From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

From Defence of the Baltic to the Airspace above Kosovo: The Transformation of the Royal Danish Air Force, 1989-1999

By Dr Søren Nørby

The 30th of May 1999 is an important date in the history of the Royal Danish Air Force (RDAF). On this day, Danish General Dynamics F-16s dropped bombs against a hostile target for the first time in its history. The target was in Serbia; a country located more than 1,500 kilometres from Denmark, and with which Denmark was not legally at war. Instead, what the RDAF participated in was a ‘humanitarian intervention’ that was supposed to stop a potential Serbian genocide in the province of Kosovo.

RDAF participation in the intervention against Serbia in 1999 was the end of a period fundamental transformations of the Air Force after the end of the Cold War. In this period, almost every aspect of the RDAF began to change – its doctrine, technology, and central mission. This article explores those changes by looking at the role of the RDAF during the post-Cold War conflicts in Yugoslavia between 1992-1995 and Serbia in 1999.[1]

In 1989, the RDAF was small but versatile. It consisted of more than 100 aircraft, a force of ground-based air defence centred around eight mobile missile batteries (I-HAWKs), seven large airbases, and a well-developed command-and-control-system that maintained a constant aerial picture of Denmark and the surrounding area. Its peacetime force was approximately 8,200 personnel, which could be increased to 17,500 in wartime. The RDAF was well integrated into NATO, and its main task was the defence of the western part of the Baltic Sea in case of an attack from the Warsaw Pact.[2] This was a role the RDAF undertook in conjunction with other NATO partners.

From ‘Peace-dividends’ to the Civil War in Yugoslavia

The fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 was one of the most momentous events in the modern history of the Danish defence policy. It prompted a shift away from the low-profile approach that had been the cornerstone of Danish policy since the end of the Second World War. In September 1990 the Danish government deployed the corvette, Olfert Fischer, as part of Operation DESERT SHIELD, the United Nations (UN) sanctioned military operation against Iraq, following the occupation of Kuwait. This deployment illustrated to Danish politicians that there was political capital to be gained from participating in such operations, far from Danish shores. At the same time, the Danish Defence Command, which coordinated and controlled the Danish military, realised that operations far from Denmark were a way to stay relevant and to avoid the hard cuts to the defence budget that some Danish politicians wanted, now that the enemy – the Warsaw Pact – had disappeared.

In 1992, the UN set up a peacekeeping force for the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. The Danish government decided to participate with approximately 940 soldiers – a large contingent by Danish standards. Initial problems with recruiting the needed number of soldiers resulted in a change in Danish military law that now stipulated that members of the Danish military were required to accept participating in missions outside Denmark’s borders. Approximately five per cent of the men and women employed by the Royal Danish Army, the Royal Danish Navy and RDAF chose not to accept this and left the military.[3]

In 1993, the Danish government strengthened the Danish contribution to the UN operation in Yugoslavia by deploying ten main battle tanks. Denmark thus became the first country to deploy such heavy weapons in a UN operation. When Danish politicians voiced concern that the deployment of the Danish tanks would be perceived as a dramatic escalation of UN involvement in the civil war in Yugoslavia, the Danish Armed Forces decided that the tanks should be painted white, giving them the nickname ‘The Snow Leopards.’

The deployment of Danish Leopard 1 tanks to the Former Yugoslavia in 1992 marked an important turning point in Denmark’s defence policy. (Source: Author)

Pressure from International Organisations

The RDAF was initially not deployed on the international stage, other than a single Lockheed C-130 Hercules, which in 1992 flew ten trips as part of the emergency assistance provided to the Yugoslav city of Sarajevo.[4] The pressure to change the RDAF contribution came from NATO, which had begun its transformation towards a smaller, but more flexible organisation, capable of faster response times. This process had already begun before the fall of the Berlin Wall, but it gained further momentum in the 1990s.

