Blue Sky thinking
NATO’s JAPCC imagines the future airpower battlespace
By Gareth Jennings
The following article has been published in Jane’s Defence Weekly on 30 May 2019.
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NATO think-tank charged with developing for the alliance innovative concepts and solutions for the effective management of the air and space domains. Gareth Jennings reports
Located at Kalkar in northern Germany, the Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC) is the oldest of NATO’s 25 Centres of Excellence (CoEs) that are based on memorandums of understanding (MOUs) signed between the member countries (16 countries in the case of the JAPCC). Although many other CoEs are narrowly focused, the JAPCC provides NATO with ‘bigpicture’ thought and analysis across the broad spectrum of the air and space domains.
Speaking to Jane’s in mid-March, many of the JAPCC’s commanders and subject matter experts (SMEs) highlighted the centre’s continuing role in imagining the future battlespace, which is shifting away from the counterinsurgency (COIN) operations of the recent past to encompass challenges from violent extremism and peer-level adversaries.
The director of the JAPCC at the time of writing was US Air Force (USAF) General Tod D Wolters, although, having been elevated to the post of being NATO’s 19th Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) on 3 May, Gen Wolters has since been replaced by USAF General Jeffrey L Harrigian. Gen Wolters’ senior JAPCC leadership team comprised German Air Force (Luftwaffe) Lieutenant General Klaus Habersetzer, serving as executive director; Italian Air Force (Aeronautica Militare Italiana) Brigadier General Giuseppe Sgamba, serving as assistant director; and USAF Colonel Brad A Bredenkamp, serving as chief of staff (CoS).
Under the senior leadership team sit the chiefs of the JAPCC’s four branches: Assessment, Coordination, and Engagement (ACE); Combat Air; Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Space (C4ISR&S); and Air Operations Support. The JAPCC asked that the branch chiefs and SMEs not be identified.
As its name indicates, ACE continuously assesses if the JAPCC’s current programme of work is still in line with the alliance’s strategic guidelines and co-ordinates engagement with the public and other military organisations through hosted activities such as seminars, panels, and conferences, as well as through publications such as studies, reports, journals, articles, and a publicly accessible website. It also supports NATO exercises through scenario development, scripting, and execution.
including surface-based air and missile defence (SBAMD) and integrated air and missile defence (IAMD). During 2016–17 this branch made substantial contributions to NATO’s first Joint Air Power Strategy (JAPS), which laid out the current and future security environment in which allied air arms are likely to operate. The JAPS encompassed all aspects of NATO air operations, including doctrine; organisation; training; materiel, including infrastructure and logistics; leadership; personnel; facilities; interoperability; command and control (C2); and strategic communications. The strategy outlined how each of these facets tied in to the alliance’s three core tasks of collective defence, crisis management, and co-operative security now and in the future.
The remit of C4ISR&S includes airborne C2, air operations, space support, cyber operations, and joint ISR. It is the custodian of the NATO Allied Joint Doctrine document AJP 3.3 – Allied Joint Doctrine for Air and Space Operations. As noted by this document, “Space support to operations includes all activities that provide capabilities through space to support NATO operations.”
Moreover, it pointed out, “Space is congested, contested, and competitive. Freedom to act in the space domain and employ space capabilities is crucial to the outcome of conflicts.”
The fourth branch, Air Operations Support, is concerned with the projection of forces, force protection, and support activities. This branch includes air mobility (air-to-air refuelling and air transport), support for rotary-wing operations (joint personnel recovery and special air operations), force protection, and logistics, which are vital for NATO operations.
The head of the ACE branch explained to Jane’s that the JAPCC is focused on delivering effective solutions through independent thought and analysis to decision-makers such as those at NATO headquarters and its subordinate commands of NATO Allied Command Transformation (ACT) and Allied Command Operations (ACO), as well as to the 29 alliance members.
“The focus areas for our SMEs are continually revised based on the political situation and guidance,” the ACE branch head noted. After an extended focus on the COIN operations of Afghanistan during the 2000s and early 2010s, the current focus areas were formulated after the NATO Wales Summit in 2014 and then revised following the alliance’s Warsaw Summit in 2016. “We are now reviewing again after Brussels 2018, and will do again with the political guidance 2019,” the branch head said, noting that the areas of focus are not likely to change too dramatically. “NATO is back in the business of collective defence and is less focused on out-of-area operations. We are more ‘high-end’ now and no longer COIN,” he said, adding that the JAPCC’s role in helping to deliver this capability is to “provide a stage for anyone in NATO who has something to share to optimise NATO’s capabilities in the air and space domain”.
