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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2016

Are We as an Alliance Prepared to Operate in a Degraded Environment?

By Lieutenant General Joachim Wundrak, DEU AF

Since we have been involved in Afghanistan, we have unintentionally let certain aspects of our overall mission capability degrade as we’ve focussed on developing those skillsets we needed to be successful in that environment. Specifically, I do not think NATO is training as hard as we used to for situations that will require us as Airmen to be flexible and innovative to counter the challenges of a near-peer ­adversary.
When the JAPCC team briefed me about the topic for the upcoming Air and Space Power Conference, I was very supportive of the proposal. If we do not address our ability to operate in degraded environments through equipment procurement and by training at the most realistic levels we can manage, we may find future conflicts do not end favourably for our way of life.

You could ask why are we addressing preparing for degraded environments instead of contested environments or why not look more specifically at the concept of preparing to defeat an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) environment. While both these are essential conversations, from my perspective, A2/AD is a subset of contested, which itself is a subset of degraded. So, an environment could be degraded as a result of an adversary contesting that environment. That adversary could use an A2/AD strategy to contest the environment. The use of degraded as opposed to contested opens the discussion to situations potentially caused by a wide variety of factors, not just those caused by enemy actions. However, as a senior NATO air commander, I am personally focussed on the impact that A2/AD might have on our ability to operate and think we need to pay particular attention to the A2/AD challenge.

The term A2/AD itself is relatively recent, but the concept of controlling ­access to a battlespace or controlling an enemy’s freedom of movement within battlespaces is as old as human warfare. I won’t go into a long history of A2/AD here, but I do want to briefly address why today’s A2/AD is not what our predecessors dealt with. From an air perspective, the modern A2/AD area is built on the foundation of an Integrated Air Defence System, or IADS, and uses associated systems to extend their range. Modern IADS have ranges in the hundreds of miles and are ­supplemented by long-range surface-to-surface weapons and non-­traditional weapons (such as cyber-attack) that can reach well beyond this distance. Thus, the adversary now has the ability to hold at risk our assets deep inside our territory without ever leaving their territory. This is Regional A2/AD, or A2/RD – an ability to deny access and control action across an entire region, which is a greater problem by several ­orders of magnitude.

What concerns me about A2/RD is that we may not have superior ­technology available to us – stealth and precision weapons may not be enough, even when coupled with the most modern TTPs we can employ. The A2/RD ‘bubble’ is so large that our current long-range weapons are simply not long-range enough or are too easily defeated by modern ­systems. Of particular note, the threat is not static – it is persistently adapting to match our capabilities. We cannot remain complacent and assume that our capabilities will remain effective against the changing threat. ­Regional A2/RD is here to stay and, as those charged with the collective security of our Alliance, we must be ready to counter its effects.

What is the way forward for the Alliance? How do we ensure we are ready to counter the effects of A2/RD? We must start now to prepare to operate in an environment that features A2/RD as the centrepiece of our adversary’s posture. Preparation, in my mind, has two key facets – personnel and equipment. Of course, these two are intrinsically linked – you must have the right equipment for the personnel to use and they must be capable of using that equipment to create the desired effects.

At the core of the problem is NATO’s failure to continue to develop and ­acquire the technology required to counter modern IADS and related ­systems. Of course, industry is primarily charged with the development of such systems, but we as NATO’s militaries have not asked them to give us solutions to this problem in recent years. Without a demand signal, industry will not invest in the necessary systems development. Without investment in research and development, the technologies we need will not be available to us. Of course, the question then becomes ‘What technologies will defeat the A2/RD systems?’ However, there are many other questions that must be addressed: Manned or unmanned platforms? Cyber or real-world weapons? Large numbers or highly technological? Or a combination of the two and, if so, in what ratio? How do we handle increasing levels of automation in weapons systems? How do we make systems resilient?

The other side of preparation is the personnel. I believe that we in NATO have the most capable and motivated airmen in the world. Given the proper equipment, resources, and sufficient training, they will not let us down. It goes beyond buying the enough of the right equipment – our personnel need to have the right kinds of training to be effective with that equipment. The questions that have to be answered in terms of
personnel are also significant: How many personnel and in what kinds of ­organisations? What ration of combat versus support forces? Whose responsibility is supporting deployed forces in the event of a conflict? How much live versus how much virtual training? How much training versus how much exercising? How do we make personnel resilient?

Of course, some of the questions I have raised here are not specific to the A2/RD environment but they are all questions that must be answered if we are to succeed in countering the A2/RD threat. As NATO’s air leaders, we must debate these and other questions and determine what the right answers are to ensure our collective security while facing an A2/RD world. I don’t even know all the right questions, but I know if we don’t take the opportunity this 2016 JAPCC Conference brings to start this conversation, we may not be ready when the moment comes.