The Fairey Swordfish flew just above the sea waves at about 30 feet while anti-aircraft artillery shells exploded around it, the sea waters splashing high due to the impact. The pilot, Lieutenant M.R. Maund, struggled to keep his plane steady to release his torpedo at an Italian battleship. Maund flew a Swordfish biplane: one of the 20 Swordfish aircraft from HMS Illustrious that took part in the air attack on the Italian Navy’s (Regia Marina) battleship fleet in the harbour of Taranto on the night of 11-12 November 1940. The Italians had six battleships, 14 cruisers and 27 destroyers at Taranto. During this night attack, the Swordfish aircraft dropped torpedoes and bombs and managed to sink a battleship (Conte di Cavour) while severely damaging two more (Caio Duilio and Littorio). Only two Swordfish aircraft were shot down. As a result of the attack, half of the Regia Marina’s capital ship fleet was disabled, giving the Royal Navy (RN) some tactical space and time to conduct its maritime operations in the Mediterranean.
More importantly, the Battle of Taranto signalled a change in naval power and the use of air power. It demonstrated the value of using aircraft to destroy an enemy’s fleet. The lessons of the Battle of Taranto were not lost on those who observed the effects of the operation. The Japanese Assistant Naval Attaché in Berlin visited Taranto and studied the raid. His findings then fed into the planning process for the massive surprise air raid against the US Navy at Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The use of precision airstrikes against naval targets rendered the fleet-in-being strategy as a highly risky practice, and subsequent Second World War naval battles with air power serve to highlight this point.
The Swordfish aircraft, which was successfully used in the attack against Taranto, was an obsolete aircraft when the Second World War started. It was a fabric wire biplane first flown in 1934 and became operational in July 1936 with the Fleet Air Arm (FAA) of the Royal Air Force, which was later transferred to the control of the Royal Navy. It had a top speed of just 138 mph; a service ceiling of 10,890 feet; a range of 1,028 miles; and it could carry either a 1,600 lb torpedo or a 1,500 lb load of depth charges, mines or bombs. For self-defence, it was armed with a .303 Vickers machine gun above its engine and another .303 Vickers machine gun operated by the rear gunner. It had a crew of three – a pilot, a navigator-observer, and a radioman-rear gunner – flying in an open cockpit. Due to its fabric skin-cover holding the aircraft together, it was nicknamed the ‘Stringbag.’
By the time of the outbreak of the Second World War, the Swordfish was slow and vulnerable to faster and more agile monoplane fighters. Nevertheless, the FAA used it as its primary torpedo and reconnaissance aircraft on the RN’s aircraft carriers during the war. However, its slow speed and crude design allowed it to fly slow and manoeuvre at low altitude. These qualities were crucial to victory at Taranto, when the Swordfish aircraft flew low, almost at sea wave height, enabling them to avoid Italian anti-aircraft artillery. The slow speed also allowed the Swordfish aircraft to fly around some barrage balloons and unleash their ordnance with accuracy. The fabric skin construction of the Swordfish also saved it from light cannon shells armed with contact fuses as the shells shot through the soft fabric.
The anti-battleship feat of the Swordfish was repeated when they took part in the hunt for the German Navy’s (Kriegsmarine) battleship, Bismarck. Swordfish aircraft from HMS Ark Royal launched a torpedo attack against Bismarck on 26 May 1941 and managed to destroy its port-side rudder. This caused the Bismarck to turn in circles. The RN’s surface fleet eventually caught up with the Bismarck and sank it the next day. Ironically, the HMS Prince of Wales, which took part in the sinking of Bismarck, was sunk by Japanese air power on 10 December 1941 off the coast of eastern Malaya.
The Swordfish continued to be manufactured (2,391 were built) and used by the FAA until the end of the Second World War. Despite its obsolescence at the start of the war, it doggedly flew on and even outlived some of its more modern contemporary aircraft. The Swordfish gained a solid reputation as the most successful British naval aircraft with the highest score of Axis ships sunk during the Second World War. The rugged biplane was finally retired from active service in 1946.
The tactical lessons drawn from the experience of the Swordfish in the Second World War should not be lost on modern observers. Many modern countries are looking to procure the latest technologically superior combat aircraft to equip their air forces, at very expensive prices. For example, there are continued debates today on the viability for some air forces to acquire either the F-35 Lightning II or modernised versions of the F/A-18 Super Hornet or the F-16V Viper. Perhaps it might be prudent to understand that sometimes older platforms if used smartly and asymmetrically to offset their disadvantages, can yield some strategic utility as the humble Fairey Swordfish did during the Second World War. After all, it is not the machines that count, but the tactical effects yielding strategic utility that matter.
Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is an Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDiSS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in Strategic Studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history, including Killing the Enemy! Assassination operations during World War II published by I.B. Tauris.
The 12 May 2019 tanker attacks off the United Arab Emirates coast in the Persian Gulf by suspected Iranian or Iran-backed saboteurs reminded us of the high-stakes Tanker War during the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988).
During the Iran-Iraq War, from around 1984, merchant tankers sailing through the Persian Gulf were regularly targeted by both Iraqi and Iranian forces in the Tanker War. The Iraqis frequently used air power to target Iranian oil tankers and merchant ships in an attempt to wage economic warfare against Iran – a strategic move to strangle Iran’s economic lifeline. One of the primary aircraft used by the Iraqis to conduct anti-shipping operations was the Dassault Mirage F1, which was armed with Exocet missiles.
The Mirage F1 was the Dassault’s answer to several technological challenges faced by the famous delta-winged Mirage III. The Mirage III made its mark during the Six Day War when the Israelis used their Mirage IIIs successfully in their opening pre-emptive strikes against its Arab neighbours. The Mirage III, however, had inherent weaknesses – its delta wing meant that the Mirage III had to land with a high pitch at high speeds, often causing accidents with inexperienced pilots. It also required long airstrips for its take-off run and landing, making these large airfields easy to spot and vulnerable to enemy counter strikes. The Mirage IIIs were also unable to operate from robust forward air bases. The Mirage III, with its delta wings, was less agile at low altitude compared with other non-delta winged aircraft and had a short operational radius.