The heads of the four branches are supported in their work by teams of SMEs that are drawn from the air, land, and maritime components of the 16 MOU countries, who provide collaborative research into areas in which JAPCC assistance has been requested. These requests for support (RFSs) can be submitted online by any person or organisation and are first assessed by the JAPCC as to their merit and whether they fall within the centre’s remit.
In terms of the JAPCC’s 13 focus areas and their subsets, Jane’s was briefed by the SMEs on the work going on for cyber operations, unmanned systems, exercise support, space support, maritime air, air transport, rotary-wing operations, and air-to-air refuelling (AAR).
One of the JAPCC’s cyber SMEs explained to Jane’s that his role was initially to explore the role of cyber operations as they relate to air power but that it has since expanded to look at the domain more generally. “[I look at] the complete joint operational area; there are no boundaries,” he said. An important aspect of his role is to simulate opposing forces (OPFOR) in NATO exercises, targeting alliance C2 structures with simulated cyber attacks. “I play ‘red forces’ to challenge joint force commanders and staff,” he explained, noting that because NATO is a defensive alliance his efforts are focused on issues related to repelling cyber attacks rather than launching them.
As part of his work he has issued a recommendation that NATO air forces be given access to the effects that offensive cyber warfare can achieve, while a ‘vision and mission’ statement for the development of the cybersphere as an operational domain in its own right has also been released.
Meanwhile, the unmanned aerial systems SME explained that his focus area has produced a number of papers dating back to 2012, each exploring a particular aspect of unmanned operations. The first looked at the issue of autonomy, with follow-on reports dealing with operations in contested environments; multinational operations; and future technologies. The current paper to be released later this year focuses on maritime unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) and is being generated in response to a direct request from NATO Maritime Command.
Speaking about the 2014 report entitled ‘Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems in Contested Environments’, the UAS expert said, “With the Afghan war coming to an end, we all thought, ‘Now what do we do with all these UASs that we can’t use in a real war?’ Then Russia annexed Crimea, and so we looked at all the components of a UAS [aircraft, ground control stations, personnel] and made a matrix of vulnerabilities. This led to hundreds of recommendations to improve their survival.”
Next, the exercise support expert explained that he assists with the alliance’s command post (CP)-level exercises. As well as helping to script scenarios, the team acts as OPFOR Air during the exercise. The JAPCC’s total annual commitment to this role comprises approximately 600 mandays of effort. “We have supported a lot of exercises and there have been a lot of lessons learnt,” he said, noting that this support had given his team a lot of knowledge of allied and non-allied tactics, techniques, and procedures (TTPs). “Exercise support is not a one-way street,” he added.
Two of the subject experts for space noted that, although no NATO operation can take place without this domain being involved, the alliance itself owns no assets. As such, space is not yet considered a fully fledged domain within NATO, but work is ongoing to address this. “The NATO Brussels Summit in 2018 committed to delivering an overarching space policy,” one of the experts said, noting a five-year action plan that began in 2017 and will run until 2021. “This [plan] will develop a framework for NATO space policy,” he explained.
In terms of exercise support in the field of space the SMEs described 2016 to 2018 as being “transformational” years, while this year marks the beginning of its full integration into NATO exercise scenarios. Future exercises in the Trident series will all include major space components, he said, adding that the AJP 3.3 document is being rewritten to include space.
The maritime air SME told Jane’s that his domain is a subset of the combat air branch and includes fixed- and rotary-wing carrier- and land-based maritime aircraft. One of the domain’s current focus areas is opening up the potential synergies of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), land- and sea-based variants of which are entering service in large numbers with several NATO air arms.
“The F-35 will be flying from a lot of ships and a lot of land bases, and there is a lot of potential there for interoperability in terms of operations and maintenance,” he noted. Beyond interoperability among F-35 users, the maritime air expert noted that the JAPCC is also engaged in increasing operability between fifth-generation aircraft and the older fourth-generation aircraft they will serve alongside for decades to come. “This work is at the macro-level right now,” he said,“but concepts of operations [CONOPs] are being developed. There are confidentiality issues around the F-35 and the JAPCC is uniquely placed to work around those.”
