#BookReview – Armageddon and OKRA: Australia’s air operations in the Middle East a century apart

#BookReview – Armageddon and OKRA: Australia’s air operations in the Middle East a century apart

Reviewed by Dr Peter Layton

Lewis Frederickson, Armageddon and OKRA: Australia’s Air Operations in the Middle East a Century Apart. Newport, NSW: Big Sky Publishing, 2020. Tables. Illustrations. Bibliography, Index. Pbk. 231 pp.

Armageddon and OKRA is the first in a planned series about the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) air campaigns being compiled as part of the RAAF’s 100th-anniversary celebrations. The RAAF’s Chief of Air Force (CAF) intends for the series’ works to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ (p. 3). In the main, Armageddon and OKRA ably meets these ambitions.

The book though carries additional burdens in aiming not just to market the RAAF to the Australian public but also to contribute to the Air Force’s professional military education and be of interest to serious academic researchers. It would be difficult for any work to satisfy such a diverse audience completely. Given this split, this review discusses Armageddon and OKRA from both a reader’s viewpoint and a military organisational perspective.

Armageddon and OKRA is split into two main parts. Part one examines Australian air power during the First World War in the Middle East between 1915 and 1919. The principal focus is on the operations of No.1 Squadron of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) during the British capture of Palestine and Syria from the Ottoman Turks in 1917-1918. ‘Armageddon’ in the title refers to the Battle of Megiddo in late September 1918 in which the No. 1 Squadron fought. This English language word comes from the Ancient Greek name for Mount Megiddo, subsequently used in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.

Part two then moves forward a hundred years to 2014-2018 and the US-led coalition operations to support the Iraqi Government to defeat Islamic State (ISIS). Part two’s principal focus is the small RAAF Air Task Group deployed for this task as part of the larger Australian Defence Force’s Operation OKRA, and which involved (amongst others) No.1 Squadron again. This is a rather elegant symmetry that perhaps was not made as much use of as could have been.

The involvement of the RAAF and its predecessor, the AFC in these two periods was at the tactical level of war and accordingly, the book’s main focus centres around squadron operations. Part one provides a comprehensive overview that nicely relates the tactical to the strategic level, the air activities undertaken, the various aircraft Australian’s were trained on and flew in operations, maintenance aspects and the air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons used. In this part, No.1 Squadron’s use of the Bristol F.2b Fighter in 1918 features prominently, including the destruction of a large Turkish ground force that the unit trapped in the Wadi Fara gorge. Also notable is the attention paid to including the opposing German squadrons, particularly FA300, and how they impacted No.1 Squadron. Wars involve two sides, however; many histories overlook this interdependence.

No. 1 Squadron, Australian Flying Corps next to their Bristol FB1 fighters, at Mejdel. The officer in the foreground (with stick) is Lieutenant-Colonel R. Williams, D.S.O., commanding. (Source: Australian War Memorial)

Part two is somewhat different. Early on, there is a detailed examination of the command-and-control arrangements for OKRA. The naming protocols are quite arcane for the casual reader, not unsurprisingly as their origin lies in the demands of automated messaging systems not in easy human comprehension. This then moves into several short chapters that discuss the daily air operations as seen at the squadron-level by OKRA’s deployed air units. These units flew the F/A-18 ‘Classic’ Hornet fighter/bomber, the F/A-18F Super Hornet fighter/bomber, the E-7A Wedgetail airborne warning and control aircraft and the KC-30A air-to-air refuelling tanker.

By the time the reader reaches these final chapters, it is apparent that CAF’s aims to be ‘readable, well-illustrated, educative and enduring’ has been achieved. In Australia, the book is keenly priced while its excellent line drawings of aircraft and numerous photographs add to the overall appeal. Some may argue over ‘enduring,’ however, the second part of the book offers a level of detail of the RAAF’s part in OKRA that is presently unequalled. In particular, future historians of these air operations will value this book because it gives the reader an insight into the rhythm and grind of daily squadron life during operations.

On the other hand, in meeting CAF’s other dictum, the book falls a bit short for the professional or academic reader. It is not – nor was intended to be – a critical analysis of the RAAF’s air operations in these two periods. The book dwells on the positives and only rarely and rather briefly notes any possible negatives. There are also reoccurring lapses into hagiography. Of the two parts of the book, the second is the most impacted. There is room left for a definitive, comprehensive history of the RAAF during OKRA.

In thinking about future works, the elegant symmetry of parts one and two was noted earlier. In reading the book, the more critical reader might like to assess the similarities and differences between No.1 Squadron operating as part of the British Empire and then 100 years operating as part of the American ‘empire’. In the First World War, No. 1 Squadron and Australians were more broadly considered part of the British Empire; they were simply English people born offshore. It is unsurprising the future Air Marshal Sir Richard Williams, later the ‘father of the RAAF,’ ended the war commanding in battle the Royal Air Force’s 40 Wing, which was overwhelming a British entity.

