#Commentary – Going Back to the Future with Insurgent Air Power

#Commentary – Going Back to the Future with Insurgent Air Power

By Dr Jacob Stoil

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.

Iron_Dome_Battery_Deployed_Near_Ashkelon
An Iron Dome battery at Ashkelon, c. 2011 (Source: Wikimedia)

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.’[1] 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)

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[1] Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 176.

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 1

By Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Jyri Raitasalo

Editor’s Note: In this two-part article, Dr Jyri Raitasalo considers what he argues are the two fundamental fallacies concerning the application of strategic air power by Western states in the modern era. In this first part, he considers the challenge of the use of military forces as a tool for solving political problems. The second part of this article can be found here.

Ever since the 1991 Gulf War, the Western strategic discourse on air power has accentuated the role of high-tech precision-guided weapons together with good situational awareness and reliable command and control systems in solving modern conflicts. After the lessons learned from Operation DESERT STORM were drawn, one of the main tenets of western strategic thinking has been the (over-)reliance on the possibilities to solve political conflicts with modern weaponry – from the air. This notion did not emerge out of thin air. It was one answer to the many demands that Western statesmen – first and foremost among them the President of the United States – made immediately after the Cold War had ended. Since the early 1990s, the international security environment developed positively – at least from the western states’ perspective. However, the world was still infected with many low-level threats that rose in significance simultaneously as the Soviet threat evaporated.

The so-called Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) has been expected to deliver positive outcomes to political crises with little risk to Western soldiers or national interests – whether in Bosnia (1995), Kosovo (1999), Afghanistan (2001), Iraq (2003) or Libya (2011). Many western ‘wars of choice’ – under the headings of ‘humanitarian interventions’, ‘military crisis management operations’ or ‘expeditionary missions’ have been made possible – and in some cases necessary – by the demands of the contemporary 24/7 media, high-tech ‘revolutionary’ warfighting capabilities and the fading of the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Display of might
A US Air Force Boeing B-52H Stratofortress of the 2d Bomb Wing static display with weapons, at Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana, in 2006. (Source: Wikimedia)

During the 25 years of the post-Cold War era, Western air power ‘theory’ – based on the expectations of Western political leaders – has entertained the notion of strategic success in war just by deploying air assets against chosen adversaries. During this time we have witnessed the mystification of air power – the new ‘silver bullet’ – to epic proportions in a way that practical results from recent wars lend little support. Analysing recent western air wars from Bosnia (1995) to Libya (2011) one can easily detect that none of them has proved to be strategic successes for the west. Thus the ‘brand’ of contemporary Western air power is better than its actual track record. None of the often mentioned ‘successes’ have facilitated long-term positive outcomes.

The contemporary Western air war paradigm is based on two fallacies: the idea that high-tech military capabilities facilitate easy solving of political problems and the notion of almost casualty-free warfighting. Both of these should be subjected to strict scrutiny. It should be noted that it is not the militaries’ fault that political leaders have expressed repeated demands to the use of military force that are beyond the boundaries that existing military capabilities can deliver. However, to facilitate better strategies in the future, these fallacies will be elaborated next.

Fallacy 1: The use of military force is an effective tool to solve political problems

It is good to acknowledge that the number of armed conflicts – and the average number of people killed in these conflicts – has decreased during the post-Cold War era. As the Human Security Report Project noted in 2014, we have witnessed:

the rapid decline in international wars (anti-colonial wars are included in this category) over the past 60 odd years. The average number of international wars being fought every year per decade shrinks dramatically – from over six in the 1950s to less than one in the 2000s. […] From the early 1990s to the present day, overall conflict numbers have dropped by some 40 percent, while the deadliest conflicts, those that kill at least 1,000 people a year, have declined by more than half.

Despite the positive trend in warfare since the end of the Cold War, there have been many brutal cases where large-scale human suffering and damaged infrastructure have caused concern within the western security community. First of these instances was ‘born’ out of the result of the 1991 Gulf War: the predicament that the Kurds (in the north) and the Shia population (in the south) faced after Saddam Hussein was defeated – but remained in power. Moreover, many others have followed: from Somalia to Haiti, and from Timor-Leste to Kosovo.

The humanitarian suffering brought to our living rooms by the 24/7 media – and later by social media, smartphones and tablets – has become a new factor influencing western decisions in the use of military force in the world. Although most of the (air) wars that the West has waged during the post-Cold War era have almost nothing to do with Western national security directly, there has been the need to do something to ease humanitarian conditions and suffering around the world in the many crises that have been ongoing – from Iraq to Somalia and Haiti to Libya. Thus, the western approach to ‘humanitarian interventions’ and the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P) emerged to fill in the void that the end of the Cold War caused within the western threat perceptions.

Facing no existential threats, for the past 25 years, Western states have had the luxury of focusing on crises around the world where large masses of people have been violently oppressed. Moreover, the tools of the ongoing RMA – precision air strikes as the forerunner – seemed to propose a possibility to manage these humanitarian crises with little cost – in either blood or treasure. As was noted after the Gulf War:

A significant part of that edge [US’s edge versus Iraq] can be attributed to the revolutionary new military technology used by U.S. forces for the first time in Gulf War.

In other words, the lessons learned from the Gulf War – where Saddam Hussein’s big Army was easily defeated on the battlefield – have influenced the way that Western political leaders have been trying to solve violent political crises out-of-area.

