous books on air power (Strike from the Sky, his history of ground attack is a close second) but this has probably been most useful and influential in my work. It is a model of highly readable, yet meticulously researched history. It is international in scope and provides some valuable analysis of the complex ways in which aviation emerged as a practical reality, in various parts of the world, before 1914.

S.F. Wise, The Official History of the Royal Canadian Air Force, Volume 1: Canadian Airmen and the First World War (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980). Wise’s first volume of the Royal Canadian Air Force’s official history is, in my view, the best single volume history of British air power in the Great War. The ubiquity of Canadians in the British flying services (over 20,000 served) means that Wise needed to cover all aspects of air power in the conflict – maritime aviation, strategic bombing and home defence, army cooperation and even some brief surveys of the RFC/RAF in secondary theatres. While some of his conclusions about the conduct of the war on the Western Front have dated, in the main his conclusions stand and are thoroughly grounded in archival sources. My PhD thesis and the book that followed it used Wise’s book as a model to examine Australia’s part in the air war from political, strategic, operational and tactical perspectives.

E.R. Hooton, War over the Trenches: Air Power and the Western Front Campaigns 1916-1918 (Hersham: Midland Publishing, 2010). I have mixed feelings about his book. On the one hand, it makes a significant contribution to our understanding of air power on the Western Front by conducting a multi-force (French, German and British) analysis at the operational level- something nobody had previously attempted. Whereas previous studies of the subject have focused on the tactical level, Hooton uses a mass of statistical data (sorties flown, ordnance expended, losses, serviceability, etc.) to provide a much broader picture of how air power influenced the conflict and how its use evolved between 1916 and 1918. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written and (in the first edition at least) so badly type set that some of the data tables are almost unreadable. It is such an important contribution to the field: I only hope the publisher has the good sense to reissue a revised edition or that an aspiring PhD candidate will take his approach further.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). I am going to go with Ross here and say that, among the many air power surveys out there, this one is the best. It is clear, concise and, essentially for a book like this, gets the balance right between ideas and details. Giving his narrative cohesion is a compelling, convincing and delightfully ironic thesis: that total war first enabled air power but then, following the onset of the nuclear age, limited its functions.

Philip S. Meilinger, The Paths of Heaven: The Evolution of Airpower Theory (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 1977). Besides Buckley, the other book I recommend students starting out in the field is Meilinger’s survey of air power thinking. It is a straightforward, textbook approach devoting a chapter to each of the twentieth century’s most influential air power theorists. It is not exactly a page turner but is absolutely essential reading for students of air power and a useful reference work to have within arm’s reach when writing.

Malcolm Cooper, The Birth of Independent Air Power: British Air Policy in the First World War (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986). Malcolm was one of the first scholars to use the Air Ministry’s declassified files after their transfer to the British National Archives (then the PRO) during his PhD candidature during the 1970s. Whereas accounts of British air power’s early days had, until then, been overwhelmingly focused at the tactical level (individual pilots, squadrons, Biggles, etc.), The Birth of Independent Air Power focuses on the topic at the political and policy-making levels. I do not agree with Malcolm’s conclusion that the Army’s use of air power was wasteful and unimaginative (neither does James Pugh in his excellent new book which provides a good update on aspects of Cooper) but much of what he says was vital in adding political context to the operational history of British air power from 1914 to 1918.

Alfred Gollin, The Impact of Air Power on the British People and their Government (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1989). I would give this to students not even interested in air power as a somewhat rare example of an academic historian writing in a clear, engaging style. Honestly, it reads like a novel but still manages to seamlessly incorporate excellent analysis. Gollin was an enormously talented historian and a shining example to those of us who actually want our work to have a readership beyond the academy and services.

John A. Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2003). Lynn does not really deal with aviation or air power explicitly, but his approach to explaining warfare through the prism of culture is both novel and enlightening. In case study chapters ranging from Ancient Greek warfare to modern Islamic terrorism, Lynn demonstrates convincingly that we cannot properly understand military operations without considering the cultures that conceive and wage them.