During OKRA, there is a much greater separation between the Americans and their foreign air force partners; the later provide tactical level forces to use as the US determines. However, through its astute alliance management process, the American empire has shaped foreign air forces to be fully and immediately interoperable with US forces regarding doctrine, equipment, support, and training. In contrast, in the British Empire’s war, Australia provided people to Britain who needed to be trained, equipped and, later in battle, logistically supported. For Australian’s, the British Empire was more collegiate, but the modern-day American one is arguably shrewder. Armageddon and Okra’s author, Lewis Frederickson, has written a fine, relevant analysis on Australia’s First World War experience for those wishing to explore such issues further.[1]

Two KC-30A Multi Role Tanker Transport aircraft sit together at the main air operating base in the Middle East Region on Operation OKRA. (Source: ADF)

Finally, it is worth discussing the book from a military organisational perspective. The book’s forward sets out CAF’s intentions for the series. These are not just laudable but noteworthy in breaking from the last 20 years of RAAF development. In these earlier periods, RAAF and other Australian Service chiefs stressed teamwork, and especially loyalty, over critical thinking.[2] This is a recognised problem for small professional military forces which lack the scale to be able to be ‘broad churches’ that can include disruptors.[3] In this series, and in his new Air Force Strategy, CAF now appears interested in setting off down this path.[4] If so, later books will need to be more analytical, including engaging in constructive criticism. It is uncertain if this will be possible or acceptable.

Armageddon and Okra is an excellent value read that makes a useful contribution to RAAF history. It is particularly important and valuable in breaking new ground on the RAAF’s participation in OKRA against ISIS. Overall Armageddon and Okra will be of interest to the general public, military enthusiasts and undergraduates undertaking strategic studies courses.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University and a RUSI (UK) Associate Fellow. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. Author of the book Grand Strategy, his posts, articles and papers may be read here. He was also once a navigator on No.1 Squadron RAAF flying F-111Cs.

Header Image: Centenary tail art on a  F/A-18F Super Hornet of No. 1 Squadron RAAF at the main air operating base in the Middle East Region during Operatyion OKRA. (Source: ADF)

[1] Lewis Frederickson, ‘The Development of Australian Infantry on the Western Front 1916-1918: An Imperial model of training, tactics and technology’ (PhD Thesis, UNSW Canberra, 2015)

[2] Peter Layton, ‘Does Australia need thinking ANZACs?,’ The Strategist,, 27 February 2014.

[3] Peter Roberts and Tony King, ‘Is the Era of Manoeuvre Warfare Dead?,’ Western Way of War: Episode 30, London: RUSI, 24 December 2020.

[4] Royal Australian Air Force, Air Force Strategy (Canberra: Department of Defence, 2020).

#BookReview – No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy

#BookReview – No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy

Reviewed By Dr Peter Layton

Stephen Wrage and Scott Cooper, No Fly Zones and International Security: Politics and Strategy. Abingdon: Routledge, 2019. Tables. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xi + 166 pp.


This is an excellent little book on no-fly zones. No Fly Zones and International Security is arguably the seminal work on the subject, but it may be on a subject whose time has passed. The book may be both the first word and the last on this particular type of air power operation.

No Fly Zones and International Security falls within the genre of strategic studies but does not use any particular theoretical framework. Instead, the authors opt to integrate history, current affairs, technology and the operational level of war into a most comprehensive analysis. In this process, the two authors bring a wealth of knowledge and experience having been involved with no-fly zone issues and their study for decades. Stephen Wrage is a Professor at the US Naval Academy and specializes in American foreign policy and strategies. Scott Cooper flew EA-6Bs for the USMC including in most of the no-fly zone operations this book explores.

No-fly zones are explained as seizing another country’s airspace and applying to the airspace specific rules and regulations. So understood, no-fly zones are a form of occupation more akin to naval blockades or maritime exclusion zones than to the placing of ground forces in another country. This means no-fly zones are somewhat out of sight both to the population of the country impacted and to the country employing them. Their impact on the domestic politics of either country is accordingly somewhat muted, making their lifting less pressing; they can continue for many years. No-fly zones are a way of exerting military pressure, but they do so in a quasi-benign manner that places the onus to escalate to direct conflict on the state whose airspace has been seized. No-fly zones are then a soft form of coercive diplomacy, a military power tool or method that lies somewhere between economic sanctions and war in the conflict continuum.

The book initially delves into the doctrine, nature, types, tactics, strategies, and ethics of no-fly zones. This provides the background necessary for in-depth analysis and careful assessments of the no-fly zones in Iraq, Bosnia, and Libya. The Iraq chapter covers mostly Northern and Southern watch; the former when labelled Provide Comfort I was where no-fly zones originated. The Bosnia chapter is more expansive, moving from the short-lived 1992-93 Operation Sky Monitor to the major air campaign over Kosovo in 1999. Libya is even more so with the no-fly zone only fleetingly appearing before turning into a significant military intervention albeit conducted almost entirely by air.

