The other week I mentioned on Twitter that it had been two years since I had touted the idea of creating a group website dedicated to air power history, theory, and practice. While we might quibble about From Balloons to Dronesdate of birth, it was on 15 June 2016 that the first post announcing the creation of the site and calling for contributions was published. As such, it seems apropos to reflect on the past two years.
From Balloons to Drones started out with me as the only editor and we had a couple of dedicated contributors. I am pleased to say that three of those early dedicated contributors, Dr Brian Laslie, Dr Mike Hankins, and Alexander Fitzgerald-Black, have now come onboard as Assistant Editors. All our effort is, of course, done in addition to our other work away from the site. For example, recently, I moved to Australia from the UK and co-edited a special edition of the British Journal for Military History while Brian published his much-awaited book on General Laurence Kuter. Similarly, Alex published his first book on the air war over Sicily in 1943 while Mike completed his PhD on culture and technology in the United States Air Force (USAF) and has now moved to take up a position at the USAF Air Command and Staff College. Nonetheless, despite all these significant personnel and professional achievements, and with my Assistant Editors support, we continue to plan for the future and examine how we might grow the air power core community of interest.
As well as adding Brian, Mike, and Alex to the editorial team, From Balloons to Drones continues to grow regarding the number of contributors to the site; however, we are always looking to add new writers to the team. As such, if you are a postgraduate, academic, policymaker, member of the armed forces or a relevant professional involved in researching the subject of air power then take a moment and look at our submissions page to find out how you can get involved with the conversation.
What about statistics? Well, this is our ninety-fifth post, which, of course, means we are just five away from the magic century. Those 95 posts have consisted of articles, research notes, book reviews, commentaries, and the occasional editorial. We also started a new series of historic books reviews with the first one published here. All told, these posts, excluding this one, have totalled some 157,000 words, or roughly the equivalent of two monographs! We have published a wide variety of articles that have covered both historical and contemporary issues. The top five posts are:
We also worked on a great joint series of articles with our partners at The Central Blue. These articles supported a seminar that the Williams Foundation held in Canberra, Australia that looked at the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st century. This was a great partnership and something we are happy to explore again in the future.
Speaking of the future, there is, of course, the question of what comes next. Well, hopefully, more of the same. We are keen to build on the high-standards we believe that we have set for ourselves. However, we can only do that with your help. So, get in touch and contribute!
As noted, we have started a new series of historic book reviews, and this is an area that we are keen to develop. The series aims to be an accessible collection of appraisals of critical historic publications about air power history, theory, and practice. Many books hold a specific place in the study of air power because of the ideas they introduced or the insights they provided about the institutions responsible for delivering air power capabilities. The reviews will cover several different types of texts from those works that developed air power ideas to crucial memoirs.
Our essential development for the near future is that we are launching a series of podcasts with authors of new air power related titles. This is a project that Mike is working on for us, and we are excited about the prospect of offering something stimulating and hearing from those working in the field of air power studies. We will be realising more information about these podcasts once we have more details.
Overall, myself, Brian, Mike, and Alex have made a concerted effort to develop closer ties not just between ourselves but between those interested in the subject of air power. We think we have done that, but we are always happy to hear any ideas that our readers might have for future developments. Finally, it is to you, our readers, and our contributors that we owe our greatest thanks. Without you, we would not exist. If you do not come and read the material that we publish, then there is little point in this endeavour. That you do come and read our ramblings is appreciated, and we hope you continue to do so for many years to come.
Dr Ross Mahoney is the Editor of From Balloons to Drones. He is an independent historian and defence specialist based in Australia. Between 2013 and 2017, he was the resident Historian at the Royal Air Force Museum, and he is a graduate of the University of Birmingham (MPhil and PhD) and the University of Wolverhampton (PGCE and BA). His research interests include the history of war in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, air power and the history of air warfare, and the social and cultural history of armed forces. To date, he has published several chapters and articles, edited two books, and delivered papers on three continents. He is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an Assistant Director of the Second World War Research Group. He blogs at Thoughts on Military History, and can be found on Twitter at @airpowerhistory.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Squadron Leader Rodney Barton examines and discusses the importance of tactical level reconnaissance in support of operations in a contested environment. In examining the importance of such a capability, Barton makes a case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to reacquire the ability to undertake such missions.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has not maintained an airborne tactical reconnaissance capability since the retirement of the reconnaissance variant of the F-111 in 2010. Instead, the ADF has shifted focus to ‘traditional’ intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms such as the P-8 Poseidon and G550 Gulfstream aircraft, with unmanned ISR capabilities soon to follow. These platforms are not designed to operate in a contested environment; a degree of air superiority is required to ensure optimised collection. The ADF has been comfortably reliant on satellites to penetrate denied areas that require imagery collection, but the emergence of counter-space capabilities now puts this access at risk. This article will discuss the role of airborne tactical reconnaissance, why it still exists, why the ADF needs a tactical reconnaissance capability and the innovative methods of applying tactical reconnaissance in small air forces like the RAAF.
For as long as airframes have existed – the airborne reconnaissance role has existed. From the very first balloons in the nineteenth century through to the modern age, aircraft have flown in the vicinity of the adversary to understand their posture and intentions. Tactical reconnaissance aircraft have developed gradually with speed and altitude to penetrate defended airspace and gain access to sensitive areas. These aircraft were typically unarmed to maximise their operating speed, height, range and most importantly, survivability. At times during the Second World War, a lack of dedicated tactical reconnaissance assets necessitated modifications to existing fighter aircraft to meet the collection requirement. This specific mission was known as ‘dicing’ – short for ‘dicing with death’ – due to the risk the aircraft faced while conducting the mission, particularly the post-strike bomb assessment. During the Cold War, the tactical reconnaissance mission took on a strategic reconnaissance focus epitomised in the US by the U-2 Dragonlady and SR-71 Blackbird respectively. The advent of a satellite imagery capability led to less reliance on these platforms for strategic collection – although the U-2 remains in service and high demand, albeit in permissive airspace.
Despite the developments of space-based imagery and high-altitude collection platforms, the requirement for tactical reconnaissance in the US remained evident during the Vietnam War and the First Gulf War. The US Air Force (USAF) operated several modified fighter aircraft (RF-101 Voodoo and RF-4C Phantom) and aircraft-launched drones during the Vietnam War, particularly for the collection of target intelligence and post-strike assessment. RF-4C Phantom aircraft continued to serve through the First Gulf War providing vital intelligence on Republican Guard movements and Iraqi Air Force disposition. They were also misused to a certain degree, in the bid to find and fix Iraqi mobile missile launchers. The inability to view or disseminate the imagery real-time from the venerable Phantoms no doubt compounded this issue. The USAF retired the RF-4C in 1995 and has not sought a replacement since – most likely due to the emergence of unmanned ISR platforms and reliance on space-based assets.
Advances and growth in satellite imagery collection, along with the increasing sophistication of ground-based air defences, have challenged the utility of tactical reconnaissance. Not only do imagery satellites collect more persistently against denied areas, but they are not subject to air defence systems which increasingly have greater reach and lethality. The shoot-down of a Turkish RF-4E in Syrian airspace in 2012 highlights the threat that air defence systems pose. Despite these factors, countries with small air forces still invest and implement airborne tactical reconnaissance capabilities. Why? The simple answer is cost, access and availability. Not every country has access to satellite imagery. Even when they do, the imagery may not be available when it is required due to weather, communications, or other priorities. Given satellite’s strategic nature and scarcity, a local commander’s tactical requirements may be lost amongst national strategic priorities. Tactical reconnaissance missions can be employed locally and responsively to support immediate requirements.
Local control and accessibility are two key reasons why the US Navy (USN) still operates a tactical reconnaissance capability through the Shared Reconnaissance Pod (SHARP) carried on the F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. For a deployed carrier battle group operating in a potentially contested environment, satellite imagery will not be on tap for perusal. Many European and Middle-Eastern nations have also invested in tactical reconnaissance capabilities due to their low cost and accessibility of the imagery collected. Podded electro-optical/infra-red sensors such as the DB-110 (a tactical derivative of the U-2 sensor) have proven popular in these countries due to their platform agnostic versatility with carriage options on the F-16 Fighting Falcon, GR-4 Tornado, or F-15 Eagle. The DB-110 can collect almost 26,000 square kilometres of imagery per hour from a stand-off range of 150 kilometres. Low cost, seamless pod integration onto fighter platforms and flexibility of use provide significant benefits to small air forces that cannot afford to invest heavily in ISR space or air-breathing assets.
