Joint Air & Space Power Conference 2018
The Fog of Day Zero – Joint Air & Space in the Vanguard
Conference Read Ahead
By Lieutenant Colonel Panagiotis Stathopoulos, GRC AF
Lieutenant Colonel Panagiotis Stathopoulos (HAF) is an experienced F-16 instructor and functional check flight pilot. He has also served as director of operations and as commander subsequently in the 341 Fighter Squadron from 2012 till 2016. He is currently serving as the Electronic Warfare (EW) including SEAD Operations SME at the JAPCC.
The Not-So-Stable Stability
In the 2016 Warsaw Summit, the Heads of State and Government (HOS/G) clearly declared in its statement:1 ‘the Alliance faces a range of security challenges and threats that originate from the east and from the south; from state and non-state actors; from military forces and from terrorists, cyber, or hybrid attacks. The greatest responsibility of the Alliance is to protect and defend our territory and our populations against attack. And so renewed emphasis has been placed on deterrence and collective defence’.
Last year’s confrontation between North Korea and the United States over Pyongyang’s nuclear program, a strained NATO-Russia relationship, the Iran nuclear deal, advancing nuclear modernization programs around the world and the India-Pakistan nuclear arms race dominated world headlines. Even though global power is shifting from West to East, many factors2 such as asymmetric demographic change, increasing urbanization and polarized societies (especially in the developing world), easy access to Commercial Off the Shelf (COTS) emerging technologies, and economic and resource globalization are shaping a rapidly changing, complex environment, which subsequently increases the potential for instability.
Additionally, state and non-state actors are deploying non-attributable tools, such as hybrid and cyber activities, to impact the global security environment under the threshold of conflict.3 This latter edge of this so-called ‘grey zone’ is the threshold between peace and crisis or war, and for the scope of this paper could be defined as ‘Day Zero’ of Alliance operations towards a conflict. NATO forces may be required to engage offensively and defensively with any emerging threat during the ‘Day Zero’ of an armed conflict. Which begs the question, ‘’Is NATO aware and prepared to engage any emerging threat in the ‘fog’ of early armed confrontation?’’ To answer that question this article is going to articulate a general awareness and consideration of certain state and non-state actors’ capabilities from the East and from the South, which could challenge NATO readiness at ‘Day Zero’. Food for thought is also going to be provided by considering the physical and non-physical operational domains, as well as asymmetric and non-conventional aspects.
Geophysical and Space Dimension
Over the last decade powerful state actors from the East, mostly Russia and China (less so North Korea), have developed and refined robust military capabilities in the traditional domains of land, maritime, air and space to deter opposing forces. Information operations, strategic and long-range air operations, advanced integrated air defence systems, precision strike capabilities from air, land and sea weapon systems, and broadband and very low observable multipurpose platforms could be considered major components of their arsenals, all of which can be networked and under centric command.
The term ‘Anti Access/Area Denial’ (A2/AD) can be used to describe the effect when many of these key military enablers are combined/overlapped to create heavily defended ‘bastions’, in which it is extremely difficult for outside forces to gain access. Even though A2/AD is often presented as a defensive capability, these same capacities could also be employed in conducting or supporting offensive operations as well.4 Today, there are A2/AD bastions arrayed in the Asia-Pacific region5 as well as on NATO’s eastern and south-eastern flanks, such as Syria, Crimea and Kaliningrad6, where a blend of command-centric air defence systems, advanced air operations capabilities, powerful electromagnetic operations and capable ballistic-cruise missiles could repel most third-party military operations.
It is important to note that modern warfare is increasingly reliant on information, particularly from space sensors. Because of the expansion of their military operations (both in terms of geography and precision striking information requirements), Russia7 and China8 have developed a significant constellation of orbiting satellites with almost the same capabilities as NATO. Their military space capabilities are a key component of strategic deterrence, enabling armed forces to fight ‘informatized’ local conflicts (i.e. high situational awareness of dispersed forces), likely countering any military third-party’s intervention in the region of conflict and supporting operations aimed at protecting the state actor’s emerging interests in more-distant parts of the world. It is apparent that the space domain can be used to support and strengthen Command and Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities. Therefore, it is likely that state actors in the eastern and southern regions of the globe will develop and/or modernise their space capabilities towards military purposes9.
