NORAD at 60

NORAD at 60

By Dr Brian Laslie

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NORAD tracks Santa (Source: Author)

Editorial Note: This weekend, 12 May, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), the Bi-National defense command between the United States and Canada (and yes, the same organization that tracks Santa every Christmas Eve) is celebrating its 60th Anniversary. As such, we here at From Balloons to Drones wanted to share a portion of the history of this unique organization. The following comes to you from the NORAD History Office and our Assistant Editor Dr Brian Laslie, who is also a historian at NORAD.

With the beginning of the Cold War, American defence experts and political leaders began planning and implementing a defensive air shield, which they believed was necessary to defend against a possible attack by long-range, manned Soviet bombers. By the time of its creation in 1947, as a separate service, it was widely acknowledged the Air Force would be the centre point of this defensive effort. Under the auspices of the Air Defense Command (ADC), first created in 1948, and reconstituted in 1951 at Ent Air Force Base (AFB), Colorado, subordinate US Air Force (USAF) commands were given responsibility to protect the various regions of the United States. By 1954, as concerns about Soviet capabilities became graver, a multi-service unified command was created, involving US Navy, US Army, and USAF units – the Continental Air Defense Command (CONAD). USAF leaders, most notably Generals Benjamin Chidlaw and Earle Partridge, guided the planning and programs during the mid-1950s. The USAF provided the interceptor aircraft and planned the upgrades needed over the years. The USAF also developed and operated the extensive early warning radar sites and systems which acted as ‘tripwire’ against air attack. The advance warning systems and communication requirements to provide the alert time needed, as well as command and control of forces, became primarily a USAF contribution, a trend which continued as the nation’s aerospace defence matured.

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Four US Air Force Convair F-106A Delta Dart fighters from the 5th Fighter Interceptor Squadron, Minot AFB, fly over Mount Rushmore, on 27 July 1981. (Source: Wikimedia)

As USAF leaders developed plans and proposed warning system programs, they became convinced of the logical need for extended cooperation with America’s continental neighbour, Canada. US-Canada defence relationships extended back to the Second World War when the two nation’s leaders formally agreed on military cooperation as early as 1940 with the Ogdensburg Declaration. These ties were renewed in the late 1940s with further sharing of defence plans in light of increasing Soviet military capabilities and a growing trend of unstable international events, such as the emergence of a divided Europe and the Korean War.

Defence agreements between Canada and the United States in the early 1950s centred on the building of radar networks across the territory of Canada – the Mid- Canada Line (also known as the McGill Fence), the Pinetree Line, and the famous Dew Line. This cooperation led to a natural extension of talks regarding the possible integration and execution of air defence plans. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and USAF exchanged liaison officers and met at critical conferences to discuss the potential of a shared air defence organisation. By 1957, the details had been worked out, and the top defence officials in each nation approved the formation of the NORAD, which was stood up on 12 September at Ent AFB, in Colorado Springs, Colorado, home of the US CONAD and its subordinates, including USAF ADC. General Earl Partridge, USAF, who was both the ADC and CONAD Commander, also became commander of NORAD, and the senior Canadian RCAF official, Air Marshal Roy Slemon, who had been the critical Canadian delegate in most of the cooperation talks, became deputy commander, NORAD. Nine months after the operational establishment of the command, on 12 May 1958, the two nations announced they had formalised the cooperative air defence arrangements as a government-to-government bilateral defence agreement that became known as the NORAD Agreement. The NORAD Agreement and its associated terms of reference provided the political connections which would make possible the longevity of the Canadian-US aerospace defence relationship into the future years. The NORAD Agreement, with its requirement for periodic review, ensured flexibility to adapt to a changing defence environment as would be evident by the events that would soon face the fledgeling command.

NORAD Map 1960s

Within one year of its establishment, NORAD began the process of adapting its missions and functions to ‘a new and more dangerous threat.’ During the 1960s and 1970s, the USSR focused on creating intercontinental and sea-launched ballistic missiles and developed an anti-satellite capability. The northern radar-warning networks could, as one observer expressed it, ‘not only [be] outflanked but literally jumped over.’ In response, the USAF built a space-surveillance and missile-warning system to provide worldwide space detection and tracking and to classify activity and objects in space. When these systems became operational during the early 1960s, they came under the control of the NORAD.