Further advances in tactical reconnaissance sensor capability also provide value for money. Take for example the development of multi-spectral sensors for detection of camouflaged and concealed targets at longer stand-off ranges. Additionally, tactical reconnaissance sensors now have datalink connectivity resulting in an ability to pass image chips forward via airborne assets for early exploitation and analysis. Tactical reconnaissance vendors are also promoting requirements for expeditionary processing, exploitation, and dissemination (PED) cabin for deployed operations. Expeditionary PED is critical to the tactical reconnaissance mission, particularly if it is likely that communications bearers are at risk. Furthermore, the transmission of terabytes of imagery through a communications bearer for analysis may not be viable due to bandwidth constraints on protected networks. The significant volume of imagery data collected from tactical reconnaissance pods will necessitate a form of ‘triage’ of the imagery to focus analytical efforts on priority information requirements. Therefore, sending analysts closer to the fight may be required to overcome the effects of a contested communications environment.
In a future high-intensity war, ADF will not have the unfettered use of space and Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) to which it has become accustomed. Near-peer adversaries such as China and Russia have made their intentions clear regarding the denial of space and communications bearers for the US and its allies during any potential conflict. Therefore, the ability to carry an imagery collection sensor on an aircraft that can penetrate and survive in contested airspace, conduct a tactical reconnaissance mission, and return the imagery for exploitation is vitally important. Early phases of a high-intensity war against a sophisticated integrated air defence system (IADS) will see our traditional ISR assets operating at significant stand-off ranges that will degrade their operational utility. The F-35 can penetrate IADS; however, the sensor suite is not optimised for long-range, wide field-of-view imagery collection. The high-end battle may require traditional reconnaissance methods to get the job done. This is particularly important for targeting intelligence and post-strike assessment – to ensure the commander apportions the right platforms and weapons against the right target sets to achieve the desired effects at the lowest risk available.
For a small but technically advanced air force like the RAAF, the acquisition of imagery sensors that can be carried in a fast jet-configured pod would provide a low-cost capability for imagery collection for use during high-intensity war, complementing available satellite and larger airborne imagery collection systems. The tactical reconnaissance pods can also be utilised in permissive environments when tasked and could be considered for use to support the full spectrum of operations. The most likely candidate platform for the ADF tactical reconnaissance capability would be the F/A-18F Super Hornet, given the already demonstrated role with the USN and SHARP. The flexibility of a podded sensor allows the fighter aircraft only to carry the pod when required vice having a permanently fixed sensor with inherent penalties of sensor carriage. An airborne tactical reconnaissance capability could provide responsive, survivable, and high-quality imagery to the joint force a range of scenarios.
Imagery collection capabilities are facing increasingly sophisticated threats across the air, electromagnetic, space and cyber domains. The development of an ADF airborne tactical reconnaissance capability would add another layer to Australia’s tactical imagery collection requirements while also enhances its self-reliant military capability and its value as a contributor to coalition ISR operations. Tactical reconnaissance provides necessary redundancy, survivability, and responsiveness required when the high-intensity war means commanders cannot access strategic collection capabilities – due to access or priorities – and reduces the information gush to a trickle. In high-intensity war and pulling the digital ‘wet-film’ imagery from a pod-equipped fighter jet may be the only viable reconnaissance method available to reveal adversary posture and intent.
Squadron Leader Rodney ‘Neville’ Barton is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An RAF Tornado GR4 from RAF Marham in Norfolk with a RAPTOR airborne reconnaissance pod fitted beneath the fuselage, c. 2009. The images received by the pod can be transmitted via a real-time data-link system to image analysts at a ground station or can be displayed in the cockpit during flight. The imagery can also be recorded for post-flight analysis. The RAPTOR system can create images of hundreds of separate targets in one sortie; it is capable of autonomous operation against preplanned targets, or it can be re-tasked manually for targets of opportunity or to select a different route to the target. The stand-off range of the sensors allows the aircraft to remain outside heavily-defended areas, to minimise the aircraft’s exposure to enemy air-defence systems. (Source: UK Ministry of Defence)
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Chris McInnes examines the case for the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) to develop a fully integrated expeditionary air wing capability to deal with the challenges offered by high-intensity warfare.
In introducing Plan Jericho to the world in 2015, then Chief of the RAAF Air Marshal Geoff Brown argued that the Royal Australian Air Force:
[n]eed[s] to evolve our techniques, tactics and procedures to work as a champion team, not a team of champions.
Brown’s distinction between a champion team and team of champions is a particularly important one for small air forces to consider as they ponder the requirements of high-intensity operations in a changing world. The tempo, complexity, and costs of high-intensity operations will sunder the seams of a team of champions.
Small air forces have had mercifully limited experience of this pressure because larger forces, generally the United States Air Force (USAF), have absorbed much of it. For the RAAF, a lacklustre command experience in the Second World War has been followed by niche contributions that operated as part of US-led combat air operations but in isolation from each other in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. Australian officers have led these contributions and regional coalition operations, such as East Timor in 1999, and gained valuable knowledge as embeds in larger US headquarters. However, as a collective, Australia’s airmen have had little exposure to building a champion team to withstand the pressures of high-intensity warfare.
This is why Operation Okra’s air task group is so important. The dispatch of a self-deploying, self-sustaining air task group to the Middle East in September 2014 marked a departure from Australia’s experience of combat air operations. For the first time since the Second World War, Australian air power– the E-7A airborne early warning and control aircraft, KC-30A tankers, F/A-18F fighters, C-130J transports, air base, and enabling elements – contributed to the wider US-led operation as a coherent Australian team.
This team came together despite the lack of a common organisational concept or a well-prepared headquarters to facilitate their integration as an Australian champion team. The aircraft and air bases mentioned above reported to three separate chains of command: Air Task Group 630 commanded the E-7A, KC-30A, and F/A-18 elements while Joint Task Force 633 retained command, as separate units, of the C-130J aircraft and the air base elements in the Middle East. This organisational fragmentation was not helped by the fact that, according to the commander of the initial air task group and now Air Commander Australia Air Vice-Marshal Steve Roberton, the principal headquarters element responsible for integrating the separate capabilities ‘formed over there; [it] was not stood up before we deployed. In fact, people hadn’t even met.’
The friction-induced by the ad-hoc organisation and an under-prepared headquarters in September 2014 was overcome through the cooperation of quality personnel in stressful but controlled circumstances. These favourable conditions are unlikely to be present in high-intensity operations, and self-inflicted friction will only exacerbate uncontrollable external challenges, delaying and potentially preventing an Australian team of champions becoming a champion team when it matters most.
This article argues that invigorating and embedding the concepts and capabilities needed to operate as an expeditionary air wing is critical if Australian air power is to meet Brown’s challenge when it matters most. The article will argue that the wing is the critical expeditionary echelon for small air forces like the RAAF in high-intensity operations, outline why building expeditionary air wings may be difficult for the RAAF and draw upon British and Canadian experiences over the past decade to suggest some ways forward as a means of stimulating broader discussion.
First, ‘wing’ in this post means the lowest air power command echelon with the necessary resources – command, flying, maintenance, base services, and other enablers – to generate, apply, and sustain air power autonomously. The core concept of a wing is that it is the collective of multiple capabilities under a single commander that generates air power, not a specific number of aircraft, squadrons, or personnel. This historically-proven concept of a wing is flexible, scalable, and modular; not all wings need the full suite of enabling services, and it is entirely possible to have a wing with no permanent flying units. Importantly, wings can be defined by function or by geography depending on the circumstances – the Australian Air Component in the Middle East formed in 2009 was, in essence, a reorganisation of existing independent units to form a wing. Army personnel would recognise the concept of a wing as a combined arms formation, similar to a brigade.
The wing is the critical echelon for small air forces precisely because it is the lowest echelon capable of autonomous operations and command, either as part of a coalition force or independently. Even when an air and space operations centre (AOC) is available, the wing is where indispensable but often overlooked tactical planning, integration, and assessment occur to turn the AOC’s higher direction into executable plans. Much of the planning on operations and exercises, such as Red Flag and Diamond Storm – the RAAF Air Warfare Instructor Course’s (AWIC) final exercise – happens at the wing level because it is focused on integrating multiple capabilities to achieve a mission. In operations led by a larger partner, such as Okra, a wing enables a small air force to present a coherent, readily identifiable, force package that reduces integration costs on both sides. In more modest operations in which a small air force may lead a joint or combined force a wing headquarters can provide the command and control core, potentially obviating the need for a separate AOC. This latter point is especially crucial for small air forces whose expeditionary resources may mean a separate AOC is unaffordable and unnecessary, particularly in high-intensity operations that generate substantial homeland defence tasking and thereby limit the assets available for expeditionary operations.