Although the Electro-Magnetic Environment (EME) bridges the geophysical, space and the information environments, success in EME operations is often a precursor to success in the other operating domains. Indeed, Electronic Warfare (EW) is expected to be a force enabler and multiplier in future conflicts. Russia has consistently invested in EW modernization since 2009, with modernised EW systems entering service across strategic, operational and tactical levels to augment military capabilities10. At the same time, Beijing is improving its EME capabilities, which they see as key components of strategic deterrence and as essential to deterring or fighting modern, information technology-enabled warfare11.
Considering the aforementioned eastern military powers’ EME capabilities, NATO military offensive or defensive operations are likely to be challenged in the event of a conflict. Russia’s and China’s EW capabilities are an integral part of their A2/AD configuration and are clearly tailored to target NATO’s C4ISR. In particular, Russia is developing a diverse package of EME operations systems to address a broad set of frequencies and systems of the Alliance. To put it simply, Russia and China have developed offensive and defensive electromagnetic systems which are under joint, highly automated, central command and control.12 13 14
Although EW assets of Russia and China are under joint command and control (C2 of EW), many of these systems are deployable in Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), rendering them low observable, highly mobile and agile, and making adversaries’ ability to target and neutralize them more complex and challenging. The aforementioned EW systems not only may deploy an electronic attack but also might support Russia’s and China’s C4ISR operations in a robust manner. These EW assets are often an integral part of A2/AD configurations, bridging and linking geophysical and space domains, in particular signal intelligence (SIGINT), air defence and precision strike. 15
It is also highly likely that Russian and Chinese EME operations will fuse with cyber operations, allowing EW forces to corrupt and disable computers and networked systems as well as disrupt use of the electromagnetic spectrum16. In particular, NATO must understand that Russia and China have integrated their EME capabilities within all domains of operations, especially cyber, and they may exploit the electromagnetic spectrum in a broad area by conducting and supporting many types of operations, even asymmetric or hybrid conflict ones.
Information Including Cyber Dimension
Although cyber, electronic and information warfighting domains are ‘siblings’, they are also distinctive. Cyber warfare is about exploiting the challenges of the ‘wired’ electromagnetic spectrum, while EW is managing the challenges of the ‘non-wired’ electromagnetic spectrum17. However, certain state actors such as Russia and China believe that weaponization of the information dimension18 19, including cyber, and employing the latter in times of peace, crisis and war, are a strategic enabler across the spectrum of conflict. Indeed, it implies an intent to become a dominant player in ’grey zone’ conflicts by controlling their domestic populations and influencing adversary states.
Considering the ‘Russian way of warfare’20 it’s likely that cyber, fused with electronic warfare operations, will be one of Russia’s key elements to disrupt, degrade, deny or neutralize adversary command and control and enemy power projection capabilities. Cyber activities could also be an offensive operations tool of non-state actors such as DAESH/ISIS21 and Al-Qaeda. Cyber operations have the potential for very insidious effects on military operations, in particular during the grey zone threshold of operations in the fog of ‘Day Zero’. Several features of cyber weapons such as increased variety, no need of physical proximity, intrinsic data attribution, lack of persistent traces, easiness of concealment, and implementation of delayed effects can contribute to the difficulty of cyber warfare attribution, which are not as readily apparent as traditional means of armed conflict22.
Similarly, China identified cyberspace as one of its four ‘critical security domains’ alongside the far seas, space, and nuclear domains23. However, cyber tools are not only a weapon of large-scale and capacity state actors such as Russia or China. Over the last few years North Korea has resorted to cyber activities in order to affect its adversaries, with increasing capacity and scale. For example, during the March 20, 2013 cyber-attack on major South Korean banks and broadcasting agencies24 Pyongyang clearly demonstrated its intent to utilize cyber-attacks as a tool during a crisis.
