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Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2016

Introduction to a Degraded Environment

By Lieutenant General Claudio Gabellini, ITA AF

Major General Gabellini is the Commander of Combat Air Forces in the Italian Air Force and will soon be the Chief of Staff at Allied Air Command. He has accrued years of operational flying experience on multiple aircraft, including the MB339, F-104 and Tornado. He was part of the planning cell within the Combined Joint Task Force Unified ­Protector HQ of Bagnoli, serving as the Targeting Directorate Chief. He has also served as Head of the Operational Planning and Generation Department of the Air Force Command and the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Command.

The term degraded environment means many different things to different people. In order to be able to speak of DE in terms of air warfare, it is necessary, first and foremost, to give it context and define what a Degraded Environment is:

If a Degraded Environment refers to a degenerate situation (which evolves from a low to medium intensity conflict towards a higher intensity or even international one) then the ratio between risk acceptance, rules of ­engagement and law of armed conflicts is conditioned above all by the Political Will which must be expressed by a UN and/or NATO mandate and also by the rules of Law of Armed Conflict (LoAC). In particular, the ­concepts of proportionately and military advantage characterizing the single operations must be stressed. Senior Leadership, in these cases, is called to clearly define both the risk acceptance level and the objectives. The political level, instead, often mistakenly believes that air power is ­invulnerable and that its capabilities require no specific support.

If, on the other hand, Degraded Environment refers to a situation in which accuracy or capability is lost (due to ISR limitations or difficulty to obtain a PID), then it must be clear that the boundaries dictated by International Right must not be violated due to such limitations. The use of force, ­according to the principles of the LoAC, dictates that it is clear where and against whom force is employed. In a case in which the assumed actual situation is different from the foreseen or planned one, LoAC prescribes that precautionary actions are taken and that every engagement is suspended. In such an environment, Air Power employment should also be ceased.

In such a context, how do Rules of Engagement (RoE) change to fit a ­Degraded Environment? It cannot be denied that RoE are impacted by each change, since they are the expression of Political Will in operational terms. As an example, if the situation evolves towards a higher intensity conflict, ­Political Will should adopt RoE that are more effective (aggressive?), with the goal of better safeguarding friendly combatants and making military action more effective. If, instead, the situation worsens in the sense that it becomes more and more difficult to discriminate between combatants and civilians (either because of the type of conflict or the lack of proper intelligence), the use of force should be minimized to avoid collateral damage (not acceptable?).

A Degraded Environment should not be considered a problem but only a condition in which force is legally employed. In more detail, to discuss DE requires that at least three main scenarios be addressed, for which a few thoughts are expressed here. The problem is not approached from a ­merely doctrinal point of view, except for a few references and consider­ations to be used as food for thought. Conversely, the foundation of the reasoning is exclusively based on experience, learned during the ­Operation Unified Protector (OUP).

As mentioned above, DE can be discussed in three main scenarios, ­contextualized in a modern conflict with a high degree of asymmetry:

  • Technical;
  • Legal/doctrinal;
  • Environmental.

‘Technical’ DE

Presence of an opponent who is capable of jamming C4 systems as well as satellite systems, with obvious repercussions on the employment of ­precise munitions. It is obvious that in modern conflicts, marked by the exclusive use of PGMs (exactly as OUP), some serious thinking must be done that goes beyond the technical aspects directly connected with NATO. Going back to the employment of so-called ‘dumb’ munition cannot be excluded, providing that, past the purely technical aspects, precautions and/or predispositions are put in place.

At any rate, in the case of a DE of technical kind, the solution must ­invariably be found in the technical field. It is necessary to identify procedures, ­waivers, risk management techniques, acceptance procedures and ­mitigation measures that are to be studied and accepted during peacetime. It is evident, then, that the Political/Strategic level will have to find a balance for Air Power employment in a technically DE.

‘Legal and Doctrinal’ DE

The first element of this kind of degradation is now a constant of our times. It is represented by the asymmetry of modern conflicts and the consequent distortion of the traditional centres of gravity. Another ­fundamental aspect is depicted by the difficulty related to a mandate which does not contain all the necessary aspects to develop an air campaign, for example the military end state and clear identification of the enemy being fought (see UN Res. 1973). In such a degraded ­situation, the effective employment of Air Power is clearly impacted: it loses its main characteristic, which is strategic dimension, and is ­relegated to non-better defined support roles (e.g. the protection of civil population). This type of DE is potentially dangerous because it ­affects oper­ations at every level, depriving them above all of the strength deriving from a clear mandate toward a specified objective which in turn can provide the public with a term of reference for the benefit of the oper­ations and the progress in the field.

‘Environmental/Contingency’ DE

Last but not least, another possible scenario sees NATO involved in a ­coalition operation including non-NATO countries (e.g. PfP) or other countries traditionally far from the NATO world (e.g. Arab countries). It might appear as an easy feat, but finding a modus operandi that is valid and ­inclusive of C2 systems, sharing doctrine and publications, classified ­mechanics and dynamics typical of the NATO world is not simple at all as recent history proves. Furthermore, a huge obstacle is represented by the sharing of Intelligence, which alone is already an issue within NATO itself. Problems connected with the release of Target databases, the access to Joint Targeting System (JTS), the sharing of information that even ­indirectly hint at the Intel capabilities of both the single Nations and the Alliance belong to this last category. All of this is very difficult without:

  • a unique, mission dedicated LAN (bare minimum technical prerequisite) capable of functioning both in the centre as in the periphery, reaching every actor effectively;
  • an approved and shared Collateral Damage Estimation (CDE) methodology, as well the computation of the Civilian Casualties (CIVCAS) probability;
  • mensurated coordinates computation and release;
  • a unique, shared and effective STRATCOM.


From the above points, it is possible to list the fields in which a solution can possibly sought and found:

Technical DE: procedures/mitigation measures/risk acceptance/risk ­mitigation/training.

Legal/Doctrinal DE: to work on mandates, in other terms on limits, ­constraints, caveats, etc.; to train in finding a legal framework during ­uncertain phases, while maintaining a high-level effectiveness.

Contingency/Environmental DE: establish since peacetime the actions to undertake and the methodology to apply if NATO is forced to operate in a context that is not typically NATO, as well as investing on all STRACOM activities: during the first month of OUP, the Alliance/Coalition has been less than effective in countering the degradation factor put in place by the opponent via an effective counter information action.

In any case, solutions in the above fields must be sought during peacetime to ensure NATO is able to continue to conduct Air Operations as ­necessary. NATO must begin looking into the areas mentioned above now if we are to be ready to perform our collective defence mission.­