Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

Inventing the Enemy: Colonel Toon and the Memory of Fighter Combat in Vietnam

By Dr Michael Hankins

A recent post on the popular website The Aviation Geek Club told the story of what they called ‘the most epic 1 v 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation.’[1] This is the story in which Lieutenants Randy ‘Duke’ Cunningham and William Driscoll, from among the first batch of graduates from the US Navy’s then-new Top Gun training program, shot down the number one North Vietnamese Air Force fighter ace, Colonel Toon, and became the first American aces of the war. Very little of that tale is true, but it makes for an exciting story, and this website is not the first to tell it. Although the details of these claims bear some scrutiny, the tale raises more interesting more significant questions about how and why legends like this form and grow over time.

Cunningham and Driscoll meet with Secretary of the Navy John Warner and CNO Admiral Elmo Zumwalt
Lieutenant Randy Cunningham (second from left) in a ceremony honouring him and Lieutenant William Driscoll (third from left), the US Navy’s only Vietnam War air ‘Aces’ in June 1972. On the left is John Warner, then Secretary of the Navy, and on the right is Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, then Chief of Naval Operations. (Source: Wikimedia)

Combat situations breed storytellers. Any stressful, exciting, death-inducing human endeavour does. Perhaps even more so among fighter pilots engaging in acrobatic dogfights at near (or above) the speed of sound, combat stories, as they are told and retold, heard and re-heard, become legendary. Especially enticing is the need to explain defeat or even a lack of decisive victory. During the Vietnam War, skilled North Vietnamese pilots shot down US aircraft in numbers that some Americans found embarrassing. The final official tally of air-to-air combat kills was 137 to 67, almost exactly 2:1 in favour of the US. This sounds like a victory to some. Indeed, General William Momyer, Commander US Seventh Air Force, saw it that way when he recalled later that winning by 2:1 was ‘an acceptable rate.’[2] However, it did not seem acceptable to those who drew historical comparisons. The US had fared better in previous wars, peaking in the Korean War, which saw US F-86 pilots defeating MiG-15s by a factor of more than 10:1.[3] By those standards, Vietnam felt like a massive step backwards.

Explaining the seeming backslide in combat performance was the official task of several investigations, from the US Air Force’s Red Baron Reports to the US Navy’s Ault Report. Pilots ranted about the poor performance of their planes, especially the F-4 Phantom’s thick black smoke trails that gave away its position to anyone caring to look up. Pilots scoffed at the lack of training in basic combat manoeuvring, much less dogfight training. They decried the fact that only ten percent of their missiles hit anything, and that their F-4s lacked the most basic instrument of air combat: a gun. Without a trigger to pull, many argued, how were they supposed to shoot anyone down?

Other pilots took to creating legends. What could explain the fact that so many US aircraft were getting shot out of the sky by an allegedly inferior, third-world country’s hand-me-down air force that only had a few dozen aeroplanes to its name? There must be an amazing, inexplicable, near-mythical, born-genius dogfighter on the enemy side.

Thus, was born the legend of Colonel Toon, AKA Colonel Tomb, AKA Nguyen Tomb.

Telling the Tale

As the legend goes, Toon was more than a double ace, with at least twelve kills to his name, maybe as high as 14, which was how many stars were allegedly painted on the side of his MiG. Toon displayed the typical fighter pilot personality characteristics of aggressiveness and independence. He utilised frequent head-on attacks and a ‘lone wolf’ style of engaging in which he refused to obey the orders of his ground controller and engaged F-4s in vertical manoeuvres, where his MiG was at an inherent disadvantage.[4] According to the typical story, as American pilots struggled, the US Navy’s Ault Report had led to the introduction of Top Gun: a graduate school for fighter pilots. The intensive training there gave US Navy aviators the skills to destroy MiGs wherever they found them. Moreover, allegedly, Top Gun graduates Cunningham and Driscoll used their newly found skills to shoot Toon out of the sky on 10 May, during a massive dogfight at the beginning of Operation Linebacker. Cunningham claimed this himself, and the story is still often repeated in popular outlets.[5]

There is just one problem: almost none of this is true. Top Gun, although undoubtedly useful, was, at the time, a tiny outfit that many leaders in the US Navy did not take seriously. The narrative of Top Gun as the saving grace of air-to-air combat also ignores all of the other useful changes instigated by the Ault Report, as well as other practices the US Navy was doing at the time. These included enhancements to their aircraft, upgraded missiles, the increased reliance on early warning radar systems that gave pilots situational awareness, and the increase in jamming of enemy communications that limited North Vietnamese situational awareness.[6] Besides that, Cunningham and Driscoll were not even Top Gun graduates. Moreover, what of Colonel Toon? He was simply not real. He did not exist.

NVAF MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971
North Vietnamese Air Force MiG-19 pilots of the 925th fighter squadron discussing tactics in 1971. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

Busting Myths

To unravel these tales, let’s start with Cunningham and Driscoll at Top Gun. The principal disputed aspect of the common claim hinges on the word ‘graduates.’ Cunningham and Driscoll had not been students at Top Gun, but they were involved with the school. Before the start of Operation Linebacker in 1972, Top Gun was in bad shape. It had struggled and fought to get access to aeroplanes to train in, and throughout 1971 most of the instructors assumed it was only a matter of time before the US Navy would shut the place down.[7] With limited student slots, selection for Top Gun was competitive. Only the top-performing pilots of select squadrons were picked, and Cunningham had simply not made the cut – twice. Cunningham’s roommate Jim McKinney, and later Steve Queen, both of whom were his colleagues in VF-96, were selected ahead of him. This was in part because they were viewed as more skilled, partially because Top Gun selection favoured career officers the US Navy could count on to stay in the service after the war, which did not, at that time, describe Cunningham. Also, as his skipper noted, Cunningham was simply immature. Top officers and those selected for the coveted Top Gun training needed to be more than just typical fighter jocks, they needed to be well-rounded officers capable of strong leadership. Cunningham’s commander did not see those qualities in him.[8] His fellow pilots noted the same lack of leadership. When Cunningham later pled guilty to taking millions of dollars in bribes as a congressman, those that served with him said they were ‘not necessarily surprised,’ because even when he was a pilot during the war, he had shown a remarkable lack of officership. Some noted that Cunningham was ‘a mind undistracted by complicated thoughts.’[9]

Cunningham and Driscoll
An autographed picture of Lieutenants Cunningham and Driscoll (Source: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984)

Just because Cunningham was passed over for Top Gun does not mean he was not participating in some way. In 1971, during his squadron’s turnaround period, Cunningham was assigned to temporary duty at Top Gun as a ‘gopher,’ mostly doing paperwork for the school. However, it gave him a chance to listen to some of the lessons and occasionally sit in the backseat of adversary aircraft. He spent much time with the Top Gun instructors, including Jim Laing, J.C. Smith, Dave Frost, and Jim Ruliffson. The squadron then went on leave for a month, during which time Cunningham’s new commanding officer, Early Winn, permitted him to run exercises in the squadron’s F-4 Phantoms since they would be sitting idle for that time. Cunningham used the opportunity to practice what he had learned from his informal lessons. Upon returning from leave, the whole squadron became the first to go through the new Fleet Adversary Program, which some described as ‘mini-Top Gun.’ Primarily the program was a short workshop that introduced some of the concepts that Top Gun explored in more detail. VF-96 ran the workshop twice before returning to Vietnam.[10]

The claim that Cunningham and Driscoll were Top Gun graduates, as is often repeated, is false, but it is easy to see why many might be confused about that. Indeed, in an ad hoc sense, the pair had some access to higher level training than others, including Top Gun instructors. The other claim; that the duo’s fifth kill was the legendary Toon – or that there even was a Toon – is much more dubious.

Part of the confusion comes from the insistence of US SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) by the National Security Agency (NSA) that Toon was real. Claiming to have cracked the North Vietnamese callsign system, the NSA, intercepting enemy communications, began keeping track of individual pilots. They especially singled-out a North Vietnamese MiG-21 ace pilot named Toon, based at Phuc Yen, who developed a reputation for aggressively disrupting B-52 raids. They referred to him as ‘The Red Baron of North Vietnam,’ or ‘an airborne outlaw in the image of a Wild West gunslinger,’ who, whenever he was spotted, ‘U.S. planes took up the chase like some sheriff’s posse of old.’ The NSA claimed that Momyer was ‘obsessed’ with destroying Toon.[11] This could be possible, although it is strange then, that Momyer does not mention Toon at all in his book on the subject.

