Ensuring the Availability of Capability

By Wing Commander (ret.)

By Wg Cdr



, UK


Joint Air Power Competence Centre

 September 2023

‘Invincibility lies in defence; the possibility of victory in the attack.’

Sun Tzu

There is no longer such a thing as a Rear Area, only a single Contiguous Battlespace that covers all dimensions concurrently, including the Electromagnetic Spectrum. Potential adversaries are demonstrating their willingness to break international law in pursuit of their agendas and will exploit the concept of a contiguous battlespace to do so. They will look to degrade NATO capability when and wherever possible through any means conceivable. Therefore, the challenge is to ensure NATO’s capability to create sufficient space for NATO’s political decision-making process to function, while simultaneously positioning to deliver a decisive military response if attacked.

NATO is a defensive alliance and, by definition, reactionary. Even if described as ‘responsive’, there must first be some stimuli that prompts action, that first action being diplomatic (unless attacked without warning). Therefore, we need to create time and space for diplomatic activity, through a robust deterrent posture. This posture must be capable of seamless progression to active defence before ultimately, and only if authorised, transitioning to offensive action designed to regain territory and neutralise the threat.

Ensuring the Availability of Capability (AoC) demands an understanding of the capabilities to be ensured and the surrounding environment. This setting will comprise a significant number of high-value assets operating in all dimensions; a vast electromagnetic signature; a diverse population (military and civilian), and large quantities of volatile and fragile materiel, all within a delineated, NATO-owned space. All activities must be coordinated with all operators, enablers, co-located entities and adjacent units; any of which may be coalition partners. Conceptually, this operating space may be described as the Complex All Domain Environment (CADE).1 Furthermore, any operating space of the future will be contested – The Contested, Complex All Domain Environment (CCADE).2 While this description of the NATO Air and Space Power (ASP) operating environment predominantly focuses on the airbase, the concept applies equally to the entire NATO Joint endeavour.

Consider now that NATO ASP is the Alliance’s asymmetric advantage – it is what our adversaries fear most. Here, one could offer our own doctrine and the roles of ASP (in other words, the things we are good at) as justification for this statement. However, what matters is the perception of our adversaries. As the component most likely in the vanguard of any response to aggression, Allied ASP must first be degraded for the adversary to have a chance of achieving their objectives.

At the political level, an ASP response is often the preferred response, if not the default one, because of its flexibility. Suffice to say, the use of ASP is perceived as effective and resource efficient, and, crucially, may negate the need for ’boots on the ground’ and the complexity and risk that this brings. Therefore, the question for the Alliance becomes, on the day every advantage is required, will the asymmetric advantage provided by ASP be available as anticipated, and will the freedom to use it in a manner of our choosing exist? The corollary to this perspective is that if ASP is our advantage, then by default, it is what our adversaries will seek to neutralise at the earliest possible opportunity, and certainly before the advantage can be fully employed.

Also, if NATO is to prevail in any future conflict, then it is not just ASP capability that must be ensured, but all warfighting capability, the availability of all Instruments of Power and Critical National Infrastructure. Again, any protective activity to ensure the AoC must be undertaken in a manner that maintains Alliance freedom of action. Therefore, ensuring AoC is not just an ASP endeavour, but a truly Combined, Joint and Comprehensive effort. Furthermore, NATO ASP has a significant role to play in ensuring the availability of a broad spectrum of other capabilities. There is a truly symbiotic relationship between the ability to ensure the availability of ASP and the ability of other domains to ensure the availability of their capability.

So, what do we need to ensure the availability of ASP? The exceptional capability of our platforms is routinely discussed. On occasion, how incredibly complex and expensive they are might be mentioned. The argument is made that because of the increased capability of modern platforms; there is no longer the need to procure so many. However, the unit price of these platforms is now so eye-wateringly high that the primary driver of the quantity procured is not military necessity but rather affordability. While they may be hugely capable, given that there are relatively few of them (what may be described as high-value, or even exquisite3, yet low-density), the situation now exists where the loss of one, let alone several, can have true strategic impact.

It can be argued that complexity contributes to capability, but operating complex platforms, particularly in a contested environment, brings its own significant challenges. This is not least because complexity also creates inherent fragility. This fragility comes not only from the complexity of the technology itself, but also from how current generation platforms have been designed to operate4: no longer single self-contained capability packages, but with the platform as part of a system or even a system-of-systems. Therefore, if we are to ensure the AoC, we now need to be thinking in terms of ensuring the availability of complete systems, not just individual assets.

The challenge is to ensure the availability of capabilities that have a role in ensuring the availability of a range of other capabilities. This challenge exists in the CCADE environment described above. The complexity continues to build as the concept of the contiguous battlespace is introduced, together with an adversary that will exploit all available threat vectors to pursue their objectives. Capability is contained within high-value, low-density platforms that to function need to be incorporated into wider systems; this is not just being ‘network-enabled’, but the plethora of people and materiel required to enable a platform to function as intended. Lastly, the systems discussed have been conceived during the era of ‘Wars of Choice’5 rather than in the Cold War or the current epoch. They were developed using the business management strategies of the day, where efficiency took precedence over resilience. Not only are the platforms themselves lacking in resilience but also the system(s) that enable their use.