In addition, the armed forces of Russia and China have developed complex and highly automated networks which may provide fused and high accuracy targeting information to any of their kinetic (and non-kinetic) systems. Their military (and even civil networks) are layered, overlapped and resilient, making their targeting and their denial or neutralization a very difficult task for any adversary.
However, cyber tools can be powerful weapons of any small-scale state actor, as well as non-state actor. NATO planners must be aware that state and non-state actors may employ cyber activities during a peace, crisis and/or war phase of operations. In particular, in the fog of ‘Day Zero’ offensive cyber activities, fused with EW and information warfare, may be employed insidiously in order to influence adversary armed forces and domestic populations.
The Hybrid and ‘Asymmetric Bird’ Dimension
When the Russian Army invaded Crimea in 2014, the initial denials of involvement broadcast from Moscow convinced virtually no one, especially since Russia was the neighbouring state and invaders were speaking Russian. Similarly, when artillery munitions strike beyond the forward line of troops, the ballistic trajectory can be traced, the adversary usually can be identified, and a conflict might be attributed to the guilty party.
On the other hand, a low flying ‘bird’ over a NATO armed force during peacetime could be a scenic and natural condition; it could also be an adversary’s biomimetic25 robotic drone, employing nanotechnology (nanotech) 26 in support of opponents’ military aims. In effect, the combination of very low observability and nanotechnology, bridged together with cyber, electromagnetic and information war domains, may prevent attribution of adversary actions and consequently allow the ‘scenic bird’ to continue its assigned task. This vagueness of attribution is just one challenging element of hybrid warfare, which can be used up to and beyond ’Day Zero’.
Information operations, cyber, proxy groups, economic and political influence, and clandestine measures are just some of the military and paramilitary tools of Russian hybrid operations. Moscow seeks to use hybrid warfare and indirect action to ensure compliance on a number of specific geopolitical strategies; to divide and weaken NATO; to subvert pro-Western governments; to create pretexts for war; to annex territory; and to ensure access to European markets on its own terms. In particular, Russian hybrid warfare strategy objectives are to capture territory without resorting to overt or conventional military force; to create a pretext for overt, conventional military action; and to use hybrid activities to influence the politics and policies of countries in the West and elsewhere.
However, these hybrid capabilities aren’t the sole purview of large states. Particularly for non-state actors, access to today’s COTS technology may allow adversaries to exploit recent technological innovations in order to deploy indirect or asymmetric actions and the use of asymmetric tactics in hybrid warfare domains are within reach. For example, even as the US and its allies carry out large-scale aerial strikes in Iraq and Syria, their target, the Islamic State (ISIS), may be able to retaliate on another front (e.g. cyber, small UAS, etc.). Even if ISIS may not currently have the capability to carry out large cyber-attacks in an asymmetric war, it is unlikely to find it difficult to recruit followers with the requisite expertise, such as Al-Qaeda and other similar organizations have done in the past.
NATO military decision makers and planners must be aware that in the grey zone of ‘Day Zero’ certain state and even non-state actors may employ many kinds of tools in order to support an armed conflict against the Alliance or to support their interests. Hybrid and/or indirect means of fighting can be subtle, but still dangerous, means of warfare.
During the March 1, 2018, annual address to the Russian Parliament, the Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin said Russia has developed a new, ‘invincible’ nuclear-capable cruise missile with ‘unlimited’ range that is capable of eluding air defence systems27, thereby highlighting the idea that nuclear power and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) might be the most reliable and effective means of strategic deterrence. Not only Russia, but China, India, Pakistan and North Korea have modernized their nuclear capabilities so that they maintain prestige and power in the world order.
Apart from strategic nuclear weapons, the aforementioned state actors also have active stockpiles of non-strategic nuclear weapons and warheads. These non-strategic nuclear-capable weapons include air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, anti-aircraft missiles, and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines.