In NORAD’s 60-year history, perhaps the most notable symbol of the command has been the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center (CMOC), often referred to as simply ‘Cheyenne Mountain.’ This vast bunker complex, which became fully operational in 1966, sat more than 1,500 feet underground and consisted of 15 buildings, which comprised the central collection and coordination facility for NORAD’s global-sensor systems.

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Entrance to Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center complex. (Source: Author)

Throughout the 1970s, the ballistic missile threat caused policymakers to reassess the effectiveness of the air defence system. This meant the potential demise of the arguments for enhanced traditional air defence and moved NORAD to focus on such challenges as an improved warning of missile and space attack, defence against the ICBM, and more significant protection and survival of command, control and communication networks and centres. This resulted in a reduction of the USAF interceptor forces and closure of various portions of the radar network. Modernization of air defence forces became a hard argument. Because of changes in US strategic policy, which had come to accept the concept of mutual vulnerability to ICBM attack, the need to spend about $1 billion a year on air defence was challenged. In 1974, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger stated the primary mission of air defence was to ensure the sovereignty of airspace during peacetime. There followed further reductions in the size and capability of the air defence system. By the late 1970s, the remaining components – some 300 interceptors, 100 radars and eight control centres – had become obsolescent and uneconomical to operate.

Over the years, the evolving threat caused NORAD to expand its mission to include tactical warning and assessment of possible air, missile, or space attacks on North America. The 1975 NORAD Agreement acknowledged these extensions of the command’s mission. Consequently, the 1981 NORAD Agreement changed the command’s name from the North American ‘Air’ Defense Command to the North American ‘Aerospace’ Defense Command.

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NORAD Commanders have even turned up in the funny pages! Here the NORAD commander, who bore a striking resemblance to actual NORAD commander General Laurence Kuter, briefs Steve Canyon (Source: Author)

The 1980s brought essential improvements for the aerospace defence mission. Again, NORAD demonstrated adaptability to meet these changes. In 1979, the US Congress ordered the USAF to create an air defense master plan (ADMP). The ADMP, modified and upgraded, became the US administration’s outline for air defence modernisation and the foundation for NORAD cost-sharing discussions between Canada and the United States. The modernization accords signed in 1985 called for the replacement of the DEW Line radar system with an improved arctic radar line called the North Warning System (NWS); the deployment of Over-the-Horizon Backscatter radar; greater use of USAF Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft; and the assignment of newer USAF aircraft, specifically F-15s, F-16s, and CF-18s, to NORAD.

The late 1980s witnessed another expansion of the NORAD mission. On 29 September 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed legislation that involved the US Department of Defense, and specifically NORAD, in the campaign against drug trafficking. The command’s role in this mission was to detect and track aircraft transporting drugs and then report them to law enforcement.

On 11 September 2001, terrorists hijacked four passenger airliners, two of which obliterated the World Trade Center, in New York City, while another shattered part of the Pentagon. One of the four aircraft crashed in Pennsylvania before hitting its target, apparently either the US Capitol or the White House. The event made it clear that attacks on the homeland would not necessarily come only from across the poles and oceans which buffered the North American continent.

In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, NORAD began Operation NOBLE EAGLE. The purpose of this still-ongoing air patrol mission was to defend the United States against terrorist aggression originating from either within or outside the nation’s air borders. NOBLE EAGLE missions were executed primarily by the USAF First Air Force, a NORAD unit under the command of the Continental NORAD Region (CONR), located at Tyndall AFB, in Florida. By June 2006, NORAD had responded to more than 2,100 potential airborne threats in the continental United States, Canada, and Alaska, as well as flying more than 42,000 sorties with the support of USAF AWACS and air-to-air refuelling aircraft.