All these weaknesses were remedied in the new Mirage F1. The F1 featured a high mounted swept wing and a conventional tail design, dumping the use of delta wings. These changes enabled the F1 to carry 40 per cent more fuel, translating to a longer operational radius, a shorter take-off run and slower landing speed, and all-around better manoeuvrability. The F1 was armed with two DEFA 553 30-mm cannons with 135 rounds per gun with a typical intercept load of two Matra Super 530 and two R.550 Magic anti-aircraft missiles.
The Mirage F1 was a success with the French Air Force, which acquired and used it as their primary interceptor aircraft in the 1970s and 1980s. It was also exported to numerous countries including Spain, South Africa (where it saw combat as a strike aircraft), and Iraq.
The Iraqis acquired the Mirage F1 in the late 1970s, and its first F1s were delivered just in time to participate in the Iran-Iraq War. The Mirage F1s performed remarkably well in obtaining air superiority (shooting down the first Iranian F-14 Tomcat in a dogfight in November 1981), ground attack roles (both close air support and interdiction strikes) and anti-shipping missions. Armed with Exocet missiles, the Mirage F1 made its mark in conducting anti-shipping operations against Iranian-flagged oil tankers and merchant ships during the Tanker War.
Mirage F1s attacked and damaged numerous oil tankers and conducted air raids against Iranian oil terminals at Kharg Island. Their use culminated in the attack on USS Stark (an Oliver Hazard Perry guided missile frigate) on 17 May 1987. The Stark was hit by two Exocets launched from an Iraqi Mirage F1. The attack damaged the Stark and killed 37 US sailors but did not sink it. The Iraqis claimed that the pilot had mistaken the frigate as an Iranian oil tanker. Interestingly, recently, there have been questions raised regarding the type of aircraft that launched the attack.
Iraqi Mirage F1s continued to operate during the First Gulf War. In a desperate attempt to hit back at the US-led coalition forces, two Mirage F1s armed with incendiary bombs took part in an air strike attempting to destroy the Saudi oil refinery in Abqaiq, but both were shot down by a Royal Saudi Air Force F-15.
Although the Mirage F1 has mostly been retired from service, limited numbers still serve in a few air forces today, ironically including Iran, which had confiscated 24 Iraqi Mirage F1s that were flown into Iran during the First Gulf War to prevent their destruction. The non-delta winged Mirage F1, although not as famous as the Mirage III, has given extraordinary service for its users and should be given better recognition than it deserves.
Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is Associate Professor in Strategic Studies, and the Deputy Director of Research in the Centre for Defence and International Security Studies (CDISS) at the National Defence University of Malaysia. He has a PhD in strategic studies from the University of Reading and is the author of two books on military strategy and history including Killing the Enemy: Assassination operations during World War II (2015) published by IB Tauris.
Header Image: A US sailor scans for mines from the bow of the guided missile frigate USS Nicolas during an Operation Earnest Will convoy mission, in which tankers are led through the waters of the Persian Gulf by US warships, c. 1988. (Source: Wikimedia)
I believe that before his election in 1968, President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to end the war in Vietnam on favourable terms. He implemented it in stages, starting with the withdrawal of US troops that began in 1969, followed by the rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China in early 1972 and culminating with the repulse of North Vietnam’s 1972 ‘Easter Offensive’ and the Linebacker bombing campaigns against the North. I served in Southeast Asia during most of 1972 and had an opportunity to witness much of the successful implementation of the President’s strategy.
During the presidential race of 1968, the notion that Nixon had a ‘secret plan’ to end the war surfaced in campaign rhetoric, although he never actually made such a claim. Early in the campaign, he told a hastily-convened group of newspaper editors that he had a two-phase ‘get out of the war’ plan, which included taking steps to ‘de-Americanize’ the Vietnam conflict, and also seek a summit meeting with Soviet leaders to gain their cooperation in ending the war. Decades later an article in the International Herald-Tribune also referenced Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ in passing, noting that it was not a term used by Nixon himself but something conjured up by a reporter on deadline, covering one of the candidate’s speeches in which he promised a quick victory in the war. The Richard Nixon Foundation and Presidential Library, on the other hand, seems to believe that the whole business about having a ‘secret plan’ to end the war was nothing more than an ‘urban myth’ with no basis. Still, the term ‘secret plan’ became lodged in the public consciousness during the 1968 presidential campaign and might have been a marginal factor in helping Richard Nixon win a very close election.
I heard about Nixon’s ‘secret plan’ sometime during that campaign, the first in which I was eligible to vote. I was then a second lieutenant in the Air Force, a supply officer stationed at Luke Air Force Base (AFB) outside Phoenix, Arizona. A recent college graduate, I was a political ‘wonk’ then and now. Since high school, I had considered myself a ‘Kennedy Democrat’ (pay any price, bear any burden) and supported the war in Vietnam – seeing it as ‘Korea redux,’ the Truman Doctrine in action. Moreover, while President Johnson’s transformative domestic policy accomplishments deserved respect, a wartime president he was not, and the Camelot holdovers from the Kennedy Administration were rapidly wearing out their welcome.
Vietnam was hardly the centrepiece of American foreign policy during the Nixon administration. The president broke new ground in several areas: pursuing strategic arms reduction with the USSR, dismantling the Bretton Woods framework while restructuring the financial underpinning of the US/European Alliance, and famously pursuing a rapprochement with the Peoples Republic of China. His domestic accomplishments were also remarkable. The British counterinsurgency expert Sir Robert Thompson, consulted by the president about Vietnam in 1969, remarked afterwards to a National Security Council (NSC) staff member that Nixon was in his opinion America’s first ‘professional president.’