The inclusion of much more discussion than solely about no-fly zones in the Bosnia and Libya sections does highlight that the history of no-fly zones is somewhat meagre. On the other hand, including such information directly related to air power helpfully places no-fly zones into context. The three history chapters also end with a useful lessons learned section that nicely summaries the issues for busy people and policymakers.

The book’s last chapter looks forward to whether no-fly zones have a future. As part of this, it also discusses no-fly zones that could have happened in Darfur and Syria and explains why they were not implemented. This highlights that the relationship between no-fly zones and strategy is worth exploring.

The book is at some pains to not claim no-fly zones are a strategy instead of seeing them as ‘an option, a tactic or a tool.’ As such, they offer states a relatively low-cost way to ‘do something’ without becoming deeply involved while retaining the ability to modulate air operations as necessary and withdraw very quickly if needs be. This brings to mind Eliot Cohen’s 1994 comment that ‘[a]ir power is an unusually seductive form of military strength, in part because, like modern courtship, it appears to offer gratification without commitment.’

A US Air Force McDonnell Douglas F-15C Eagle from the 53rd Fighter Squadron is met by maintenance personnel at Aviano air base, Italy, after a mission over Bosnia to enforce the No-Fly Zone on 1 June 1993. (Source: Wikimedia)

In terms of gratification, the book makes it clear that no-fly zones by themselves can achieve little; they need to be part of a much larger and aggressive joint campaign to have a decisive impact. In this, no-fly zones can realistically have no real strategic objective in and of themselves. At best, they can be a conflict management tool that freezes in place the status quo. At least so far, they have been used only in intra-state conflicts.

In intra-state conflicts, no-fly zones arose and have been used mainly for humanitarian protection purposes. This cuts back to the ‘do something’ imperative liberal states feel when the global media discerns significant human rights violations occurring. Since Iraq and then Afghanistan, military interventions by Western powers have become less appealing, but this has not made doing nothing in the face of genocide and mass atrocities suddenly attractive. States still feel a moral obligation, and under the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) norm, some international pressure, to respond. No-fly zones can signal an interest in an issue, but as the book makes clear, they do not in themselves prevent or stop humanitarian disasters.

R2P is starting to appear as a rather quaint notion of a gentler, kinder time. No-fly zones were an American idea carried out with allied support to mildly enforce particular Western rules, albeit the United Nations generally endorsed these. Rising great power China is unattracted to supporting such humanitarian interventions as they involve intervening against authoritarian governments mistreating their people. China under Xi Jinping is increasingly more likely to aid authoritarian governments than stop them committing human rights abuses as its endorsement of Syria’s Assad regime reveals.

Russia, the perennial troublemaker of the modern era, is similarly inclined. Indeed, had a Syrian no-fly zone been implemented, Russia would have been one of the nations it would have been directed against. No-fly zones may now simply be an anachronistic artifact of a liberal rules-based order that has crumbled.

The book concludes on a sombre note in arguing that the Russian use of surface-to-air missiles systems in the Donbass in shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 and 19 Ukrainian military aircraft created and then policed a no-fly zone, that has since been ratified under a cease-fire agreement. China has now extended this innovation by installing similar missile systems on its newly created islands in the South China Sea. There are now effectively no-fly zones above and for 12 nautical miles (the claimed territorial limit) around these new artificial constructs.

No-fly zones started out as a device associated with humanitarian protection during civil wars. They may now be morphing into a device whereby authoritarian states can make territorial land grabs.

No Fly Zones and International Security makes an outsized contribution to what is admittedly a small field and not just in terms of discussing no-fly zones. It is one of the few books discussing in a comprehensive, balanced, insightful and well-argued way the application of contemporary air power. The book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of applying air power in the modern world.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: A US Air Force EF-111 Raven from the 429th Electronic Combat Squadron flies over the Alps of Northern Italy while on a mission during Operation DENY FLIGHT in 1995. (Source: Wikimedia)

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

#BookReview – Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower

By Dr Peter Layton

Richard J. Bailey, James W. Forsyth Jr. and Mark O. Yeisley (eds), Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2016. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. xii + 279 pp.


It may seem somewhat odd to be reviewing a book about thinking strategically on a website concerning air power and history. But not so. This book is written by past and present faculty members of the US Air Force’s (USAF) School of Advanced Air and Space Studies (SAASS) located within the Air University at Maxwell AFB, Alabama. Air power thus permeates the book, running in parallel with the notion that history is a particularly useful discipline when educating future strategists.