It is offered that we do not yet, face a true peer adversary. No state has the technical superiority, the ability to sustain forces at scale, and/or at range, or sufficient mass to take and then hold ground. In a confrontation with Russia (or a similar adversary), we would undoubtedly prevail, although the cost in every respect would be astronomical. Therefore, force-on-force confrontation with a near-peer adversary is something we should continue to strive to deter and to do this, our capability and the ability to use it has to be assured. From the reciprocal perspective, our future adversaries will try to avoid open conflict, because they assume they will ultimately be defeated. Therefore, it is suggested that a future adversary will seek to substantially degrade NATO, below the threshold of open conflict in the grey space that exists between now and any future NATO declaration of Article V. This includes the possibility of the Shattering of Alliance Cohesion6 via hybrid means before there is the opportunity to decide, let alone act. The intelligence community talks a lot about ‘Indications & Warnings’, but what if there are no warnings, we miss them or indeed, ignore them?

Now bringing the pieces of the puzzle of ensuring capability together. The first step is to accept that we have a problem that needs fixing. Returning to the earlier proposition that NATO ASP is the Alliance’s asymmetric advantage, if that advantage can be mitigated, then that is what an adversary will seek to do. Also, if that adversary no longer functions in accordance with the rules-based international system and aims to exploit the concept of a contiguous battlespace, then by default, ASP becomes the target of choice at the point when an adversary perceives that confrontation with NATO is either inevitable, or becomes their chosen course of action.

‘If we lose the war in the air, we lose the war and lose it quickly.’

Field Marshall Bernard L. Montgomery

The JAPCC’s Resilient Basing Project7 seeks to identify all that needs to be ensured to conduct air operations. This substantial work demonstrates that even a cursory look at how we deliver ASP today will reveal that we have been too willing over the last three decades to make savings against enablers.8 So while having continued to invest in front-end capability, we have concurrently reduced investment in support to continue to afford the platforms themselves. In doing so, we have ‘hollowed-out’ our air forces and created a situation where we can no longer ensure the AoC. Why? Because while we may have created effective business models and procured exquisite capability, we have simultaneously lost sight of the need to operate in contested environments, particularly from the home base. Put simply, we have lost the ability to fight a determined, capable, and intelligent enemy that will use all means necessary to win.

The adoption of concepts such as ‘just in time supply’, or the civilianisation of many previously military-delivered activities have resulted in forces that are much less resilient than their Cold War counterparts. Consider that our competitors will have already done their analysis in preparation for future escalation and identified the lack of resilience in our systems. Many of these vulnerabilities are unlikely to be located at or close to the platform, more likely elsewhere within the system or system-of-systems. Examples could include, but are not limited to:

  • Key personnel limited in number but with irreplaceable abilities or skills;
  • Manufacturing or maintenance facilities, particularly for key components;
  • Vital support infrastructure, to include information technology.

The fact is that to have ASP available when it is needed requires it to be properly resilient and fully enabled all of the time.9 Each base should be (as it was in the Cold War), a complete, self-sustainable fighting platform further subdivided into sectors that can be operated with a degree of autonomy. In addition, with at least one pre-identified alternative operating location. This construct creates resilience, as any adversary had to neutralise a far greater number of assets spread over a far wider geographic area. Notwithstanding that previous platforms were easier to sustain with fewer resources and were difficult to affect without direct action that was instantly identifiable and attributable. Furthermore, our assets and their enablers10 were properly protected because it was recognised that an adversary would look to target Airpower where it was most vulnerable, a truism that endures.

‘It is easier and more effective to destroy the enemy’s aerial power by destroying his nests and eggs on the ground than to hunt his flying birds in the air.’

General Giulio Douhet

The reality of the Cold War was that any airbase could be subject to attack, and robust concepts of operation existed, understanding that an adversary would attempt to do everything possible to degrade, if not fully neutralize the airbase. If this mentality had continued and evolved as an enduring principle, rather being discarded as an unnecessary peacetime resource cost, would we now lack the necessary resilience or need to be discussing the concept of Agile Combat Employment (ACE)? The Air Component of the Cold War era was more dispersed and had redundancy built-in; more air bases, and more aircraft.

‘Quantity has a quality all of its own.’

Joseph Stalin

Adversaries will endeavour to nullify any advantage, prioritising the targeting of identified vulnerabilities. Weaknesses identified will be fully exploited, with any single point(s) of failure being explicitly targeted. The Resilient Basing Project set out to explore what it takes to project capability, and as a corollary, what an adversary would undoubtedly seek to target to neutralise a capability. To fully appreciate the problem first requires an appreciation of the truly interconnected nature of everything we do to function as effective, technologically advanced air forces operating complex platforms. Just getting to the point where a platform leaves the ground fully mission capable requires a vast number of processes (fuelling, arming, planning, data uploads, etc.) to come together at the desired location, in the correct order and at the right time. All of this must be a resilient system of systems if we are to ensure the AoC. In many respects, we have lost the ability to operate our bases as fighting platforms against an intelligent, capable, adaptable adversary.