High-intensity warfare reinforces the criticality of the wing for small forces because of the need for flexibility, agility, and resilience. When then-Commander US Pacific Air Forces, General Hawk Carlisle, argued for greater distribution of command and control functions that would see ‘the AOR [area of responsibility] […] become a CAOC,’ part of his vision, according to Lieutenant General David Deptula (ret’d) , was that wings would play a ‘role much more integral to a distributed [command and control] system than simply their historical force-provider role.’ Resilience is boosted by reducing air power’s dependence on a single node and allowing operations to continue despite degraded communications. Enhancing command and control capabilities at multiple points increases flexibility because each node is better able to integrate different forces or adapt to new missions. Agility is fostered by supporting concurrent and locally-focused activity across many organisations; USAF exercises indicate this distributed planning model can significantly accelerate the air operations planning process.
These rationales are apparent in Britain and Canada who have developed expeditionary air wings since 2006. The two countries have taken different paths, but both have made wings the foundations of their expeditionary forces, with required capabilities plugging into the wing framework as required. Britain has multiple standing expeditionary air wings drawn directly from Royal Air Force (RAF) stations, while Canada maintains two expeditionary wings at any given time. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) has a permanent high-readiness expeditionary wing for contingency operations drawn from 2 Wing and one focused on longer-term operations that are drawn from the Air Force’s remaining wings on a rotating basis. An RAF colleague at the Australian Command and Staff College viewed the wing framework as so fundamental to expeditionary air operations that, after a presentation on the initial Okra deployment highlighted that capabilities were deployed without such a framework, he opined that “you Aussies do this air power thing upside down. Is that because you’re from the southern hemisphere?”
Australia’s apparently inverted approach to expeditionary air operations stems from a structure that is optimised for managing discrete capabilities rather than producing integrated air power packages. As Air Vice-Marshal (ret’d) Brian Weston has pointed out, the force element group (FEG) construct has many positives, and FEG played a crucial role in ensuring that the team of champions were ready for Operation Okra. However, the capability-defined FEG and their similarly defined subordinate wings mean that no two FEG or wings are alike and no FEG or wing is structured for, or practised in, leading an integrated expeditionary team in combat. The rise of FEG-aligned control centres and divisions in Australia’s standing AOC reinforces this separation because it drives cross-FEG integration up to the AOC (at least in a formal sense). These structural barriers to integration are reinforced by a cultural one that arises because personnel tend to ‘grow up’ through their own FEG and could reach very senior ranks with limited exposure to ‘other FEG.’ The lack of a ready and rehearsed wing headquarters for Operation Okra stemmed directly from a disaggregated organisation that is optimised for generating individual champions.
So how then to build the champion team necessary for high-intensity warfare? As Okra and other operations have demonstrated, almost all the pieces of an Australian expeditionary air wing already exist. The establishment of the Air Warfare Centre (AWC) to champion integration and develop the techniques and procedures for integrated tactics is an important step forward. Much work is already underway through Plan Jericho initiatives, the establishment of an Air Warfare School and AWIC, and integration-focused exercises such as the Diamond series and Northern Shield.
Integrated tactics and training courses, however, will count for little in high-intensity operations if they are executed by ad hoc organisations using personnel that have not met and whose usual focus is on managing the routine activities of individual capabilities. The RAAF’s positive steps towards integration must be complemented by efforts to build a collective organisational framework for expeditionary air power and the command and control capabilities at the core of that framework. An expeditionary operating concept and expeditionary headquarters focused on generating, applying, and sustaining integrated air power – a champion team – are essential to complement the disaggregated FEG construct that is so adept at building individual champions.
The articulation of a clear expeditionary operations concept with the expeditionary air wing at its heart would appear to be a relatively simple task. In 2016 the RCAF included a chapter in its capstone doctrine articulating how it delivers air power to joint or coalition commanders and in domestic or expeditionary settings. This chapter, which was not present in the 2010 edition, includes an air task force concept with an expeditionary air wing as its central operational element and discusses how these frameworks can be tailored to suit specific circumstances. Publicly available articles build on the doctrine chapter to explain the RCAF’s concept and rationale. The RAF explains expeditionary air wings on its public website and emphasises their central role in projecting British air power around the globe. The RAF declares that:
[t]he aim of [expeditionary air wings] is to […] generate a readily identifiable structure that is better able to deploy discrete units of agile, scalable, interoperable and capable air power.
Because of this investment in expeditionary air wings, British air power is expected to:
To achieve greater operational synergy, delivering focused operational effects from the outset of a deployment;
To generate a more cohesive trained audience;
To engender more widely a greater understanding of the capability of air power;
To achieve a more inclusive formation identity.
By contrast, Australian air power doctrine, including a 2009 publication focused on command and control, devotes more attention to the workings of the RAAF’s garrison structure than operational considerations and tends to description rather than explication. There is no distinction between expeditionary and domestic organisational considerations; ‘expeditionary’ appears only six times scattered across the 245 pages of the RAAF’s Air Power Manual, usually to describe units or capabilities. Discussion on air power command and control is confined to stating a preference for a senior airman to command air power and describing operational-level headquarters. The reader is left with a sense that the RAAF either does not have a clear idea of how it wants to organise integrated air power for a joint or coalition commander or is reluctant to express a view. This is undoubtedly implicit knowledge for many, but high-intensity warfare is not the time to discover that your implicit knowledge differs from the person next to you.
The RAAF should explicitly articulate its force presentation and organisation preferences, similar to the Canadian example. An outline of how future air task groups – centred on expeditionary air wings – would function and be organised, the available options, and the considerations that influence choices is necessary. Expressing a clear view on how to best organise and present an integrated air power team for operations in domestic and expeditionary settings is professional, not parochial. This conceptual framework should be widely accessible, preferably in a public document, to maximise the spread of this concept to Australian airmen and colleagues from other Services, agencies, and countries. A clear, and readily accessible, organisational concept underpins the ability of Australian air power to build a champion team quickly, particularly in the face of the pressure and friction of high-intensity operations.
The final element needed to rapidly form a champion team from the RAAF’s tactical champions is the commander and, crucially, staff. Commanding an expeditionary air wing is a problematic and vitally important challenge – particularly in high-intensity operations – that must be addressed by a coherent command crew that is trained and exercised to high levels of proficiency. Developing outstanding individuals to serve as commanders is vital but insufficient; they must be supported by adept staff to enable and execute their command responsibilities. Britain and Canada conduct training and exercises to build the expeditionary air wing headquarters team and equip the personnel in that team with the necessary skills and experience. They do so in a coherent and structured fashion to build teams that endure and are available to form the core of a headquarters for expeditionary operations. As a result, the RAF and RCAF are unlikely to confront the situation encountered by Australia’s air task group in 2014.
Generating these headquarters elements is likely to pose the greatest challenge for the RAAF to realise a coherent expeditionary air wing capability. The RAF and RCAF approaches will not transfer easily across because the personnel and capabilities needed to lead an expeditionary air wing must be drawn from multiple FEG, and no current RAAF headquarters aside from the AOC focuses on cross-FEG operational coordination. Current Australian practice for expeditionary air operations – the practice used for Operation Okra – is to nominate a commander for deploying forces, build a headquarters structure, and then endeavour to fill the identified positions with personnel on an individual basis. This ad-hoc approach to structures, processes, and staffing for expeditionary headquarters is how Roberton came to be equipped with a headquarters ‘that formed over there […] [with] people that hadn’t even met.’
There are many options to meet this requirement that require evaluation, but all will come at a cost. If dedicated organisations are not feasible, one approach that may minimise cost is to generate a standardised expeditionary headquarters staff structure and then fill the positions on a contingency basis with personnel from a single RAAF base. Each major base – Amberley, Williamtown, and Edinburgh – has the necessary personnel to form a viable headquarters element and aligning them by base would facilitate team building while reducing the impact on in-garrison duties. Rotating the responsibility around bases would spread the burden further. A standardised construct would enable training to be baselined and increase redundancy by enabling personnel from other bases to more readily supplement deploying teams. A permanent high-readiness wing, similar to the RCAF, could be considered to address short-notice contingencies and build expeditionary command and control expertise. RAAF Base Amberley’s resident air mobility and air base elements provide a sound basis for this high-readiness element.
However, the personnel needed belong to multiple FEG and have day jobs. Explicit direction from very senior levels would be necessary to ensure these cross-FEG teams can be formed, trained, exercised, and maintained in the face of competing priorities. These teams could be trained and given experience through a structured series of exercises and activities similar to the RAF and RCAF. They could also be given responsibilities for leading major exercises, such as the Diamond series, Pitch Black, and Talisman Sabre as certification activities. The force generation cycles of key expeditionary air wing elements – such as the headquarters, air base, and communications elements – could be aligned to maximise an expeditionary wing’s coherence upon deployment. This building block approach is similar to the Australian Army’s combat brigade force generation cycle, providing an opportunity to align force generation cycles and enhance readiness across the joint force.