For From Balloons and Drones readers though there is a deeper interest. With all the hubris of a fast jet aviator Richard Bailey tells us that SAASS is the ‘premier strategy school in the US Department of Defense (if not the country at large)’ (p. 1).[1] Arguably, make that ‘the world at large’, at least regarding influence on air power thinking. The USAF dominates modern air power theory and practice. This book nicely illuminates the culture that underpins such dominance.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation comprises 11 main chapters each written by a different faculty member. Academics are notoriously averse to standardisation, delighting in holding differing opinions and employing diverse writing techniques. This book accepts this and seeks to make it a virtue, with each chapter entirely different regarding structure, content, style, and tone. Coherence and unity of purpose are then meant to be achieved not at the chapter level but in the book overall. The book’s design is meant to take the reader along an ‘optimal arc’ so that they complete ‘an intentional full circle academic journey’ (p. 3). Does it work? For me, not quite. The book seems more a compilation of disparate articles – all insightful, many outstanding, most cutting-edge – that is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.


The book’s subtitle is ‘context and adaptation,’ both good threads to discuss its contents. There is much made of the need for individual strategies to be developed appropriate to the context within which they are to be implemented. Understanding context, getting ‘to know the key actors, relationships, factors and challenges’ is seen as the first step in ‘doing strategy’ (p. 241).

The argument is though considerably more sophisticated than it may first appear. The notion is developed that strategy and context interact, continually changing each other and simultaneously evolving together. Everett Dolman writes ‘so now we are all constructivists, of course’ (p. 33). A somewhat surprising statement given that the American armed forces strategic culture overall is often seen as being realist, so privileging relative material power rather than ideas.

For air power thinkers and historians there is some importance to this reflectivist notion as made clear in Jeffrey Smith’s excellent chapter. Smith develops the idea that the USAF has generally been tardy in adapting its strategy, force structure and training in the context of the times.

Air Corps Tactical School
The Air Corps Tactical School (created as the Air Service Field Officers School in 1920) went beyond its mandate of training officers to also become an engine for air power theory development in the interwar period. (Source: US Air Force Air University)

The interwar Air Corps Tactical School (ACTS) devised the strategy of precision daylight bombing of vital industrial targets, but this was found wanting when employed in the context of a capable air defence system and needed adaptation. In the nuclear age post-Second World War, the strategy of large-scale nuclear strikes using long-range bombers dominated but was again found wanting in the context of the Vietnam conflict, a limited war fought with conventional munitions. In the post-9/11 era of small wars and insurgencies, the strategy of short-range fighters delivering precision-guided weapons was again found wanting in a context where population security was deemed key and the enemy elusive. Smith argues that in each case ‘translating the theory into a feasible strategy [was] flawed because it failed to consider, understand, or incorporate the full context in which it would be applied’ (p. 139). Adaptation then became necessary to achieve success, but this was often too slow, proving costly in blood and treasure.

Smith then extends this insight from history to the future of air power. He argues that contemporary air power theories, strategies, force structures and training may prove inadequate in the future context in which they are applied. It seems adaptation will be required again albeit with nuance.

Dolman considers (p. 32) that it is not perfect adaptation to the context that is key but rather having a diverse range of force capabilities available that become progressively useful however the context changes. As Smith notes, fast jets were perfect for 1991’s Desert Storm but inadequate for the different operational contexts later encountered. The importance of Dolman’s conceptual call for diversity is nicely illustrated by Smith’s outline of post 9/11 air operations that required ‘tactical airlift, special operations, ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance], close air support and tightly integrated action with ground forces’ (p. 145) not high-flying strike packages comprising mainly supersonic fighters.


This step from historical analysis to tomorrow’s battles reflects the SAASS motto of From the Past, the Future (p. 129). When one considers that the ACTS’ motto of the 1920s was Proficimus More Irretenti (We Progress Unhindered by Tradition) (p. 115) you can get a sense of how modern USAF strategic education has evolved, or as airmen might say, of its current vector.

Richard Muller’s chapter on using history to educate strategists explores this aspect further. The USAF, born after the Second World War straight into the revolutionary new nuclear age determined that military history be mostly irrelevant; technology studies and current affairs accordingly dominated the Air University’s curricula. In the wake of the Vietnam War though doubts arose and the study of history crept in. After some travails, this inclination became institutionalised following some vigorous prodding from the US Congress and the activism of the remarkable Ike Skelton (D-MO). SAASS was one of the results albeit it should be highlighted that the use of history at this school has a decidedly utilitarian flavour.

When this book was written in 2015, only two out of 11 SAASS courses were ‘explicitly historical in orientation’ (p. 129) with emphasis placed instead on the curriculum being interdisciplinary. Muller usefully sets out four ways history should be used to educate airmen (pp. 123-5). Firstly ‘to instil corporate spirit and foster awareness of airpower’s rich heritage’; secondly ‘to illustrate or even legitimise current doctrine, operational concepts, organisational reforms or weapon systems’; thirdly as part of the ‘systematic attempt to extract useful insights from a thorough examination of previous wars, campaigns or other historical events’; and lastly ‘to inculcate the ability to think in terms of cause and effect or to work through complex interactions of personalities, contextual factors, friction and so on’. As Muller himself notes, professional historians would be aghast about the first two somewhat proselytising functions.