However, what of the ‘secret plan?’ I believe President Nixon had a three-part solution to the Vietnam conundrum:
Vietnamization – the replacement of US ground forces with the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), supplemented by increased logistic and advisory support from the US Army.
Strategic isolation of the battlefield. This gradually became more feasible after the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict brought about a suspension of the USSR’s use of the Chinese railways to ship military supplies to North Vietnam. That conflict followed a long, prickly relationship between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the USSR throughout the 1960s, explored by a few scholars. The USSR was North Vietnam’s primary source of military hardware and advisory support, and until 1969 about two-thirds of that military hardware was sent through China by rail, with a much smaller fraction arriving by sea at the port of Haiphong. Following President Nixon’s dramatic visit to China in February 1972, the PRC stepped up its longtime interference with Soviet resupply to North Vietnam, placing tight restrictions on overflights of Chinese territory. The resupply burden now rested primarily on Soviet cargo ships, and shortly after North Vietnam initiated the Easter Offensive in the spring of 1972, the US Navy mined the approaches to the port of Haiphong. It would take several months for the full impact of this ‘strategic isolation’ to be felt by the North Vietnamese armed forces. However, I believe it did have an impact by the time a cease-fire went into effect in November, and during the brief resumption of hostilities – the ‘Christmas bombing’ of Operation Linebacker II – at the end of the year.
The final element in his plan was the application of US air power on a scale unprecedented since World War II, generating lavish close air support for ARVN troops in the South and being directly applied against North Vietnam during the Linebacker air campaigns.
There should be no confusion about this fact. It was American air power – Air Force, Naval and Marine Corps aviation units swiftly flowing in to reinforce the existing air order of battle in Southeast Asia – that blunted the 1972 Easter Offensive, giving President Nixon (and the American people) ‘peace with honor.’
I was there to witness the decisive events of 1972. In 1969 I was fortuitously granted a vision waiver enabling me to enter pilot training the following year, and after earning my wings I trained in the AC-119K fixed-wing gunship and served a combat tour in Southeast Asia from November 1971 to November 1972 – most of what was essentially the final year of the Vietnam War, so far as America was concerned.
During 1971 and into the early months of 1972 the withdrawal of American ground forces had accelerated, and the war seemed to have dropped off the front pages of our newspapers. By the time the North Vietnamese Army (NVA) launched the Easter Offensive at the end of March, only one US Army combat brigade remained in-country, deployed in northern I Corps around Danang, defending the invaluable seaport and airfield. The battle on the ground was thus left to the ARVN, which could not hold back the NVA on its own, and close air support from the South Vietnamese Air Force (VNAF) was wholly inadequate.
At this point, the third element of Nixon’s plan was implemented with great resolve and determination. US air power in Southeast Asia was massively reinforced and succeeded in its twofold mission of supporting the ARVN and carefully, steadily disrupting the economic and military infrastructure of North Vietnam. In early 1972 there had been 14 USAF fighter-bomber squadrons deployed in-theatre, most of them in Thailand. Between the opening of the Easter Offensive and the end of 1972, no fewer than nine additional tactical fighter squadrons were transferred to Southeast Asia – seven from the continental United States and two from the Philippines and South Korea. In the early years of the war the Strategic Air Command had kept four B-52 squadrons based on Guam to provide ‘Arc Light’ strikes in South Vietnam. After the NVA offensive began in the spring of 1972 four more squadrons were deployed to the western Pacific, eventually including two deployed to Thailand. The number of Arc Light strikes increased dramatically, and a few B-52 strikes were undertaken over North Vietnam soon after the US resumed bombing the North. The B-52s were famously used on a large scale during the final, brief Linebacker II campaign in December 1972. For its part, the US Navy had been keeping one or two aircraft carriers on ‘Yankee Station’ in the South China Sea, and this was increased to four after the Easter Offensive began. A US Marine Corps air wing also deployed to Southeast Asia in the spring and summer of 1972, fielding six fighter-bomber squadrons based in South Vietnam and Thailand.
My own tour of duty in Southeast Asia came at the tail end of the ‘Commando Hunt’ operation against the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos. My fixed-wing gunship squadron was based at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand, with detachments at Danang and, later, at Bien Hoa in South Vietnam. Our primary mission was the interdiction of truck traffic on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos and eastern Cambodia, although we occasionally provided close air support to the ARVN in the country. In mid-tour I was abruptly sent to MACV at Tan Son Nhut Airfield in Saigon, where I spent a couple of months working in ‘Blue Chip,’ the 7th Air Force command post. I was unhappy to miss out on flying missions, thereby losing any hope of accruing enough hours to upgrade to aircraft commander before boarding the ‘Freedom Bird.’ However, coordinating and redirecting gunship sorties during my 12-hour daily shift rarely kept me fully occupied, and I took full advantage of the birds-eye view I enjoyed of the American air war in Southeast Asia. Blue Chip was housed in an enormous auditorium, fronted by a vast map appended with extensive annotation and tabular data; all plotted on plexiglass by well-trained specialists moving discretely behind the display and writing backwards with grease pencils on the ‘big board.’
One episode from my Blue-Chip interlude stands out: an Arc Light tasking in support of the besieged ARVN forces in An Loc. This was an epic defensive battle lasting more than two months, with a reinforced ARVN infantry division holding out in this provincial capital only 90 miles north of Saigon. Three NVA divisions, supported by some VC battalions, surrounded the town on three sides. The one paved road coming up from the south, QL-13, was unusable during most of the battle, as was the airfield, but aerial resupply through parachute drops managed to keep the ARVN resupplied and in the fight. Frequent Arc Light strikes supplemented lavish close air support from fighter-bombers and fixed-wing gunships. One afternoon when I arrived for my shift, I saw a map of An Loc on one side the big board, the town enveloped on three sides by a huge array of overlapping Arc Light ‘boxes,’ each a rectangle measuring 1 x 3 kilometres into which three B-52s would drop 324 500-lb bombs. There must have been at least fifteen or twenty of these boxes. The 7th Air Force Assistant Deputy Commander for Operations told the Battle Staff that this saturation bombing was intended to ‘relieve some of the pressure’ on the defenders – a bit of an understatement, I thought. It was aerial fire support on a truly staggering scale, and Arc Light strikes were important in other major battles during the Easter Offensive, such as Kontum (in II Corps) and Quang Tri (I Corps).