NOBLE EAGLE’s response has become institutionalised into daily plans and NORAD exercises through which the command ensures its capability to respond rapidly to airborne threats. USAF units of NORAD have also assumed the mission of the integrated air defence of the National Capital Region, providing ongoing protection for Washington, D.C. Also, as required, NORAD forces have played a critical role in air defence support for National Special Security Events, such as air protection for the NASA shuttle launches, G8 summit meetings, and even Superbowl football events.

In recognition of the changing threat environment of the post-9/11 world, the United States Department of Defense stood up, in October 2002, US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) as a joint service command to execute the mission of homeland defense across all domains. With NORAD already executing the air defense mission of North America, it was a logical step to co-locate the headquarters of NORAD and USNORTHCOM in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and to retain a dual-hatted commander relationship between NORAD and the new US joint command.

As NORAD looked to the future, past threats re-emerged. In 2014, Russian long-range aviation and maritime activity reached levels not seen since the Cold War: more sorties, supported by more tankers, and more sophisticated linkages between air and maritime intelligence collection than ever before. This activity underscored an aggressive Russian military enjoying new prosperity, proficiency, and ever improving capabilities that had NORAD focused on the Russian Bear once more. NORAD’s three operational regions in Alaska, Canada, and the Continental United States, routinely responded to incursions by Russian long-range aviation aircraft entering the North American Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) or the Canadian Air Defense Identification Zone (CADIZ).

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As NORAD celebrates its 60th this weekend, we here at From Balloons to Drones send a very ‘Happy Anniversary’ to both America and Canada and to the Command itself for providing 60 plus years of aerospace warning, control, and defense to the Homeland. We know that you have the watch!

Dr Brian Laslie is a US Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. He is the author of Architect of Air Power: General Laurence S. Kuter and the Birth of the US Air Force (2017) and The Air Force Way of War (2015). The latter book was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list and the 2017 RAF Chief of the Air Staff’s reading list. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: A USAF F-22 Raptor of the 3rd Wing escorts a Russian Air Force Tu-95 Bear bomber near Nunivak Island, c. 2007. This was the first intercept of a Bear bomber for an F-22, which was alerted out of Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson’s Combat Alert Center. (Source: US Department of Defense Images)

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The Air Defence of the UK: Defence on a Shoestring in an Age of Uncertainty

The Air Defence of the UK: Defence on a Shoestring in an Age of Uncertainty

By Dr Kenton White

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Dr Kenton White examines Britain’s defence policy with regards to the air defence of the United Kingdom. He compares Britain’s commitment to air defence during the Cold War period with that of the present. With regards to the present, White concludes that given certain factors, the Royal Air Force (RAF) will struggle to regenerate if faced with a high-intensity conflict with a near-peer enemy.

Preamble

This article talks broadly about strategy, planning and its practice. It uses examples from Britain’s defence policy, and hard numbers from the Cold War experience, to illustrate some of the problems the RAF faces today. It looks at Britain’s commitment to the air defence of its islands during the Cold War – an age of certainty – and compares it directly to the current defence policy and practice in the age of uncertainty.

A historically pessimistic view of international relations and strategy is taken. The reason for this pessimism is based on historical precedent. In 1914, Europe went from peace to war in less than two months. In the 1930s Britain’s rearmament began in mid-decade to replace bi-planes and other equipment, but the RAF still went to war in 1939 with obsolescent, vulnerable equipment, and suffered severe losses of personnel and machinery.

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A Gloster Javelin FAW.9R of No, 23 Squadron banking away from the camera clearly showing the missile complement of De Havilland Firestreak infra-red homing air-to-air missiles. (Source: © IWM (RAF-T 2151))

Introduction

I take it someone has worked out whether we can defend ourselves.

Jim Callaghan, Labour Prime Minister, 1978

This comment is written on the front page of a Joint Intelligence Committee report on the ability of the Soviet air force to attack targets in Britain.[1] The report showed Britain was poorly prepared to defend itself in times of war, despite the apparent threat from the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact.

Questions relating to Britain’s air defence capability are as relevant now as they were then; however, the circumstances are very different. The familiar bipolarity of the Cold War is missing, and the range of threats to the UK is much broader, including both state and non-state actors.