Invigorating and embedding expeditionary air wing concepts and headquarters capabilities in Australian air power are essential for the RAAF to turn its team of champions into a champion team. An ability to deploy and fight as an expeditionary air wing from day one is vital for small air forces in high-intensity operations because combat effectiveness, resilience, and flexibility across multi-national forces must be optimised while national control and identity are assured. The RAAF’s history, structure, and culture presents challenges to this task, but there are ways forward, with much good work already underway. Clearly articulating how the RAAF intends to organise expeditionary air elements and building expeditionary leadership teams are the next steps needed to ensure the RAAF’s fifth-generation champions can fight and win as a champion team when it matters most.
Wing Commander Chris ‘Guiness’ McInnes is an officer in the Royal Australian Air Force and an editor of the Central Blue. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Defence Force, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An RAAF E-7A Wedgetail is silhouetted by the setting sun at the main logistics base in the Middle East during Operation Okra. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)
 Air Marshal Geoffrey Brown in Royal Australian Air Force, Plan Jericho: Connected – Integrated, (Canberra: Royal Australian Air Force, 2015), p. 1.
 Alan Stephens described the RAAF’s command and organisational experience in Europe during the Second World War as ‘an institutional disaster’ while he devoted an entire chapter (out of 16 in the book) to ‘The RAAF Command Scandal’ in the South West Pacific, see: Alan Stephens, The Australian Centenary History of Defence – Volume II: The Royal Australian Air Force (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 98, pp. 109-25. Further detail on the RAAF’s command performance in the South West Pacific is available in Norman Ashworth’s fittingly titled two-volume account: Norman Ashworth, How Not to Run an Air Force! The Higher Command of the Royal Australian Air Force during the Second World War – Volume 1 and Narrative (Canberra: Air Power Studies Centre, 2000).
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Sean Carwardine describes the development of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) airfield defence policy and questions the adequacy of current policy in preparing the Air Force to defend its bases in a #highintensitywar situation.
Air power is generated from air bases. Therefore, in a high-intensity conflict, air forces should expect that their adversary will target their bases. Unfortunately, airfield protection in a high-intensity conventional conflict has attracted little attention in the development of the RAAF’s fifth-generation force. This article looks at the history of RAAF airfield defence, and in consideration of lessons learned, will propose critical questions for future tasking, capabilities, equipment, command and control, training, planning, scale, interoperability, and security force influence on the air domain.
Since 1929, the RAAF has had a single-service policy towards airfield defence, involving airmen providing low-level anti-aircraft and machine gun ground defence. Past RAAF airfield defence policy worked on the assumption of RAAF involvement in small localised, asymmetric or low-intensity warfare in a joint environment. The policy has developed in the context of operations involving rapidly deployed aircraft operating from forward bases secured by allied nations supplying the bulk of force protection. These bases have been in relatively secure rear-areas of sanctuary, with security focusing only on countering the threat of small incursions. In a modern high-intensity war situation, these sanctuaries may no longer provide a guarantee of safety or security. Accordingly, the RAAF and its airfield defence policy must evolve. RAAF airfield defence policy must consider force protection in a high-threat environment, and possibly without significant assistance from major allies.
The RAAF has never been in a position, apart from five months in the Second World War, to provide full airfield defence for its bases in a high-intensity war situation; it has been partly or wholly reliant on allied forces.
During the Second World War, RAAF policy focused on the Australian Army providing low to high-level anti-aircraft defence and ground defence outside the wire. Within the wartime RAAF, there was a clear divide between RAAF Headquarters (the RAAF’s administrative command) and RAAF Command (the RAAF’s operational command) as to the workforce and organisation of airfield defence in the RAAF. The former believed small sections of Guards (20-30) could protect RAAF assets with technical airmen acting in the role as a secondary duty (a reactive defence). For RAAF Headquarters there was no requirement for a specific organisation to provide airfield defence. RAAF Command was against this ‘penny pinching’ policy and promoted a ‘RAAF Regiment’ of guards so that specialists focused on protection, and technical airmen focused on keeping aircraft in the air.
By 1945, the RAAF had the equivalent of five squadrons worth of guards (1,042 guards) in No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron of the First Tactical Air Force (First TAF), five squadrons worth in the Northern Command (723 guards), four squadrons worth in Security Guard Unit/No. 1 Airfield Defence Squadron (570 guards) in the North-Western Area Command. Approximately, 1,900 guards (some cross-trained as war dog handlers and guard gunners) were also allocated to every aerodrome, inland fuel storage, radar/radio station, wharf/dock, RAAF chemical warfare storage, bomb and ammunition storage, civilian aerodromes and squadron in southern Australia. In addition to the guards, the Service Police had small units in every capital and small numbers on stations and in some squadrons. These forces provided the full scope of air base defence requirements for the RAAF.
At the end of the Second World War, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) removed airfield defence from the RAAF, six months before the official disbandment dates. RAAF Service Police strength was also reduced to fewer than 100 airmen across the nation. CAS stated, ‘I am not prepared to agree to any more of these specialised units.’ However, senior airmen argued against this. In 1945/46 senior officers such as Air Commodore Frank Bladin (Deputy Chief of the Air Staff), Air Commodore Frederick Scherger (Commander of First TAF), Air Vice-Marshal William Bostock (Air Officer Commanding RAAF Command) and Air Commodore John McCauley supported a proposal for a new airfield defence policy and the formation of an RAAF Regiment as put forward by Wing Commander George Mocatta.
Mocatta was Operation Staff Officer – Defence for the RAAF Command Headquarters Allied Air Force, a post which he held since 1942. He was a graduate of the Royal Air Force’s (RAF) Defence Officer course, and in 1944/45 Mocatta had studied the ground defence of airfields by the RAF Regiment in Europe and the Far East.
Mocatta’s proposal argued that the formation of a RAAF Regiment would see a reduction to around 2,000 guards and 300 police but would provide a full-time airfield defence force that included a ground fighting force, low level anti-aircraft force, airfield engineers, explosive ordnance disposal, mortars and armoured vehicles. Mocatta’s proposal was not progressed; it stayed in RAAF Headquarters un-actioned until the file was closed in 1949.
During the 1950’s, under the National Service Scheme, two aerodrome defence squadrons were formed to train reserve airmen as Ground Gunners. Early in the 1950’s a total of four Aerodrome Defence Officers, 25 Guards and a small number of Service Police were sent to Japan and Korea to provide squadron guard duty and security. Although low-level ground base air defence was considered a RAAF responsibility, the RAAF provided no ground-based air defence of any type on operations in Korea.
Between 1952 and 1955, the Air Staff Policy Memorandum No. 15 RAAF Ground Defence Policy (ASPM 15) highlighted the possibility of a conflict on a global scale against Communist forces. This possibility of high-intensity war would force the RAAF to establish its light anti-aircraft (LAA) defence units, thus releasing the Australian Army from this duty. The policy also raised the possibility of an attack by Communist ground forces, in either large-scale commando style or clandestine attacks. Under ASPM 15 active and passive defence of RAAF assets would be undertaken by six Rifle Squadrons, one Armoured Squadron and three LAA Squadrons of Guards or Ground Gunner reservists.
The 1950s saw another push for the formation of a single permanent Airfield Defence Squadron. The idea this time was similar to Mocatta’s 1945 proposal; however, this time the proposal focused on a single peacetime squadron as a nucleus for a war-time RAAF Regiment. Then in the late 1950’s, the RAAF Ground Defence Policy Chapter of Air Staff Doctrine listed no requirement for ground defence units and highlighted only the need for a few Ground Defence Officer’s, Aerodrome Defence Instructor’s and Guards, with National Service airmen training as Ground Gunners in the reserve.
By 1957, the policy of RAAF airfield defence changed in response to the evolving strategic situation. No major global war was foreseen. Therefore, there was no need for RAAF ground defence forces. The policy was that under an inter-service agreement, the Australian Army would provide all active and passive defence for RAAF assets. The only time the RAAF would require its active defence was when units were overseas, operationally deployed away from land forces or in an emergency. Also, RAAF commanders would initiate their ground defence force from airmen within their unit.