While all this was happening down south, the Linebacker air campaign was inflicting serious damage on military targets in North Vietnam. Technology certainly helped, as precision-guided munitions were now in the inventory. Suppression of enemy air defence (SEAD) was greatly improved by better tactics and new-generation anti-radiation missiles and associated systems. Linebacker, by and large, was strategic bombing ‘done right.’ Earl Tilford, a former Air Force intelligence officer and a thoughtful critic of air power, summarised this campaign:
Linebacker One, as it would soon be known, was the most successful aerial campaign of the Vietnam War. [. . .] It was successful because it took place under the aegis of an appropriate and viable strategy. Linebacker epitomized conventional air power used to stop a conventional invasion and, beyond that, it qualified as a “strategic” use of air power in that it compelled Hanoi’s politburo to negotiate seriously for the first time since peace talks started in 1968.
Subsequent events are remembered all too well. The Watergate affair brought the Nixon administration to a premature end, and even before that sordid crisis had run its course, congressional intransigence and our collective national fatigue had effectively precluded a reengagement with American air power that President Nixon had famously promised the president of the Republic of Vietnam if Hanoi violated the terms of the Paris Accords. That ‘peace with honor’ would not long outlive the Nixon administration was surely seen by many as inevitable. Still: whatever we remember about the Vietnam War we ought to acknowledge that President Nixon did have a plan, ‘secret’ or not. He implemented that plan, and it worked.
Author’s Disclaimer: This essay reflects a deep dive into my own memory banks, supplemented by some confirmatory Internet searches. There is no doubt in my mind that President Richard M. Nixon had a plan to bring the war in Vietnam to a satisfactory conclusion. He implemented that plan, and for a fleeting moment in time we had ‘peace with honor’ before the Watergate crisis brought everything crashing down.
Ralph M. Hitchens, Lt. Col. USAFR (Ret.) is a graduate of Southern Illinois University and the National Defense Intelligence College. While on active duty he flew combat missions in Vietnam and VIP missions in the US and Europe. He worked as a corporate pilot before joining the government as a civilian analyst with Army Intelligence, attached to NSA. He subsequently moved to the Office of Intelligence at the U.S. Department of Energy, where he managed current intelligence analysis, drafted and contributed to National Intelligence Estimates, and served as Information Technology Program Manager. Retiring in 2004, he worked as a contractor in the DOE Office of Classification and other program offices. He regularly contributes book reviews to the Journal of Military History as well as other publications.
Header Image: B-52Ds from the Strategic Air Command line up for takeoff as they prepare for strikes over Hanoi and Haiphong, North Vietnam, during OPERATION LINEBACKER. (Source: National Museum of the USAF)
 David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest (1972) made a strong and lasting impression on me and countless others.
 I wish I could source this quotation better. I heard it in 1969 from my late father, Colonel Harold L. Hitchens, USAF. Then serving in the Air Staff Directorate of Plans, he had been told of Thompson’s remark by an acquaintance on the National Security Council. It was also quoted by Stewart Alsop in ‘Nixon and the Square Majority: Is the Fox a Lion?,’ The Atlantic (February 1972). It was also repeated in a Nixon Reelection Campaign televised ad in November 1972: ‘He is a completely professional president.’ Thompson himself certainly repeated his bon mot: ‘I think for the first time in a long time you have a professional President.’ Quoted in David Fitzgerald, ‘Sir Robert Thompson, Strategic Patience, and Nixon’s War in Vietnam,’ Journal of Strategic Studies, 37:6/7 (2014).
 For a good summary account of this festering rivalry see Christian Talley, ‘The Vietnam War as China’s Watershed,’ Vanderbilt Historical Review, (January 2016), pp. 42-8. Also, Stephen J. Morris, ‘The Soviet-Chinese-Vietnamese Triangle in the 1970s: The View from Moscow,’ Working Paper No. 25 (Paul Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, 1999).
 The system worked, sometimes. A routine physical exam in 1969 showed that my vision had improved since college and was within the waiver limits for undergraduate pilot training (UPT). The bad news was that waivers were granted only to US Air Force Academy graduates. That was unfair, I believed, and I submitted a formal letter request through personnel channels to change the governing directive. Mirabile dictu, the directive was changed, and I was admitted to UPT as a ‘test case.’
 An incident I witnessed influenced this conclusion. On a rare daylight mission in April 1972, during the fighting near Kontum in II Corps, I saw a VNAF A-37 attack aircraft make two bomb runs against a VC heavy machine gun position, clearly visible atop a bare ridgeline; weather conditions were perfect. Both bombs missed, neither was close. The II Corps Senior Advisor, John Paul Vann (call sign Rogues Gallery) was loitering nearby in a helicopter and encouraged our AC-119K Stinger gunship to engage. The heavy machine-gun position was quickly silenced by our 20mm rounds; We suffered a .51 caliber hit in one of the tail booms. I further believe that the quality of VNAF pilots was questionable. Pilot training was a highly prestigious opportunity for young men of military age, and I suspect that merit took a back seat to family influence and political connections. My UPT class at Williams AFB, which graduated in June 1971, included one South Vietnamese pilot candidate. He was the exception that proved the rule. Despite speaking very poor English he passed through the year-long course at the same pace as the rest of us, and we were told by a senior instructor pilot that he was the very first Vietnamese officer to do so – prior VNAF trainees had taken as long as two years to complete the course.
