#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.

#BookReview – Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience

#BookReview – Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience

By Dr Brian Laslie

John Andreas Olsen (ed.), Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2017. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 432 pp.

airpower applied

In the most recent work to focus exclusively on air power combat operations, Colonel John Andreas Olsen of the Royal Norwegian Air Force and a visiting professor at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm, presents a thoroughly researched, persuasive, and insightful work on the study of air power that ranges from large-scale state-on-state actions to the more abundant (some might say most likely) asymmetric fights of the late Twentieth and early Twenty-First Century. Olsen’s name should be more than familiar to anyone with a passing interest in the history of air power. He is the author/editor of numerous works including John Warden and the Renaissance of American Air Power, A History of Air Warfare, Airpower Reborn, Air Commanders, European Air Power, and Global Air Power. Aside from his prolific output, Olsen also has the ability to bring together the most respected names in air power studies to provide chapters in his edited works. The same is true for his latest book, Airpower Applied: U.S., NATO, and Israeli Combat Experience. The purpose of the book, as the title suggests, is to provide a valuation of the American, NATO, and Israeli combat experience from World War II to present campaigns. It is broken into five chapters that cover a total of twenty-nine separate air campaigns or operations. Olsen’s thesis is that ‘knowledge of operational history helps political leaders and military professionals to make better-informed decisions about the use of force.’ Thus, this work is not about ‘lessons learned’ as much as it is a learning tool used to provoke thought and create questions amongst professionals.

Richard Hallion provides the first chapter on ‘America as a Military Aerospace Nation: From Pearl Harbor to Desert Storm.’ Hallion admits that much of America’s advancement during the Cold War was owed to ‘emulation and innovation [rather] than to invention.’ That being said, American air power has moved to the forefront of technology, invention, innovation, and execution in the post-Vietnam era leading up to the dramatic successes of air power during the First Gulf War. Before this Hallion covers many previous aerial campaigns, whose success and failures led to the triumph of Operation DESERT STORM: The Second World War, the Berlin Airlift, Korea, Vietnam, ELDORADO CANYON and JUST CAUSE. Hallion’s contribution here is the best single chapter on the history of American air power from the Second World War to DESERT STORM. However, he, unfortunately, omits any discussion of the failings of Operation EAGLE CLAW, missing an opportunity to discuss the genesis of true air power jointness; this might be forgiven considering that most consider EAGLE CLAW a Special Forces operation with little to do with actual air power. Hallion also misses the mark on his discussion about the use of the F-117 in its combat debut during the operation in Panama. Hallion states ‘The F-117 strike at Rio Hato […] succeeded in stunning the PDF [Panamanian Defense Forces] defenders.’  This, however, is disputed by the Joint History Office’s report on operation JUST CAUSE which stated that ‘[D]espite radio broadcasts and the use of F-117As and other weapons to stun and intimidate them, most PDF units fought harder than expected before surrendering or fleeing.’[1]

Hallion’s belief in the efficacy of air power is apparent when he states that ‘In the gulf it took one bomb or one missile’ to destroy a target (p. 93). This is an oversimplification and poses a danger to those who would believe it. This view of air power as scalpel needs to be tempered. Bombs and missiles miss and many targets in Iraq had to be repeatedly attacked. There is an oft-repeated axiom that they are called missiles and not hittles for a reason. That being said, Hallion’s chapter represents a concise and persuasive argument detailing just why America has become the eminent air power nation in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries and transitions nicely into the next chapter on air power since DESERT STORM.

Allied Force
A US Air Force B-2 Spirit stealth bomber refuels from a KC-135 Stratotanker on April 6, 1999, during an air strike mission in support of NATO Operation ALLIED FORCE. (Source: Wikimedia)

Benjamin Lambeth provides the second chapter on ‘American and NATO Airpower Applied: From Deny Flight to Inherent Resolve.’ Lambeth demonstrates that air power in ALLIED FORCE was a ‘textbook illustration of airpower in action not to “win a war” but rather to achieve a discrete and important campaign goal short of full-fledged war’ (p. 133). However, when looked at through Hallion’s view of ROLLING THUNDER as a ‘naïve intent,’ there arises an internal inconsistency in the application of air power to achieve limited ends, something that all scholars of air power still struggle to contend with (p. 53). It seems that when air power is used for a limited goal and ‘works,’ air power scholars tend to use it as a good example and when it is used towards a limited end and fails, i.e. ROLLING THUNDER, we use that as an example of why air power should not be used towards limited ends.