Ian Mackersey, Smithy: The Life of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith (London: Little Brown, 1998). This is not only the best of the many biographies of Kingsford Smith; it is the best example of historical biography I have come across. Through impressively dogged detective work, Mackersey managed to track down a number of people who had known Kingsford Smith before his death six decades earlier. From them, he got oral history and private papers that shed light on hitherto unknown or mythologised aspects of his subject’s life. Ian wrote a page turner too: it is engaging, absorbing history. Ian, who sadly died a couple of years ago, was also a gentleman. When I was writing my book on the 1928 trans-Pacific flight, he generously shared manuscript material he had gathered from private collections in the US when researching his book.

Header Image: An RE8 of No 69 (later No 3) Squadron, Australian Flying Corps preparing to set out on a night bombing operation from Savy near Arras, 22 October 1917. (Source: © IWM (E(AUS) 1178))

Book Review – Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace

Book Review – Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace

By Dr Ross Mahoney

A. Walter Dorn (ed.), Air Power in UN Operations: Wings for Peace. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014. Figures. Tables. Notes. Index. Pbk. £28. pp. xxxv + 350.


The use of air power as a tool by state actors is a regular theme examined by historians and policy specialists alike. However, the use of air power by non-state actors, in particular, intergovernmental organisations, is a different matter, though depending on one’s perspective, the United Nations (UN) – the subject of this volume – can be viewed as either a state or non-state actor. In this volume, A. Walter Dorn, Professor of Defence Studies at the Royal Military College of Canada, has brought together an impressive line-up of scholars and practitioners to consider how the UN has used both kinetic and non-kinetic air power as a tool for peacekeeping operations. Indeed, the narrative of UN peacekeeping operations generates images of soldiers in blue helmets on the ground. However, as this book ably demonstrates, air power has been a vital element of UN operations since the creation of its first ‘Air Force’ in 1960.

First Phase Digital
A partial view of Luluabourg airport, showing some of the Swedish Saab J-29 jet planes which were placed at the disposition of the UN Force in the Congo (ONUC), c. 1961. Called ‘flying barrels’, the jets were manned by members of the Swedish Air Force, numbering some 40 pilots and maintenance officers.(Source: United Nations)

The book examines the use of air power by the UN since 1960 through to Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR – the air operations over Libya by NATO in 2011, which enforced UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. The book consists of 17 chapters split over six thematic areas: The UN’s First ‘Air Force’; Airlift; Aerial Surveillance; No-Fly Zones; Combat and evolving capabilities. The latter aspect looks at some of the challenges for the UN in the future. Indeed, by splitting the analysis into the themes mentioned above, Dorn et al. illustrate that UN air operations cover the broad spectrum of roles readily identifiable in modern air power doctrine: control of the air; attack; situational awareness and air mobility. It also ably illustrates the challenges and potential contradictions of ‘Ends’, ‘Ways’ and ‘Means’ in UN strategy and peacekeeping operations. As Dorn notes in his preface, ‘While peacekeeping is meant to de-escalate violence, it is sometimes necessary to use force to stop force.’ (p. xxvi). As such, to meet the ends desired by the UN – the cessation of violence between, states, groups or organisations – it is often necessary to utilise air power’s various capabilities to moderate and influence the behaviour of the parties involved. Therefore, air power offers a toolkit to try to support the enforcement of UN Resolutions. Indeed, as Robert C. Owen’s chapter on Operation DELIBERATE FORCE in 1995 (pp. 231-40) and Christian Anrig’s piece of Libya in 2011 (pp. 255-82) illustrate air power can be a useful tool in shaping behaviour. DELIBERATE FORCE ensured that the Bosnian Serbs complied with UN Resolutions and put the UN in a position to shape the Dayton Accords (p. 236). However, this, in itself, was only possible due to the technological changes, such as the emergence of Precision Guided Munitions, which allowed the multinational air forces involved in DELIBERATE FORCE to conduct a humanitarian war. Had the air forces involved been equipped with ‘dumb’ weapons then the diplomatic fallout from collateral damage would have, potentially, hindered the ends sought by the UN. Similarly, in 2011, air power offered the UN the means to apply military force to level ‘the playing field’ (p. 280) in defence of civilians during the Libyan Civil War. Furthermore, unlike in DELIBERATE FORCE, air power – as the means of applying military force – was the essential tool for both the UN and NATO because UN Security Council Resolution 1973 forbade the use of occupying forces in Libya. However, it should also be remembered that air power was not used in isolation and that it worked with naval forces and special operations teams to achieve the ends desired by the UN.