Cunningham’s debriefing report from 10 May 1972 – in which he very carefully words his statement to give the reader the impression that he was a Top Gun student without stating that directly – has ‘The 5th Kill (Col. Tomb)’ typed in the margin. After describing the dogfight, he claimed:

Intelligence later revealed that this 17 driver was Colonel Tomb, the North Vietnamese ace credited with 13 U.S. aircraft.[12]

Cunningham did not identify who told him this, and his claim raises questions, as it seems to contradict the intelligence from the time. The NSA referred to this pilot as ‘Toon,’ not ‘Tomb,’ and did not identify him as a Colonel. The NSA also specified him as a MiG-21 pilot whereas the Cunningham kill was a -17. They also credited Toon with five kills, not the 13 that Cunningham referenced. Furthermore, the NSA report states that Toon was never defeated, and eventually was promoted out of combat flying and became a ground controller.[13] Cunningham might be telling the truth that some intelligence source, which he does not identify, told him that the -17 he killed was Tomb, but because his claims are so at odds with the NSA’s information on nearly every point, Cunningham’s story raises more questions than it answers.

Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F
A Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-17F at the National Museum of the United States Air Force. (Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force)

However, the NSA could also be wrong. In fact, they probably are. Even though the NSA claimed Toon was real at the time, there is little evidence to verify this. Indeed, any ace pilots that North Vietnam had – and eventually they had fifteen that were confirmed by US sources, though Vietnamese records claim sixteen, which was triple the number of US aces – would be of immense propaganda and morale value for their cause. If Toon were real, he would likely have been celebrated as a national hero. When researchers and former pilots began talking to North Vietnamese veterans, any questions about Toon were met with confusion. There’s no record of a Toon or Tomb, which is not even a Vietnamese name. Some have claimed that ‘Toon’ was the result of SIGINT operators mishearing the name of Din Tonh, who was an effective pilot known for ‘lone wolf’ attacks. However, Tonh also flew the MiG-21, not the -17, and was not an ace, much less one with kills in the double digits.[14]

Historian Roger Boniface travelled to North Vietnam and conducted extensive interviews with former MiG pilots. His conclusion? Toon was merely an invented figment of American fighter pilots’ imagination, made up specifically to stroke their damaged egos. As he put it:

The existence of Colonel Toon in the mind of an American pilot may have provided a psychological comfort zone if a North Vietnamese pilot should out-fly him or, even worse, shoot him down.[15]

NVAF ace pilot Nguyen Van Coc meeting with Ho Chi Minh
Nguyen Van Coc meeting Ho Chí Minh, N.D. (Source: Wikimedia)

The closest real pilot to fitting the description, however, was Nguyen Van Coc. He flew a MiG-21 with 14 ‘kill’ stars painted on the side. Vietnam officially credits Van Coc with nine kills of US aircraft, and the US has officially recognised six of them. Still, Van Coc cannot have been the ace-making kill for Cunningham and Driscoll, not only because he flew MiG-21s, but by 1968 he had already been pulled out of combat duty and made an instructor of new North Vietnamese pilots.[16]

Conclusion

Why does this controversy – and others like it – continue to plague the memory of the Vietnam War? Possibly because losing a war is psychologically devastating. This is evident simply in how divisive it is to call the American-Vietnam War a ‘loss’ for the US. Some are reluctant to do so in any terms, but no one can deny that the US did not achieve its strategic goal of creating a stable, independent, non-communist South Vietnamese state. Indeed, North Vietnam did achieve its goal of creating a unified communist state. However, the air-to-air war was not at all the make-or-break factor in any of that. The US did not fail in their goals because of the MiG force. Also, former war records aside, Momyer was not wrong to claim that a 2:1 kill ratio in air-to-air combat is still a victory, in at least a technical definition although the ability of MiGs to frequently interrupt bombing strikes was a more significant problem. Despite these clarifications, Vietnam felt like a loss even to many air combat pilots. Explaining that sense of loss, or even just a sense of a lack of decisive victory is difficult at best. Many pilots, and some historians and observers since, including Cunningham and Driscoll, found it easier to invent an enemy rather than must deal with those painful feelings head-on. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Nearly every war sees these types of inventions as a coping mechanism. Toon may not exist, but what he represents as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma of warfare, is all too real.

Dr Michael Hankins is an Assistant Editor at From Balloons to Drones and a Professor of Strategy at the USAF Air Command and Staff College eSchool. He is also a former Instructor of Military History at the US Air Force Academy. He earned his PhD from Kansas State University in 2018 with his dissertation, ‘The Cult of the Lightweight Fighter: Culture and Technology in the U.S. Air Force, 1964-1991.’ He completed his master’s thesis at the University of North Texas in 2013, titled “The Phantom Menace: The F-4 in Air-to-Air Combat in the Vietnam War.” He has a web page here and can be found on Twitter at @hankinstien.

Header Image: US Navy McDonnell Douglas F-4J Phantom II ‘Showtime 100,’ which was assigned to VF-96 of Carrier Air Wing 9 onboard USS Constellation Lieutenants Randy Cunningham and William Driscoll used this aircraft for their third, fourth, and fifth MiG-kills on 10 May 1972. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] Dario Leone, ‘Showtime 100 Vs Colonel Toon: the most epic 1 V 1 dogfight in the history of naval aviation,’ The Aviation Geek Club, 9 May 2018

[2] William W. Momyer, Air Power in Three Wars (Maxwell AFB, AL: Air University Press, 2003), p. 178.

[3] For example, see: Kenneth P. Werrell, Sabres Over MiG Alley: The F-86 and the Battle for Air Superiority in Korea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005).

[4] Roger Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam: The Vietnam People’s Air Force in Combat, 1965-75 (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008), p. 59, 74.

[5] For Cunningham’s claim, see: Randy Cunningham and Jeff Ethell, Fox Two: The Story of America’s First Ace in Vietnam (Mesa, AZ: Champlin Fighter Museum, 1984), pp. 107-8.

[6] For a more in-depth look at some of these changes in both the US Navy and the USAF, see Michael Hankins, ‘The Teaball Solution: The Evolution of Air Combat Technology in Vietnam 1968-1972,’ Air Power History, 63 (2016), pp. 7-24.

[7] Robert Wilcox, Scream of Eagles (New York, NY: Pocket Star Books, 1990), pp. 203-6.

[8] Ibid, pp. 207-8.

[9] Alex Roth, ‘Shooting down Cunningham’s legend: Ex-comrades in arms say disgraced congressman was a good fighter pilot but a poor officer with flair for self-promotion,’ San Diego Union Tribune, 15 January 2000.

[10] Wilcox, Scream of Eagles, pp. 210-12; Cunningham, Fox Two, p. 106.

[11] ‘On Watch: Profiles from the National Security Agency’s past 40 years,’ National Security Agency, 1984, declassified 2007, pp. 58-9.

[12] US Air Force Academic Library, Lieutenant Randy Cunningham, ‘Naval Intelligence Debriefing of 10 May 1972 MiG Engagement by VF-96,’ 10 May 1972, pp. 5-6.

[13] ‘On Watch,’ pp. 58-9.

[14] Sebastien Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace,’ War is Boring, 3 July 2016.

[15] Boniface, MiGs Over North Vietnam, p. 74.

[16] Ibid.; Roblin, ‘The Legend of the Vietnam War’s Mystery Fighter Ace.’

NORAD at 60

NORAD at 60

By Dr Brian Laslie

NTS
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.

DF-ST-82-08601
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.

North-Portal_large
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.

canyon-1
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).

norad

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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Hybrid Warfare, the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and Signposts for #highintensitywar

Hybrid Warfare, the Electromagnetic Spectrum, and Signposts for #highintensitywar

By Squadron Leader Jimmy

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader James Owen of the Royal Australian Air Force examines the importance of fully exploiting the electromagnetic spectrum in future high-intensity war.

The introduction in 1915 of the so-called ‘interrupter’ gear allowed pilots to fire a machine gun through the propeller arc of First World War combat aircraft. This was a decisive change; pilots could now find and track targets in their field of view, assess their situation, manoeuvre their aircraft and engage threats with some degree of accuracy. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.

This critical development turned aircraft into competent air-to-air combat machines that could have a significant effect in their contemporary battlespace. Presently, and moving into the future, high-intensity warfighting operations against a peer adversary will require a level of dynamic joint and combined integration in the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS) that is akin to an organisational interrupter gear. The electromagnetic interrupter gear will need to synchronise spectrum requirements for communications, radars and precision navigation and timing as well as requirements for understanding what the similar threat systems are doing, and the conduct of offensive electronic warfare to degrade and disrupt the threat’s use of the spectrum. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) and its allies will need to be able to find and track threats in the EMS, assess their future courses of action, manoeuvre both physically and in the EMS and engage through the most appropriate warfighting domain. Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.

Potential threat nations learned from the West’s way of war after the 1990-1991 Gulf War, and the 1999 Kosovo air campaign; the strength of Russian, Iranian, and Chinese integrated air defence systems are a testament to this. Similarly, potential threat actors have observed the West’s recent campaigns and adapted to meet them. Threat actors are exploiting the ‘grey zone’ that precedes a declared conventional war; they have sophisticated approaches for leveraging multi-domain effects to achieve their objectives. Experiences from Syria, Ukraine and the South China Sea demonstrate that the ‘unconventional’ and hybrid are now conventional and will be part of the reality of high-intensity warfare. The presence of proxy, paramilitary or deniable forces of little green men or little blue men, an array of remotely controlled or robotic threats and a complex multi-pronged contest in the EMS should now be assumed in high-intensity warfare, and the grey zone of conflict escalation that precedes it. It is therefore valuable to review some significant themes in recent campaigns to identify signposts for the role of EMS operations in high-intensity warfare.

