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.

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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)

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 2

It is Time to Demystify the Effects of ‘Strategic Western Air Power’ – Part 2

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 the first part, he examined the challenge of the use of military forces as a tool for solving political problems. In this second part, he examines the issue of ‘no casualty warfare.’

Fallacy 2: No casualty warfare

The second fallacy in Western air power paradigm touches on the notion of precision engagement with almost zero civilian casualties and no collateral damage. This narrative was formed in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War and has been maturing and strengthening ever since.  Precision engagement has indeed become one of the game changers in warfare lately, but the Western narrative on pinpoint accuracy in warfare has become a strategic level hindrance to effective military operations.

The notion of no or little collateral damage developed into the Western air power paradigm little by little as political leaders since the early 1990s continuously decided to use military force actively for humanitarian purposes. It was a prerequisite that Western military operations do not cause civilian suffering or produce collateral damage in military operations (read: war) that are eventually humanitarian in nature. Focusing on the precise application of large-scale violence was thus a must for political purposes. It was needed for the legitimacy of these operations and to ‘sell’ these operations to domestic audiences within the Western world and internationally.

Combined Air and Space Operations Center
Combined Air and Space Operations Center at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, provides command and control of air power throughout Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and 17 other nations. The CAOC is comprised of a joint and Coalition team that executes day-to-day combined air and space operations and provides rapid reaction, positive control, coordination, and de-confliction of weapon systems. (Source: Wikimedia)

Also, as these humanitarian military missions had almost nothing to do with Western national interests or threats to Western states, it has been crystal clear from the start that force protection has been essential in these operations. Over time this has developed into a tradition of casualty-aversiveness, making Western soldiers ‘strategic assets’. Air power has facilitated safe military operations as practically all opponents during the post-Cold War era have had no functioning air forces of capable air defences. Relying on air power to fight humanitarian wars has been practically the only way that these operations have become possible in the first place. As President Bill Clinton explained: ‘I do not intend to put our troops in Kosovo to fight a war’. For the US the post-9/11 Global War on Terror changed this aversiveness to send troops to battle for a while.

What started as a way to ‘market’ humanitarian missions to voters and the general population has turned into a Western narrative on war, which accentuates the ability to strictly control the ‘dosing’ of violence in wars and being able to fight without civilian casualties and collateral damage. During the post-Cold War era, this guiding political principle and a semi-binding Western norm on warfare have led to Western militaries developing extremely expensive military systems to fight this ‘frictionless precision warfare’. This trend has been tremendously problematic for European states, as they in most cases do not have sufficient economic resources to develop their armed forces into credible military actors with even a modest number of usable high-tech military systems. When combining this trend with the post-Cold War era professionalisation of European militaries, most states in Europe today possess ‘Lilliputian militaries’ with little warfighting capability for large-scale conventional war against advanced state adversaries.

Final thoughts

Air power is important in warfare. Moreover, modern high-tech air forces can produce a decisive effect on the battlefield when used properly. ‘Unfortunately’ for some Western (mostly European) militaries, the post-Cold War era did not for more than 20 years pose any real military challenges that would have required sober analysis on what kind of missions the armed forces should be preparing against. Moreover, more importantly, as the existential threat evaporated quickly in the early 1990s, many Western political leaders filled the vacuum of security threats by turning their eyes towards out-of-area conflicts and stability throughout the globalising world.

In a cumulative 20-year long emergent process, Western states have become more and more interested in and reliant on applying air power actively in expeditionary operations because using military force throughout the international system has become possible. Political leader’s ‘trigger happiness’ in the West has increased during the post-Cold War era. On the tactical and operational levels of war, air power offers ‘easy solutions’ when there is the need to do something quickly and visibly – for example during large-scale atrocities committed by authoritarian leaders towards their citizen. On the strategic level, though, the results have been much more modest. Modern air power has not lifted the ‘fog of war’, nor has it produced many positive strategic results. Air power does not provide Western states with a ‘silver bullet’, nor has it changed the nature of war:  war is still a duel of wills, which means that adaptive enemies will do their utmost to destabilise Western strengths and lead in military capability development. This can be done at the tactical, operational or strategic levels.

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A USAF F-15E Strike Eagle takes off from Aviano Air Base, Italy, for an air strike mission in support of NATO Operation ALLIED FORCE on March 28, 1999. (Source: Wikimedia)

The use of large-scale military violence – waging war – needs to be taken seriously. Even if it is possible to cause pinpoint destruction and make targeted killings, one should remember that political problems can rarely be solved by killing all the opponents (from afar) or by punishing them severely. The active use of Western air power during the last 20 years has resulted in the lowering the threshold on the use of military force in the world. This could backfire in the future as China and Russia are increasing their military capabilities and great-power statuses.

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: The Department of Defense’s first U.S. Air Force F-35 Lightning II joint strike fighter (JSF) aircraft soars over Destin, before landing at its new home at Eglin Air Force Base, July 14, 2011. (Source: Wikimedia)

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)