In the early 1960’s the RAAF trained Aircraft Hand/General Duty airmen and RAAF Service Police in infantry tactics to perform airfield defence for duty in Thailand. By 1965 the RAAF created a new mustering for airfield defence and guard duty; the Airfield Defence Guards (ADGs) were formed. Again, the idea of a RAAF Defence Squadron equipped with low-level air defence capability emerged, resulting in the acquisition of eight 40mm Bofors Anti-Aircraft Guns and 140 Oerlikon 20mm cannons for the proposed formation of a peace-time airfield defence squadron. Interestingly, in the files, a staff officer queried this policy asking, ‘who are we going to shoot them at?’ The Bofors ultimately went to the Australian Army, and the Oerlikons stayed in storage. The RAAF then introduced the Bloodhound missile defence program, by 1968 the system was outdated, and the project ended.
Throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, RAAF policy on ground defence focused on limited war. Unsurprisingly, the ground defence policy for Vietnam focused on low-intensity warfare with an allocation of a 30-man flight of ADGs. At the time, RAAF Ground Defence policy (AAP 938) highlighted the RAAF’s responsibility to provide its own ground-based air defence units using equipment such as 20mm cannons and surface-to-air missile systems. One paragraph in AAP 938 indicates the RAAF did not have any of these systems and would have to acquire them from Britain, ‘when the war starts’. This raises the concern that in a high-intensity conflict, waiting for equipment would be too late. By 1973, the RAAF officially removed anti-aircraft defence from RAAF capabilities, instead relying on the Australian Army’s ground-based air defence (GBAD) systems or aircraft to provide air defence.
The 1980’s and 1990’s saw separate Rifle Flights of ADGs around the country, undertaking guard duty and exercises. During this period, however, the reformation of No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron and eventually combined all Rifle Flights into one squadron in one location. Operation Warden, the Australian-led intervention in East Timor, in 1999 highlighted the capabilities and the benefits of having a dedicated, air-minded, air force security force in a low-intensity environment. However, having one full time and one partly-staffed reserve unit (No. 1 Airfield Defence Squadron), demonstrated the need for a force protection restructure.
In the subsequent shift to the asymmetric conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan, RAAF security forces have integrated with Australian Army units and law enforcement agencies to protect aircraft in Aircraft Security Operations, protect air force detachments and take responsibility for the defence of international airfield defence duties. This is the basis of airfield defence policy that still defines RAAF Security Force approach.
Group Captain Jeremy Parkinson, an RAF officer from NATO’s Joint Air Power Competence Centre stated ‘Firstly, because of a lack of understanding of how [Force Protection] is provided, it is all too often seen in capitals and headquarters as little more than a static guarding task and as such is not perceived as contributing to the actual delivery of the mission’. He also stated, commanders, have a lack of understanding of how complex and resource intensive force protection is, and one should not assume that ‘the host nation will provide’ airfield protection for deployed forces. Considering Parkinson’s statement, it is fair to ask: does the current RAAF Security Force structure cater for all air base defence requirements, does it have an absolute, definite intent of potential operational tasking?
In a high-intensity conflict in the future, it is likely the Australian Army would deploy a brigade, which would likely include GBAD for the field force. The RAAF would deploy an Air Task Group to operate from a coalition airfield. What is unclear is if deploying as part of a coalition force, and with US or NATO units in place, would Australia be required to supply a Security Force Squadron? Would Australian GBAD systems automatically attach to the forward air base as stated in the 2016 White Paper? What capability does a current RAAF Security Force bring to the table?
I believe that the RAAF has been guilty of turning a ‘Nelsonian blind eye’ to the need for its own air base defence capability. History shows the RAAF has a lack of understanding of the specialist nature of all air base protection as it has developed a reliance on others, an aversion to committing fully to the airfield defence role and does not appropriately resource airfield defence. Are we learning from history, or following it?
Some questions need to be asked if the RAAF is to prepare to defend its operating bases in a high-intensity conflict. Does the RAAF insist Australian Army GBAD systems be permanently on every air base or will they be allocated to the RAAF after the start of combat operations? Does the RAAF have dispersed hardened or underground shelters, its own air-minded specialist protection force, or does current policy remain extant and we will rely on allies or host nations for our protection?
Analysts will discuss the pros and cons of the Australian Defence Force being a versatile and flexible force that can fight in low and high-intensity conflicts. However, the current legacy RAAF Security Force Squadrons remain established as a ‘small-war’ force, ill-equipped and lacking ground intelligence capabilities to protect air bases, overseas and at home, in a future high-intensity war?
Australia needs a RAAF specialist security protection force that is equipped and trained to respond across the spectrum of future conflict scenarios. A fifth-generation air force must be able to defend the bases that generate its air power.
Sean Carwardine joined the RAAF in 1986 as an Airfield Defence Guard and retired in 2007. Sean served at No. 2 Airfield Defence Squadron, No. 1 Central Ammunition Depot, RAAF Base Richmond, Australian Defence Force Academy, RAAF Base Amberley, Headquarters Airfield Defence Wing. Sean also served on operations in Indonesia 1992, Timor 1999/2000, Afghanistan 2002 and Iraq 2003/04. Sean has completed a Bachelor of Education (University of Southern Queensland), Master of History (Airfield Defence) and is the final year of a PhD – History and Analysis of Airfield Defence Policy in the RAAF (University of New England). Sean has published two articles on RAAF airfield defence, lectured at RAAF Security and Fire School, Security Forces Squadrons (SECFOR) and SECFOR Conference.
Header Image: Leading Aircraftman Joel Sitkiewicz from No. 1 Security Force and Military Working Dog ‘Lucky’, patrol the F/A-18F Super Hornet flight line during Exercise Aces North 2015. (Source: Australian Department of Defence)
 National Archives of Australia (NAA), A1196, 15/501/258 PART 2.
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue andFrom Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. This article is a cross-post from the team at The Strategy Bridge from their Operation Iranian Freedom series and was originally published on 16 February 2016. This is the second post in that series, and takes place simultaneously, but from a different perspective, as with the first (11 August 2016) and third (10 June 2016) instalments. This article has been selected as it highlights to use of fiction to contemplate, consider, explore, and engage with strategy and the possibilities of future conflict. When considering the requirements to prepare for and engage in modern #highintensitywar, fiction such as the Operation Iranian Freedom series is a good place to start. Our sincerest gratitude to the authors and the team at The Strategy Bridge for permission to use this post in the #highintensitywar series.
It was predictable. The moment U.S. policymakers signed a nuclear deal with Iran, it made future military action inevitable. What was Iraq in 1991 if not a foreshadowing of this more deadly situation? United Nations Resolution 687 called for Iraq’s leadership to destroy, remove, or render harmless its chemical and biological weapons as well as all ballistic missiles with a range greater than 150 kilometres. That resolution, at least in part, set the stage for the series of events leading to Operation Iraqi Freedom. This newer deal created its eastern brother, Operation Iranian Freedom.
While there was some hope the nuclear deal would succeed when Iran handed over their enriched uranium to Russia in 2015, it was short lived. The Russians, who played a critical role in the 2015 nuclear deal, were furious when Sweden joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in 2022. One year later, the Russian economy, already weakened by increased natural gas and oil exports from U.S. shale, began a precipitous downward spiral when the U.S. Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy sold technology to European countries that enabled them to essentially end their dependence on Russian-supplied natural gas. In response, Russia returned the enriched uranium to Iran. The regime in Tehran, also reeling from the economic shocks of cheap oil and chafing against an increasingly belligerent U.S. government under the new administration elected in 2024, used this opportunity to reinstate their highly-controversial nuclear program.
As has been shown throughout modern history, international agreements and strict United Nations resolutions are worthless. This one is no different. Like those before, the Iranians violated the nuclear deal and U.S. policymakers will end up choosing between military force and looking feckless; what politician chooses to appear impotent? And at the end of the day, who is going to get the job done if not the U.S. military? No one else has the resources or capacity.
As someone who ends up implementing policy when diplomacy fails, I’d prefer our policymakers to focus on slow, steady, multi-decade campaigns that revolve around non-military solutions, but long-term thinking is not the strength of most diplomatic efforts. Plus, most nations, particularly in the Middle East, only really understand the threat or use of force. While difficult, particularly in the politically contentious times we find ourselves in, politicians could use a few pages out of the books I read at the U.S. Army War College to weave together both military and non-military means. Admiral J.C. Wylie’s cumulative strategy and George Kennan and Paul Nitze’s efforts against communism come to mind as successful frameworks. But what do I know? I’m just a lowly Marine colonel slaving away in the operations shop of Joint Task Force–Iranian Freedom (JTF-IF). At least the international hotels in Doha serve alcohol.