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EA-18G Growlers from No. 6 Squadron RAAF arrive at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, for Exercise Red Flag 18-1, 2018. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

Manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum can be Decisive in the Physical Domain

Much has been written elsewhere over the last decade about the ‘unconventional’ threat that western militaries faced in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria. Western militaries were caught on the hop by the proliferation of improvised threats that exploited the EMS, particularly during the initial counter-insurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. Remote controlled improvised explosive devices (IEDs) had a huge impact on the approach to manoeuvre by western forces. IEDs targeted the strategic centre of gravity of the West; casualty numbers. Arguably the constraints that these devices placed on the ability of western forces to manoeuvre at will in the physical domain and engage freely with the population had a strategic impact on the course of those wars. Behind the explosions, there was an unforeseen and dynamic battle of cat and mouse in the EMS. There is a significant amount written elsewhere about the importance of being able to ‘manoeuvre in the Electromagnetic Spectrum’; the IED contest is a useful and tangible lesson in what that phrase means. As IED makers developed new means of activating IEDs remotely, western forces developed jammers to defeat those devices; the IED makers then quickly adapted to another remote device in another part of the spectrum, and the dance continued.

Control of the Air depends on Control of the EMS – Examples from Hybrid Warfare

The Air Power Manual, AAP-1000D, Australia’s current capstone air power doctrine, defines Control of the Air as ‘the ability to conduct friendly operations in all three dimensions without effective interference from enemy air power.’ Recent and ongoing conflicts have demonstrated that the air is now contested through an array of remotely controlled and robotic devices; to defeat those devices requires an equivalent ‘Control of the EMS’.  The following examples will explore some recent examples that signpost the requirements of EMS operations in a high-intensity conflict.

In January 2018, non-state actors conducted a co-ordinated strike mission against Russia’s Khmeimim air base in Syria with a total of 13 improvised unmanned air systems (UAS). According to the Russian Ministry of Defence, all the UAS were ‘detected […] at the safe distance (sic) from the base’ and neutralised without hitting their target. Control of some of the UAS was ‘seized’ by Russian ‘Electronic Warfare hardware’ which forced them to land; short-range air defence systems destroyed some. The Russian Ministry of Defence indicated that they used a layered system of multi-domain air defence that integrated EW and air defence batteries.

Ironically, this kind of unconventional targeted strike seems to have learned from and built upon the tactics recently employed with devastating success against ammunition dumps in Eastern Ukraine. In those instances, the actor that conducted the attack is not clear or declared. The attacks were reportedly conducted by unidentified drones which dropped Russian thermite grenades onto their targets.  The results indicate that the Ukrainian armed forces either could not find and track these drones, or the ability to engage them to prevent the successful conduct of their missions. It is possible that they had neither.

In both examples non-state, proxy, or deniable forces demonstrated intent and capability to deliver effects through the air to disrupt logistics and operations in depth. In the Syrian example, the Russians demonstrated that control of the EMS contributes significantly to control of the air in hybrid warfare; the Ukrainian example demonstrates that the absence of at least one essential part of the EMS interrupter gear undermines control of the air.

In February 2018, an Iranian ‘Saeqeh’ UAS conducted an incursion into Israeli airspace and was engaged and destroyed in around 90 seconds after crossing the border by AH-64 Apaches. This event has an interesting history that is very useful for understanding the relevance of effective EMS operations in high-intensity warfare. The ‘Saeqeh’ UAS itself is a clone of the US RQ-170 UAS. This cloning was made possible for Iranian defence and industry through an opportunity to reverse engineer a US RQ-170 low observable UAS that landed in Iran while on a reconnaissance mission in 2011. The Iranians claim that they forced that RQ-170 to land through a combination of datalink jamming and GPS spoofing by their EW Force, which fooled the RQ-170 into landing in Iran. Regardless of the truth in that event, the techniques that the Iranians claim to have used are plausible and point again to the role of EMS operations in control of the air.

Following the reverse engineering of the RQ-170 outlined above, the subsequent clone, called the ‘Saeqeh,’ conducted an incursion of Israeli airspace on February 18. The Israeli Defence Force (IDF) reported that they were able to track the ‘Saeqeh’ throughout its mission from its launch site near Palmyra in central Syria. It is not clear how this tracking was achieved, but it was almost certainly through the EMS through an electronic signature. Based on this tracking information the IDF assessed the route of the UAS and manoeuvred AH-64 Apaches to wait for it when it crossed into Israel. The Apaches engaged and destroyed the Saeqeh. Based upon the active exploitation of information from the EMS and integration with operations the IDF was able to find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage in neutralising this UAS; in this case with kinetic effects.

These RQ-170 and Saeqeh examples took place in the legal and political grey zone of armed conflict; the US and Israel, Iran and Syria are not in a formally declared war, and the borders are static. In both cases, it is likely that the defenders knew enough about the presence and nature of the UAS in question to have anticipated its activity and prepared a response; one kinetic, one non-kinetic but both appropriate responses based upon the fact that the engagements took place in the defender’s airspace. These scenarios were very predictable for all sides and not a complex or dynamic operational EMS challenge. In both circumstances, the ‘penetrating’ nation attempted to exploit low-observability and control of UAS through the EMS to achieve control of the air sufficient to achieve their mission. In both cases, the superior exploitation of the EMS by the defending force enabled them to maintain control of the air in their airspace.

It is apparent from the examples above that both the Russians and the Israelis demonstrated control of the air sufficient to defeat the threat that they faced. They both demonstrated that they have been able to manoeuvre both physically and, in the EMS, to meet their threat. They were able to find, track, assess and engage with EW or kinetic effects. It is apparent that the Ukrainian armed forces did not have Control of the Air sufficient to defeat the UAS attack through either kinetic or EMS effects and suffered the devastating success of the attack as a result.

The Russian and Israeli EMS ‘interrupter gears’ in these situations demonstrated an ability to anticipate and address threat manoeuvre in the EMS. It is important to recognise that the EMS environment that these defensive systems faced were essentially predictable and informed by several opportunities to understand the pattern of activity and character of their threat in the EMS. Aside from the UAS involved, the defensive forces that were involved or affected by these EMS operations were also largely static and well established. The respective Iranian and Israeli EMS command and control then only needed to deal with an EMS threat that could evolve or change over time periods such as weeks or months.

EMS Operations in High-Intensity Warfighting

In future high-intensity warfare, EMS operations are likely to be more complex than the scenarios above, but they will be an extension of the same themes and activities. The operating environment itself is likely to be more dynamic with a broad range of manoeuvring actors in the area. A peer adversary is likely to attempt to conduct multiple coordinated incursions into friendly airspace and territory with a broad range of remote weapon systems, many of which will use data links, sensors and transmitters that are hard to detect, characterise and track. The joint force will need to counter these across a coalition through integrated command and control of effects across the EMS and the warfighting domains. High-intensity warfighting will place extraordinary demands on the EMS interrupter gear, which will be critical to the success of operations by the joint and combined force.

A Way Ahead for ADF EMS operations

The solution for EMS operations is not just a technological one; effective EMS operations will also require significant evolutions in doctrine, organisation and training. For the former, the US has developed a doctrinal concept that they call ‘Joint Electromagnetic Spectrum Operations’ (JEMSO). JEMSO is a strategic ‘top-down’ concept. JEMSO should create a common lexicon and a joint ‘umbrella’ framework for the US services to integrate their service-specific structures and approaches to EMS into a common command and control system at the joint force level. The ADF will similarly need an ability to conduct this integrated command and control of EMS operations on its own and to be interoperable with the US framework.

Organisationally, the ADF will need to adapt the joint force so that it can integrate, plan, and execute EMS operations. To properly exploit the potential of the EA-18G Growler and future electronic warfare (EW) capabilities, the ADF will need EMS Operations cells in operational and tactical level joint and single-domain headquarters. High-intensity warfare will demand that this capability is networked and synchronised throughout the joint force.

Innovation, Acquisition, and the EMS

It is not just the operational force that requires adaptation to meet the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the EMS. Threat evolution requires rapid development, acquisition, and integration of new technologies into the force. Intelligence will need to be geared to keep ahead of this threat and to inform the direction of capability management. To keep ahead of the threat, technological development and innovation will need to leverage the ideas of industry, academia and Australia’s own Defence Science and Technology Group; threat capabilities and warfighter requirements should lead this, not the availability of technology. To achieve sufficiently cutting-edge technology, this requires an agile acquisition system. A heavy appetite for innovation risk will be required; we should be prepared for projects to ‘fail’ when developing cutting-edge technologies, without seeing the activity as a failed effort.