In 1991, NATO created two new forces: the Immediate Reaction Forces (IRF), capable of deploying within a few days, and the Rapid Reaction Forces (RRF) with a deployment time of a few weeks. Here the Danish government decided that that the RDAF’s Squadron 730 should be Denmark’s contribution to the IRF.[5]

The contribution of Squadron 730 to NATO’s IRF marked a shift in focus for the RDAF. During the Cold War era, NATO-planning envisaged that British and American squadrons would reinforce the RDAF.[6] NATO had planned to reinforce the RDAF with one Royal Air Force squadron of Hawker Harriers and two squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguars. United States Air Force (USAF) reinforcements were to consist of one squadron of McDonnel-Douglas F-15s, three F-16 squadrons, and one squadron of Republic A-10 Thunderbolts.

The 1990s, however, saw the RDAF shift to an expeditionary role whereby it contributed to the safety of others outside of Denmark’s borders. As such, the importance of making Squadron 730 available for NATO’s IRF cannot be overstated. Squadron 730 became the ‘flagship’ unit of the RDAF.

NATO’s involvement in the Civil War in Yugoslavia

In parallel with the above developments, during the first years of the 1990s, NATO became increasingly involved in the civil war in Yugoslavia. A UN ordered No Fly Zone had to be enforced by NATO, and in February 1994, this led to aircraft from the Alliance coming into action for the first time when US aircraft downed four Bosnian-Serbian fighter jets over Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A Royal Danish Air Force F-35 Drakken aircraft taxis into takeoff position during Exercise OKSBOEL ’86. (Source: Wikimedia)

On several occasions, the Danish government considered contributing Danish aircraft to NATO operations over Yugoslavia. Such a move was, however, hampered by Danish politicians, who in 1991 had decided to scrap all of the RDAF’s Saab Draken aircraft. This meant that the Air Force’s ability to perform close air support had been downgraded to the degree that meant that Danish aircraft was unfit to perform their intended tasks over Yugoslavia. Therefore, despite pressure from NATO, the Danish government had to decline NATO’s request to deploy Danish aircraft over Yugoslavia. This was embarrassing for the Danish government and meant an increased focus on the close air support task. This meant procuring new equipment, such as the Low Altitude Navigation Targeting Infrared for Night laser targeting pods (LANTIRN) that would eventually enable the RDAF’s F-16s to use precision-guided munitions (PGM). However, the acquisition and introduction of such equipment was a long process, and the LANTIRNs were not operational until 2001.

In the Line of Fire – Yugoslavia

On 29 April 1994, while the debate over a possible deployment of RDAF F-16s was ongoing, a Danish tank force became involved in combat operations against Serbian forces near Tuzla in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Danish tanks were ambushed, resulting in a firefight lasting approximately 45 minutes. The episode was the first time since 1943 that troops under the Danish flag had fought in battle. While the Danes did not suffer any losses, the Bosnian Serbs subsequently acknowledged that they had nine killed and 15 wounded. The battle, known under the name Operation Bøllebank (Operation Hooligan Bashing), became just as important to the Danish military as the deployment of the Olfert Fischer four years earlier. It showed that Danish soldiers were ready to put military power behind international engagement and were able to fight.

Bøllebank also showed the soldiers, airmen and sailors in the Danish military that post-Cold War UN-operations were fundamentally different from the peaceful UN-missions that Denmark had participated in before 1989. It became clear to the Danish military that personnel deployed on such a mission could be called on to undertake combat operations. Finally, Bøllebank also illustrated a high degree of political and popular support for the Danish participation in the UN-operations, which subsequently helped to expand the Armed Forces’ maneuvering room in connection with these operations.[7]

RDAF Pressure for Change

During the 1990s the RDAF tried on numerous occasions to convince Danish politicians to deploy Danish planes to the civil war in Yugoslavia. This was driven by a fear that the RDAF’s lack of an international profile would make it difficult to secure funding for new equipment. The various professional heads of the RDAF in this period all wanted to make the entire Air Force deployable, including such elements as the Hawk missile system and radars. Following recommendations from the Danish Defence Command, Danish politicians decided to invest much money in new and more mobile equipment, and the RDAF’s Hercules and Gulfstream transport aircraft were equipped with, among other things, missile warning equipment to enable them to operate in dangerous areas.[8]

