The Future of Air Power and the Future of European Defence Industry

By Prof. Dr.

By Dr.

 Holger H.


, GE

Vice President, Advanced Concepts, Airbus Defence and Space

 September 2020
Warfare Domains: Air Operations


The JAPCC turns 15 – fifteen years dedicated to competence in air power! Unlike sea and land power, both of which also represent geostrategic terms, air power is much less related to the ‘classical’ notion of ‘geography’. For instance, being geographically distant from a crisis does not mean too much in terms of security for a country, just like buffer zones do not offer security for one’s own troops, if an enemy decides to use air power. Air power allows the overcoming of the space-time factor in military operations. In its most extreme forms, such as ballistic and hypersonic missiles, it is ideal for a surprise attack. When combined with nuclear weapons, it becomes ‘strategic’, as it can directly affect an opponent’s will by making the perceived risk appear unacceptable. At the same time, it represents the bedrock of deterrence and, hence, war prevention. Of course, air power’s limitations are also obvious: air power cannot conquer countries and hold territories and, the flip-side being, it cannot shape any post-war political order. There is little, if any, evidence that air power alone wins wars. But without air power, wars can be easily lost.

If one has to characterize air power in one single word, it is probably ‘access’: access to territory (e.g. the 1948/49 air bridge to Berlin to overcome the Soviets’ blockade), access to targets, access to information and access to space. Of course, air power – and one should also add space power – consist of many elements covering many roles: it provides the air picture (intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition), it ensures command & control and communication, it controls the air space (air policing, air superiority, air dominance, no-fly zone enforcement), it conducts integrated air to ground operations (close air support), it provides the bulk of a deterrent force and it enables mobility (strategic, operational, tactical). Air power can quickly shift roles (swing-role) by moving from defence to offence and vice-versa as well as from operations at the strategic, operational, and tactical level. It is a rapid way to influence the behaviour of people or the course of events.

Joint Air Power

This is why the air power role is predominantly joint rather than stand-alone. Strategic air power remains important for dealing with peer competitors, but in the context of many other scenarios it is about enabling and supporting ground troops. At the end of the day, most decisions will be based on the ground situation. It would be a mistake, however, to underestimate the role of air power in the context of ground operations. Hence, the point of some army officers, that all those expensive air assets eat up all resources for the army and there is nothing left to adequately equip the ground forces is somewhat misleading. Investing into air power is actually investing into ground forces’ capabilities.

Airlift – strategic, operational, and tactical – does get some of the ground forces, at least those which are relevant in early operations, where they are required. Once deployed in-theatre, ground forces need situational awareness and communication. All of this comes from above!

Ground forces also want to avoid being bombed by enemy’s air forces. Hence, air cover is required. One wants to ensure that the adversary’s air forces remain grounded. Air defence includes offensive counter-air operations which will play a significant role in this context. Even though some ground-based air defences are organically integrated into the ground forces, the bulk of air defences will be provided by air forces possessing the full spectrum of air power.

During the Cold War, air superiority in Central Europe focused on defending own territories in case deterrence failed. Today, it is also about achieving air dominance outside of own territories. One needs to own the skies no matter where ground forces are de- and employed. The adversary must have a de facto no-fly zone imposed upon him.

Deployed ground forces require logistical support. ‘Precision air-drop’ and ‘point-of-use delivery’ are rather new ways of doing so. The containers are precisely dropped behind the Forward Line of Own Troops (FLOT), the combat zone or the assembly area. Self-destruction is possible in the advent of such containers falling into enemy hands. While it might seem appropriate for ground forces to bring heavy armour and artillery, the political decision-makers might favour a lighter footprint. If so, where would the fire support come from if needed? It will come from above! Close or not so close air support, perhaps in combination with forward air controllers, will play an essential role. When wounded, Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) helicopters will take soldiers out of the combat zone. Those in a critical state will be bought home thanks to Medical Evacuation aircraft (MedEvac). Hence relief will also come from above!