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Hunter killer group of F-105G Wild Weasels and F-4Es take fuel on the way to North Vietnam for a LINEBACKER strike in the summer of 1972. (Source: National Museum of the US Air Force)

Innovation and technological solutions will need to be lockstep with the warfighter to ensure that the appropriate training, tactics, and procedures (TTPs) are developed by services or the joint force to introduce them to service. My previous review of The Hunter Killers highlighted the incredibly high casualty rate suffered by the first Wild Weasel surface-to-air missile hunting squadrons; half of the aircrew of the first squadron was killed-in-action. Within the early Wild Weasel programmes, technological developments were poorly integrated with intelligence for the warfighter which manifested in weak tactics development before their initial deployments. The high mortality rate is a testament to this lack of integration. To avoid a similar fate, the joint force will need a means of rapidly developing, prototyping, and fielding new technologies and a coherent means of integrating intelligence-led TTPs development to employ them effectively.

Train the Force to Operate in the EMS

Technological solutions can enable us to move EW effects to the frequency band that the threat is in, but only education and training can deliver the ‘skill and care’ necessary for effective EMS manoeuvre. The effective conduct of EMS operations needs educated warfighters that understand not just the technical aspects of this contest, but the operational concepts and inter-relationship with the other warfighting domains.

The Russian military has integrated EW capabilities throughout their forces:

It’s found throughout every arm of service, every branch of service, it’s almost impossible to avoid EW capability, which very much contrasts to western militaries.

Russian EW activity is integral with but not subordinate to signals intelligence, cyber and conventional combat capabilities. Along with the distinct operational advantages of EW integration into combined arms units and formations, this has a significant second-order effect; Russian officers become familiar and comfortable with the integration and use of EW at a very early stage of their career. They train to fight in and with it. Education provides warfighters with the understanding to identify operational changes and adapt promptly; most significantly it enables warfighters with the ability to adapt to unique and unforeseen circumstances in an innovative but logical fashion.

The ADF does not have such familiarity with EW within the joint force. It will require a new cadre of EW generalists throughout the force that can assist in the integration of EW at the lowest level; it will also require specialist planners at the tactical and operational levels.

Summary

The examples above demonstrate clear patterns in the exploitation of the EMS by state and non-state actors in hybrid warfare; use of remote devices in land and air to attack high profile and high payoff targets at the front line and in the rear area should be assumed to be the new baseline threat in hybrid warfare. Non-state actors increasingly have access to ever more sophisticated capabilities. However, it is apparent that conventional forces in future high-intensity warfare will use a broad spectrum of remotely controlled devices in land, sea and air that have much better range, are much faster, agiler in the EMS and more destructive than their non-state peers.

JEMSO offers the ADF a suitable model to develop an organisational EMS interrupter gear and a vector for the supporting capability management and force generation structures that are required to underpin it. Dynamic joint force acquisition and capability management will be a vital element of preparing the ADF to win the EMS contest in high-intensity warfighting; however, and while it has not been considered in this article, it remains a truism that the human component is likely to be the key to winning or losing. Ultimately, the ADF will need appropriately educated and trained warfighters able to anticipate, integrate and exploit the EMS. Warfighters empowered with education in operations in and through the EMS will be the foundation of victory in #highintensitywar.

Find, track, assess, manoeuvre and engage.

Squadron Leader Jimmy is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: Technicians from No. 6 Squadron RAAF perform an after flight inspection on an EA-18G Growler at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada, during Exercise Red Flag 18-1, 2018. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

From ‘Bats to MAVs’: The Concept is Clear, ‘Small’ is the Future of Aerial Warfare

From ‘Bats to MAVs’: The Concept is Clear, ‘Small’ is the Future of Aerial Warfare

By Sergeant Lee Tomàs

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sergeant Lee Tomàs of the Royal Air Force (RAF) examines the implications of Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) for future conflicts.

In 1941, a Pennsylvania dentist named Lytle S. Adams was on vacation in the South-West of America within the famous Carlsbad Caverns. While exploring Carlsbad’s vast expanse, he observed it hosted thousands of indigenous Bats. Adams was monumentally impressed by what he saw and then just as history has often taught us previously, the most remarkable ideas often derive from the strangest of places, at a random moment, when separate paths conjoin. Much like Sir Isaac Newton when the Apple hit his head, thus propelling him in founding the theory of gravity.[1] Adams’ similar ‘eureka’ moment did not derive from when he observed the Bats in Carlsbad’s deep and damp expanse; it was when he turned on his car radio when departing, which amplified that the Imperial Japanese Navy had devastatingly attacked Pearl Harbor. Adams at that precise moment began plotting an unorthodox plan of revenge against America’s new enemy; the Japanese, using what he had seen previously that day; the Bats.[2]

The idea that developed from Adams’ eureka moment was to attach incendiary material onto swarms of collected Bats, who previously (through the research and development stages of the idea) were trained to hibernate in large storage refrigerators. The final phase of Adams’ plan was for these Bats to be dropped from an aircraft in a bomb casing encompassing similar properties to the aforementioned refrigerators. These would then open mid-air, dispersing the Bats outwards onto Japanese cities below to seek warmth and sanctuary within enemy building structures, inside eaves and roofs, which during that period in Japan were made of highly flammable material. The Bats would then go kinetic, catch fire, and subsequently demolish their host building target.[3] Adams’ own words would describe the predicted results of the later titled Project X-Ray. ‘Think of thousands of fires breaking out simultaneously over a circle of forty miles in diameter for every bomb dropped.’ He later recalled that ‘Japan could have been devastated, yet with a small loss of life.’[4]

Adams’ creation of Project X-Ray could be perceived as pure lunacy to the untrained eye, however, with the present-day parameters of modern warfare constantly evolving, sometimes a little bit of lunacy can be effective in achieving the desired strategic aim. Adams’ premise of causing considerable amounts of effective damage upon one’s enemy, with the least amount of innocent lives taken, through the hostile deployment of these mini-warfare-vessels might, in the future, be a viable solution. Project X-Ray’s legacy, concept and its underpinning tactical peripherals of swarm-based aerial strategies will be forwarded within this narrative as still being relevant and possible within the delivery of modern warfare. This will be proven by substituting the Bats for the new technological assets: MAVs, which when deployed would give a modern force, like the RAF, a viable tactical equaliser and advantage within wider strategic operations.

Project X-ray principles of tactical swarm-based aerial attack have possible relevance within historic, present-day, and future western military operations due to two distinct and transcending reasons. The first is the current evolving development and procurement of military platforms and assets, which are now gravitating towards small, smart, and cheap technology that encompasses the ability to deploy in swarm formations. This ability includes overpowering your enemy within all areas through greater aerial deployments while retaining a cheaper overall financial outlay. The second reason is the potential future opportunity to reduce the amount of military and civilian deaths caused by historic and currently deployed air operations. Below we will explore these two reasons in depth while answering if aspects of Adams’ idea could be implemented within future UK warfare scenarios by using the vast range of MAV technology available and placing them in historical conflict case studies, which will position how they will affect future air-centric operations globally.

As a platform, MAVs are a small remotely, or autonomous air-asset. Typically, they exist in three size classifications; small, medium, and large. This article focusses on small and medium-sized MAVs. Small MAVs, which the US Department of Defense defines as being 20lbs or lighter, are typically hand sized, like the U.S ‘Cicada,’ which is a Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft used for carrying out undetected missions in remote battlefields.[5] Medium MAVs are typically ‘dinner-plate’ sized like the ‘Quad,’ ‘Hexa’ or ‘Octo’ copters, currently used by UK police forces for surveillance operations within the airspace of airports like the ‘Aeryon-Skyranger’ drone.[6] There are also large MAVs like the ‘Harpey’ Drone, which is currently used by the Chinese military and has a nine-foot wingspan and 32 Kilogram warhead payload that is guided by radar, can loiter in the air and can deploy with 17 others systems from a single five-ton truck.[7]

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The US Navy’s “CICADA” drone program is producing lightweight disposable glider drones for field missions. (Source: US Naval Research Laboratory)

This article will start where the Bats ended. Although the aforementioned ‘Project X-Ray’ was not implemented operationally during the Second World War, its premise – to inflict regional mass damage to Japanese cities without mass fatalities – is a tactic that is still desired today by the majority western militaries and governments. The Cicada as an individual platform has the same tactical properties and potential as Adams’ Bats in that they can be deployed en-masse, equipped with small thermobaric NANO munitions, which could easily perform the small kinetic solution positioned during the Project’s design stage, and are also more importantly incredibly small. The potential capability of this MAV within a swarm configuration has already been adopted again by the US Air Force (USAF) when it deployed ‘Tempest’ tactical balloons at high altitude. These then released medium Tempest MAVs who during mid-flight then distributed smaller Cicadas MAVs en-masse (again all at high altitude) to collect environmental data.[8] A more warfare centric illustration of Cicada’s possible capability was demonstrated during the recent deployment of 103 ‘Perdix’ MAVs from an American F/A-18 fighter jet, which once deployed (mid-air) flew to three different target locations and simulated a swarm attack scenario on each designated enemy position. A Chinese civilian corporation who specialises in MAV development had also illustrated this possible small-MAV swarm scenario when it deployed 67 MAV’s simultaneously which performed a ‘saturation’ attack on an enemy anti-aircraft battery, subsequently neutralising the anti-air threat. The U.S Navy has also recently reinforced the effectiveness of mass MAV strategy when it deployed 8 LOCUST (medium) MAVs simultaneously towards one Aegis-class destroyer warship (the most effective global air-defence system currently available).[9] This exercise resulted in 2.8 of the 8 MAVs penetrating the ships defence system, causing subsequent damage and the conclusion that if this deployment were increased by 10 or a 100, the consequences would be more devastating, proving that smaller, smarter and more lethal technologies are the future of air-centric warfare.