Importantly, this volume does not avoid discussing some of the challenges inherent in the application of air power by the UN. As with any forces it deploys, the UN is reliant on the support of its member nations to provide the ways and means to achieve its ends. At the time of publication (2014), the UN deployed around 200 to 300 aircraft to provide air support for peacekeeping missions (p. 283). Not only is relying on member states to willingly supply forces a risky strategy – but states tend only to support those missions viewed to be in its own interest – it is also costly as the UN pays for the use of lease of both military and civilian aviation assets to achieve its ends. Some of these challenges are considered in the final section of the book on ‘Evolving Capabilities’ (pp. 283-316).

drone in Bunia.jpeg
A United Nations unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) at Bunia airport in the Democratic Republic of Congo. UAVs are used for surveillance purposes by the United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. (Source: United Nations)

This fascinating book highlights the many challenges concerning the application of air power in the context of peacekeeping operations. It considers both some of the practical challenges of deploying air power into the theatre to the many diplomatic considerations that affect the use of air power as a policy tool for the UN. Clearly, air power is not always the answer; however, as part of a toolbox of political, diplomatic, economic and military means, air power can provide the ways to achieve the ends sought by the UN if applied correctly. Finally, it is worth reflecting that many of the lessons found in this book should not be considered as unique to the UN, but can also be applied to peace support operations undertaken by individual sovereign nations. Indeed, David Neil’s chapter of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (pp. 147-64) highlights some of the regulatory challenges concerning their use, which are just as important to national air forces as they are for the UN.

This post first appeared at Thoughts on Military History.

Header Image: A Mil Mi-8 helicopter of the United Nations Mission in South Sudan in Juba, c. 2013. (Source: United Nations)

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

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)

Air War Books – Dr Ross Mahoney

Air War Books – Dr Ross Mahoney

By Dr Ross Mahoney

Editorial Note: In the second instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ the editor of From Balloons to Drones, Dr Ross Mahoney discusses the ten books that have influenced and shaped his writing as an air power historian.

As editor of From Balloons to Drones, I thought I should reflect on what are probably the ten key books that have influenced me in my study of air power. However, I make three provisos. First, I attacked this from the perspective of key authors rather than the books themselves per se. As such, I have selected titles that I have enjoyed to illustrate the importance of these writers. Second, I have left out official histories and narratives though these have been just as influential on my writing as other works. Finally, I have included some non-air power texts in here. At the end of the day, I am a historian and an interdisciplinary one at that, and it is only natural that non-air power specific books have influenced how I approach what and how I write.

John Buckley, Air Power in the Age of Total War (London: UCL Press, 1999). Ok, this, and Peter Gray’s book below has as much to do with these individuals real influence on me as well as the importance of their books. John was my undergraduate tutor many years ago, and his influence was to start me on the track to where I am today. However, added to that, Air Power in the Age of Total War is an excellent examination of the rise of air power in the first half of the twentieth century and vital reading for anyone wanting an introduction to the subject.

Peter Gray, The Leadership, Direction and Legitimacy of the RAF Bomber Offensive from Inception to 1945 (London: Continuum, 2012). Peter’s influence was as my PhD supervisor, and I will forever be grateful for his guidance. In my opinion, Peter is currently the leading air power specialist in the UK and one of the foremost experts in the world. That expertise is clearly evident in this book. The strategic air offensive against Germany is well-trodden ground, but Peter found a fresh way to assess its conduct. It is required reading not just for people wanting to understand the bombing offensive during the Second World War but also issues such as the challenge of senior leadership and matters such as legitimacy and international law.