Air power is the key to supporting ground forces and, hence, should be seen by the army as part of its capability to conduct successful ground operations. Not only does air power support ground forces, it also works the other way around: Ground troops force adversaries to leave their hidden positions thus turning them into targets for ground and air forces. This is at the core of joint operations.

The Constant Challenge

However, air power is constantly being challenged. Whilst air forces might claim that they can destroy any target on the ground, ground forces (or air defenders for that matter) argue that they can shoot down anything which flies. In a sense, both are right. The offence/defence dynamics and the measure/counter-measure competition will always continue, and modern technology will make both ground forces and air forces better and better (as well as naval and space forces and cyber warfare), but also more vulnerable. One cannot escape this dynamic, since technology development is, despite all differences, a bit like biological evolution. Any offensive capability will lead to the development of better defensive one which will in turn induce new developments on the offensive side. To meet this challenge is as easy as it is difficult: One simply has to be better than the other side.

So, what does the future of air power look like? Stealth will be countered by new sensor technologies, speed will be countered by directed energy weapons, and there will be, at the same time, new ways and means to overcome, fool or destroy the defensive systems. Electronic warfare will play a key role on both sides. Allowing friendly forces to suppress (or destroy) enemy air defences but also supporting an adversary in protecting his own defensive assets and attacking the attacking air forces. Future combat air systems will leverage the collaborative capabilities of connected multi-role manned and unmanned platforms, bringing the next level of air power to increasingly denied environments.

Within such systems of systems, platforms will operate as nodes networked together but also capable of operating on a standalone basis. Within such decentralized, autonomously operating systems, nodes will act as sensors, processors and/or shooters with some dedicated battle managers. Distributing such capabilities across nodes will provide better, faster and more resilient kill paths, the key to survivability and mission success. Air operations might look a bit like submarine operations: completely invisible and silent. Platforms need to operate in radio silence, use passive radar and optronics as well as inertial guidance to avoid detection and dependency on manipulated external navigation data. Teaming manned and unmanned platforms will provide new fields of tactics allowing the combined air packages to seize the initiative against any adversary, by surprising, deceiving, deterring and saturating them.

Red teaming should be part of any development programme in order to anticipate future potential threats and design a force that can deal with technological uncertainties. One must stop planning based on the assumption that the opponent will be incompetent, cooperative or both. To the contrary: The opponent might be very skilled, creative, and nasty. The result of our planning should be insensitive to huge assumption variations. In any case, the technological competition will continue – and require continuous improvement and investments. Technological superiority of today is the standard of tomorrow. Anything planned today, will have to be designed in an evolutionary fashion. Adopting modular open approaches will provide the flexibility and speed to include newer sensing/processing/effect generating technologies to meet future threats.

The Industrial Base

All this requires a strong military Research and Technology (R&T) and industrial base. Of course, this base does not necessarily have to be in one’s own country. However, this makes oneself dependent on partners who may one day not be able or willing to deliver arms and equipment. For many European countries, buying United States (US) weapon systems and military equipment is an attractive proposal. Usually the price looks comparatively good, often the systems are available while European industry lags behind, and, since the US is the most important ally for most European countries, dependencies seem to be an acceptable trade-off. Also, licence production and transatlantic cooperative programmes are one way to ensure that taxpayer’s money will, at least partially, remain within the buyer’s homeland.

Before looking into the question of sovereignty, autonomy, and competencies, one needs to understand the European arms industry’s situation in comparison to the US one. The US has a gigantic defence budget and a much bigger military Research and Development (R&D) budget than all European NATO members combined. The US Armed Forces buy American systems and equipment in huge numbers, whilst exporting ‘downgraded’ versions combined with close security cooperation and, in some cases, even security guarantees that Europe cannot, or at least not credibly, offer. European industry simply cannot easily compete under these circumstances, in particular if one thinks in terms of unit cost. To do so, Europe needs to significantly increase its defence spending.