Preparation for this campaign has been hard, especially for those of us trying to fuse national policy and the brief snatches of guidance from the Pentagon to operational realities on the ground. The last decade’s drawdown of U.S. forces following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, combined with austere budget cuts, ensured all lobbying efforts to increase military capabilities fell on deaf ears. In contrast, Iranian defensive capabilities, particularly along the Arabian Gulf and Gulf of Oman, have vastly improved. As always, we will be forced to make do with what we have.
The only good to come of the debate regarding military action against Iran is that our military leaders have actually implemented most of the lessons learned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Rather than pursuing regime change, which required not only breaking a nation but rebuilding it as well, our strategy is now centred upon the concept of a “substantive punitive raid” or “SPR”, pronounced “spear” for short. The SPR doctrine combines Colin Powell’s concept of overwhelming force (or, more precisely, Clausewitz’s principle of mass at critical points), with the short-duration strike operational concept from U.S. special operations forces. Without the burden of a large occupation force on the ground, there will be no forward operating bases to sustain, fewer convoys to attack, and our military will be employed like a military—not like a police or training force.
I’ve never agreed with missions that require our young troops to learn about a foreign culture and train partner forces. Maybe it’s a Marine thing, but I don’t care about 18-year olds understanding culture. I need our 18-year olds prepared to destroy culture. “Train them for high order violence and you can always hold them back by the belt” was the Marine Corps of my early days. Thanks to this ability to eschew “stability operations,” we are truly expeditionary, just as the Corps has largely been since its founding. It’s about time the rest of the U.S. military followed our lead.
So far, we’ve gathered a formidable team for the raid—no thanks to the bean counters in the Pentagon or the micromanagement of the politicos on the National Security Council staff. Fifth Fleet naval forces are going to secure the sea-lanes, provide for air superiority, and will play a large role in amphibious operations. U.S. Air Forces Central, with some GCC support, will begin the operation with strategic strikes, secure air superiority, and provide close air support to our troops on the ground.
On the ground, we have heavy forces ready to cross the National State of Iraq from their jump off point to the east of Baqubah. Due to the strengthened relationship with Israel and Jordan in the decade-long fight against the Islamic State (and our substantive infrastructure agreement to overcome Iranian interference in the Arabian Gulf and political issues in Kuwait), our supply lines from Aqaba and Eilat in the Gulf of Aqaba all the way to Baqubah are secure. Meanwhile, airborne and amphibious forces stand ready across the Arabian Gulf to seize their objectives. I try not to dwell too much on the fact that my former regiment, 8th Marines, is leading the way in the Gulf. This will be the Corps’ first contested amphibious landing since the Second World War. I know many faces in that regiment, many of whom won’t return home. I hear my old driver, Smitty, is a squad leader now; I hope he’s telling some of our old stories to his men to lighten their mood before the assault.
More than anything, I wish I could lead Marines in this campaign. Instead, having given up regimental command six months ago, Army General Brad Silvia requested the Corps allow me to serve here on JTF-IF as his chief of operations. It’s better than working at Headquarters, Marine Corps, I suppose. At least it allows me to work under Major General Bill Friese, an old battalion commander of mine, who is now the JTF-IF J-3. Both Friese and I recognize that sometimes what units on the ground actually need is less interference from us. National Security Council (NSC) requirements may cause us friction, but we’ll do our best to avoid passing it onto the units executing the operation.
Damn. Another call from Washington. I’ve given up on fighting back against the NSC going around the chain of command and pestering our staff over tactical minutia. There’s a reason Friese sends the staffers my way; he doesn’t want to deal with them. I don’t blame him. I almost relish the frustration of constant operational working group meetings; at least they give me time to think without being asked for another nit-noid detail to feed yet another NSC information request.
“Evening, Arash. What’s up?”
Phil Walter has served in the military, the intelligence community, and the inter-agency. He blogs at www.philwalter1058.com. Dr Diane Maye is a Visiting Professor at John Cabot University in Rome, Italy. She tweets at @DianeLeighMaye. Nathan Finney is an officer in the United States Army. He tweets @nkfinney. This article does not contain information of an official nature, nor do the views expressed in this article reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
Header Image: Two F-35C Lightning II carrier-variant joint strike fighters move slowly on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Dwight D. Eisenhower in the Atlantic Ocean, 3 October 2015. (Source: US Department of Defense)
Editorial Note: Between February and April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article,Lieutenant Colonel Tyson Wetzel examines the enduring legacy of Operation Bolo, an operation during the Vietnam War that was designed as a response to the increasing loses being incurred on the United States Air Force (USAF) in the mid-1960s.
Deliberately planned fighter sweep went just as we hoped. The MiGs came up; the MiGs were aggressive. We tangled. They lost.
Colonel Robin Olds, 3 January 1967
By the end of 1966, USAF fighter pilots were incredibly frustrated by rising aircraft and aircrew losses, restrictive rules of engagement (ROE) and North Vietnam People’s Air Force’s (NPAF) ‘hit-and-run’ tactics. The pilots were looking for an opportunity to seize the initiative and strike the premier NPAF fighter, the MiG-21. The NPAF was extremely careful with their limited number of MiG-21s, launching them only when their air defence network determined slow and non-manoeuvrable fighter-bombers were conducting unescorted strikes in North Vietnam. Colonel Robin Olds, Commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing ‘Wolfpack,’ at Ubon Royal Thai Air Force Base, devised a plan to dupe the NPAF into believing his F-4 Phantom IIs were a large formation of unescorted F-105 Thunderchiefs, which he believed would draw out the MiG-21s. On 2 January 1967, Olds and his Wolfpack executed Operation Bolo and destroyed seven NPAF MiG-21s with no friendly losses. The plan was elaborate, and successful execution relied on deception, predictive and actionable intelligence, and a well-integrated force package. These factors ensured Bolo was a triumphant success and have enduring applicability for air power theorists and air campaign planners preparing for future high-intensity conflict.
The Strategic Environment before Bolo
Two significant factors shaped the American prosecution of the air war over Vietnam in 1966. First, to reduce the risk of escalation, US ROEs at the time of Bolo did not allow strikes on critical North Vietnamese airfields. The result was that MiGs could not be destroyed on the ground; they had to be destroyed in the air. The second factor was the rapidly improving North Vietnamese air defence system, which included air defence artillery, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and MiG-17 and MiG-21 fighter aircraft. The combination of surface and airborne threats was taking a heavy toll on US aircraft. By the end of 1966, 455 US aircraft had been lost to enemy action, and USAF leaders wanted to take action to address the losses.
The airborne threat to US aircraft increased dramatically when the NPAF began receiving the MiG-21 in 1965. The MiG-21 retained the manoeuvrability of its predecessors the MiG-15/-17/-19, but it was capable of supersonic flight and was the first Soviet aircraft capable of carrying an infrared-guided air-to-air missile, the K-13 (NATO Designator: AA-2 ATOLL). Intelligence estimates at the time of Bolo put the NPAF MiG-21 inventory at only 16 airframes. To preserve these precious assets, the North Vietnamese only scrambled these aircraft to attack bomb-laden fighter-bombers such as the F-105. According to Walter Boyne, the MiG-21 tactics were very effective:
The MiG-21s’ rear attacks with Atoll missiles were achieving North Vietnamese goals by causing the F-105 formations to jettison their bombs before reaching their targets.
MiG-21 attacks on F-105s resulted in failed missions causing multiple strike packages to be sent to re-attack high-priority targets in a dense threat environment.
Olds was increasingly concerned with the MiG-21 attacks on the fighter-bombers, and the inability of the F-4 escorts to find and kill the MiG-21s in the air:
As we entered the winter of 1966, the MiGs began increased efforts to harass U.S. strike forces […] It became imperative for U.S. forces to bring counteraction to bear on the MiG fighter threat.
Unfortunately, Olds did not see any plan to deal with the threat at the tactical, individual fighter wings, or operational level, 7th Air Force. Olds expressed his frustration with the inaction in an oral history interview two years after the mission: ‘There was no concerted effort really to do anything about the MiGs.’ Olds decided to take the lead in developing a plan to take the fight to the MiG-21s.
Olds is often given credit as the sole mastermind behind Bolo, but others deserve credit for playing critical roles in the development and refinement of the plan. In early December 1966, Olds began discussing the MiG-21 problem with one of his most gifted fighter pilots, Captain J.B. Stone. Stone laid out the foundation for the plan that would eventually be adopted; using a ruse to make the North Vietnamese launch their MiG-21s against what they believed were fighter-bombers.
