The Nightmare Scenario – The Near Future
Social media explodes with overnight reports of ‘Little Green Men’1 swarming through majority Russian speaking regions that had declared autonomy the day prior in Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. Ground reports indicate large numbers of Russian transport aircraft landed at airfields in those rebel held areas. SA-212 Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites in Kaliningrad and Belarus are actively transmitting along with a number of SA-20s in both countries. Fighter air activity in Kaliningrad and Russian Baltic Fleet sorties are well above normal. Two of the three Kaliningrad infantry brigades moved out of garrison overnight and satellite imagery last saw them en route to the ‘Suwalki Gap’.3 The Kremlin and Moscow vigorously deny there are any Russian troops on the ground in the Baltics and claim any increase in air or naval activity in the region is simply the result of a minor, five-day exercise. The Baltic States ask for immediate consultations with other NATO nations with the intent of invoking NATO’s collective defence clause.4 Planners throughout NATO immediately recognize Russia is severing Western access to the Baltic States by activating an anti-access / area denial (A2/AD) environment over the region. This is going to be a nasty fight.
This scenario and ones like it have played out in various exercises over the last few years and illustrate how an A2 /AD environment affects air operations. This paper is the result of personal observations during several exercises and discussions with training experts in NATO member countries. The focus of this article is how an A2/AD environment drives air operations to a peer-on-peer fight, which becomes intolerant of errors in planning, sequencing, and execution. There are many A2/AD considerations for the other components, but they will not be covered in this article unless they touch on joint employment.
Lessons Learned From the Cold War
During the Cold War, NATO assumed any hostilities with the Warsaw pact would be violent, short, and costly in personnel and equipment. A primary operational objective for both sides was to achieve the upper hand in the air battle, even though neither side was expected to rapidly achieve air superiority. The most efficient way to do that was to attack your opponent’s bases, hindering their ability to generate sorties and providing the attacking force with immediate local air superiority.5 Runway cratering would hold aircraft on the deck at that base or cause those already airborne to divert to other bases. A longer term impact was gained by destroying aircraft on the ground, which was difficult due to airfield dispersal and hardened revetments. Any damage to your opponent’s fuel and weapons stocks affected all aircraft at that base and were particularly valuable targets. Both sides’ targeteers considered the other’s air bases to be High Payoff Targets (HPT)6 even if they didn’t use that term at the time.
Conducting air operations under fire was a major part of NATO defensive planning, which included Ground Based Air Defence (GBAD) to protect the airfield, rapid airfield repair, hardened aircraft bunkers, support and sustainment redundancy along with Camouflage, Concealment and Deception (CC&D) of critical equipment.
The Golden Age of Air Power
The fall of the Berlin Wall and the ostentatious display of air dominance during OPERATION DESERT STORM in 1991 ushered in a new way of fighting wars, which was to rapidly roll back the enemy’s Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) to achieve air dominance over the battle space and attack targets at a time and place of your choosing. As a concept, this went away from the Cold War doctrine of Air-Land Battle, which was a simultaneous ground and air force blitz attack against Warsaw Pact forces, and shifted to a sequential affair with the achievement of air supremacy first, followed by the land maneuver forces invading once the enemy had been bombed into combat ineffectiveness. This concept worked well twice in Iraq against an inept opponent, but less so in Kosovo against a smart Serbian adversary who was adept at using CC&D along with mobile SAM hide, shoot and scoot tactics. NATO air operations in Afghanistan and Libya were largely permissive in nature other than the threat from man portable air defence systems (MANPADS), which are a persistent threat to helicopters and aircraft operating at low altitudes.
There are three notable impacts to air operations that have come from the West’s ability to achieve rapid air dominance:
1. Rise of the Machines. The use of Unmanned Air Systems (UAS) has grown rapidly over the last 20 years. They are cheaper to operate than manned fighters and do not carry the political risk of a prisoner of war should they crash in enemy territory. Since these systems are operating in a permissive environment, it has been fairly cheap and easy to design the current crop of UAS. Incorporating Low Observability (LO) or stealth for a contested environment greatly increases the cost and development time of airframes, and recent conflicts have not highlighted this capability as an operational requirement.7
2. Mandating ‘Certainty’. A permissive air environment has driven changes to planning, intelligence gathering, Rules of Engagement (ROE) and targeting in an effort to remove uncertainty. Simply put, the unfettered ability of UAS to loiter over enemy territory has made it possible for political and military leadership to mandate increasingly higher levels of confidence before acting. Targeting, in particular, has had layers of process and restrictions placed on target development and servicing in an attempt to reduce unintended civilian casualties. Many of these processes require a significant amount of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) collection time prior to attack, which is possible in a threat free environment, but might not be possible in one that is contested.