 This included the wholesale redeployment of the 49th Tactical Fighter Wing (four F-4 squadrons) from Holloman AFB in New Mexico, across the Pacific Ocean to Thailand.
 The employment of so many B-52s in this 11-day operation undeniably generated some ‘shock and awe’ but losses were heavy, in large part due to unimaginative centralised mission planning at SAC Headquarters during the first few days – ingress routes, altitudes and formations saw little variance on the first three missions. Losses on the third day of the operation forced SAC planners to reconsider their assumptions. ‘Changes were made to operations and tactics. Gone were bomber streams seventy miles long with cells flying lockstep to those ahead of them. Gone too were 90 to 100 plane raids. World War II tactics did not work in the modern environment of SAM missiles, sophisticated ground radar, and MiG interceptors.’ See Gary Joyner, and Ashley E. Dean, ‘Operation Linebacker II: A Retrospective,’ Report of the LSU Shreveport Unit for the SAC Symposium, 2 December 2, 2017, p. 22.
 Earl H. Tilford, SETUP: What the Air Force Did in Vietnam and Why (Maxwell AFB: Air University Press, 1991), p. 248.
Following the disruption at Gatwick airport, it is unsurprising that the potential dangers and disruptions that private drones can cause have come sharply into focus. For many experts, the use of a small, readily available, and easily affordable drone to achieve the disruption witnessed at Gatwick was not unforeseen. Instead, there have been increasing warnings from security advisors, financial service experts and even the United States Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, regarding the emerging risk exposures created by the recreational use of drones. The use of commercially available Drones to disrupt civil aviation has been one of the most apparent consequences of allowing the huge proliferation of these devices without ensuring there are relevant safeguards in place first. The prospect of a drone temporarily putting a major airport out of action was a threat which was predicted and reflected the lower end of warnings regarding ‘the potential for catastrophic damage.’ The question must surely be to ask why it has taken so long for this danger to be taken seriously by the government and aviation authorities.
There have been warning signs that drones while offering potentially enormous economic advantages, will be used by those with malign interests. In 2018 alone Drones have been involved in near-misses with RAF jets; caused low-level disruption at numerousairports; been used in an attempted attack on the Venezuelan President; they have also delayed and imperilled aircraft and helicopters involved in fire-fighting efforts. In Syria, the use of Commercially available drones by non-state forces is commonplace, and Kurdish forces released evidence of what they claimed was an ISIS Drone factory in July 2017.
The challenge of countering Drones without sufficient preparation is enormously difficult if the perpetrators are intent on causing disruption. During events at Gatwick, many observers may ask why such drones could not merely be shot down. It is difficult for those not familiar with military topics to immediately conceive that firing high-powered rifle bullets at a target can have potentially lethal collateral consequences if that target is missed – no small possibility when the target is a small, fast and agile Drone in flight. As the UK Security Minister, Ben Wallace stated following the disruption at Gatwick ‘the challenges of deploying military counter measures into a civilian environment, means there are no easy solutions.’
This is not to say that there are no devices capable of disabling Drones, there are. Point-and-shoot ‘drone killers’ exist. These ‘drone killers’ use software-defined radio to jam the specific frequency a drone is operating on causing them to crash. Alternatively, for more sophisticated models, such ‘drone killers’ can force drones to land on auto-pilot. Even minimal preparation at UK airports would have ensured the capacity to detect the frequency a drone was operating on, and the use of a higher-powered transmitter would have provided the capacity to deal with the threat from commercially available Drones which do not possess the capacity to ‘channel hop’. Elsewhere, some thought has been given to counter the dangers posed by commercially available Drones. However, until the three days of disruption at Gatwick, there had not been any systematic preparations or hardening of vulnerable targets in the UK.
The future development of micro- and nano-drones, and their potential use in the civil environment brings with it the possibility of further disruption and dangers. The recent regulations which among other things have set height restrictions and, from November 2019, will require users of devices heavier than 250g to register with the authorities provide limited protection against those intent on the criminal use of drones. What is required is forethought and preparation to ensure that we are not discussing, in the not-too-distant future, why authorities were unprepared to deal with ‘swarms’ of these devices.
Harry Raffal is the Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum and has recently completed his PhD thesis on the RAF and Luftwaffe during Operation DYNAMO, the evacuation of the Dunkirk in 1940 at the University of Hull. Harry has previously published research on the online development of the Ministry of Defence and British Armed Forces and presented papers at several conferences and events including the RAF Museum’s Trenchard lecture series, and the 2017 Research Infrastructure for the Study of Archived Web Materials conference. His research has been funded through bursaries and educational grants from the Royal Historical Society, the 2014 Big UK Domain Data for the Arts and Humanities research grant, the Princess Royal Trust, the University of Hull, the Sir Richard Stapley Trust and the RAF Museum PhD bursary.
At 3:30 in the morning on Wednesday, a single mother of three boys, Miri Tamano woke up in Beersheva to a missile defence warning siren. In under a minute, she woke up her children and rushed them to a safe room just before the house was destroyed by a direct hit from a Gazan rocket. The strike against the Tamano house was the last straw after days of escalating tensions along the Gaza border and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) retaliated by launching twenty strikes against Hamas affiliated targets in the Gaza Strip. At first glance, this use of the IAF may seem similar to the many similar strikes Israel launched over the last decade. However, it may also be the beginning of a new air-centric response to Hamas rockets. What is most interesting about this potential change in approach is not the change in and of itself but rather the forces that drove it. Unlike many changes to operational approach, this one is not driven primarily by changes in the military operational environment or international political realities. Instead, the possible shift towards a new air-based approach and the new emphasis on the employment of the IAF stems from domestic politics and frustration with recent approaches to the problem of Gaza.