The last function, however, that of developing critical thinking skills, is particularly noteworthy given that air forces are culturally inherently technocratic organisations. This essential characteristic needs some balancing when conflict erupts and the need for successful strategising arises. Steven Wright (pp. 234-6) considers most air force personnel are linear thinkers that excel at getting things done correctly but that this is not enough. Air forces also need abstract thinkers that excel at understanding what the correct things are that need to be done. Studying history can help improve people’s abstract thinking skills by giving them an understanding of how to think about context and its relationship to strategy. History then helps people understand what the correct things are to be doing and is accordingly an indispensable element in a strategist’s education.

Strategy: Context and Adaptation from Archidamus to Airpower is a snapshot of SAASS at a specific time in history, after the 9/11 wars and before the emerging era of contested skies. The book is excellent in guiding the reader to think more thoughtfully about strategy, what it is and how it should be made while providing an interesting window into contemporary USAF senior staff college education. Eclectic by design, the book offers much for military professionals, academics and all concerned with deeply understanding the business of strategising and its teaching.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book ‘Grand Strategy’.

Header Image: Austin Hall at Maxwell AFB. Austin Hall was the home of the Air Corps Tactical School before the Second World War. (Source: Wikimedia)

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[1] While Bailey is not a fast-jet aviator, this reviewer used to be one and so feels able to use such an analogy shamelessly.

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part Two

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the second part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War. The first part of this article can be found here.

In retrospect, during the Cold War, the dice were stacked against armed unmanned aircraft.  Improving aircrew survivability in a major war – the primary requirement – involved operating in a very hostile, sophisticated air environment in the presence of extensive jamming that could defeat the data links necessary to control unmanned aircraft. Furthermore, the computers, aircraft systems and onboard sensors needed to make such an aircraft work were all big, cumbersome, unreliable and costly. Even when cost was not an issue as in the case of Advanced Airborne Reconnaissance System project of the late Cold War, the unmanned aircraft designs ended up being very large, technically challenging, of doubtful effectiveness and somewhat inflexible in operation.

In the 1990s the stars radically realigned to favour armed unmanned aircraft. In the early 1990s, armed violence erupted in Yugoslavia. The conflict was slow paced with a need for protracted surveillance rather than episodic reconnaissance, but none of the existing systems seemed quite right. Manned aircraft lacked persistence while satellites had predictable orbits and known overhead times, could not easily be repositioned to survey new areas and were impacted by bad weather. Meeting the new requirements driven by the wars in the Balkans was however eased somewhat by the air environment now being permissive with little threat from air defences. In the winter of 1992, the US Joint Staffs and the Office of the Secretary of Defense initiated a quick reaction program for a long-endurance unmanned aircraft. First flight came within six months of contract award, and a year later the General Atomics Predator unmanned aircraft was in operations over Bosnia.

Seemingly quick, the Predator’s rapid entry into service exploited some 15 years of DARPA experiments, trials, partial successes and utter failures. The overall airframe design was point-optimised for the particular mission with a slender fuselage with pusher configuration, long sailplane-like wings, inverted V-tails and a ventral rudder. The engine was a horizontally-opposed, liquid-cooled, four-stroke, geared piston engine with a minimal frontal area that offered high power at a moderate rpm, very low fuel consumption and very low vibration. The Vietnam-era unmanned jet aircraft saved weight by not being fitted with an undercarriage but were difficult to launch and recover. Predator’s used a tall, lightweight fixed undercarriage that gave considerable ground clearance.  This design meant that the Predator had a maximum speed of only some 120kts, but they could loiter for almost a day flying at 70kts at an altitude of 12-15,000 ft. This performance was adequate – if not sparkling – for the new requirement for long persistence albeit useless for the earlier Cold War type missions where survivability was critical.

In design terms, the airframe and engine were skillful but somewhat primitive having more in common with the 1944 TDR-1 unmanned aircraft (see Part One here) than a 1990s military aircraft. The real innovations that addressed the big technological challenge – how to fly and operate an unmanned aircraft in combat for 24 hours or more without on-board humans – lay in the electronics. Computer advances now allowed dramatic increases in computing power, speed and reliability while communication advances connected the Predator literally to the world, changing everything.

Controllability was addressed using a purpose-built flight control computer more powerful than that used in the F-16 fighters of the time. This made the Predator stable in flight in all weathers and easy to control remotely especially during the problematic take-off and landing phases. Navigation was addressed using the satellite-based Global Positioning System (GPS). Earlier unmanned aircraft had significant navigation problems with Vietnam era aircraft often missing their planned target by some 10-12 kilometres. GPS was a real breakthrough that provided an off-board, ubiquitous, highly accurate navigation method. However, it was new communications technology that made armed unmanned aircraft practical.