The RDAF also devoted resources to developing a Danish doctrine for the operational use of air power. The RDAF was inspired by USAF Colonel John Warden’s theories regarding the strategic use of air power, especially his 5-ring model of the enemy as a system. These ideas were used to set the direction for the development of the RDAF and to provide inspiration for how Danish aircraft could be used in the event of a conflict.[9]


Following Operation DELIBERATE FORCE, the NATO air campaign over Bosnia and Herzegovina between 30 August and 20 September 1995, the civil war in Bosnia was stopped with the so-called Dayton Agreement. This peace deal ended a civil war that had cost more than 100,000 lives and driven more than four million people from their homes. Thanks to the deployment of a UN peacekeeping force of 60,000 personnel, Bosnia and Croatia have since been mostly peaceful.[10]

In the shadow of the civil war, however, another conflict lurked. Within the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, which after 1995 consisted of Serbia and Montenegro, a significant minority of ethnic Albanians constituted much of the population of the southern Serbian province of Kosovo. The conflict between the ethnic Serbs minority and the ethnic-Albanian majority in Kosovo dated back hundreds of years but escalated in 1989 when Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic deprived Kosovo of the expanded autonomy enjoyed by the region since 1974.

During the 1990s, the political environment in Kosovo gradually grew worse, and by 1998 large parts of the province were no longer under Serbian control. The Serbian military and police, therefore, initiated a particularly hard-fought effort in Kosovo to restore control of the province – preferably by cleansing the province of ethnic Albanians.[11]

Among other things, because of the experience of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995, the world community could not let the Serbs pursue a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Albania. An American-led attempt to find a peaceful solution was therefore made, and the American diplomat Richard Holbrooke was given the task of trying to negotiate a solution.


To put pressure on the Serbian president, on 14 June 1998, NATO gathered a force of approximately 80 fighter jets from 12 countries. In Operation DETERMINED FALCON, these aircraft flew along the Serbian border and illustrated to the Serbian President that NATO was ready to use military power if the Serbs did not halt the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo.

For this operation, Denmark provided three F-16 aircraft (two plus one in reserve) at just two days’ notice. At 17:30 on 15 June 1998, Danish F-16s, together with a C-130 Hercules carrying support personnel and ammunition, flew to the Italian airbase at Villafranca. The next morning two Danish F-16s took part in the operation along the southern Serbian border to Macedonia and Albania. After a successful operation, the Danish aircraft returned to Denmark.[12]

During the summer of 1998, Richard Holbrooke managed to reach an agreement including the withdrawal of some Serbian forces from Kosovo. Whether DETERMINED FALCON played a role in that agreement or not is unclear.[13] However, the agreement did not last, and in September 1998, up to 300,000 Kosovo Albanians were once again on the run in Kosovo. These refugees threatened to destabilise the entire region and create a flow of refugees in Europe, such as those the world had witnessed during the 1997 collapse of Albania. The European authorities were very aware of this, and the European Union put much effort into stopping the Serbian cleansing of the ethnic Albanian population of Kosovo.

Towards Operation ALLIED FORCE

Concurrent with this process, NATO began planning a military operation. On the 8 October 1998, the Danish government made available six F-16s (four operational plus two reserve aircraft) and support personnel, totalling 120 men, for a NATO operation named OPLAN 10601 ALLIED FORCE. This operation was designed to compel the Serbs to return to the negotiating table and ensure that the Serbian forces left Kosovo by the 16 October.