Olds enthusiastically embraced the plan and decided to take the plan to his boss, Lieutenant General William Momyer, Commander of 7th Air Force. Momyer also enthusiastically supported the plan and identified his Operations Officer, Brigadier General Don Smith, as his dedicated liaison for the plan. Momyer and Smith shepherded the plan from the start to ensure Olds and his planners were given all available resources and support. According to Olds, Bolo ‘wouldn’t have been possible’ without ‘Momyer’s courage in doing this, probably in spite of a lot of opposition.’ Olds is rightly given credit for a bold and brilliantly designed and executed plan, but the success of the mission would not have been possible without significant support from his subordinates and superiors.
On 2 January 1967, 56 F-4s launched in waves of eight aircraft into Northern Vietnam to execute Bolo. The mission worked as it was designed, despite heavy cloud cover in the target area that threatened to keep the MiGs on the ground. Believing they were engaging F-105s, the MiG-21s took the bait; the results were disastrous for them.
According to USAF records, Olds and his Wolfpack destroyed seven MiG-21s in less than 15 minutes with no damage to any US aircraft. Though the seven kills may not seem a significant number, it was nearly half of the NPAF inventory. Four days later, two more MiG-21s were destroyed when they attacked what they believed were unarmed reconnaissance aircraft, but in actuality were more of Olds’ F-4 pilots. The devastation wrought by Bolo, combined with two additional aircraft lost on 6 January led the NPAF to remove the MiG-21 from combat while they re-equipped, and evaluated the causes and their response to recent aircraft losses. Bolo played a significant role in the US re-acquiring air superiority during the beginning of 1967.
The Role of Deception in Bolo
Deception was central to the successful execution of the Bolo plan. The F-4s had to disguise themselves as lumbering F-105s to bait the MiG-21s into an aerial engagement. According to J. Alfred Phelps, the purpose of the deception plan was to create beneficial conditions for an aerial engagement:
The ultimate objective was to deceive and lure the MiG air defense force into a reactive posture and, once they were airborne, seek them out, engage, pursue, and destroy them.
To trick the North Vietnamese air defence system, the F-4s used F-105 callsigns, formations, speed, aerial refuelling tracks, mission routing, and electronic countermeasure (jamming) pods. The deception caused mass confusion among the NPAF MiG-21 pilots. Terry Mays explained the success of the ploy:
The North Vietnamese fell for the ruse and launched MiG-21 fighters to intercept what they thought were F-105s streaking along ‘Thud Ridge’ […] As the MiG-21 pilots maneuvered through the clouds and entered the open sky, expecting to attack F-105s, they found themselves in the midst of F-4s.
MiG-21 pilots had avoided the US’ premier air-to-air fighter, the F-4, so seeing a wall of Phantoms was a shock to the NPAF pilots and ground controllers.
Airborne intelligence collectors were able to capture the shock of the NPAF air defence force. In 2014, Joseph Trevithick analysed recently declassified intercepts from the mission, which showed the near-panic of North Vietnamese pilots upon realising they had been duped:
When Olds’ strike team started its attack, the C-130s picked up enemy pilots shocked to find that ‘the sky is full of F-4s,’ according to the declassified report. ‘Where are the F-105s? You briefed us to expect F-105s!’ ‘I’d like to come down now,’ another Vietnamese pilot reportedly declared.
The North Vietnamese were not prepared to face the F-4s, nor able to quickly react to the changing operational environment in time to save many of their MiG-21s.
The expert application of deception is one of the most important lessons to be learned from Bolo; aerial combat is not merely about the fastest jet, the missile with the longest range, or the best pilot. The use of deception can mitigate a tactical disadvantage or maximise a tactical advantage in the air. The use of deception is rarely a critical aspect of modern aerial combat plans, as US air planners often rely on overwhelming numerical or technological superiority. However, as nations like Russia and China develop and deploy large numbers of advanced fighters and air defence systems, the US cannot continue to rely on numerical or technological advantages. The use of a well-developed deception plan can once again tip the balance in aerial combat, as Olds and his Wolfpack proved in Bolo.
The Role of Intelligence in Planning and Execution of Bolo
Intelligence played a crucial role in both the planning and execution of Bolo. Olds knew that to develop a complete plan for the operation, he needed an accurate intelligence assessment of how the enemy would react to the ruse. According to Olds, ‘it was crucial to accurately predict the capabilities and possible reaction of the MiGs.’ The support of Momyer and Smith opened the doors to closely guarded intelligence, including signals intelligence (SIGINT) intercepts of NPAF fighter missions. This intelligence shaped the predictive assessment the intelligence analysts provided to Olds. He continued:
Intelligence gave us some highly probable MiG tactics. The MiGs were usually in the air anytime strike aircraft were in the area. Typically, they were airborne approximately ten to fifteen minutes prior to the strike, about the time the Thuds crossed the Black River.
Olds and Stone used the predictive assessments to determine the number and time spacing of the F-4 formations.
The mission also relied on timely and accurate intelligence during execution. Olds believed real-time relay of SIGINT collection was vital to the mission’s success:
Most critical to the success of BOLO, we had to have clear, real-time intelligence from USAF monitoring stations listening in to VPAF transmissions—no more of the bullshit of keeping essential knowledge secret from the strike force. VPAF transmissions had been monitored and translated but never shared down the line. It was sensitive, but it was imperative to have this intel for BOLO.
Olds and Stone ensured airborne and ground-based SIGINT collectors were included and integrated into the mission so that the force package would receive real-time intelligence updates. Trevithick used declassified Bolo reports to illuminate how important real-time SIGINT collection was to the mission:
Another key—and previously unknown—element of the top secret plan involved deploying signal-snooping aircraft to keep track of the MiGs. The special C-130B-IIs would listen in on enemy radio chatter and feed information straight to American pilots throughout the mission.
Two of these specially modified C-130s, known as SILVER DAWN aircraft, were airborne during the mission providing real-time collection to the force package. The use of predictive intelligence to help refine the plan and the use of real-time intelligence collect was nearly revolutionary because of the classification walls that prevented much intelligence, specifically SIGINT, from being shared with tactical operators. Such barriers have come down in the decades since Bolo, but air planners still struggle with the integration of intelligence into mission planning and execution.
The Role of Force Packaging in Bolo
Bolo included detailed planning and integration among a host of platforms, both airborne and on the ground. Each had a critical role to play to ensure the maximum lethality and survivability of the force. 48 F-4Cs were designated to conduct the aerial sweep mission to find and kill enemy MiGs. They were supported by 24 F-105F IRON HAND aircraft designed to suppress enemy air defences to protect the force package from SAMs. Eight F-104Cs were tasked with the protection of the fighters as they egressed the sweep area. Twenty-five KC-135 aerial refuelling tankers were needed to support the huge strike package. Combat support aircraft including the RC-121 BIG EYE battle management aircraft, EB-66 jamming aircraft, C-130 airborne command post and SILVER DAWN SIGINT platforms, combat search and rescue aircraft, ground control intercept sites, and the ground-based SIGINT stations all participated in the mission. Planning to integrate each of the platforms and its capabilities was complex, and Olds spent days travelling the theatre briefing operators on the plan.
The Bolo package foreshadowed the massive force packages that would become prevalent in Operation Desert Storm and all other air campaigns since. In addition to multiple fighter types executing various mission sets, combat support aircraft provided the updated air picture, collected real-time intelligence, executed command and control, jamming, and aerial refuelling. These aircraft were force multipliers in the mission, and the roles and importance of similar platforms have continued to expand over the past five decades. Bolo was an early and clear example of the effectiveness of a complete and fully integrated force package. This is one of the lessons of Bolo that air planners have absorbed, and force packaging is now a daily part of air operations.
Bolo was not only the highlight of the larger Rolling Thunder air campaign; it was the most successful US fighter operation of the war. Despite the mission being executed more than fifty years ago, there are critical lessons about mission planning and execution that can be used in the development of aerial missions and air campaigns today. Historian Jon Latimer summed up the primary takeaway from Bolo:
U.S. Air Force pilots demonstrated over Hanoi in 1967 that lure tactics can also work well in the higher reaches of technology. So it was that Operation BOLO, a small but unusually successful part of the ROLLING THUNDER bombing program, succeeded in claiming seven North Vietnamese MiGs within 15 minutes, without losing a single American aircraft.
The shrewd use of deception allowed the US fighters to engage their adversary at the time, place, and in the manner of their choosing.
Additionally, the use of intelligence before and during the mission was vital to the success of the operation. The utilisation of predictive intelligence in mission planning allowed the Bolo planners to optimise the F-4’s survivability and lethality against the MiG-21. The timely dissemination of SIGINT was unheard of at the time, but Bolo showed the importance of real-time intelligence updates to the operational environment. Finally, the integration and coordination of airborne and ground-based elements in a massive and diverse force package was a significant contributor to the overall success of the mission. Bolo made better use of deception, intelligence, both predictive and real-time updates, and force packaging than any air operation of the Vietnam War up to that point.