Although nuclear weapons are clearly the greatest concern for the Alliance, chemical-biological weapons (CBW), and calibrating how CBW and conventional weapons factor into the current military standoff or raise the threat of war, are as important today as they have been since the end of World War II. Even though most of the world’s state actors28 have signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), certain state actors such as North Korea have yet not joined in the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). In particular, North Korea is believed to have a varied and robust chemical and biological weapons arsenal29. As seen in the last 20 years, such as the Iraq campaign and recent terrorist attacks, the control of CBW is very difficult in an unstable environment and the risk of non-state actors to use CBW is recently increasing.
Even if CBW weapons and their control are not so achievable and traceable, NATO policy makers and planners should be aware that nuclear and biological-chemical weapons are always Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), and they might even be employed by small-scale state actors, rendering them high priority threats for the Alliance in the fog of ‘Day Zero’.
In Conclusion, the Alliance is Challenged
Aristotle (384-322 BC) said that even the improbable could always be done. All of the threats above warrant enduring vigilance, as many state and non-state actors have proven many times that they can surprise the international community with rapid advances in military capabilities. NATO policy makers and planners should be aware that in the fog of ‘Day Zero’ any potential state or non-state adversary may employ various kinds of tools in order to achieve its strategic interests and national priorities, as well as to deter any Alliance offensive action or even employ offensive operations.
In the fog of ‘Day Zero’, NATO Joint Air Force power should be prepared to be engaged with an adversary which might be very capable to fight in any dimension of operations, challenging NATO readiness and its military capabilities’ effectiveness. Even more so, Russia and China have developed vast underground facilities, and their armed forces rely on means of denial and deception in order to obscure and conceal their military actions, ensuring their decision makers and armed forces a high level of survivability, and multiplying their effectiveness.
In these days of not-so-stable stability, certain factors such as increased polarization, power politics and competition, cyber and hybrid tools’ employment from state and non-state actors may impact global security, further deepening uncertainty, disorder and complexity. Consequently, NATO is faced with a broad spectrum of evolving threats and must prioritize its efforts to ensure success. These efforts, at least but not limited to, may be focused on:
- Acknowledging the reality of the threat. Certain state actors have displayed an incredible leap forward with their military capabilities, making them ’near peers’ with various NATO nations in many functional areas. Even more, non-state actors have demonstrated non-lethal capabilities which could be employed through asymmetric (or hybrid) warfare against the Alliance. Therefore, these existential threats should dictate that NATO realistically plan, train and exercise against worst-case foes, and not merely those threats that are easily handled by the Alliance’s current force structure and readiness.
- Enhancing Electromagnetic (EM) spectrum activities’ effectiveness. The increasing mobility and affordability of EM devices necessitate that Alliance EM users should leverage the inherent ’Jointness’ of EM devices in order to increase the effectiveness of active and passive electromagnetic operations through all operating domains. Robust mechanisms should be established in order to coordinate and increase effectiveness of all EM activities, including EM Spectrum Management, Cyberspace, Space and (J)ISR in achieving the Alliance’s operational objectives.
- Enhancing ’Jointness’ across all operating domains. NATO has developed the Defence Planning Process (NDPP) in order to identify capabilities and promote development and acquisition by Allies so that it can meet its security and defence objectives. However, NATO’s capability to operate in Joint environments has not been fully developed but offers great opportunity to create synergies of effect. Consequently, the NDPP should also ensure that ’Jointness’ is enhanced across all domains in order to fully realize the combined/joint capabilities of NATO member nations.
- Pre-emptive information strategy. Acknowledging the speed of current and future threats, NATO should not merely rely on reactive information operations, but develop pre-emptive strategies in the information domain, including cyber, in order to effectively counter threats to the Alliance. Employing ISR across all domains, including information/cyber activities, often offers the best opportunity to gain strategic advantage over adversaries in a rapidly changing environment. As a result, NATO could pre-empt its opponents in myriad ways, and could repel or defeat a perceived imminent offensive shortly before that attack materializes.
In summary, in the future the Alliance may be called to manage many crises, which could necessitate that NATO be engaged with a wide range of actors and conditions. The capabilities in which the Alliance chooses to invest are extremely important because, at the end of the day, NATO must be ready to fight, and win, in the fog of ‘Day Zero’.