One of the six RDAF F-16s deployed as part of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999. (Source: Author)

The Danish F-16s and most of the personnel initially came from Squadron 730. At the time, however, the RDAF had only 36 pilots with current operational experience on the F-16 aircraft. This figure included pilots serving at the RDAF headquarters as staff officers. The Danish contribution to ALLIED FORCE required six pilots in Italy, six on standby in Denmark and six for other operations, including those on leave at home in Denmark. The deployment thus required half of the RDAF’s available F-16 pilots. This problem was further exacerbated by the fact that all the deployed pilots had to be certified for the weapons systems that were expected to be used during the operation.

ALLIED FORCE, therefore, put much pressure on the entire fighter structure and operations of the RDAF. This pressure meant that all tasks that did not directly relate to air policing the skies over Denmark or ALLIED FORCE were discontinued. For example, among other things, Squadron 727 suspended the training of new pilots, while most of its pilots were deployed to Italy. In the long run, this would ultimately have an impact on the RDAF’s ability to meet its readiness level.[14]

Thanks to political and military pressure, in February 1999, it proved possible to persuade both representatives of the Kosovar rebel movement Kosovo Liberation Army and the Serbian government to initiate negotiations about the future of Kosovo. These took place at the French president’s summer residence at Chateau de Rambouillet, southwest of Paris. On the 18 March, however, it became clear that the negotiations would not lead to a deal, and with the negotiation options exhausted, NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana had no other options than on the 23 March to initiate Operation Allied Force. At 19:00 the following night, NATO began launching airstrikes against Serbian targets in Kosovo and Serbia.

The Danish Experience

RDAF F-16s participated in ALLIED FORCE from day one; however, the operation came at an unfortunate time. In addition to the aforementioned pilot issue, the RDAF was in the middle of a midlife update of its F-16s, and the number of operational aircraft was significantly reduced. Initially, the RDAF only had 14 F-16s capable of participating in the air campaign. This meant that the aircraft deployed during the air campaign worked up so many flight hours that had they operated in peacetime they would have had to be sent home to Denmark for inspection. To alleviate this issue, the RDAF’s Tactical Command issued exemptions from the rules to keep the aircraft flying.

For most of the air campaign, Danish F-16s operated in the defensive role. This was a necessary part of ALLIED FORCE. The Air Force of Yugoslavia – even though most of its fighter jets were of an older design – posed a potential threat to NATO had they chosen to resist the Alliance’s attack. However, after having lost four jets during the first days, the Air Force of Yugoslavia chose to keep most of its aircraft on the ground. Nevertheless, political demands from NATO-member states meant that approximately 33 per cent of Alliance aircraft were devoted to the air defence role against potential attacks by the Air Force of Yugoslavia.[15]

On these combat air patrols, Danish F-16s operated in pairs. Initially, their patrol zones were located over the Adriatic Sea, where the essential air tankers operated. As NATO became more confident that Serbian forces would not try to counter NATO operations, the patrol zones moved to the area over Albania and Macedonia and later also Hungary. This allowed the American jets, which had until then patrolled these areas, to be transferred to offensive operations.

Since Danish F-16 pilots were not equipped with night-vision-goggles, they were used in daylight operations. During one patrol over Kosovo, a Danish F-16 was fired at by a Serbian ground-to-air missile, which did not, however, successfully hit its intended target.[16]

Danish Offensive Air Power

While Danish F-16s primarily focused on the air defence role, in the final days of the air campaign, the RDAF aircraft became involved in offensive operations against Serbian targets.

The first Danish bombs were dropped on the 30 May. The details of the attack are still classified, but what is known is that the target was a radio mast in northern Kosovo and that the two F-16s each dropped six MK-82 bombs. From an altitude of 11,000 feet, the pilots visually observed the bombs hitting the target area. For the attack, the Danish planes used ‘dumb’ bombs. The primary reason for this was that it was not necessary to use a more expensive laser-guided bomb (LGB) on the target. Secondly, an attack with an LGB would have required ‘buddy’ lasing. This technique involved one aircraft illuminating the target with a laser and guiding the LGB, dropped from a second aircraft, towards the target. As well as the above, there was also uncertainty about which pilot was responsible for the bomb if it caused collateral damage. The RDAF, therefore, chose to use dumb bombs where there was no doubt that the Danish F-16s were fully responsible for weapons released.