Lambeth goes one bridge too far in his admittedly unfinished assessment, of the role of air power in attacking ISIS in Operation INHERENT RESOLVE. Readers in 2017 have something Lambeth did not have when he penned his chapter in 2014/2015, namely three more years of data, which seem to finally indicate that the tide against ISIS has turned and that coalition air power with the support of Iraqi and other forces on the ground have driven ISIS out of the sanctuary cities of Raqqa, Sirte, and Mosul. These campaigns, as part of the most precise air campaign in history, and while limiting civilian casualties, took time. Ironically, nearly precisely the amount of time called for by government officials in 2014 that Lambeth decried in his chapter.

The book shifts its focus here away from the NATO and American experience to two chapters on Israeli Air Force (IAF) combat operations. First, Alan Stephens writes ‘Modeling Airpower: The Arab-Israeli Wars of the Twentieth Century’ detailing the First Arab-Israeli War to the First Lebanon War in 1982. Stephens provides balance by indicating upfront that these conflicts were not only about survival for the country of Israel but the displaced Palestinians as well. Focusing more on the air power side of the conflict, Stephens asks upfront, ‘Why were the Israelis so good and the Arabs so bad?’ The answer soon becomes clear, ‘airpower is very expensive’ (p. 274). Israel exploited an ‘educated workforce, rigorous standards, advanced technology and […] exemplary training’ (p. 276). Arab air forces did not, as history, economics, and culture hindered them.

Raphael Rudnik’s and Ephraim Segoli’s next chapter, ‘The Israeli Air Force and Asymmetric Conflicts, 1982-2014,’ looks at the myriad of smaller conflicts Israel has fought since 1982. The chapter also provides linkages to conflicts Lambeth discussed, thus linking the American, NATO, and Israeli conflicts into an overarching air power learning environment. In other words, those who execute air power struggle with the same problems. Namely, as Rudnik and Segoli stated when discussing Israeli air strikes against Hezbollah, ‘[T]he large gap between its [the IAF] improved assault capabilities and its ability to identify viable targets’ in conflicts where an expressed desire of governments is minimising civilian casualties against increasingly urban enemies (p. 294). This highlights the difficulties faced by the IAF and the USAF, namely the need to prepare for ‘traditional’ air force missions versus the asymmetric conflicts of the 21st Century.

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A pair of U.S. Marine Corps AV-8B Harriers fly over Iraq at sunset during a mission in support of Operation IRAQ FREEDOM, c. 2004. (Source: Wikimedia)

Colonel John Warden provides a final chapter that looks at ‘The Airpower Profession.’ From a certain point of view, Warden still seems to be litigating his arguments from the First Gulf War by focusing not on fielded forces, but rather on parallel warfare against the five rings, which can also be found in his work, The Air Campaign. Warden also decries the ‘cult of jointness’ (p. 343) and believes that ‘surface officers have far less motivation to concern themselves with direct strategic effects than do air professionals’ (p. 346). Warden’s real value is added when he describes the many areas needed to be understood truly by air power professionals, but more importantly, the attendant ability to articulate the importance of air power. So, what does the education of an air power professional look like? Warden casts a wide net of topics worthy of study including classical and modern military history and strategy but also includes more nuanced fields including economics, secular and religious philosophy, fiction, marketing, and advertising.

Any disagreements this author might have over omissions or discrepancies with this work are relatively minor to the overall importance and continued relevance of this well-written, eloquently argued, and nuanced study of air power operations. If one aspect of air power becomes clear, it is that the U.S., NATO, and Israel have proven their ability in large-scale state-on-state conflict, but the ability to use air power in the asymmetric fight is still being argued, some might say conceived. What is needed is more discussion and a better understanding by those in the military and national security communities on the merits and limits of air power operations in what will only become a more contested environment in the future. From the integration of unmanned aerial vehicles to peer-on-peer conflict, aerial operations will only increase, and a deep understanding of what air power can and cannot provide can only be accomplished through continued works like Airpower Applied.

Dr Brian Laslie is an Air Force Historian and currently the Deputy Command Historian at North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and United States Northern Command (USNORTHCOM). A 2001 graduate of The Citadel and a historian of air power studies, he received his Masters’ from Auburn University Montgomery in 2006 and his PhD from Kansas State University in 2013. His first book The Air Force Way of War (2015) was selected for the Chief of Staff of the Air Force’s 2016 professional reading list. He lives in Colorado Springs. He can be found on Twitter at @BrianLaslie.

Header Image: A two-ship of Israeli Air Force F-16s from Ramon Air Base, Israel, head out to the Nevada Test and Training Range, July 17 during Red Flag Exercise 09-4, c. 2009. (Source: Wikimedia)

[1] Ronald H. Cole, Operation Just Cause: The Planning and Execution of Joint Operations in Panama, February 1988-January 1990 (Joint History Office, Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 41