Meanwhile, the SME for air mobility noted the JAPCC’s ongoing co-operation in the field with the European Defence Agency (EDA), the European Air Transport Command (EATC), and the European Tactical Airlift Centre (ETAC). “We are trying to synchronise and standardise the European entities with the NATO ones, in terms of their publications and procedures,” the SME explained. This work, he said, is ongoing, but one of the Air Transport Allied Tactical Publications is expected to be updated with new mechanisms for countries to share information about how they conduct airdrop operations by May or June this year.
One of the JAPCC’s rotary-wing SMEs represents the Rotary-Wing Focus Group (RWFG) and noted that, while it does not produce any deliverables itself, it helps others with theirs. An in-house subset of the Combat Air Branch and Air Operations Support Branch, the RWFG looks at tangible and conceptual rotary-wing capabilities, covering present technologies and future ones to beyond 2035.
The final focus area on which Jane’s was briefed was AAR, during which the relevant SME highlighted work the JAPCC has done and continues to do to improve AAR interoperability across NATO and non-NATO countries. “Few nations have tankers, but lots have receivers,” she noted, adding that “AAR international clearances allow nations to operate together”.
A major product of the JAPCC’s efforts in this regard is the construction of an online matrix that not only lists the tankers and receiver aircraft that countries operate, but also notes nationally declared technical and operational compatibility to offload/receive fuel. For example, a Turkish KC-135 Stratotanker might be technically able to refuel F-15 combat aircraft in general, but may not be specifically compatible with or operationally cleared to refuel a Japanese F-15. Declared national caveats are listed in the matrix, resulting in a ‘one-stop shop’ for aerial refuelling operations across NATO and beyond. “We know it is now being used by many nations,” the expert said, adding that the matrix currently lists assets from 43 countries and is just one of many tools that enable the alliance and its partners to conduct AAR operations around the globe.
The JAPCC AAR office has also been an integral part of the effort to align NATO and EU air refuelling programmes of work. Through formal and informal interactions the two organisations have aligned their three AAR work strands, which include increasing AAR capacity through more acquisitions in the multinational multirole tanker transport fleet and optimising existing assets through initiatives such as procuring additional wingtip refuelling pods for the Airbus A400M transport aircraft. The JAPCC contributes most heavily to the third work strand: increasing capability through improving international clearance processes and procedures. The JAPCC is also encouraging countries to standardise unmanned autonomous/automated AAR operations and equipment before divergent development programmes create barriers to interoperability.
Through these and the other focus areas, including logistics, joint ISR, air C2, air and missile defence, and interoperability, the JAPCC is striving to better fulfil its mission statement to provide decision-makers with effective solutions for air and space power challenges and, in doing so, to safeguard NATO interests.
Although not as tangible or obvious as a squadron of fighter aircraft or a fleet of bombers, in terms of its output and contribution to the alliance the JAPCC is a NATO capability in its own right and its value should not be underestimated. With ever-stretched budgets and competing priorities, however, this is precisely what is happening.
When the JAPCC was set up it was decided that it should sit outside of the NATO command structure so as to preserve and promote its independence of thought. Unfortunately, in being on the outside of NATO, alliance members often consider the JAPCC to be an easy target for personnel cuts that save them money while not damaging (on paper at least) their national contributions to the alliance.
As explained to Jane’s , the JAPCC currently has only 33 of its 58 SME posts filled. This shortfall is felt right across the JAPCC’s spectrum of work, with ISR and air battle management each being one expert short; unmanned two experts short; exercise support one expert short (although there should be a further two to support the workload); and anti-submarine warfare, missile defence, electronic warfare, and air mobility all one SME short. Of the areas on which Jane’s was briefed, only space and the RWFG are currently fully manned.
This shortfall is due largely to resource constraints imposed by recent financial crises in many countries, although it is being exacerbated by ongoing NATO restructuring work, which is drawing manpower away and leaving the JAPCC and the other CoEs exposed. Unfortunately for the centre, this restructuring is likely to be an ongoing process.
It should be noted that, although many countries have air warfare centres, they are normally focused on national issues, whereas only the JAPCC brings the issues together at an alliance level. There is a very real danger that, with the draining of resources to service other priorities, the JAPCC and other CoEs may suffer, resulting in NATO ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water’. Once this kind of strategic thinking capability is lost, it will be hard to recapture, with the consequent effects being felt throughout the alliance.