According to one of the pilots involved in the 30 May attack, the target area had visible bomb damage before the Danish attack. The Danish bombs hit close to the target, but due to the uncertainty about the target’s condition before the attack, the military value of the attack was uncertain. For the RDAF, however, the attack was a significant event as it was the first time Danish aircraft had dropped bombs on an adversary.[17]

For the RDAF, its participation in ALLIED FORCE was a test of whether the Air Force had achieved the transformation that the leaders of the Air Force had wanted. The RDAF’s goal in the 1990s had been to create an air force capable of participating in an air campaign alongside its NATO-allies as well as executing the same type of missions as the USAF or the RAF. The RDAF’s conclusion following ALLIED FORCE was that this goal had not been met.

While participation in ALLIED FORCE was historic, with Danish aircraft bombing hostile targets for the first time in its history, the air campaign showed that the RDAF had fallen behind technologically when compared with Denmark’s NATO allies and especially the United States. The RDAF therefore, subsequently initiated a process to catch up with these technological deficiencies. Thus, ALLIED FORCE accelerated the RDAF’s transformation into an ‘expeditionary air force’ tailored for international operations.

A critical element of this transformation was a focus on precision-guided munitions to avoid collateral damage. The effect of participation in ALLIED FORCE was the acceleration in the acquisition of new equipment, such as LANTIRN, and ammunition for the Danish F-16s. When the RDAF deployed in support of US forces in Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks on the 11 September 2001, the Air Force’s technology level had been significantly improved.

Conclusion – From Defense of the Baltic to Global Reach

The transformation described in this article meant that the RDAF in 2000, compared with 1989, had been reduced by the following: a 50 per cent reduction in air stations; a 50 per cent reduction in fighter pilots; the number of Hawk squadrons had been reduced by 25 per cent; and the number of fighter aircraft in the RDAF inventory had reduced by 35 per cent. Similarly, the peacetime force had been reduced by 17 per cent to approximately 7,900, while the wartime force had been reduced by 26 per cent to 14,800. These cuts had not only hit the RDAF, but the overall number of personnel in the Danish armed forces had been reduced from 39,000 to 33,200, while the wartime force had fallen from 103,000 to 81,200.

The RDAF had, however, at the same time managed to survive the loss of the Warsaw Pact as its enemy, and had shown Danish politicians that improvements in the RDAF’s capabilities allowed it to participate in international operations far from Denmark. The lack of success in the skies above Kosovo in 1999 was therefore not seen as a failure for the RDAF but as evidence that the Danish politicians needed to spend more money on the Air Force in order to reap the benefits of participating in international operations. This policy eventually showed its merit during the air war over Libya in 2011-2012, where Danish F-16s dropped 923 bombs on Gadhafi’s military forces and showed that they were able to work closely together with the USAF and other allies – a prerequisite today for being on the front line during international missions.

Dr Søren Nørby is a researcher and lecturer at the Royal Danish Defense College in Copenhagen. He earned his PhD from Syddansk Universitet in 2018. He specialises in naval history and is the author of 25 books and more than 50 articles. For more information see

Header Image: Based on the experience of the operations over the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s, the RDAF underwent a number of critical transformations. One of these transformations was the introduction of new technologies to improve capabilities, such as the LANTIRN pod for use of on the F-16 that came into service in 2001. (Source: Author)

[1] This article is based on the author’s book Når Fjenden Forsvinder. Det danske flyvevåbens udvikling 1989 – 1999 (When the enemy disappears. The transformation of the Danish Air Force 1989-1999) (Odense, 2019).

[2] ’Fakta om Forsvaret 1990,’ København, 1990.

[3] Forsvarskommandoen, Ved Forenede Kræfter (Vedbæk, 2000), p. 210; H. Hækkerup, På Skansen. Dansk forsvarspolitik fra Murens fald til Kosovo (København 2002), p.. 103.