The potential benefits of these attacks can be dissected further. The Bat inspired slow-burn-combustion Cicada MAV attack would, as Adams conceived initially, cause the necessary damage to enemy territory, buildings, and infrastructure while reducing the human-centric ‘collateral damage.’ This reduction in lives taken by this type of operation (if appropriately deployed) would achieve its aim by allowing the residing population the choice to flee their residencies and disperse the area, therefore allowing a secondary larger tactical air-strike to occur on key infrastructure targets like nuclear reactors, power stations and government/military buildings. If civilian dispersal was not forthcoming then maybe using MAVs to deploy dispersal gas, or even recorded PA warnings played through speakers on the MAV’s could be utilised. The former ability already exists and was demonstrated by the Skunk MAV, which were bought by a South African Mining company which deployed 25 of these (medium) multi-rotor MAVs to quell potential protester uprisings. Skunks have four barrels which fire pepper-spray or paintball rounds at protesters. Less potent aerosols could potentially be designed to encourage the necessary civilian movement and dispersal passively.

This above mentioned strategy would in the first instance reduce the mass-death scenario created from current air-strike strategies, and also decrease the erosion of a state’s global-moral currency, a process which was demonstrated when the US disclosed 116 innocent civilians were killed through its UAV centred strategy in Afghanistan in 2016, and in response culminated in extensive global condemnation.[10] The erosion of a state’s moral-currency is not outwardly/globally post-strike, it is also internally eroding within the conflict itself as air-strikes can have an extensive degrading effect on the local population, which has historically been the catalyst for the worlds emerging and multiplying insurgencies in Middle Eastern conflicts.[11]

It Always Comes Down to Money!

From a fiscal perspective using small MAVs as weapons could also be highly beneficial in future tactical strikes. MAVs as a platform can now be designed and created using additive 3-D printing. Within the West geographically, 3D printing has already transcended into the world of MAVs through pioneers such as Andy Keane and Jim Scanlan from the University of Southampton University, who, through 3-D printing, produced a drone with a five-foot wingspan. This process has further expanded globally through the online ‘Maker movement’ which shares 3D drone designs and do-it-yourself guides for anybody who wishes to construct a Drone. Ang Cui, a Columbia University PhD, also has a ‘Drones at home’ blog with step-by-step instructions for would-be drone makers to follow. The first commercial and military MAV produced at scale through 3D printing was the small ‘Razor’ drone, which is not only highly effective but can be printed in one day in the US for $550 there are also cheaper variants which cost $9 per unit.[12]

The Razor’s wingspan of forty inches, cruise potential of 45mph and a flight capability of forty minutes comes in complete form for $2,000, and its production company MITRE believe future projects will arrive under $1,000, or cheaper as the MAV market expands.[13] Further evolutions include Voxel8 a 3D electronic printing company whose $8,999 3-D printer can print an operational drone with electronics and engine included.[14]

Commercial American companies have also illustrated the MAV mass production potential of 3D technology, such as United Postal Service (UPS) who have established a factory with 100 3-D printers, which accepts orders, prints them, allocates a price, and then ships them the same day. Furthermore, UPS plan to increase its plant size to 1000 printers to support major production runs.[15] China has also recognised the benefits of embracing civilian technological advancement to improve military procurement. The expansion of 3D printing within China’s commercial sector has recently empowered its military to evolve its procurement of warfare assets and platforms effectively. This was demonstrated to observing media by the Chinese Army who repaired a broken military class oil-truck in an austere battlefield environment using only a single 3D additive manufacturing machine. This process allowed the crew to replicate and replace the unserviceable components both on-site and within a short period.[16] Furthermore, this demonstration revealed the ease, skill, convenience and reliance China places on 3D printing, which in this instance prevented them experiencing routine operational issues like losing their re-fuelling capability, the requirement for a truck recovery team to deploy and the need to wait for an expensive part from a geographically distant manufacturer to arrive. A final and more strategic advantage this 3-D process has provided is removing China’s potential reliance on global commercial industry to provide these technical parts en-masse as the US does within its own present-day military procurement cycles.

Not only does 3D printing provide numerous tactical and speed efficiencies, but it could also, if correctly exploited, arrive at an incredibly cheaper cost financially. Using the Razor as an example, it currently costs $2000 per individual platform (complete). Therefore, a smaller Cicada MAV would arrive if produced within the same process at $250 or cheaper due to its smaller size, reduction of material required and after necessary production efficiency has been achieved.[17] Once assembled, if a small incendiary were then attached at an estimated cost of $200, it would make the platform an incredibly cheap and deadly weapon. This overall manufacture-to-deployment financial pathway compares favourably to the recently released UK Ministry of Defence figures that an average Tornado aircraft operational flight costs £35,000-per hour. This figure, when plugged into an operational scenario, creates the following financial outlay; two Tornados performing a six-hour (one stop) strike operation carrying four Paveway bombs (£22,000) and two Brimstone missiles (£105,000) would cost on average £1 Million. If the Paveway munitions were later exchanged for the Storm-Shadow munition variant (£800,000), the cost would increase exponentially.[18] This price, even without the latter munition, would allow you to purchase 2,000 Cicada’s with the ability to be dropped from a more fiscal efficient platform and would then as a swarm fly straight to the target area with a potential kill radius of 2 metres per MAV depending on incendiary attached. This type of attack would reduce the possibility of human collateral damage, firstly from a surface-to-air threat to the pilot and innocents on the ground exposed to the aerial kill-chain, while giving the swarm operator the ability to increase or decrease the swarm size depending on the amount of damage desired or required. The financial benefits continue to expand in favour of small MAVs when they are compared to rival high-technology air platforms like the fifth generation F-35. Using the previous larger Razor MAV as an example; it costs $2,000 per fully functioning drone, which when compared to the cost of 16 F-35s would allow you to purchase for the same price one million Razors. If the F-35s and these Razors were then deployed against each other in active hostile deployments, the Razors would retain the tactical potential if designed correctly to swarm the 16 F-35s, destroying them, even without incendiaries, through intended foreign object debris damage. Therefore, eradicating the superiority that the F-35 previously held. Of course, scenarios, testing and system advancement would dictate these hypothetical scenarios, however as all the scenarios suggest there is a new dimension in modern warfare and it is the MAV.

Sergeant Lee Tomàs is a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer in the Royal Air Force. In a 13-year career in the RAF, he has deployed to the Falkland Islands, Afghanistan, Cyprus, Oman, and Cyprus. He holds a Post Graduate Certificate from Brighton University, an MA from Staffordshire University, and an MA from Kings College London. He runs a political online blog and lecture series at RAF stations which tries to develop junior Ranks knowledge of current affairs. In 2017, he won the prestigious CAS ‘Fellow of the Year’ award.

Header Image: A Honeywell RQ-16 T-Hawk Micro Air Vehicle flies over a simulated combat area during an operational test flight, c. 2006.

[1] Steve Connor, ‘The Core of truth behind Sir Isaac Newton’s Apple,’ The Independent, 18 January 2010.

[2] Alexis C. Madrigal, ‘Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II,’ The Atlantic, 14 April 2011.

[3] David Hambling, Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World (London: Archangel Ink, 2015).

[4] Madrigal, ‘Old, Weird Tech: The Bat Bombs of World War II.’

[5]  Sarah Kreps, Drones: What Everyone Needs to Know (Oxford University Press, 2016); Anon, ‘U.S. military hopes to enlist tiny, durable Cicada mini-drone,’ The Japan Times.

[6]  Anon, ‘UK Police ‘Skyranger’ Drones to patrol skies above Gatwick airport after major disasters,’ The Huffington Post, 13 March 2014.

[7] John Kaag and Sarah Kreps, Drone Warfare (London: Polity Press, 2014), p. 49.

[8]  Ibid, pp. 8-9.

[9] David Hambling, ‘U.S. Navy Plans to Fly First Drone Swarm This Summer’, Military.com, 4 January 2016.