The IAF has always had a role in Israel Defence Force’s (IDF) retaliatory and deterrence operations. In the pre-1967 period, the IAF served as part of joint operations against Syria. In one famous incident on April 7th 1967, Syrian artillery strikes and small arms fires led to an escalation which eventually brought the IAF in to bomb Syrian positions and IAF fighters to clear the skies of Syrian aircraft. The goal of this operation was to establish deterrence along the Northern border. Here the IAF acted in concert and in support of ground force. Similar in 1970, the IDF called on the IAF to launch a major operation targeting Soviet Air Force units in Egypt. This operation followed a series of ground operations and sought to achieve a decisive blow ending the War of Attrition. This pattern continued through the 1980s when the IDF launched Operation Peace to the Galilee which sought (and to an extent achieved) a decisive defeat of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Lebanon. Here again, Israel used air power in support of the ground offensive. In these instances and many others, IAF served as one aspect of joint retaliatory operations. More significantly the retaliatory operations either anticipated the coming of a decisive engagement (e.g. the 1967 War) or sought to be decisive by themselves – at the very least restoring credible deterrence.
Although, since the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War something resembling the classic pattern of deterrence operations continues on the Syrian border, the withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 changed the primary Israeli approach to establishing deterrence and seeking decisive victory. Since leaving Gaza as part of disengagement, the IDF has pursued a strategy of countering the hybrid threat through a concept often referred to as ‘mowing the grass.’ This concept has led Israel to five major ground operations in Gaza since 2006. At its heart mowing the grass is a concept for conflict management which buys time for an eventual political solution. Mowing the grass centres on the creation of deterrence and periods of quiet. In the concept when the adversary decides to escalate its level of violence Israel responds with restraint. As the adversary further escalates, Israel escalates its response. Eventually, the adversary crosses the threshold of tolerable violence, and Israel launches a major ground operation to severely punish the adversary and degrade adversary capabilities. This buys a period of calm which may last anywhere from several months to several years. However, almost invariably the same pressures which caused the adversary to escalate in the first place cause another escalation and the process repeats. In Gaza, this process has repeated itself several times resulting in Operation Summer Rains in 2006, Operation Hot Winter in 2008, Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012, Operation Protective Edge in 2014, and it is now leading to a potential conflict in 2018.
As a concept, mowing the grass recognises that defeating the enemy is next to impossible. In Gaza, Hamas is intertwined with Palestinian society and governance. For military planners mowing the grass means that there can be no decisive outcome. Hamas remained in government, the communities near Gaza could enjoy some calm, but invariably the threat would return, and the process would repeat. In Gaza, once escalation began, Israel would respond with warnings to Hamas, followed by more escalation and limited air strikes. This, in turn, would be followed by more escalation from Hamas and more significant air and artillery strikes by the IDF. As Hamas escalation continued, the IDF would build up ground forces near the Gaza border. Eventually, this process would lead to a limited incursion and then major ground operation by the IDF.
In the early stages of the escalation, the IAF played a messaging role indicating the seriousness of Israel’s intent and the willingness to escalate. As escalation continued the role of the IAF became a facet of joint operations aimed at reducing Hamas capabilities but never seeing a decisive victory. The final phase of these operations carries multiple political costs, both domestically and internationally. This phase inevitably causes more significant civilian and combatant casualties among the Palestinian population in Gaza which can be ‘expensive’ to Israel in the international community. The IDF has increasingly worked to distinguish between the two on the international stage, resulting in an associated media strategy that provides almost real-time footage of some parts of major Gaza operations. To an Israeli domestic audience, mowing the grass is an acknowledgement of the inability of the IDF to bring victory or create lasting deterrence and the Israeli Government to achieve a lasting end state. Essentially as long as mowing the grass remained the central method of military response to the situation in Gaza, the Israeli public knew that every operation and the lives it cost only bought time until the next one required the same sacrifices.
Mowing the grass relies on a lawnmower powered by patience and societal tolerance for the costs associated with the approach. The capacity of the Israeli public to absorb the costs associated with mowing the grass also constrains Israel’s policymakers. As a conscript army that draws upon a relatively small civilian population, IDF casualties are seen by the majority of Israeli society as ‘our children,’ a notable departure from earlier Israeli generations’ perspective of seeing them as ‘a silver platter upon which the country was borne’ – a tragic but unpreventable loss for a greater good.
Traditionally, as in the Four Mothers campaign to pull out of Lebanon in the mid-nineties, concern with casualties as a justification for limitation of military action was the province of Israeli left-wing political parties. The right-wing parties, like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, also venerated soldiers but did not use the potential loss of life as a justification for reducing normative tactical options. Instead, right-wing politicians tended to emphasise the IDF’s role as protector of civilian life; frequently, centrist and right-wing governments were drawn into Gaza operations following public frustration with repeated terror strikes launched from within Gaza. Instead, Netanyahu is facing pressure from a different angle. The Israeli right-wing has grown stronger and particularly more popular with younger voters in the past two decades, and Netanyahu faces challenges from the right both in his own parties as well as from other right-wing parties that are natural and necessary allies in his ruling coalition. In the parliamentary system, a lack of confidence from within the coalition can collapse a government and bring about early elections that reshuffle the political balance of power.
One voice of opposition, former MK Moshe Feiglin signalled that Netanyahu’s right-wing might be losing patience with the ‘mowing the grass’ strategy. In an open statement to the press Wednesday, Feiglin wrote that ‘Victory is unconditional surrender! Don’t send a single soldier to his death for anything less than that.’ Feiglin went on to complain that as long as the government is ‘once again planning us a glorious defeat, just like previous iterations, a defeat that in the end leaves Beersheba a prisoner of Hamas,’ Feiglin’s faction will oppose any Gazan incursion ‘and the unnecessary risk to IDF soldiers.’ Feiglin’s comments reflect a growing frustration with what many Israelis see as a lose-lose strategy. The limited scale of the ‘mowing’ operations does not disable Hamas in the medium let alone long-term, meaning that Israeli civilians continue to live under the constant threat of rocket fire. While not entirely preventing rocket fire into Israel, Gaza incursion operations also incur high casualties from an Israeli perspective; 67 IDF soldiers were killed in Operation Protective Edge, a number surpassed this century only by the Second Lebanon War.