[4] ’Rapport fra Udvalget vedrørende forsvarets materiel’, København 1998, p. 164.

[5] Ringsmose, Danmarks NATO-omdømme. Fra Prügelknabe til duks (Dansk Institut for Militære Studier 2007), p. 19; ‘Årlig Redegørelse 2004’, København 2005, pp. 34-5.

[6] Ved Forenede Kræfter, p. 171.

[7] L. Møller, Det danske Pearl Harbor. Forsvaret på randen af sammenbrud (København, 2008), p. 57; R. Petersen, ’Den bedste ambassadør – civil-militære relationer og demokratisk kontrol i Danmark 1991-2011’ (Phd Thesis, Roskilde Universitet, 2012), p. 207ff; R. Petersen, ’Danske sneleoparder i Bosnien,’ Militært Tidsskrift, 2010; P.V. Jakobsen, Fra ferie til flagskib. Forsvaret og de internationale operationer (København, 2009), p. 9; P.V. Jakobsen, ’The Danish Libya campaign: Out in front in pursuit of pride, praise and position,’ Upubliceret artikel, 2016, p. 195; K.S. Kristensen, Danmark i krig: Demokrati, politik og strategi i den militære aktivisme (København, 2013), p. 38; L. From, ’Da et kampvognsslag ændrede danskernes syn på krig,’ Jyllands-Posten, 3 May 2015; ’Balkan har reddet det danske forsvar,’ FOV Nyhedsbrev 7/2002.

[8] S. Hartov and J.E. Larsen, Forsvarets fly efter 1945 (Flyvevåbnets Specialskole, 1995),  p. 36ff.

[9] John Warden III, The Air Campaign. Planning for Combat (Washington 1988).

[10] M.O. Beale, ‘Bombs over Bosnia. The role of airpower in Bosnia-Herzegovina’ (Thesis, USAF School of Advanced Airpower Studies, 1997), pp. 33-4; Christian Anrig, The quest for relevant air power: continental European Responses to the air power challenges of the post-cold war era (Maxwell, AL, 2011), p.. 32, 179; M. Juul and S.W. Nielsen, 12 år på Balkan (København 2004), p. 46; John Olsen (ed.), Air Commanders (Dulles, VA, 2013), p. 356ff; C. Axboe, Vi troede ikke, det kunne ske her – Jugoslaviens sammenbrud 1991-1999 (København, 2018), p. 227-53.

[11] Axboe (2018), p. 275.

[12] I. Daalder and M. O’Hanlon, Winning Ugly. NATO’s War to Save Kosovo (Brookings Institution Press, 2001), pp. 32-3; G. Schaub, Learning from the F-16 (København, 2015), p. 19ff.; M. Vilhelmsen, ’Operation Allied Force (AOF): Da Flyvevåbnet med voksent,’ Upubliceret. Vojens, 2010, p.. 2; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 november 1999, B2-B3; Årlig Redegørelse 1998, pp.. 33-6.

[13] Nørby (2019), p. 131-7.

[14] Hammerkasterne: Historien om Eskadrille 727 gennem 50 Ar (Skrydstrup, 2005), p. 162-3; ’Flugten er stoppet – men stadig mangel på F-16 piloter,’ Berlingske Tidende, 7 May 1999; ’Rapport vedr. dansk flyvevåben deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 12 November 1999, p.. B-11 og D-10. TTJ og ’F-16 planlægningsmøde vedr. evt. overgang til anvendelse af F-16 MLU i f.m. Flyvevåbnets deltagelse i Operation Allied Force,’ 8 March 1999.

[15] Olsen (2010), p. 233.

[16] Forsvarskommandoens Presse- og Informationssektion 2001, pp. 12-5.

[17] Schaub (2015), p. 10: Vilhelmsen (2010), pp.. 3-4; ’Danske jagere bomber Milosevic,’ Ekstra Bladet, 28. May 1999; T. Kristensen, Kysser Himlen (København, 2017), pp. 179-180.

Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria

Changing the USAF’s Aerial ‘Kill’ Criteria

By Major Tyson Wetzel

On 8 June 2017, a United States Air Force (USAF) F-15E Strike Eagle shot down an Iranian-produced Shahed 129 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) over Syria, followed just twelve days later by a second identical event. Earlier this year an Israeli fighter aircraft shot down a Hamas drone, just the most recent of at least half a dozen Israeli UAV kills occurring since October 2012. The face of aerial combat has changed in this era of UAVs, or ‘drones’ as they are commonly called. Aircrew are now more likely to engage UAVs than manned fighters in current and future aerial combat.

A Shahad-129 UAV.

The question of whether UAV kills should be counted as official aerial victories is unresolved and has recently been hotly debated on social media. In a small sampling of air power enthusiasts conducted by the author on Twitter, just 58% of respondents were in favour of counting UAVs as official kills that count towards ‘ace’ status (five aerial victories). Current USAF policy does not recognise UAV shoot downs as ‘kills,’ but it should. Aircrew should receive proper recognition for the destruction of an adversary’s air assets.

Based on the author’s discussion with current USAF pilots, operators, and air power historians and theorists, there are at least four clear arguments against counting UAV kills as official aerial victories that count towards ace status. First, shooting down a UAV does not require the skill associated with shooting down a manned aircraft. Second, UAVs cannot shoot back. Thus there is a limited risk in this type of engagement, a critical component of aerial combat. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there is not another pilot in the UAV, meaning the UAV cannot respond to adversary actions. Thus there is no ‘sport’ in the shoot down. Finally, there is a risk that allowing unmanned aircraft to count as official kills will open the floodgates to allow the destruction of all airborne objects to count as official aerial victories. I will provide counter-arguments to each of these points as part of my advocacy for modifying current USAF aerial victory criteria to include some classes of UAVs.

While UAVs may be relatively low and slow targets, shooting them down still requires skill and precise aerial employment. Detecting and engaging a UAV is not easy, its low altitude and speed can potentially cause problems for fighter pulsed-Doppler radars. The reduced radar cross section (RCS) of some UAVs also increases the difficulty of engagement. Shooting down a UAV requires detecting a small size and small RCS aircraft, positively identifying that aircraft (often difficult with small systems that do not emit many of the detectable signatures US aircraft typically use to identify adversary aircraft electronically), and guiding a weapon to kill the UAV. These functions; detecting, tracking, identifying, and guiding a weapon to the target are the same functions a fighter pilot would need to shoot down a MiG-29 FULCRUM or a Su-27 FLANKER. Based on my experience, most fighter pilots who have tried to engage a UAV in training or the real-world would agree that a significant amount of skill and tactical acumen is required to complete such a kill.

Airstrikes in Syria
A USAF F-15E Strike Eagle receives fuel from a KC-135 Stratotanker over northern Iraq after conducting airstrikes in Syria, 23 September 2014. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (Source: Wikimedia)

The second argument is based on the fact that most currently fielded UAVs are incapable of firing back at an adversary. Multiple arguments counter this point. First, an aircraft need not be able to return fire to be officially counted as an air-to-air kill. In Operation DESERT STORM, USAF F-15C pilot Greg ‘Dutch’ Masters was given credit for a kill on an Iraqi Air Force (IAF) IL-76 CANDID cargo aircraft. Second, most UAVs do have propelled munitions that could provide a limited ability to respond to an aerial attack. In 2002, a USAF MQ-1 PREDATOR fired an AGM-114 HELLFIRE air-to-ground missile (AGM) against an IAF MiG-25 FOXBAT, though the FOXBAT successfully shot down the PREDATOR. The Shahed 129s that were recently shot down were reportedly equipped with similar AGMs that could conceivably be used to fire on an adversary fighter aircraft. Lightly armed air-to-ground aircraft have always been counted towards official kill counts. In DESERT STORM, US aircraft shot down six helicopters and one aircraft armed with only limited air-to-ground munitions, and no dedicated air-to-air capability (three Mi-8 HIPs, one Mi-24 HIND, one Bo-105, and one Hughes 500 helicopters, and a PC-9 light attack aircraft).