Deterrence

A vital role of the RAF is to deter attack, and ultimately the defence of UK airspace if that deterrent fails. Deterrent plans are aimed at a perceived threat: planning for the manifestation of that threat. These plans relate intimately to national strategy. The nation must appear to have a capable air force if it is to act as a deterrent. However, deterrence also requires the ability to sustain operations. Britain’s air defences protect around 1 million square miles of airspace, reaching out into the North Atlantic. This indicates how vital airborne maritime reconnaissance is in defence of the islands.

The 2015 Strategic Defence and Security Review read:

The Government’s most important duty is the defence of the UK and Overseas Territories, and protection of our people and sovereignty.[2]

In written testimony to the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) in 2013, Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield told the committee that, in an ideal world, air defence of the UK should be the priority of UK defence policy.[3] The 2015 SDSR states ‘[T]he Royal Air Force protects our airspace and is ready at all times to intercept rogue aircraft.’[4] Concerted attack from the air by a peer adversary is not perceived as an imminent threat.

Threat Analysis

The conventional threat during the period of ‘Flexible Response,’ as the NATO Cold War strategy was called, was clear – direct attack from bombers equipped with gravity bombs or stand-off missiles aimed at denying the vital infrastructure needed for the reinforcement of Europe by UK and US forces. The UK was responsible for the air defence of the Eastern Atlantic and the UK itself, and the airspace over the UK was an Air Defence Region in its own right. However, the defensive response to the threat was never completely put into place, leaving UK airspace extremely vulnerable, and Britain’s ability to continue a fight very doubtful.

What is the threat analysis today? The HCDC identified several distant threats to the national interest, and while qualifying the analysis heavily, identified the Russian/Middle Eastern threat as being the greatest to the UK itself.[5] In 2015, the HCDC commented that:

[t]he resurgence of an expansionist Russia represents a significant change in the threat picture […] and has implications not only for the UK but also for our allies as well.[6]

The ability of the Russians to interfere with the sea and air communications into the UK is seen as a considerable problem, and the capability to use cyber-attacks to cripple the country has been recently in the news thanks to the Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.[7] Unofficially at least in public, there is also the fear of the break-up of NATO, and the need for Britain to be able to defend itself alone, as in 1940.

What is being defended?

For us to understand the demands of the air defence of the UK, we must understand what is being defended. The knee-jerk response to this may be that the population is being defended. However, the official documents indicate otherwise. During the early Cold War, the first thing being defended against attack in the UK was the nuclear deterrent. Other targets such as other military installations, ports and airports were next on the list for air defence, with civilian installations such as power generating stations as poor runners-up.

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A Royal Air Force Bristol Bloodhound Mark II surface to air guided missile. The missile was used as Britain’s main air defence weapon from 1958 – 1991. It initally protected Britain’s V bomber force but was later deployed in Germany and at RAF Seletar, Singapore. The Bloodhound Mk II was introduced in 1964. It used continuous wave radar guidance and had a capability against aircraft flying at normal operational heights. (Source: © Crown copyright: IWM (TR 27162))

Once the nuclear deterrent took to sea in submarine-launched missiles, the priority of defence changed. There is no longer the clear military imperative to defend the nuclear deterrent if it functions correctly with one boat always at sea, but neither is there the capability, nor the political will, to defend the vital military and civil installations in the country from attack from the air. Security documents speak in vague terms about ‘defence of the UK’.[8]

Self-defence of the RAF, in other words maintaining the RAF air defence and surveillance capability, seems the obvious next choice given that the resources available to the RAF are insufficient to defend the national infrastructure.

What are the vulnerabilities?

Internal Vulnerability

The ‘internal’ vulnerability comes from Government cuts and a drive for greater ‘efficiency’. This results in a lack of equipment, weapons, supplies and trained personnel. There are many examples of short-sighted ‘cost-savings’ which resulted in reduced air defence capability.[9] To many in the RAF and the other armed services, the greatest enemy is the Treasury.