‘No works or equipment not provided in peace, and no measures of defence and protection not practiced in advance, will be found of any effect in the opening stages of an emergency when the need for them will be at its height.’

Air Commodore Douglas Evill

Resilience11 is a simple concept, but creating true resilience across an entire system is incredibly difficult. We have neglected the issue of resilience, including developing robust concepts for the enablement of ASP, for too long, and we will now have to reverse-engineer much of the resilience we require, likely at a significant cost. There are multiple examples of how we have failed to maintain the resilience we worked so hard to achieve in the Cold War, in pursuit of the so-called ‘Peace Dividend’12 as this piece has intimated. We expected to be attacked at speed and scale and, as a result, created mechanisms to allow NATO to survive the initial onslaught and then rapidly deliver a decisive response. This was not just about retaining sufficient mass to respond but about retaining full capability and the freedom to use it. It is offered we are now incredibly vulnerable both at the home base and in respect of our Lines of Communication, and we are at risk of being defeated before we can bring our much-vaunted capability to bear – we can currently no longer ensure the AoC and remedial action is urgently required.

Looking at how we conduct the business of delivering ASP today, one quickly realizes how much of what we do is based on supposedly effective and highly efficient business practices coupled with a desire to constrain defence spending. The reason these business models are ‘efficient’ is that they minimise the resource requirement. In many cases, these business models proved to be flawed during the COVID Pandemic as large areas of our economies struggled to function as soon as supporting systems started to fail and problems multiplied as delicate supply chains were disrupted. If current business models cannot facilitate business continuity during a pandemic, how can they be expected to work during warfighting?

Despite all of the complexities involved in a discussion about ensuring the AoC, the concept at the heart of the solution remains simple: There is a need to speak truth to power – tell decision makers and budget holders what they need to hear, not what it is perceived they want to hear. A failure to reinvest in enabling ASP, including enhancing system resilience, to ensure its availability when needed is gambling with deterrence. ASP needs to be available and must survive any pre-emptive action by a future adversary. This requires urgent investment in enhancing resilience, including procuring the right amount of enablers to match the number of platforms. Finally, it needs to be understood that we cannot ensure the availability of everything, all of the time so, there are going to be some difficult discussions ahead about priorities.

‘He who wants to protect everything, protects nothing, is one of the fundamental rules of defence.’

General Adolf Galland

A concept present in ongoing discussions regarding doctrine.
OED: Extremely beautiful yet delicate.
Designed when the challenges of today were considered to be in the past or unlikely to endure.
From an article in the Washington Post by Richard N. Hass, 23 November 2003.
A phrase in regularly use and often cited as NATO’s Centre of Gravity.
More information is available on the JAPCC Website and for those wishing further information, the project can be discussed with members of the JAPCC at the Conference.
In this context, ‘enablement’ (OED, giving someone the authority or means to do something) is all that is required to get a platform to the point where it is mission ready. This includes, but is not limited to, logistics (fuel & gases), weapon load, intelligence and mission planning, all aspects of engineering support and personnel – in short, everything needed other than the platform itself, to deliver effects from the air.
E.g., with 30-days, Daily Operating Stocks of all NATO classes, with all enabling capability, to include personnel, contained within a secure, well-defended space that extended well beyond the airbase perimeter
What many would recognize as Combat Support and Combat Service Support.
OED: The capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.
The Peace Dividend was a political slogan popularised by US President George H. W. Bush and UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the light of the 1988–1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. It described the supposed economic benefits of a decrease in defence spending. The term was frequently used at the end of the Cold War, when many Western nations significantly cut military spending such as Britain’s 1990 Options for Change defence review.
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Wing Commander (ret.)
Joint Air Power Competence Centre

Wing Commander (ret.) Jez Parkinson is a RAF Regiment Officer with 33-years’ regular Service; over half in the Multinational environment and in excess of 7-years on operations. He continues to work as a Reservist in the Force Protection Environment and as a civilian on Asset Protection collaborating with the military, industry and academia. He is the author of NATO FP Policy, FP Doctrine for Air Operations and the current Custodian for Joint FP Doctrine. He is responsible for the development and delivery of NATO FP Courses as well as writing several publications and articles on FP.

Information provided is current as of February 2022

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Achieving Sustainable Air and Space Readiness in the Light of the Ukrainian War

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NATO Joint Air and Space Power Capabilities for Collective Defence

The Relevance of Superior Joint Air and Space Power Technology in NATO’s Defence

NATO Space Deterrence – Defence through the Lens of DIME

Sustaining NATO Joint Air and Space Power

Transparent Stakeholder and Multinational Collaboration

The Key to a Strong European Defence Industry

Organizing Logistics for Future Collective Defence

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