The third argument is that UAVs do not have a pilot in the cockpit, and thus should not be counted as an aerial victory. Virtually all UAVs, even micro UAVs and drones, have an operator who is controlling the system; few UAVs simply fly a pre-programmed route without operator input. Most UAVs, especially the larger and more capable systems, also include a crew on the ground, typically a pilot and a sensor operator, who can build situational awareness of the operational environment, react to, avoid, and attempt to counter adversary attempts to shoot it down. Additionally, this argument ignores the changing face of aerial combat. The preponderance of air assets in future conflicts are likely to be unmanned in the future.

The final argument is that inclusion of UAVs into official kill criteria will risk widening the aperture of official aerial victories to include any airborne objects. Taken to its extreme, one could imagine the destruction of a mini drone or quadcopter being counted as an official kill. The simple solution to this problem is to specifically delineate the types of UAVs that will be considered official kills.

Not all UAV or drone kills should count as official air-to-air kills; the USAF should modify its existing kill criteria to include some classes of UAVs based on size and function of the system. The Department of Defense (DOD) has defined Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) groups in their 2011 UAS Airspace Integration Plan. These groups are used to distinguish US classes of UAS’, but they also provide a useful method to make a distinction between adversary systems that should officially count as an air-to-air kill.

UAS Table
Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems Group Descriptions. (Source: 2011 Department of Defense Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Integration Plan)

UAS Groups 1-3 are small airframes, have no or very limited ordnance, and are hand or catapult launched. These ‘micro UAVs’ and ‘drones’ should not officially count as a kill because of their limited ability to react or counter adversary actions, and to avoid the precedence of allowing all airborne assets to count for a kill (think about the ridiculousness of a silhouette of a remote-controlled quadcopter on the side of an F-15). UAS Groups 4 and 5, however, are UAVs that are typically operated by a pilot, are capable of medium-to-high altitude flight, longer range and endurance, beyond line-of-sight operations, and frequently carry propelled munitions that can conceivably be used for self-protection (as a frame of reference, the Shahed 129 would be classified as a Group 4 UAS). These capabilities mirror previous non-fighter aircraft which have been counted as official kills, such as heavily-armed but non-maneuverable balloons in World War I (5 of American ‘Ace of Aces’, Eddie Rickenbacker’s 26 WWI kills were balloons), cargo aircraft (IL-76 in DESERT STORM), and lightly armed helicopters (Bo-105 and Hughes 500 helicopters in DESERT STORM).

The US went 18 years between manned aircraft shoot downs, from the last MiG-29 kill of Operation ALLIED FORCE in 1999 to last week’s Su-22 FITTER kill. However, during this period UAVs have expanded exponentially in number and type, and recently have been targets for US aircrew flying over Syria defending coalition forces. It is time for the USAF, and DOD writ large, to recognise the changing character of aerial combat and designate kills on particular types of UAVs as official aerial victories. Such a decision would legitimately recognise tactical excellence in air combat and bring official aerial victory criteria up to date with changing character of 21st Century warfare.

Tyson Wetzel is a Major in the United States Air Force intelligence officer, a graduate of the United States Air Force Weapons School where he was also an instructor, and the US Marine Corps Command and Staff College. Tyson has deployed multiple times in support of Operations IRAQI FREEDOM, ENDURING FREEDOM, NEW DAWN, and NOBLE EAGLE. He is currently assigned to the Joint Staff at the Pentagon. He tweets @GetterWetzel.

Header Image: A pair of USAF F-15E Strike Eagles fly over northern Iraq early in the morning of 23 September 2014, after conducting airstrikes in Syria. These aircraft were part of a large coalition strike package that was the first to strike ISIL targets in Syria. (Source: Wikimedia)