Air defence of the UK suffered considerably during the early Cold War. Because the expectation was that any war would turn nuclear very quickly, the provision of expensive air defence systems was considered unnecessary.[10] The RAF finds itself in a comparable situation now, following a period of cuts, ‘refocusing’ or simple indifference by the government.

National air defence should be flexible and capable of responding to a multitude of threats. However, the historical lesson is that even in a period of certainty, the resources were not made available to the RAF to provide what it saw as the minimum level of defence for UK airspace. Flexibility comes at a cost. It relies on balance within the forces, and sufficient numbers to respond to different scenarios.[11]

There is a lack of a layered surface to air defence system. Other services rely on layered defence, while the RAF has been forced into a two-stage defence: overhead and arm’s length. Without the numbers, achieving flexibility becomes problematic. However, not all aircraft will be available all the time, so a simple count up of aircraft in service is misleading – battle damage, faults and maintenance will reduce the numbers available.

The armed forces are increasingly run by governments of all colours in the fashion of a business, with ‘outputs’ and ‘levels of cost-effectiveness’. The only real measure of an armed force is how it operates in its true environment, which is war. Which brings us to the second vulnerability.

Self-Delusion

This is primarily political self-delusion, but also some self-delusion within the Service. A strategic vulnerability has developed out of the policies which attributed success to the NATO strategies. However, lack of failure does not equal success.

This vision of success contributes to the self-delusion. According to the politicians of successive Governments, aircraft numbers could be cut, pilot training be restricted, and obsolete weapons retained, but the overall strategy was still successful. Behind this apparent success, the UK air defence capability had effectively been eviscerated.

This same self-delusion of success led to the cuts under the ‘Peace Dividend’ and led to very quickly forgetting how to face an adversary that has capable Air Power regarding credibility and numbers. To reinforce this misplaced belief, most recent RAF operations have been fought in more-or-less permissive air environments. They have not had to deter nor fight a peer state.

The political class, public, and even the other armed services have lost sight of the fact that ‘air superiority’ is not a given.  The memory of what it is like to have to operate against an adversary which has credible and numerically similar air power has been lost.  This extends to the protection of the supporting infrastructure, which in recent deployments has remained free from attack. The ground facilities suffer from vulnerability to air attack to blind the surveillance systems, which is why maritime reconnaissance, air surveillance and control systems and airborne warning and control systems are so very important. Indeed, a lack of maritime patrol aircraft has been an embarrassment to the British Government in the recent past.

Existential vulnerability

The third vulnerability is the physical existence of the RAF if it is faced with a peer enemy.

This vulnerability, a result of the combination of the first and second threats, is particularly applicable to Britain’s armed forces. If a relatively small force accomplishes military excellence, the effect of combat losses will be disproportionately devastating.[12] The RAF may be genuinely excellent, capable and agile in all its operations, but because of its reduced size, any combat losses, should it come to a peer-to-peer war, will be truly ruinous.

Difficulties, if not disasters, in the early stages of war, and the need for time to recover and re-arm, have been vital for the UK.  The British Expeditionary Force experienced this in the First World War, and nearly by the RAF in the Second World War. Had Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding not refused to send more fighters to defend France it was likely that the air defence of the home islands would not have been sufficient to survive the impending attack.

An ex-RAF officer commented that:

This threat poses the problem the RAF has faced for decades: condemning themselves to low capabilities for a while, and eventually getting better if they last long enough.

Conclusion

In this age of uncertainty, flexibility is the key to respond to threats from different areas. However, the RAF, along with the other armed forces, have been starved of the necessary resources for even the basic defence of the home nation.

It would appear that many of the limitations placed on UK air defence during a period of strategic certainty have continued into the current age of uncertainty.

Following the apparent success of the Cold War strategies, the idea the ‘teeth’ could be sharpened at the expense of the ‘tail’ persisted and has now grown to dangerous proportions. Pursuing the business model of ‘efficiency’, the Armed Forces have been cut to very low levels yet asked to do more. Moreover, with the increasing tensions in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the Pacific, the number of possible threats is increasing.