Tony Mason, History of the Royal Air Force Staff College, 1922-1972 (Bracknell, RAF Staff College, 1972). I could have chosen any of Mason’s work, but this one has specific resonance for my research. This was written before Mason became the RAF’s first Director of Defence Studies (DDefS) in 1977 and is not widely available as the RAF Staff College published it. Nevertheless, Mason was not wide of the mark with many of his comments about the Staff College, though it does need to be brought up to date.

Allan English, Understanding Military Culture: A Canadian Perspective (Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004). English, a retired RCAF officer, is a noted historian of air power and has written an influential article on the RAF Staff College in the inter-war years. However, for me, his most important work is his study of Canadian military culture. As someone who specialises in the culture of air forces, this work is an essential primer on the subject of culture and its influence on the Canadian military.

John Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1936). I think everyone needs to have a contemporary air power thinker on his or hers list and Slessor certainly fits that bill. He is, perhaps, the closest the RAF came to having their own Clausewitz, though I remain to be convinced that the Service wanted a singular air power thinker. Rather I think the RAF collegiately developed officers with a broad view of air power, but that is another discussion. The importance of Air Power and Armies is that it really should put to rest the argument that the RAF was solely focused on strategic bombing. Yes, Slessor used a strategic conception of air power to inform his work, but he sought to understand how military aviation could influence the land battle. An important piece of work and the recent 2009 edition by the University of Alabama Press contains an introduction by Philip Meilinger.

Arthur Gould Lee, No Parachute (London: Jarrolds, 1968). Everyone needs a memoir in his or hers top ten, and there are a number of good works by air force personnel. Most are written by pilots, which says much about the culture of air forces as much as anything else. Lee wrote several books dealing with various aspects of his service life and each could find their way into this list. No Parachute is particularly useful for its appendices though the one on parachutes does need to be revised.

John Andreas Olsen, John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power (Dulles, VA: Potomac Books, 2007). As Brian Laslie mentioned in the first instalment of ‘Air War Books,’ I think we do need to include a work by Olsen. He is one of the key writers on air power currently, particularly about modern conflicts. His biography of Warden is fascinating and gives an excellent insight into this complex character. Perhaps what is more impressive, is that this was written while Warden is alive, which is never an easy task.

David French, Military Identities: The Regimental System, the British Army, and the British People c.1870-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). French is one Britain’s leading military historians, and I wonder how he would do if he turned his interests towards the RAF. However, for me, his analysis of the British Army’s regimental system is fascinating and one of those works that all should read to develop an understanding of how military organisations operate. There is much to take away from this study, and for me, it has raised significant questions about issues such as identity with regards to squadrons in air forces.

Richard Overy, The Air War, 1939-1945 (London: Europa Publications, 1980). Overy remains not only one of the leading air power historians in the UK but also globally. The Air War continues to be one of the most influential titles concerning the role of air power during the Second World War. I could have quite easily has listed The Bombing War here, which is Overy’s most recent air power work. However, The Air War continues to be important, and while Overy’s views have developed over the years – like those of all historians – this work was written when air power history was a ‘Cinderella’ discipline. Thankfully, this is no longer the case, and the new edition of The Air War is useful for Overy’s overview of the field of air power history up to 2003.

John James, The Paladins: The Story of the RAF up to the Outbreak of World War II (London: Macdonald and Company, 1990). Given my focus on the culture and ethos of air forces, this was again, one of those works that I could not ignore reading as it is one of the few social histories of the RAF before the Second World War. James worked in operational research sections in various RAF Commands and brought that experience to the writing of the book. It is good but does need bringing up to date, and I dispute some of his views on how the RAF branch system evolved. Nevertheless, a work to read.

Well, that is my top ten; however, it would be easy to add more to the list. As noted, when Overy wrote The Air War, and Mason served as DDefS, the academic study of air power, certainly in the UK, was a Cinderella subject. Thankfully, that is no longer the case and the last ten years have seen a number of significant studies published, which point the way forward for the subject but that will be a post for another time.

Header Image: A Tornado GR.1 in flight banks away from the camera and displays its underwing stores during the First Gulf War. Top to bottom the stores are a BOZ 107 chaff/flare dispenser, 500 gal fuel tanks, AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile and Marconi Sky Shadow ECM pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (GLF 707))

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.

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)