However, the problem lies exactly here: the complex, violent crises around the world cannot be solved by precision bombing or by killing the ‘bad guys’. The politicisation of ethnicity and religion, the criminal elements involved and the contradictory political goals of multiple adversaries in most of the contemporary violent crises mean that externally imposed military solutions will not work. As has been noted in connection with the 2001 US-launched Global War on Terror, it is hard to kill enough terrorists without at the same time facilitating additional terrorist recruiting and providing additional PR for the terrorist cause.

It is understandable that political leaders resort to the use of military force relying on advanced weaponry to solve nasty crises around the world. The humane instincts of Western strategic decision-makers are understandable and praiseworthy. However, the sad part is that strategically, the use of military force has not been able to bring about political reconciliation or stability into ongoing conflict zones. On the contrary, the first ‘RMA air-war’ in history – the 1991 Gulf War – produced a political stalemate that resulted in a war of attrition against Iraq between 1991-2003. This attrition warfare manifested itself through the enforcement of no-fly zones and punitive air strikes against Iraq every time Saddam’s troops violated the rules imposed on them.

Even though the first Gulf War did not bring a politically favourable outcome vis-à-vis Iraq, the lessons drawn from that campaign at the operational level influenced how air power was used in Bosnia and Kosovo during the 1990s. The two air wars in Europe – in Bosnia 1995 and over Serbia in 1999 – have not till today produced lasting strategic outcomes that would be favourable to western states. Both are practically failed states, which can take a turn for the worse at any time. Also, in today’s tense international environment, the very unstable situation in Bosnia and Kosovo provide ample opportunities for Russia to manipulate the West.

It is noteworthy that immediately after the Kosovo air war, the US Secretary of Defense William Cohen noted that:

[…] what we were able to achieve through this [Kosovo] campaign reminds all of us that the revolution in military affairs is fundamentally changing the way in which we fight. […] In Operation Desert Storm, […], there were only a handful of sophisticated aircraft that could carry precision-guided munitions, […] In Kosovo, nearly all of our fighters could deliver these devastating weapons.

Cohen’s remarks are spot on when looked from tactical or operational perspectives. On the strategic level, however, the effects of “devastating weapons” do not automatically turn into political objectives.

To be fair, it must be noted that air power was eventually able to stop ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, but whether the level of violence increased because of the air wars or not, is still debatable. In any case, both Bosnia and Kosovo have shed light also on the negative impact of western air power:  the mere existence of highly capable western (read: US) Air Forces – together with the global 24/7 media – facilitated the increase of violence both in Bosnia and Kosovo as the West was lured into these crises by attacks on the ground that aimed to escalate the conflict – not to end it. The Western humanitarian intervention approach was in its formative years, and the belligerents on the ground in Bosnia and Kosovo knew how to take advantage of it. After the terrible case of the Rwandan genocide in 1994, it was easy to exploit the willingness of the West to do more – even by escalating ethnic cleansing to draw the West into the conflict.

The second round of large-scale air warfare against Iraq took place through a campaign of ‘shock and awe’ in 2003. It was accompanied and followed by mechanised thrusts to destroy Saddam’s Army, a task that the United States and its allies succeeded to do. However, this operational success was not followed by the fulfilment of strategic goals. Air power was not able to solve the post-Saddam political crisis in Iraq – a fate also shared by the Army and the Marine Corps throughout the subsequent counter-insurgency (CI) operation, which resulted in the withdrawal of US troops after years of fighting and thousands of casualties. The breaking up of Iraq’s state structures, administrative routines and security forces also facilitated the birth of ISIL and the increase of violence and instability in the region. In all, the 2003 war in Iraq – and the chaos that has followed – has proved to be a strategic mistake of massive scale. The possibilities of quick high-tech warfare against much weaker traditional conventional army lured the US into a process that eventually became uncontrollable. This is the true essence of war – that competitive advantage in one sphere of war-fighting (e.g. technology) can be mitigated or even nullified by another (e.g. tactical asymmetry). There are no ‘silver bullets’ – at least not for long.

RAF Tornado GR4 Aircarft During Operation Ellamy
Two fully armed RAF Tornados from RAF Marham transit the Mediterranean Sea en-route to Libya as part of the UK’s Operation ELLAMY to enforce the UN no-fly zone in March 2011. (Source: Defence Imagery, MoD)

Finally, the air war against Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya in 2011 – NATO operation Unified Protector – helped to set in motion a crisis that will influence European security for years to come – negatively, not to mention the additional suffering to ordinary Libyans. Today Libya is a failed state with multiple armed forces fighting over power and economic benefits. Also, Libya has become one of the bases for extremist terrorism. Operation Unified Protector showed the might of advanced air power by destroying the Gaddafi regime, but the strategic consequences of the operation will haunt the West – and Europe particularly – for years to come.

Dr Jyri Raitasalo is a Lieutenant-Colonel in the Finnish military and a Senior Staff Officer at the Planning Unit (strategic planning) of the Finnish Ministry of Defence. He holds the title of Docent of strategy and security policy at the Finnish National Defence University.  During his latest assignments, he has served as the Commanding Officer of the Helsinki Air Defence Regiment (Armoured Brigade), Head Lecturer of Strategy at the Finnish National Defence University, ADC to the Chief of Defence and Staff Officer (strategic planning) in the Finnish Defence Command (J5). Jyri Raitasalo is a called member of the Royal Swedish Academy of War Sciences.

Header Image: An F/A-18 Hornet of VFA-94 carrying out operations in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2001. Visible on the wing are two 500-pound Laser Guided Bomb Units (GBU-12) (left), and an AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile. (Source: Wikimedia)