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The crew of a McDonnell Douglas Phantom FRG2 aircraft of No. 111 Squadron with their aircraft and weapons load at RAF Coningsby in 1975. The aircraft is fitted with tanks and Sidewinder heat-seeking missiles. Lying in front are four Sparrow radar guided missiles and a Gatling Pod. (Source: © Crown copyright. IWM (CT 68))

The overwhelming problem with a denuded air force is the time it will take to recover its capability if, and when, it is needed. Modern equipment is complicated to manufacture, and aircraft cannot be built in the numbers previously seen. Nor, frankly, is there the will to provide such facilities during peacetime for use in the event of war.

War has a habit of appearing without much announcement, and the diminished resources of the RAF would take years to bring up to the necessary levels to defend the UK against a determined enemy, and defending these islands is precisely what the RAF may be called upon to do, before too long.

Dr Kenton White is a Sessional Lecturer in Politics, International Relations and Strategic Studies at the University of Reading. He also works as a part-time Lecturer in Strategic Studies at Cranwell with the RAF. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies, researching British defence policy and practice during and after the Cold War. He studies military history and defence policy from the Napoleonic Wars to today. Before entering academia, he was the Managing Director of a computer animation company.

Header Image: A Russian Bear aircraft is escorted by a Royal Air Force Quick Reaction Alert (QRA) Typhoon during an intercept in September 2014. (Source: MoD Defence Imagery)

[1] The National Archives, PREM 16/1563, JIC (77)10, The Soviet Capability to Attack targets in the United Kingdom Base, 26th October 1977, ‘Defence against the Soviet Threat to the United Kingdom’, n.d.

[2] Cmd 9161, ‘National Security Strategy and Strategic Defence and Security Review 2015: A Secure and Prosperous United Kingdom’ (The Cabinet Office, November 2015), chap. 4. Hereafter, SDSR 2015

[3] HC 197, ‘Towards the next Defence and Security Review: Part One’, (House of Commons, 7 January 2014), p. 58.

[4] ‘SDSR 2015’.

[5] ‘Memorandum submitted by the Strategy and Security Institute, University of Exeter,’ 7 October 2015.

[6] HC 493, ‘Flexible Response? An SDSR Checklist of Potential Threats and Vulnerabilities’ (House of Commons Defence Committee, 17 November 2015), para. 58.

[7] HC493, para. 50; Ben Farmer, ‘Russia says Britain’s Defence Secretary’s claim of attack threat ‘like something from Monty Python,” The Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2018.

[8] ‘SDSR 2015’, chap. 4.

[9] Kenton White, ‘“Effing” the Military: A Political Misunderstanding of Management’, Defence Studies, 17:4 (2017), pp. 346-58.

[10] A07783, Defence of the United Kingdom, DOP (78)12, Memorandum to the Prime Minister from John Hunt, 1st August 1978, ‘Defence against the Soviet Threat to the United Kingdom’, 2.

[11] Group Captain Paul O’Neill, ‘Developing a Flexible Royal Air Force for an Age of Uncertainty’, RAF Air Power Review, 18:1 (2015), pp. 46-65.

[12] Colin S. Gray, War, Peace, and Victory: Strategy and Statecraft for the Next Century (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), p. 171.

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’.

Kyle C. Burley is a US Army Lieutenant Colonel and the Deputy Exercise Director for the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.  As the SAMS Simulations Officer he prepares, resources, and provides control for SAMS’ robust military planning exercise program.  Before assignment at SAMS, LTC Burley served as the US Third Army’s G7 (Forward) & Joint Readiness Exercise Team Chief.  He has also served in an array of Armor, Cavalry, as well headquarters staff positions from Division to OSD levels during his 24 years of service.  Kyle is a lifelong student of military history and a “Master” High Power rifle competitor.

Dr Jacob Stoil is a military historian and currently Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies. He received his doctorate in history from University of Oxford. He holds a BA in War Studies, as well as an MA in History of Warfare from the Department of War Studies, at King’s College London. He has published on indigenous force cooperation, the Second World War, and the Israeli military. Dr Stoil is the co-director of The Second World War Research Group (North America). He can be reached on Twitter at @JacobStoil.

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)