Under these circumstances, air power seems like one of the only choices available to politically navigate the public expectation of responding to rocket strikes while also avoiding the lose-lose dynamic of the mowing-rocket cycle. Feiglin intimated as much, calling on the prime minister to avoid ‘once again sending soldiers to die in the alleyways of Gaza for a political performance of war.’ Should the escalation from Gaza continue, the domestic political situation provides Netanyahu few choices. He could continue with the old pattern of operations in which the IAF serves to signal escalation and then as part of the combined operation, but this would risk significant domestic fallout. The Prime Minister could seek a decisive engagement in Gaza in which the IAF would act to support the land campaign, but this would be militarily and diplomatically extremely difficult. Finally, he could find an option that achieves the effect of mowing the grass without the human cost. In other words, he could turn the main effort of the response to the IAF, with supporting effects provided by the navy and ground forces outside of Gaza.
Israelis view air power as relatively risk-free, and in fact, only one IAF plane and one helicopter have been shot down in combat in the last 20 years, resulting in five deaths and two injuries. By relying more heavily on an air response, Netanyahu can avoid criticism for ‘wasting’ IDF soldiers on an operation that yields little clear take-home in the eyes of his voters. This changes the balance between the IAF and the other tools of military power and may drive Israeli engagement to air-centric approach. For this to work, the IAF will have to launch more strikes than in previous engagements. No longer part of a joint plan, the IAF will shoulder the responsibility for inflicting most of the cost on Hamas. By attempting to win an operation through the air alone, the IAF returns to an almost Douhetian concept of operations. As Israel, discovered in the 2006 Lebanon War this approach is not without problems. Among other challenges, it encounters questions as to what happens if the IAF completes its target list without achieving the war aims. The presence of ground forces has traditionally stimulated the exposure of new targets for the IAF allowing it to increase the efficacy of its strikes. Without such multi-domain cooperation, the target list may be far more limited.
What is significant then about the potential turn towards an air-centric approach is that it stems not from military or operational necessity but from domestic politics. This may be familiar to US and European states, but it is new for Israel. Even if this current period of increased conflict in Gaza ends with a ground operation or before one is necessary the change in the conversation on such operations will have a dramatic effect on the IAF and Israel’s thought about air power. For Netanyahu or any subsequent Prime Minister, until Israel develops a new approach to Gaza, an IAF centric approach will be at the forefront of consideration. This pushes the IAF into a new concept of operations and turns it from a critical supporting aspect of the IDFs total war package into the lawn mower of choice.
Dr Rebecca Shimoni-Stoil is a former NCO in the Israel Defense Forces, where she served as a combat medic and medical platoon deputy commander in the 9th Battalion of the Armored Corps. As a reservist, Shimoni-Stoil was a heavy search and rescue medic with the Home Front Command, mobilising in the Northern Sector during the Second Lebanon War. In her military capacity, she served in and around Gaza. After leaving her regular service, Shimoni-Stoil was hired by the Jerusalem Post and served in several capacities eventually being appointed the newspaper’s Internal Security correspondent. It was in this position that she covered both the increase in tensions and rocket attacks along Israel’s southern border with Gaza as well as the opening weeks of the Second Lebanon War. She later served as the Knesset [Parliamentary] Correspondent before becoming the Washington Correspondent for Times of Israel. Dr Shimoni-Stoil is now a lecturer in history at the Loyola University of Maryland. She has appeared as a commentator on radio and television channels worldwide and written for 538.com. She can be followed on twitter @RebeccaStoil.
Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include ‘Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military Operations, War on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate. He can be reached on twitter @JacobStoil.
Header Image: Israeli Air Force F-16I (Source: Wikimedia)
Disclaimer: The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, any other government agency, or any institution.
From the British conception of air policing to the myriad of coalition air assets deployed as part Operation Inherent Resolve, counterinsurgents have enjoyed their ability to be the sole force in skies and the plethora of benefits that brings. Throughout late 20th and early 21st century, there have been rare instances where insurgents have tried to either contest this or at the very least exploit the air domain for their operations. These include the development and deployment of the ‘Air Tigers’ of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil and Eelam (LTTE) and the more recent use of small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAVs) by a host of actors including ISIS and Hezbollah. LTTE’s attempts were largely ineffective, and ISIS’s small UAVs have been only deployed for tactical effects. Assumedly developing a counter to this ISIS threat will be part of the broader effort to deal with the UAV threat writ large. In Gaza, Hamas has developed something different and is going back in time technologically to exploit the hybrid space and launch an air campaign.
In late May 2018 Israeli security forces identified an explosive-laden UAV launched by one of the militant groups from the Gaza strip. In the same month, the Israeli Air Force (IAF) destroyed a Hamas base containing unmanned underwater vehicles. Both these capabilities while impressive represent an evolution of what combatants have already observed the world over. Militant groups increasingly have the capabilities to employ low-cost unmanned systems in a variety of domains. The interesting evolution out of Gaza strip is not the use of advanced technology by militant groups but a return to simple and cheap solutions.
Over the past month, militants in Gaza have launched numerous strikes using incendiary devices attached to kites and balloons. These devices come in several forms; some are kites released on to the wind current carrying flaming material and accelerant dangling from a rope. Others are helium balloons (or helium-filled condoms) with trailing flaming materials and accelerant. Although there are variations most of these carry metallic mesh pouches contacting burning oil-soaked rags or coal. These take advantage of the dry summer conditions in Southern Israel to spark fires out of proportion to the amount of accelerant. In addition to these, there are varieties with small impact based explosive devices attached and more recently explosive devices designed to litter the ground.