3. Efficiency of Force Concentration. It has been more efficient (and cheaper) to concentrate air forces, especially the big wing aircraft (tankers, AWACS and other enabling platforms) at a few air bases since they become free from air attack once air supremacy is established. This concentration of force, while easier to direct and sustain, has become an irresistible target for an aggressive adversary with a long range, precision strike capability.
The Push Back
Potential adversaries have been paying attention to how the West fights wars. They have chosen to develop capabilities that directly exploit Western weaknesses in an asymmetric way, by pitting strength (theirs) against weakness (ours). Russian SAM system designers took note of how effective the low observable F-117 was during OPERATION DESERT STORM and rushed to counter that.8 Countries with coastlines have established anti-access corridors along their economic exclusion zones with anti-ship missiles and diesel submarine patrols. These developments have major implications for NATO power projection in general and air power in particular.
Why A2/AD is so Disruptive
NATO has not planned to face a peer opponent since the collapse of the Soviet Union, but it cannot be dismissed as ‘unlikely’ given the current world situation. During the last few years, scenarios like the one in the introduction have featured peer versus peer air challenges, which have revealed several operational issues:
1. ‘Certainty’ is removed. Current UAS cannot survive in a modern SAM Missile Engagement Zone (MEZ) and are sitting ducks against fighters because they are slow, not stealthy, and have no self-protection capability. Targeteers will not be able to assess patterns of life and evaluate target importance through a long-term ISR soak, and commanders will have to accept the potential for higher collateral damage, since they will have less information on the target. This will require changes to the ROE along with relaxed approvals in the targeting evaluation process.9 LO UAS are a potential solution, but few nations have these silver bullets since they are more expensive to build and operate than conventional UAS and the countries that do have them only have a few.10 With new LO UAS developmental timelines going into the 2030s11 this loss of certainty will be a long-term challenge so it would be prudent to re-evaluate ROE and targeting so operations can continue with less target information. Platforms that can deliver persistent ISR coverage in a contested environment, while few in number, should be identified during operational planning and asked for in the force generation process.
2. Target development and sequencing become critically important. Rapidly achieving air dominance in a relatively benign air environment makes errors in target selection and sequencing unnoticeable since the enemy cannot capitalize on those errors. In a robust A2/AD environment, it may not be possible for Alliance forces to strike deeply or broadly in the early stages of the air campaign. Target selection and sequencing should be focused on creating freedom of movement inside a portion of the enemy’s A2/AD coverage to be further exploited. Errors in sequencing and selection against a peer air force can be catastrophic, since friendly forces may be under a much greater threat than assessed or prepared for (which has played out in many recent exercises with enemy barracks and communications facilities being struck before early warning systems, modern SAMS or airfields). Incorporating targeteers into the early stages of the operational planning process and plan development can better help sequence the desired flow of effects to achieve operational objectives.
3. Finding and killing modern A2/AD SAM systems with current NATO sensors and bombs is the equivalent of jousting blindfolded with a toothpick. If NATO were to go to war tomorrow, it would do so with a predominantly 4th generation air force. This force was designed in the 1970s, 80s and early 90s to counter MiG-29s and SA-6s but is now showing its age when compared against modern equipment. In particular, recent advances in Russian and Chinese SAM systems now strongly challenge friendly air forces. The development of SAMs with multi-band, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars coupled with passive receivers have greatly increased those systems’ capabilities against LO aircraft and cruise missiles.12 When tied to MEZ ranges of hundreds of kilometres, such as those associated with the Russian SA-21 and Chinese HQ-9 systems, they present a formidable operational challenge. Most of the air-to-ground weapons available to a NATO air force would have to be launched well inside the missile impact range of these systems.