In this era of ‘near-peer’ threats, including the development and deployment of fifth-Generation aircraft, modern long-range SAMs, and advanced electronic warfare, the US and its allies cannot rely solely on numerical or even technological superiority to win future air conflicts. Air power theorists and operators need to think through problems, evaluating the operational environment and the adversary and build plans that leverage and maximise their comparative advantages while mitigating risk and minimising the adversary’s comparative advantages. Air planners and tacticians should study these aspects of Bolo and consider incorporating tactics similar to those of Olds and his Wolfpack in the planning and development of future air operations in a high-intensity conflict.
Tyson Wetzel is a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, an 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 @gorillawetzel.
Header Image: Pictured here are revetments and F-4s of the 8th TFW at Ubon, Thailand. (Source: National Museum of the Unites States Air Force)
 Robin Olds, interview with Armed Forces Network, 3 January 1967. Clip shown on Dogfights: Air Ambush. History Channel, 10 November 2006.
 Walter J. Boyne, Beyond the Wild Blue: A History of the U.S. Air Force (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010), pp. 162.
 Jon Latimer, ‘Operation Bolo: Phantom ambush over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 15:3 (2002), pp. 38.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 68
 Frank F. Futrell, William H. Greenhalgh, Carl Grubb, Gerard E. Hasselwander, Robert F. Jakob, and Charles A. Ravenstein. Aces and Aerial Victories: The United States Air Force in Southeast Asia, 1965-1973 (Washington, DC: Office of Air Force History, Headquarters US Air Force, 1976), p. 21.
 Olds, Project Corona Harvest. Operation Bolo Briefing, pp. 65.
 Terry M. Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ Vietnam, 20:6 (2008), p. 47.
 J. Alfred Phelps, Chappie: America’s First Black Four-Star General: The Life and Times of Daniel James, Jr (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1992), pp. 225.
 Mays, ‘Gunfighting Over North Vietnam,’ p. 47.
 Joseph Trevithick, ‘Spies Helped the USAF Shoot Down a Third of North Vietnam’s MiG-21s,’ WarIsBoring.com, 30 Dec 2014.
Editorial Note: From February to April 2018, The Central Blue and From Balloons to Drones, will be publishing a series of articles that examine the requirements of high-intensity warfare in the 21st Century. These articles provide the intellectual underpinnings to a seminar on high-intensity warfare being held on 22 March by the Williams Foundation in Canberra, Australia. In this article, Rex Harrison discusses the challenge of attrition during high-intensity conflicts and its implications for fifth-generation air forces.
Technology has continued to advance in both disruptive and surprising ways. It is consequently difficult to forecast the exact way fifth-generation air power will be applied in 2035, nor the precise character of future high-intensity conflict. With the benefit of hindsight, however, history proposes broad themes and continuities in the nature of war. One such example is the persistence of attrition of the force once committed to battle.
While Western air forces have been able to somewhat control their level of exposure to adversary action since the 1991 Gulf war, this may not always be the case. This level of control has been achieved through conducting operations beyond the engagement range of adversaries and behind a shield of (generally unchallenged) air defences. This technique has enabled air power to inflict significant losses without absorbing such losses themselves.
This happy circumstance has been the exception rather than the rule in human history. This is particularly the case when considering the history of air power, where few combatants have had the luxury of picking and choosing the intensity and duration of the conflict. No matter how successful fifth-generation air power is in enhancing its lethality and minimising risk to the force, it is doubtful that a combat exchange in high-intensity combat will result in a ‘0’ in the ledger of either side.
This being the case, I believe that success in high-intensity conflict will require a fifth-generation air force to ensure it can absorb and recover from the attrition of its forces. While it will be difficult to predict the outcomes of future air combat or the mix of technology and tactics that will provide the necessary advantage, history does provide a guide that may better inform our preparations for the future.
The significant impact of attrition is demonstrated by the experiences of the Israeli Air Force (IAF) in the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. In this example, Israel was surprised by the new-found technical prowess of the Arab armies led by Egypt and Syria. The IAF was required to expend a sizable portion of its fighting strength to provide time for mobilisation. Surprised by the technical mastery of their opponents, in a matter of days, 102 aircraft were lost (roughly 25% of available combat aircraft), along with 53 aircrew. The crisis was only resolved by the rapid shipment of replacement aircraft from the US inventory under Operation Nickel Grass.
While certainly an example of high-intensity conflict, the requirement for Australia to fight for its existence as Israel did is unlikely or would be, at the very least, preceded by warnings such that the nation could be mobilised and prepared for such a conflict. It is partially through Australia’s preferred method of warfare, the controlled commitment of forces in expeditionary wars, that such attrition has been avoided.
A more pertinent example for Australian forces is the experience of No. 77 Squadron during the Korean War (a perhaps timely example given ongoing tensions on the Peninsula). The deployment of a single fighter squadron in June 1950 would seem at face value to match the characteristics of more recent Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) commitments; the level of attrition, however, was not comparable. Over a three-year commitment, 41 pilots died, and six were captured. At the peak of fighting the squadron replaced 25% the pilot force over an eighteen-month period. Finding the Second World War era North American P-51 Mustang to be outmatched after losing 13 aircraft, No. 77 Squadron was re-equipped in May 1951 with the Gloster Meteor. Of the 94 Meteors acquired by Australia, 30 were subsequently lost to enemy action, delivering a significant portion of the 54-aircraft lost in total over Korea and Japan. The consequence of this action was that No. 77 Squadron, in effect, replaced all of its aircraft at least once, and in a handful of years, expending the bulk of the entire RAAF fleet.
One should hope that future deployments would avoid committing forces in obsolete aircraft. However, it should be noted that the Australian government maintained the force commitment in Korea despite these and other subsequent losses.
What Does This Mean?
In preparing for future conflict, any fifth-generation air force must ensure access to both the physical (hardware) and human resources required to replace those lost.
The procurement of aircraft and their associated supporting hardware may be the most straightforward requirement to meet, assuming access to global markets. While contemporary production rates are much lower than those of the Second World War, they are still significant for those aircraft in full production. While the Israeli losses in 1973 were substantial, production of the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, the mainstay multi-role aircraft of the period, averaged 19 aircraft per month, over the life of production. Israel’s losses of this aircraft type (32 of the 102 total), while critical to the IAF, were only the equivalent of less than two months production out of the Fort Worth factory.
The replacement of human resources, specifically aircrew, will be determined by a combination of the resources allocated to training (rather than fighting), and the desired quality of the resulting product. Given our resource-constrained environment, it may well be that ‘great’ is the enemy of ‘good enough’. In this context, a fifth-generation air force will need to accept that its workforce may not have not quite mastered the full spectrum of fifth-generation fighting techniques; however, it will need to employ them regardless.
A fifth-generation air force will also need to incorporate these replacements within the chosen operational approach. Concerning hardware, it will be rare that the exact aircraft lost from the inventory will be in production. With platforms potentially being fielded for decades, it is to be expected that subsequent variants will be produced, or entirely new platforms created in the decades following acquisitions. As such, while a replacement platform may be found, the capabilities are unlikely to be identical to that it replaces.
More critically to the networked fifth-generation force, it is unlikely that replacement assets will be fitted with the exquisitely detailed set of combat data and information exchange systems specified as part of the fifth-generation force structure. This will particularly be the case if the preferred supplier of our platforms is otherwise occupied. Returning to the example of No. 77 Squadron, when the Mustang was determined to be unsuitable for the Korean conflict, the RAAF initially sought the North American F-86 Sabre from the United States, however, as production was already committed to US customers, the British Meteor was chosen instead. While this aircraft was first flown in 1944 and was far from the cutting edge of technology, the war marched on, and Australia could not wait until it was ready to fight on its terms.
While the aim of the technologically and professionally-advanced fifth-generation force is admirable, planning and foresight cannot overcome the uncertain nature of war, precisely the inevitability of loss. At its heart, a fifth-generation force requires flexibility to adapt to any environment. In this context, the squadron must become less of an exquisite implementation tool, and more a delivery mechanism through which aircraft and aircrew are ground against the enemy at the point of friction. In such a situation, ‘good enough’ may quickly become the new normal.
Rex Harrison is an Air Combat Officer in Royal Australian Air Force officer. He can be found on Twitter at @spacecadetrex. The views expressed are the author’s and do not reflect the official position of the Royal Australian Air Force, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.
Header Image: An Israeli Air Force F-4E Phantom II at Tel Nof, c. 2013. This type of aircraft was used by the IAF during the Yom Kippur War. (Source: Wikimedia)