[10] Spencer Ackerman, ‘Obama claims US drone strikes have killed up to 116 civilians,’ The Guardian, 2 July 2016.

[11] Jason Berry, ‘Inside Americas Drone War, a moral Black Box,’ PRI, 26 September 2012.

[12] T.X. Hammes, ‘The Future of Warfare: Small, Many, Smart vs. Few & Exquisite?,’ War on the Rocks, 16 July 2014.

[13] Hambling, Swarm Troopers, pp. 109-10.

[14] Dario Borghino, ‘Voxel8 paves the way for 3D-printed Electronics,’ New Atlas, 14 January 2015.

[15] Eddie Krassenstein, ‘Cloud-DDM-factory with 100 (eventually 1000) 3D printers & just 3 employees’ open’s at UPS’s Worldwide Hub,’ 3DPrint.com, 4 May 2015.

[16] Simon, ‘Chinese military begins using part production library for 3D printing replacement parts in the field,’ 3ders.org, 12 August 2015.

[17] Mariella Moon, ‘Watch how the Navy plans to deploy its tiny Cicada drones,’ Engadget, 22 May 2015.

[18] Alistair Bunkall, ‘How Much Will Airstrikes on IS Cost Taxpayer?,’ SKY News, 26 September 2014.

Tactical Reconnaissance Redux? The Requirement for Airborne Tactical Reconnaissance in #HighIntensityWar

Tactical Reconnaissance Redux? The Requirement for Airborne Tactical Reconnaissance in #HighIntensityWar

By Squadron Leader Rodney Barton

Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Rodney Barton examines and discusses the importance of tactical level reconnaissance in support of operations in a contested environment. In examining the importance of such a capability, Barton makes a case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to reacquire the ability to undertake such missions.

The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not maintained an airborne tactical reconnaissance capability since the retirement of the reconnaissance variant of the F-111 in 2010. Instead, the ADF has shifted focus to ‘traditional’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon and G550 Gulfstream aircraft, with unmanned ISR capabilities soon to follow. These platforms are not designed to operate in a contested environment; a degree of air superiority is required to ensure optimised collection. The ADF has been comfortably reliant on satellites to penetrate denied areas that require imagery collection, but the emergence of counter-space capabilities now puts this access at risk. This article will discuss the role of airborne tactical reconnaissance, why it still exists, why the ADF needs a tactical reconnaissance capability and the innovative methods of applying tactical reconnaissance in small air forces like the RAAF.

For as long as airframes have existed – the airborne reconnaissance role has existed. From the very first balloons in the nineteenth century through to the modern age, aircraft have flown in the vicinity of the adversary to understand their posture and intentions. Tactical reconnaissance aircraft have developed gradually with speed and altitude to penetrate defended airspace and gain access to sensitive areas. These aircraft were typically unarmed to maximise their operating speed, height, range and most importantly, survivability. At times during the Second World War, a lack of dedicated tactical reconnaissance assets necessitated modifications to existing fighter aircraft to meet the collection requirement. This specific mission was known as ‘dicing’ – short for ‘dicing with death’ – due to the risk the aircraft faced while conducting the mission, particularly the post-strike bomb assessment. During the Cold War, the tactical reconnaissance mission took on a strategic reconnaissance focus epitomised in the US by the U-2 Dragonlady and SR-71 Blackbird respectively. The advent of a satellite imagery capability led to less reliance on these platforms for strategic collection – although the U-2 remains in service and high demand, albeit in permissive airspace.

HU 92977
A vertical serial reconnaissance photograph, taken from 24,000 feet, showing the St Jean district of Caen, France. This area was destroyed by two heavy raids on the city by aircraft of No. 5 Group, RAF Bomber Command, on the nights of 6/7 and 12/13 June 1944. The Bassin Saint-Pierre is at bottom left and the River Orne flows from upper right to middle left. The church of St Jean, damaged but still standing, is visible towards the middle of the lower-right quarter of the photograph. Another badly damaged area can be seen across the river in the Vaucelles district, to the right of the main railway station (top left). (Source: © IWM (HU 92977))

Despite the developments of space-based imagery and high-altitude collection platforms, the requirement for tactical reconnaissance in the US remained evident during the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. The US Air Force (USAF) operated several modified fighter aircraft (RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4C Phantom) and aircraft-launched drones during the Vietnam War, particularly for the collection of target intelligence and post-strike assessment. RF-4C Phantom aircraft continued to serve through the First Gulf War providing vital intelligence on Republican Guard movements and Iraqi Air Force disposition. They were also misused to a certain degree, in the bid to find and fix Iraqi mobile missile launchers. The inability to view or disseminate the imagery real-time from the venerable Phantoms no doubt compounded this issue. The USAF retired the RF-4C in 1995 and has not sought a replacement since – most likely due to the emergence of unmanned ISR platforms and reliance on space-based assets.

Advances and growth in satellite imagery collection, along with the increasing sophistication of ground-based air defences, have challenged the utility of tactical reconnaissance. Not only do imagery satellites collect more persistently against denied areas, but they are not subject to air defence systems which increasingly have greater reach and lethality. The shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4E in Syrian airspace in 2012 highlights the threat that air defence systems pose. Despite these factors, countries with small air forces still invest and implement airborne tactical reconnaissance capabilities. Why? The simple answer is cost, access and availability. Not every country has access to satellite imagery. Even when they do, the imagery may not be available when it is required due to weather, communications, or other priorities. Given satellite’s strategic nature and scarcity, a local commander’s tactical requirements may be lost amongst national strategic priorities. Tactical reconnaissance missions can be employed locally and responsively to support immediate requirements.

Local control and accessibility are two key reasons why the US Navy (USN) still operates a tactical reconnaissance capability through the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) carried on the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. For a deployed carrier battle group operating in a potentially contested environment, satellite imagery will not be on tap for perusal. Many European and Middle-Eastern nations have also invested in tactical reconnaissance capabilities due to their low cost and accessibility of the imagery collected. Podded electro-optical/infra-red sensors such as the DB-110 (a tactical derivative of the U-2 sensor) have proven popular in these countries due to their platform agnostic versatility with carriage options on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, GR-4 Tornado, or F-15 Eagle. The DB-110 can collect almost 26,000 square kilometres of imagery per hour from a stand-off range of 150 kilometres. Low cost, seamless pod integration onto fighter platforms and flexibility of use provide significant benefits to small air forces that cannot afford to invest heavily in ISR space or air-breathing assets.

030113-N-2385R-008
A Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP), installed on the bottom of an F/A-18F Super Hornet assigned VFA-41, is positioned on the USS Nimitz’s flight deck waiting to be launched during the next cycle of flight operations, c. 2003. SHARP is a multi-functioned reconnaissance pod, adaptable to several airborne platforms for tactical manned airborne reconnaissance. It is capable of simultaneous airborne and ground screening capabilities and was designed to replace the US Navy’s Tactical Airborne Reconnaissance Pod System. (Source: Wikimedia)

Further advances in tactical reconnaissance sensor capability also provide value for money. Take for example the development of multi-spectral sensors for detection of camouflaged and concealed targets at longer stand-off ranges. Additionally, tactical reconnaissance sensors now have datalink connectivity resulting in an ability to pass image chips forward via airborne assets for early exploitation and analysis. Tactical reconnaissance vendors are also promoting requirements for expeditionary processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) cabin for deployed operations. Expeditionary PED is critical to the tactical reconnaissance mission, particularly if it is likely that communications bearers are at risk. Furthermore, the transmission of terabytes of imagery through a communications bearer for analysis may not be viable due to bandwidth constraints on protected networks.  The significant volume of imagery data collected from tactical reconnaissance pods will necessitate a form of ‘triage’ of the imagery to focus analytical efforts on priority information requirements. Therefore, sending analysts closer to the fight may be required to overcome the effects of a contested communications environment.

In a future high-intensity war, ADF will not have the unfettered use of space and Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) to which it has become accustomed. Near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have made their intentions clear regarding the denial of space and communications bearers for the US and its allies during any potential conflict. Therefore, the ability to carry an imagery collection sensor on an aircraft that can penetrate and survive in contested airspace, conduct a tactical reconnaissance mission, and return the imagery for exploitation is vitally important. Early phases of a high-intensity war against a sophisticated integrated air defence system (IADS) will see our traditional ISR assets operating at significant stand-off ranges that will degrade their operational utility. The F-35 can penetrate IADS; however, the sensor suite is not optimised for long-range, wide field-of-view imagery collection. The high-end battle may require traditional reconnaissance methods to get the job done. This is particularly important for targeting intelligence and post-strike assessment – to ensure the commander apportions the right platforms and weapons against the right target sets to achieve the desired effects at the lowest risk available.