Thus, the ‘workhorse’ bombs that have been used so successfully for the last 20 years, such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) or laser-guided munitions, would have to be almost ‘hand delivered’ against these sites. Even the High speed Anti-Radiation Missile (HARM), which is used as a bedrock SEAD missile, has a launch range that would require an aircraft to deeply penetrate those MEZs before firing the missile. The attacking aircraft will have to either rely on stealth (plus jamming in most cases) to survive to JDAM drop range or launch a standoff missile from outside the engagement envelope (with modern systems pushing this range further out all the time). Any standoff cruise missile strike would have to rely on a volley of multiples, either LO (fewer) or conventional (a lot) to saturate and overwhelm the targeted system. Either way, it would be an expensive endeavour, with most standoff missiles costing more than $ 1 million US dollars apiece, and getting approval from the contributing nation to use them in large volleys for each SAM kill, might be difficult.13
Unfortunately, the challenge of destroying these systems is more straightforward than finding them since they are highly mobile and employ hide, shoot, and scoot tactics. The manufacturers claim a 15-minute cycle to unfold the radars and shoot with foldup and scoot probably less than that.14 When coupled with CC&D and a lack of friendly ISR persistence due to conventional UAS vulnerability, this cycle speed makes them very hard to find. ISR and EW force generation numbers will have to be much higher than in previous operations and daily apportionment will have to be closely aligned with targeting to achieve success. Additionally, long-range, standoff weapons and low observable platforms will have to be part of the Alliance’s air force in any peer vs. peer scenario to destroy these SAMs when found.
4. Jamming and cyber attacks will target the electromagnetic spectrum in a future JOA. The West relies on airborne early warning to feed information into the Command and Control (C2) system’s networked common operating picture. Therefore, disrupting EW and cyber have been given outsized importance by potential adversaries, with particular emphasis on injecting confusion into the decision cycle by disrupting friendly Situational Awareness (SA). Expect GPS jammers and airborne jamming pods to be ubiquitous within the JOA, but nothing highlights the attack on SA better than the new E-3 AWACS jammer by Kret. This ground-based system, named Krasukha-1, was unveiled during the 2015 MAKS air show near Moscow and features a 300-kW engine driving a robust generator. The Russian designers claim this system can blind the AWACS and fry the electronics on the E-3 when operating at full capacity.15 Now whether or not it can cook silicon from a distance, it can likely cause a significant delay in passing information. If friendly fighters are in the middle of intercepting bogeys with closure rates in excess of 30 nautical miles per minute, any delay in target identification or maneuvers can be disastrous. We can expect any electronic attacks to be backed up by cyber, which Russia effectively employed during the Crimean invasion and the 2008 attack on Georgia.16 All of this indicates the requirement to plan for operations in an aggressively contested EW environment.
5. Air bases are now threatened by standoff precision strike capabilities in the form of Theatre Ballistic Missiles (TBMs) and cruise missiles. NATO expeditionary basing options are usually limited due to political realities and host nation infrastructure challenges, which produce some force concentration. There is also the economy of effort that was mentioned earlier, which results in a further concentration of aircraft at few bases. Current Western air defence systems have been modernized to provide an intercept capability against an inbound TBM, however, proliferation has made the targeting challenge of several, simultaneously inbound missiles an unwelcome reality. With potential threat nations continuing to improve TBM and cruise missile precision strike capabilities, there is no longer a sanctuary from enemy air attack even if you have air superiority over your bases. This point is backed up by a recent RAND Corporation study on the vulnerability of air bases, which noted:17
- Air base attacks have been a recurring feature in the last 100 years of warfare.
- Air base defence has included CC&D, hardening, aircraft dispersal and post attack recovery.
- There will be no rear area sanctuary in the future; therefore, air bases, which our adversaries consider to be HPTs, will be threatened and we will have to incorporate this into planning and force composition.
Drawing from Cold War lessons learned, NATO should increase its focus on air base defence beyond force protection from enemy ground attacks and MANPADS, to include the continuity of operations while under fire and consequence management post-strike.
In a future conflict, which could happen as quickly as tomorrow’s headlines and look a lot like the opening scenario, we may not have the option of going to war with air superiority. We will have to consider air operations against a peer opponent wielding modern air denial technology to asymmetrically target our weaknesses. This will have wide ranging impacts, which if not planned for and trained for, can result in a failed operation and significant losses to NATO personnel and equipment. Using the Cold War past as a guide to future operations may help show the way to avoid this.