Over its first few years of operational service, the Predator system took advantage of and was integrated into, the rapidly advancing online world. It broke away from being dependent on line of sight control with the fitment of high bandwidth satellite communication data links. This has made the armed unmanned aircraft both remarkably flexible and remarkably useful.

Remote Split Operations endowed remarkable flexibility. A small team at a forward airbase launched a Predator using a line-of-sight wireless link and then transferred control to operators located anywhere globally who used satellite communications links. These remote operators then flew the long-duration operational part of each sortie, changing crews throughout the mission as necessary. After the mission, the Predator was handed back to the small forward deployed team which landed the aircraft and turned it around for the next mission. This way of operating meant the forward team was small, requiring only very limited support and minimising the people and equipment needed to be deployed.

The second aspect – that of being remarkably useful – was made possible using modern communications technology that allowed data from the unmanned aircraft to be sent worldwide in near-real-time.

By the late 1990s, sensor technology had considerably advanced allowing relatively small high-quality daylight and night television systems to be made for an affordable cost. Moreover, these, when combined with a laser rangefinder and the onboard GPS navigation system, allowed an unmanned aircraft to now very accurately determine the location of the object being looked at. Such pictures and the position data though were of limited use if access to them had to wait for the aircraft’s return to base. Now with high-bandwidth satellite communication systems, full-motion video tagged with its accurate location could be sent to distant locations. Multiple users worldwide could access real-time imagery of events as they occurred.

The impact of this was that not just the aircrew controllers could see the video and make use of it. Now local land, sea and air commanders could have instant access to the imagery allowing more active command and control of assigned forces. High-level commanders and government ministers at home could also gain an appreciation of the tactical events unfolding. These live feeds from the world’s battlefield were compelling viewing; the term ‘Predator Porn’ was coined – you cannot take your eyes off it.

As importantly, imagery analysts and other exploitation specialists at locations worldwide could now bring their expert skills to bear to provide instantaneous advice on niche aspects to the complete command chain, including the operators controlling the Predator. The satellite communications links allowed many skilled people to be ‘onboard’ the unmanned aircraft flying in some distant theatre of operations, making its operations much more useful than a manned aircraft traditionally could be.

A US Air Force MQ-9 Reaper awaits maintenance 8 December 2016, at Creech Air Force Base. The MQ-1 Predator has provided many years of service, and the USAF is transitioning to the more capable MQ-9 exclusively and will retire the MQ-1 in 2018 to keep up with the continuously evolving battlespace environment. (Source: US Department of Defense)

The final technological piece in the armed unmanned aircraft jigsaw came together with the fitment of air-to-ground weapons. On operations in the Balkans in the 1990s, Predator’s provided imagery that was used to cue manned aircraft to essential targets, so they could deliver weapons on them. This worked well but sometimes the manned aircraft were not readily available and hours might elapse before they were overhead. This delay meant that hostile forces could group and attack civilians or friendly forces before defensive measures could be taken.  To overcome this, lightweight, small-warhead Hellfire missiles were fitted to the Predators that could be fired by the remote aircrew controllers against time-urgent targets. The range of weapons that could be fitted greatly expanded in later Predator developments but the fundamental constraint of needing to be lightweight to allow the unmanned aircraft to fly long-duration missions remained. Manned aircraft were still necessary for the battlefield situations and targets that required large warhead weapons.

In the early part of the 21st Century, armed unmanned aircraft finally came of age. This occurred with the coming together of several factors. Firstly, in the operational circumstances of the time, the air environment was much less hostile allowing simple aircraft to survive and potentially undertake meaningful roles. Secondly, there was now a pressing operational need for persistent surveillance; a task manned aircraft were unable to meet. Thirdly, aircraft technology has sufficiently mature to allow an unmanned aircraft to be controllable, navigate successfully, carry suitable sensors and incorporate satellite communications equipment. Lastly, in the internet age, once a video stream was received anywhere, it could be sent worldwide to allow anybody with an authorised computer terminal to access and use it.

After more than half-century of development, the aircraft was the easy bit. It was the electronics onboard and overboard, the ground controlling equipment, the complex support base and the large numbers of skilled staff involved at every level that made the whole operation work. It was not surprising then that defence forces pivoted to talk less of unmanned aircraft and towards terminology such as Unmanned Air Systems. Predators and their ilk were a system of systems, mostly ground-based but with one element that flew.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An MQ-1 Predator, armed with AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, on a combat mission over southern Afghanistan, c. 2008. (Source: Wikimedia)

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The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part One

The Rise of Armed Unmanned Aircraft – Part One

By Dr Peter Layton

Editorial Note: In the first part of a two-part article, Dr Peter Layton explores the evolution of the armed unmanned aircraft from its first use in the Second World War through to the First Gulf War.

In the Solomon Islands off Australia’s northern shores, on the 19 October 1944, a US Navy flown, Interstate Aircraft-built TDR-1 dropped a mix of ten 100lb and 500lb bombs against Japanese gun emplacements on Ballale Island.  This was the first operational armed unmanned aircraft attack in history.