For a small but technically advanced air force like the RAAF, the acquisition of imagery sensors that can be carried in a fast jet-configured pod would provide a low-cost capability for imagery collection for use during high-intensity war, complementing available satellite and larger airborne imagery collection systems. The tactical reconnaissance pods can also be utilised in permissive environments when tasked and could be considered for use to support the full spectrum of operations. The most likely candidate platform for the ADF tactical reconnaissance capability would be the F/A-18F Super Hornet, given the already demonstrated role with the USN and SHARP. The flexibility of a podded sensor allows the fighter aircraft only to carry the pod when required vice having a permanently fixed sensor with inherent penalties of sensor carriage. An airborne tactical reconnaissance capability could provide responsive, survivable, and high-quality imagery to the joint force a range of scenarios.

Imagery collection capabilities are facing increasingly sophisticated threats across the air, electromagnetic, space and cyber domains. The development of an ADF airborne tactical reconnaissance capability would add another layer to Australia’s tactical imagery collection requirements while also enhances its self-reliant military capability and its value as a contributor to coalition ISR operations. Tactical reconnaissance provides necessary redundancy, survivability, and responsiveness required when the high-intensity war means commanders cannot access strategic collection capabilities – due to access or priorities – and reduces the information gush to a trickle. In high-intensity war and pulling the digital ‘wet-film’ imagery from a pod-equipped fighter jet may be the only viable reconnaissance method available to reveal adversary posture and intent.

Squadron Leader Rodney ‘Neville’ Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An RAF Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham in Norfolk with a RAPTOR airborne reconnaissance pod fitted beneath the fuselage, c. 2009. The images received by the pod can be transmitted via a real-time data-link system to image analysts at a ground station or can be displayed in the cockpit during flight. The imagery can also be recorded for post-flight analysis. The RAPTOR system can create images of hundreds of separate targets in one sortie; it is capable of autonomous operation against preplanned targets, or it can be re-tasked manually for targets of opportunity or to select a different route to the target. The stand-off range of the sensors allows the aircraft to remain outside heavily-defended areas, to minimise the aircraft’s exposure to enemy air-defence systems. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)

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.

RAF-T 2151
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.

TR 27162
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.

CT 68
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.

The Champion Team to Fight and Win #highintensitywar: The Case for Australian Expeditionary Air Wings

The Champion Team to Fight and Win #highintensitywar: The Case for Australian Expeditionary Air Wings

By Wing Commander Chris McInnes

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, Chris McInnes examines the case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to develop a fully integrated expeditionary air wing capability to deal with the challenges offered by high-intensity warfare.

In introducing Plan Jericho to the world in 2015, then Chief of the RAAF Air Marshal Geoff Brown argued that the Royal Australian Air Force:

[n]eed[s] to evolve our techniques, tactics and procedures to work as a champion team, not a team of champions.[1]

Brown’s distinction between a champion team and team of champions is a particularly important one for small air forces to consider as they ponder the requirements of high-intensity operations in a changing world. The tempo, complexity, and costs of high-intensity operations will sunder the seams of a team of champions.

Small air forces have had mercifully limited experience of this pressure because larger forces, generally the United States Air Force (USAF), have absorbed much of it. For the RAAF, a lacklustre command experience in the Second World War has been followed by niche contributions that operated as part of US-led combat air operations but in isolation from each other in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.[2] Australian officers have led these contributions and regional coalition operations, such as East Timor in 1999, and gained valuable knowledge as embeds in larger US headquarters. However, as a collective, Australia’s airmen have had little exposure to building a champion team to withstand the pressures of high-intensity warfare.

This is why Operation Okra’s air task group is so important. The dispatch of a self-deploying, self-sustaining air task group to the Middle East in September 2014 marked a departure from Australia’s experience of combat air operations. For the first time since the Second World War, Australian air power– the E-7A airborne early warning and control aircraft, KC-30A tankers, F/A-18F fighters, C-130J transports, air base, and enabling elements – contributed to the wider US-led operation as a coherent Australian team.

Operation OKRA
An RAAF KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport, E-7A Wedgetail and an F/A-18F Super Hornet fly in formation as they transit to the airspace as part of Operation Okra. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

This team came together despite the lack of a common organisational concept or a well-prepared headquarters to facilitate their integration as an Australian champion team. The aircraft and air bases mentioned above reported to three separate chains of command: Air Task Group 630 commanded the E-7A, KC-30A, and F/A-18 elements while Joint Task Force 633 retained command, as separate units, of the C-130J aircraft and the air base elements in the Middle East. This organisational fragmentation was not helped by the fact that, according to the commander of the initial air task group and now Air Commander Australia Air Vice-Marshal Steve Roberton, the principal headquarters element responsible for integrating the separate capabilities ‘formed over there; [it] was not stood up before we deployed. In fact, people hadn’t even met.’

The friction-induced by the ad-hoc organisation and an under-prepared headquarters in September 2014 was overcome through the cooperation of quality personnel in stressful but controlled circumstances. These favourable conditions are unlikely to be present in high-intensity operations, and self-inflicted friction will only exacerbate uncontrollable external challenges, delaying and potentially preventing an Australian team of champions becoming a champion team when it matters most.

This article argues that invigorating and embedding the concepts and capabilities needed to operate as an expeditionary air wing is critical if Australian air power is to meet Brown’s challenge when it matters most. The article will argue that the wing is the critical expeditionary echelon for small air forces like the RAAF in high-intensity operations, outline why building expeditionary air wings may be difficult for the RAAF and draw upon British and Canadian experiences over the past decade to suggest some ways forward as a means of stimulating broader discussion.

First, ‘wing’ in this post means the lowest air power command echelon with the necessary resources – command, flying, maintenance, base services, and other enablers – to generate, apply, and sustain air power autonomously. The core concept of a wing is that it is the collective of multiple capabilities under a single commander that generates air power, not a specific number of aircraft, squadrons, or personnel. This historically-proven concept of a wing is flexible, scalable, and modular; not all wings need the full suite of enabling services, and it is entirely possible to have a wing with no permanent flying units. Importantly, wings can be defined by function or by geography depending on the circumstances – the Australian Air Component in the Middle East formed in 2009 was, in essence, a reorganisation of existing independent units to form a wing. Army personnel would recognise the concept of a wing as a combined arms formation, similar to a brigade.

Expeditionary Air Wing
A generic expeditionary air wing organisational structure. (Source: Author)

The wing is the critical echelon for small air forces precisely because it is the lowest echelon capable of autonomous operations and command, either as part of a coalition force or independently. Even when an air and space operations centre (AOC) is available, the wing is where indispensable but often overlooked tactical planning, integration, and assessment occur to turn the AOC’s higher direction into executable plans. Much of the planning on operations and exercises, such as Red Flag and Diamond Storm – the RAAF Air Warfare Instructor Course’s (AWIC) final exercise – happens at the wing level because it is focused on integrating multiple capabilities to achieve a mission. In operations led by a larger partner, such as Okra, a wing enables a small air force to present a coherent, readily identifiable, force package that reduces integration costs on both sides. In more modest operations in which a small air force may lead a joint or combined force a wing headquarters can provide the command and control core, potentially obviating the need for a separate AOC. This latter point is especially crucial for small air forces whose expeditionary resources may mean a separate AOC is unaffordable and unnecessary, particularly in high-intensity operations that generate substantial homeland defence tasking and thereby limit the assets available for expeditionary operations.

High-intensity warfare reinforces the criticality of the wing for small forces because of the need for flexibility, agility, and resilience. When then-Commander US Pacific Air Forces, General Hawk Carlisle, argued for greater distribution of command and control functions that would see ‘the AOR [area of responsibility] […] become a CAOC,’ part of his vision, according to Lieutenant General David Deptula (ret’d) , was that wings would play a ‘role much more integral to a distributed [command and control] system than simply their historical force-provider role.’ Resilience is boosted by reducing air power’s dependence on a single node and allowing operations to continue despite degraded communications. Enhancing command and control capabilities at multiple points increases flexibility because each node is better able to integrate different forces or adapt to new missions. Agility is fostered by supporting concurrent and locally-focused activity across many organisations; USAF exercises indicate this distributed planning model can significantly accelerate the air operations planning process.

These rationales are apparent in Britain and Canada who have developed expeditionary air wings since 2006. The two countries have taken different paths, but both have made wings the foundations of their expeditionary forces, with required capabilities plugging into the wing framework as required. Britain has multiple standing expeditionary air wings drawn directly from Royal Air Force (RAF) stations, while Canada maintains two expeditionary wings at any given time. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has a permanent high-readiness expeditionary wing for contingency operations drawn from 2 Wing and one focused on longer-term operations that are drawn from the Air Force’s remaining wings on a rotating basis. An RAF colleague at the Australian Command and Staff College viewed the wing framework as so fundamental to expeditionary air operations that, after a presentation on the initial Okra deployment highlighted that capabilities were deployed without such a framework, he opined that “you Aussies do this air power thing upside down. Is that because you’re from the southern hemisphere?”