This is the past returning. During the Second World War, the Japanese military was unable to bomb the mainland US and turned to balloons with incendiary devices as an attempt at a solution. By 20 June 2018, 75 days of balloon and kite attacks had seen over 700 attacks which burned over 6,100 acres of primarily agricultural land causing millions of dollars of damage. For Israel damage to its agricultural sector presents a serious threat given the relatively small amount of arable and pasturable land.
The balloon and kite launched devices present significant challenges to the Israeli military (IDF). Due to their low signature, they are harder to detect than UCAVs. Unlike rockets and mortars, they do not follow a set trajectory making counter battery fire more difficult. They are cheap and therefore employing short-range air defence such as Iron Dome makes little sense. The helium-filled condoms which trail burning liquids or rags may only cost as much as the helium (condoms are distributed in Gaza by the Palestinian Authority and international NGOs) while Iron Dome costs near $100,000 per launch. Other forms of Counter Rocket Artillery and Mortar systems rely on a more prominent radar profile and are designed for point defence not protecting a whole broader.
The biggest challenge they pose may result from their place in the narrative domain. Often launched by teams including children, balloons and kites do not seem as threatening as other, more significant, more conventional types of attacks. Targeting those who launch them with lethal force would likely play poorly in the media and the international community overall. Unlike rockets and mortars, kites, and balloons – no matter the threat they may pose – are not often thought of within the panoply of tools of war. In this way, they are emblematic of an entire strategy – namely causing as much strategic threat as possible while remaining below the threshold of escalation. In his 1991 book The Transformation of War, Martin van Creveld identified the challenge this strategy poses to conventional state militaries stating: ‘Since fighting the weak is sordid by definition, over time the effect of such a struggle is to put the strong into an intolerable position.’ The kite and balloon attacks represent a new form of air power for insurgent groups which takes advantage of exactly this dynamic. As of now these attacks also provide a narrative victory to the militant groups allowing them to showcase in video and photo their ability to reach out and attack Israel. If the success of the balloon and kite attacks continues, we can safely assume they will spread. The more they are featured in regional media and militant media the more likely this is to happen.
So what options exist to counter this counter this new aerial threat? Thus far the IDF has looked to technological solutions deploying cheap commercial UAVs to bring down the kites and the balloons through physical contact. The Israeli public broadcaster Kan reported that this has had mixed results. The IDF has recently deployed a new system called Sky Spotter. The IDF employs this electro-optical system, to identify and provide an alert of incoming attacks mitigating the damage caused. Sky Spotter also serves to guide defenders to the incoming targets. There are plans to equip Sky Spotter with a laser system or to the ability to autonomously vector mini-UAVs. In the meantime, with an increase in the threat, some Israeli officials have suggested targeting those launching the attacks, and the IAF has begun firing warning strikes near those launching the attacks. As previously noted this tactic is rife with problems.
Another possible solution might be retaliating against targets and in doing so establishing deterrence. Although this might work in the unique operating environment of Gaza it is doubtful it would be as possible if another insurgency adopts this new use of air power globally. Just as lookouts may be more useful for identifying incoming attacks from balloons and kites than more high-tech radar, so too might defeating the threat requiring an examination of the past for inspiration. In the past, the best air defence consisted of layers of surface to air missiles (SAMs) and gun systems. These balloon and kite attacks exploit the intellectual and perhaps, even technical space, below the threshold for the employment of SAMs. Kites and balloons are vulnerable to gunfire and integrating rapid firing weapons aimed and operated by humans might provide a solution to this threat. Even this is not without problems as it potentially risks causing inadvertent casualties due to inaccuracy. Regardless, until a solution is found, it is likely insurgents will continue to exploit the air domain not only by developing drones but by evolving from drones to balloons.
Dr Jacob Stoil is an Assistant Professor of Military History at the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies where he serves as the author for the course ‘Anticipating the Future’. He is the Deputy Director of the Second World War Research Group for North America. Stoil holds a PhD from the University of Oxford, and an MA and BA from the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. He has research experience carrying out fieldwork in both Israel and the Horn of Africa. His most recent publications include ‘Command and Irregular Indigenous Combat Forces in the Middle East and Africa’ in the Marine Corps University Journal, and ‘Martial Race and Indigenous Forces’ in Rob Johnson (ed.), The British Indian Army: Virtue and Necessity (2014). Additionally, he has authored analysis of contemporary operations and policy for the Journal of Military Operations, War on the Rocks, and From Balloons to Drones. Most recently he published an article on the spread of vehicle ramming attacks through West Point’s Modern War Institute and has a forthcoming in Le Vingtième Siècle article on indigenous forces in Palestine Mandate.
Header Image: A missile from an Israeli Iron Dome, launched during the Operation Pillar of Defense to intercept a missile coming from the Gaza strip, c. 2012. (Source: Wikimedia)
Disclaimer: The views presented here do not represent those of any contributors employer, funder, or government body.
As we come to the end of 2017, we also come to the end of the first full-year of operations for From Balloons to Drones. Established in the middle of 2016, From Balloons to Drones was created with the aim of providing a platform for the discussion of the air power history, theory, and contemporary operations in its broadest sense. In seeking to achieve this aim, in 2017, we have published around 30 articles ranging from a discussion of the contemporary challenges related the development of Ground-Based Air Defence and Integrated Air Defence Systems through to an analysis of the experience of aircrew as Prisoners of War during the Second World War. We are grateful to our group of contributors who have taken the time to write and publish via From Balloons to Drones.
The website has been visited around 18,000 times by 10,000 different visitors. While visitors from the US, UK, Canada, and Australia predominate, we have also had readers from around the globe including, for example, from South Korea, China and at least one from Tajikistan. We are grateful to those who take the time to read the articles and comment on them.
The ten most popular articles by visits for 2017 were:
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Header Image: A8-126 performs the last dump and burn in history on the final day of flying the F-111 by the Royal Australian Air Force. (Source: Australian Government)