The twin-engined unmanned aircraft involved was just one of some fifty sent into combat in late 1944 with Special Task Air Group One. The armed unmanned aircraft took off under radio control that was then transferred to accompanying manned TBM-1C Avenger control aircraft for the long transit to the target area. The control aircraft remained some 8-12 kilometres outside of the ground defences while using a data linked real-time video picture displayed on a cockpit mounted television screen for close-in guidance. Few of the Air Group personnel involved had even seen a television set before they joined the unit. Their feats would not be replicated until early in the 21st century.

In truth, while after 1944-armed unmanned aircraft continued to attract considerable interest and at times funding, the technology available was too immature. The crucial issue was to find technological solutions that could overcome the many problems arising from not having a person in the aircraft. Finding the right blend of complex technological solutions took several decades, but this was not enough to see armed unmanned aircraft fly again in combat. There had to be a compelling operational need only they could best meet.

Curiously enough, the next armed unmanned aircraft was again operated by the US Navy. In the 1950s, the US Navy was concerned that the Soviets were building submarines faster than it could build anti-submarine warfare (ASW) destroyers. The solution was to upgrade a large number of old Second World War vessels, but these were too small to operate manned ASW helicopters from. Soviet submarines of the time could fire on ASW destroyers at longer ranges than the destroyers could fire back. A helicopter that could drop homing torpedoes was necessary to allow them to engage first. The answer was the small QH-50 Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter controlled by the ship’s crew through a line-of-sight data link and able to deliver two MK-44 ASW homing torpedoes where and when required. There were numerous problems and many crashes, but hundreds were built and saw service throughout the 1960s.

QH-50 enthusiasts consider the more pressing operational demands arising from the worsening Vietnam War prematurely killed the unmanned helicopter off, and in this, they may be right. In the second half of the 1960s, there was a significant air war almost daily over North Vietnam. Attacking US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy strike aircraft were pitched against a continually improving Soviet-equipped integrated air defence system featuring the latest SA-2 and SA-3 Surface-to-Air Missile systems. Bomb damage assessment was a real problem; bad weather and the heavy defences made manned aircraft reconnaissance problematic.

A QH-50C anti-submarine drone hovers over the destroyer USS Allen M. Sumner during a deployment to the Mediterranean Sea in 1969. (Source: Wikimedia)

The solution was a fast jet, unmanned aircraft and again hundreds were built, and thousands of sorties flown. These Ryan Lightning Bugs were launched from modified C-130 transport aircraft, flew pre-planned missions and were then recovered using a parachute that was caught in mid-air by a large helicopter. This was an inflexible and expensive way to do business that only fitted the oddities of the Vietnam air environment. With the war’s end in 1975, interest also faded albeit after some trials of armed unmanned aircraft carrying bombs and missiles.

The USAF’s focus shifted to the European Central front then characterised by strong air defences, long-range fighters, a harsh electromagnetic environment and extensive jamming. Launching and recovering unmanned aircraft using slow, vulnerable C-130 transports and CH-53 helicopters in such a hostile air environment looked both very unappealing and most probably operationally ineffective.

The need that drove TDR-1 development however remained. When attacking well-defended targets in a significant war, aircrew survivability was still a real concern. In the late 1970s, the aircrew losses in a new major European War looked as though they would be exceptionally heavy, but there would not be time to bring newly trained aircrews into service as in the Second World War: what should be done? Could armed unmanned aircraft meet the need? After much thought and numerous experiments, the answer adopted instead was to invest sizable funds into high performance manned aircraft equipped with stand-off precision-guided weapons that lowered the sortie numbers required to inflict the necessary damage, field a fleet of electronic warfare attack aircraft able to defeat hostile SAM systems and build secret stealth bombers, the F-117 fleet. This approach was stunningly validated in the short very successful air campaign of the 1991 Gulf War.

Unmanned aircraft lost out not because of aviator biases as some assume but because of their technological immaturity, their relative operational ineffectiveness and their prohibitive costs. Other systems were just plain better. Unmanned aircraft were left as a potential solution in search of a mission. However, the world was about to change.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. His PhD is in grand strategy, and he has taught on this at the US National Defense University. He is the author of the book Grand Strategy.

Header Image: An Interstate TDR-1 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola, Florida. (Source: Wikimedia)

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Contested Skies: Australia’s Uncertain Air Superiority Future

Contested Skies: Australia’s Uncertain Air Superiority Future

By Dr Peter Layton

In war, there’s a constant to and fro. At times defence dominates, at other times offence. Technologies arise and fall. Disruption rules. This is noticeably so in today’s arcane world of air superiority. While much investment has gone into the ADF’s air superiority capabilities—with more coming with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter—the operational environment is not standing still.