Australia’s apparently inverted approach to expeditionary air operations stems from a structure that is optimised for managing discrete capabilities rather than producing integrated air power packages. As Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d) Brian Weston has pointed out, the force element group (FEG) construct has many positives, and FEG played a crucial role in ensuring that the team of champions were ready for Operation Okra. However, the capability-defined FEG and their similarly defined subordinate wings mean that no two FEG or wings are alike and no FEG or wing is structured for, or practised in, leading an integrated expeditionary team in combat. The rise of FEG-aligned control centres and divisions in Australia’s standing AOC reinforces this separation because it drives cross-FEG integration up to the AOC (at least in a formal sense).  These structural barriers to integration are reinforced by a cultural one that arises because personnel tend to ‘grow up’ through their own FEG and could reach very senior ranks with limited exposure to ‘other FEG.’ The lack of a ready and rehearsed wing headquarters for Operation Okra stemmed directly from a disaggregated organisation that is optimised for generating individual champions.

So how then to build the champion team necessary for high-intensity warfare? As Okra and other operations have demonstrated, almost all the pieces of an Australian expeditionary air wing already exist. The establishment of the Air Warfare Centre (AWC) to champion integration and develop the techniques and procedures for integrated tactics is an important step forward. Much work is already underway through Plan Jericho initiatives, the establishment of an Air Warfare School and AWIC, and integration-focused exercises such as the Diamond series and Northern Shield.

Integrated tactics and training courses, however, will count for little in high-intensity operations if they are executed by ad hoc organisations using personnel that have not met and whose usual focus is on managing the routine activities of individual capabilities. The RAAF’s positive steps towards integration must be complemented by efforts to build a collective organisational framework for expeditionary air power and the command and control capabilities at the core of that framework. An expeditionary operating concept and expeditionary headquarters focused on generating, applying, and sustaining integrated air power – a champion team – are essential to complement the disaggregated FEG construct that is so adept at building individual champions.

The articulation of a clear expeditionary operations concept with the expeditionary air wing at its heart would appear to be a relatively simple task. In 2016 the RCAF included a chapter in its capstone doctrine articulating how it delivers air power to joint or coalition commanders and in domestic or expeditionary settings. This chapter, which was not present in the 2010 edition, includes an air task force concept with an expeditionary air wing as its central operational element and discusses how these frameworks can be tailored to suit specific circumstances. Publicly available articles build on the doctrine chapter to explain the RCAF’s concept and rationale. The RAF explains expeditionary air wings on its public website and emphasises their central role in projecting British air power around the globe. The RAF declares that:

[t]he aim of [expeditionary air wings] is to […] generate a readily identifiable structure that is better able to deploy discrete units of agile, scalable, interoperable and capable air power.

Because of this investment in expeditionary air wings, British air power is expected to:

  • To achieve greater operational synergy, delivering focused operational effects from the outset of a deployment;
  • To generate a more cohesive trained audience;
  • To engender more widely a greater understanding of the capability of air power;
  • To achieve a more inclusive formation identity.

By contrast, Australian air power doctrine, including a 2009 publication focused on command and control, devotes more attention to the workings of the RAAF’s garrison structure than operational considerations and tends to description rather than explication. There is no distinction between expeditionary and domestic organisational considerations; ‘expeditionary’ appears only six times scattered across the 245 pages of the RAAF’s Air Power Manual, usually to describe units or capabilities. Discussion on air power command and control is confined to stating a preference for a senior airman to command air power and describing operational-level headquarters. The reader is left with a sense that the RAAF either does not have a clear idea of how it wants to organise integrated air power for a joint or coalition commander or is reluctant to express a view. This is undoubtedly implicit knowledge for many, but high-intensity warfare is not the time to discover that your implicit knowledge differs from the person next to you.

The RAAF should explicitly articulate its force presentation and organisation preferences, similar to the Canadian example. An outline of how future air task groups – centred on expeditionary air wings – would function and be organised, the available options, and the considerations that influence choices is necessary. Expressing a clear view on how to best organise and present an integrated air power team for operations in domestic and expeditionary settings is professional, not parochial. This conceptual framework should be widely accessible, preferably in a public document, to maximise the spread of this concept to Australian airmen and colleagues from other Services, agencies, and countries. A clear, and readily accessible, organisational concept underpins the ability of Australian air power to build a champion team quickly, particularly in the face of the pressure and friction of high-intensity operations.

The final element needed to rapidly form a champion team from the RAAF’s tactical champions is the commander and, crucially, staff. Commanding an expeditionary air wing is a problematic and vitally important challenge – particularly in high-intensity operations – that must be addressed by a coherent command crew that is trained and exercised to high levels of proficiency. Developing outstanding individuals to serve as commanders is vital but insufficient; they must be supported by adept staff to enable and execute their command responsibilities. Britain and Canada conduct training and exercises to build the expeditionary air wing headquarters team and equip the personnel in that team with the necessary skills and experience. They do so in a coherent and structured fashion to build teams that endure and are available to form the core of a headquarters for expeditionary operations. As a result, the RAF and RCAF are unlikely to confront the situation encountered by Australia’s air task group in 2014.

Generating these headquarters elements is likely to pose the greatest challenge for the RAAF to realise a coherent expeditionary air wing capability. The RAF and RCAF approaches will not transfer easily across because the personnel and capabilities needed to lead an expeditionary air wing must be drawn from multiple FEG, and no current RAAF headquarters aside from the AOC focuses on cross-FEG operational coordination. Current Australian practice for expeditionary air operations – the practice used for Operation Okra – is to nominate a commander for deploying forces, build a headquarters structure, and then endeavour to fill the identified positions with personnel on an individual basis. This ad-hoc approach to structures, processes, and staffing for expeditionary headquarters is how Roberton came to be equipped with a headquarters ‘that formed over there […] [with] people that hadn’t even met.’

There are many options to meet this requirement that require evaluation, but all will come at a cost. If dedicated organisations are not feasible, one approach that may minimise cost is to generate a standardised expeditionary headquarters staff structure and then fill the positions on a contingency basis with personnel from a single RAAF base. Each major base – Amberley, Williamtown, and Edinburgh – has the necessary personnel to form a viable headquarters element and aligning them by base would facilitate team building while reducing the impact on in-garrison duties. Rotating the responsibility around bases would spread the burden further. A standardised construct would enable training to be baselined and increase redundancy by enabling personnel from other bases to more readily supplement deploying teams. A permanent high-readiness wing, similar to the RCAF, could be considered to address short-notice contingencies and build expeditionary command and control expertise. RAAF Base Amberley’s resident air mobility and air base elements provide a sound basis for this high-readiness element.

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A C-17 Globemaster III with engine maintenance stands in place and all engines open on sunset at No. 36 Squadron, RAAF Base Amberley, c. 2017 (Source: Australian Department of Defence).

However, the personnel needed belong to multiple FEG and have day jobs. Explicit direction from very senior levels would be necessary to ensure these cross-FEG teams can be formed, trained, exercised, and maintained in the face of competing priorities. These teams could be trained and given experience through a structured series of exercises and activities similar to the RAF and RCAF. They could also be given responsibilities for leading major exercises, such as the Diamond series, Pitch Black, and Talisman Sabre as certification activities. The force generation cycles of key expeditionary air wing elements – such as the headquarters, air base, and communications elements – could be aligned to maximise an expeditionary wing’s coherence upon deployment. This building block approach is similar to the Australian Army’s combat brigade force generation cycle, providing an opportunity to align force generation cycles and enhance readiness across the joint force.

Invigorating and embedding expeditionary air wing concepts and headquarters capabilities in Australian air power are essential for the RAAF to turn its team of champions into a champion team. An ability to deploy and fight as an expeditionary air wing from day one is vital for small air forces in high-intensity operations because combat effectiveness, resilience, and flexibility across multi-national forces must be optimised while national control and identity are assured. The RAAF’s history, structure, and culture presents challenges to this task, but there are ways forward, with much good work already underway. Clearly articulating how the RAAF intends to organise expeditionary air elements and building expeditionary leadership teams are the next steps needed to ensure the RAAF’s fifth-generation champions can fight and win as a champion team when it matters most.

Wing Commander Chris ‘Guiness’ McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and an editor of the Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.

Header Image: An RAAF E-7A Wedgetail is silhouetted by the setting sun at the main logistics base in the Middle East during Operation Okra. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)

[1] Air Marshal Geoffrey Brown in Royal Australian Air Force, Plan Jericho: Connected – Integrated, (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 1.

[2] Alan Stephens described the RAAF’s command and organisational experience in Europe during the Second World War as ‘an institutional disaster’ while he devoted an entire chapter (out of 16 in the book) to ‘The RAAF Command Scandal’ in the South West Pacific, see: Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence – Volume II: The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 98, pp. 109-25. Further detail on the RAAF’s command performance in the South West Pacific is available in Norman Ashworth’s fittingly titled two-volume account: Norman Ashworth, How Not to Run an Air Force! The Higher Command of the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War – Volume 1 and Narrative (Canberra: Air Power Studies Centre, 2000).