Political declarations like the demand for ‘European sovereignty’ or ‘European autonomy’ or statements like ‘Now it’s time for Europe to take its fate into its own hands’ are rarely followed by significant increases of defence budgets. Then how can European defence industry be competitive in light of the US challenge? There are simply three good ways for European governments to ensure that industry stays in business: (1) provide contracts, (2) provide contracts, and (3) provide contracts. And one should add: lucrative contracts.

During the Cold War, doing defence business was easier for the European industry. The German defence budget, for instance, averaged around 3.4% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) during the ‘decade of détente’ (i.e. the 1970s). This did not destroy the German democracy and did not put the social welfare state at risk. And the investment part of the defence budget was around 30%, while today, Germany has a hard time to go beyond 20%. All this does not fit well with the declared political objectives and with Europe’s interest to be an important player on the world stage.

The position of many European Air Forces, given the budget constraints, is understandable. If the budget is limited, the armed forces want to buy readily available combat power and capabilities rather than to wait for a long-term development programme to materialize. Buying what is military off-the-shelf or available in the very foreseeable future seems attractive. One can always benefit from lower unit costs because of the impressively high production runs of US programmes. However, one can buy cheap and nevertheless end up paying a lot. Call it the ‘coffee machine model’ or the ‘printer model’: You are not paying for the machine, you are paying for the consumables. If one does not buy all the new software upgrades for lots of money one can simply expect the fleet to become less capable and even grounded after a while. Continuous investments into improvements need to be done anyway, but the question is who is in control and who benefits financially.

All NATO states benefit from a powerful United States, and a strong US Air Force, no doubt about it. But competition in the best market economic sense of the word makes everyone stronger if supported by adequate budgets. The political objective of many European states is clear: Europe should be a player in the world not leaving it to the US alone to counterbalance Russia and China. This means that the US taxpayer should not pay more for the defence of Europe than the Europeans themselves. When so many nations, such as Russia, China and India for instance, are either strengthening their defence and military aircraft industries or building up new capabilities, Europeans should not take the presumably, but falsely, comfortable position on paying for social welfare and leaving it to the US to defend them.

Europe can compete, and cooperate, with the US and strengthen its position as a world power if it wants to. In the 1960s, nobody would have thought that Airbus could ever compete with Boeing in commercial aircraft. Today these two great companies are at eye level. In the military sector, however, European companies are far from operating on a level playing field with the US. In terms of competitiveness but also in terms of being a competent cooperation partner, Europe needs to strengthen both its defence as well as its defence-related R&D spending and industrial base.


The future of air power is largely determined by the political determination to continue to invest into modern air forces. Technologically speaking, the offence/defence dynamics and the measure/counter-measure competition cannot be stopped. It’s a bit like evolution: A virus is infectious, one develops a vaccine, and a year later (or much earlier) a mutation undermines the immune system, and the competitive game re-starts. Military competition is an expression of political will. A competitive European arms industry is the expression of Europe’s willingness to control its own destiny. This is why Europe must stay in the competitive market for modern air power.

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Prof. Dr.
 Holger H.
Vice President, Advanced Concepts, Airbus Defence and Space

Prof Dr Holger H. Mey is Vice President, Advanced Concepts, Airbus Defence and Space, Munich, Germany, and Honorary Professor for Foreign Policy at the University of Cologne, Germany. Until June 2004, Dr Mey worked as a security policy analyst, TV and radio commentator, publisher, and lecturer. From 1986 to 1990, he was a Research Associate at the Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, then in Ebenhausen, Germany. From 1990 to 1992, he served as a Security Policy Analyst on the Policy Planning Staff of the German Minister of Defense. From 1992 to 1994, he became the Security Policy Advisor to the Chairman, Defense Committee, German Parliament.

Dr Mey published more than 150 articles and a number of books, including ‘Deutsche Sicherheitspolitik 2030’, Frankfurt: Report Verlag, 2001 (English version: ‘German Security Policy in the 21st Century’, New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2004).

Information provided is current as of September 2020

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