KC-30 Tanker Test fuel transfer to F-35A
An RAAF KC-30A Multi-Role Tanker Transport conducted refuelling trials with a US Air Force F-35A Joint Strike Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base in California. (Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

The skies are increasingly contested. Emerging threats are making Australia’s tanker, and AEW&C (airborne early warning and control) aircraft more vulnerable and advanced surface-to-air missiles, stealth-fighter technology, long-range ballistic and cruise missiles and even hobbyist drones are proliferating. The US Air Force (USAF) recently studied what all this means in practice and determined that its ‘projected force structure in 2030 is not capable of fighting and winning against [the expected] array of potential adversary capabilities’. If the USAF’s force structure is becoming stretched so, surely, is ours.

Some warn that the 2030 date may mislead, asserting that ‘Integrated Air Defence Systems covering areas in the Western Pacific … may now be able to deny access to all but the stealthiest of aircraft’. The ‘stealthiest of aircraft’ refers to the flying wing B-2 Spirit stealth bombers and forthcoming B-21 Raiders. It seems that F-35s with their vertical tails have some vulnerabilities to emerging multiband digital radars. A RAND study echoes these concerns about current and growing air-superiority shortcomings.

Even so, 2030 isn’t far away in defence terms. It is only seven years after Australia’s F-35 fleet will have—hopefully—reached final (or full) operational status. That is not long in the planned 25- to 30-year life of the aircraft.

Australia has committed to its major air superiority investments, which makes them a good starting point to discuss the strategic impacts of known and emerging changes in the air superiority operational environment. In my new paper published by ASPI titled Contested Skies, I use current air superiority force structure plans to develop three practical strategic options to address these changes.

Two of these options require modifying the current plans. That may worry some, but strategic ‘ends’ can’t be determined independently of the capability ‘means’. The two are interdependent. When the means are fixed, it makes sense to discuss alternative ‘ways’ that might reasonably bring strategic ends into alignment.

The three options are:

  • Continuing present plans. Maintaining our current operational plans and future equipment programmes means lowering our national ambitions to simply the defence of Australia. This ‘back to the future’ approach implies abandoning Southeast Asian nations to do the best they can as China rises and its sphere of influence expands. Strategically, this shifts the burden of conducting offensive air operations onto our American ally. While we could contribute by providing a safe base area in any conflict in which the skies were seriously contested, this level of involvement would not give us much influence on overall allied strategy or in any war-termination negotiations. Our current air superiority plans doom us to being a bit player.
  • Going ‘air defence heavy’. This option changes our current capability development plans to stress air defence. A start would include acquiring significant numbers of advanced SAMs and sensors for integrated air and missile defence, changing present F-35 upgrade plans and focussing on making airbases more resilient. Strategically, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach would allow Australia to remain deeply engaged in Southeast Asia and make a meaningful—perhaps decisive—contribution in times of serious conflict. Because this approach is less reliant on US support, it would allow us to mount independent operations in an area critical to our future. This has some echoes with the Pacific War’s later stages, when the US relied on Australian forces to conduct operations in Borneo while it focused on the Philippines and beyond.
  • Rebuilding our strike capability. This option entails adjusting our current plans to focus on reconfiguring our strike capability to be effective in contested airspace beyond 2030. We would also need to make a limited investment in integrated air and missile defence. The USAF study mentioned earlier foresees the F-35 losing its strike role at the end of the next decade and then becoming an air defence fighter—taking the ‘strike’ out of ‘Joint Strike Fighter’. This applies to all of the elements that comprise the ADF’s strike capabilities, not just to the F-35. If we want to maintain a genuine strike capability into the future, we need to take positive steps to do so. However, this will not be easy or low cost—or maybe even doable.
Two F-35A Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters conduct the first ever trans-Pacific flight from the US to RAAF Base Amberley, Australia to be displayed for the first time at the Australian International Air Show at Avalon, Victoria.(Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)

In broad terms, the status quo ‘defence of Australia’ option implies burden-shifting onto the US, the ‘air defence heavy’ approach implies a reduced dependency on the US—perhaps lessening America’s burdens—while the rebuilding of our strike capability implies continuing to share the burden with the US in major ‘must-win’ wars past 2030.

Air superiority may seem narrowly technical, but it can have a significant impact on the range of strategies that can realistically be considered. It is time for a big air-superiority rethink.

This post was originally published by The Strategist, the commentary and analysis site of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, an independent, non-partisan think tank based in Canberra.

Dr Peter Layton is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, Griffith University. He has extensive defence experience including teaching grand strategy at the Eisenhower College, US National Defence University. He has a doctorate from the University of New South Wales on the subject of grand strategy and undertook a Fellowship at the European University Institute. His research interests include grand strategy, national security policies particularly relating to middle powers, defence force structure concepts, and armed non-state actors.

Header Image: On 29 September 2014, an Australian F-35A Lightning II aircraft took off from Fort Worth, Texas, USA. It was the maiden flight for the Australian F-35A, which was flown by Alan Norman of Lockheed Martin, lasting approximately two hours. (Source: Department of Defence, Australian Government)