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Published Airpower Journal - Winter 1987-88

Air Battle 2000 in the Nato Alliance

Exploiting Conceptual and Technological Advances

Maj Gen Perry M. Smith, USAF Retired

THE PURPOSE of this essay is to stretch the mind of the reader in two important related areas. First, I wish to contemplate future air technology and the impact of this new technology on potential conventional battle in Europe. Second, I would like to address other more general aspects of both technology and planning in hopes of encouraging the reader to think more deeply about the long-range future of the NATO alliance. I have purposely kept this article short in hopes that it will be read and discussed. It is a small part of my efforts, which include two new books that deal with the important issues of leadership and planning in the national security arena, as well as a series of books on war (2010 beyond) which will be written individual authors under my general editorship*.

*Taking Charge: A Practical Guide for Leaders (1996) and Towards a National Security and Long-Range Planning (1987), both published by the National Defense University Press.

The potential for major improvements in NATO's conventional capability over the next few years is quite high, particularly in the air environment. Much of that improvement relates directly to technological advances, but advances in doctrine, tactics, and training can and should also play an important role. It is most important that military leaders of all NATO nations keep abreast of the changing battlefield environments and that they actively pursue improvements in technology, doctrine, and tactics.

The close coordination of land and air will be even more important in the years ahead than it has been in the past because technology is moving so fast and barriers to good coordination are actually becoming greater. In the past eight or nine years, compartmentalization of classified programs has become an important phenomenon in the research and development world. If present trends continue, the operational world could also be significantly affected by compartmentalization. Although there are many advantages to controlling access to very sensitive programs, there are some major disadvantages. Leaders from each of the NATO countries with major research and development programs must carefully weigh these factors when developing and implementing weapon systems, programs, and policy. These issues relating to compartmentalization are so important, both to the air-land battle in the twenty-first century and to the future of the alliance, that they deserve a few paragraphs in this discussion.

Innovation Through

One of the evolving truths of compartmentalization is that innovation is considerably easier in a closed, or "black," program than in an open, or "white," one. In my judgment, this fact is even more important than the advantages of hiding the technology from potential enemies, since doctrinal and conceptual innovation is so difficult in the white world. Another advantage of compartmentalization is the rapidity with which a radical technological idea can turn into an operational system. So many bureaucratic barriers are removed in compartmentalized programs that a weapon system that normally would take a decade or more to develop can be fielded in five or six years.

These advantages must be weighed against a number of significant disadvantages. The air force of an individual nation in NATO may be developing a radically new system that may help solve a major problem its army or navy is facing. If, however, the leaders from the other services and from the other nations are not informed of this program, they may waste money and effort on an inferior system to address the same problem. In addition, there is often a "doctrinal lag" in incorporating into the mainstream of the operational world the new operational systems that were developed very rapidly through compartmentalization. This doctrinal lag can become particularly acute when the officials responsible for developing doctrine are not cleared for the program either during the research and development phase or after the system becomes operational.

This problem of doctrinal lag is further compounded when service lines are crossed, and the problem becomes more severe when national lines are crossed. For instance, getting an officer from the German navy to share closely held secrets from a tightly compartmentalized research and development program with a US Army officer (or vice versa) is just plain tough.

Autonomous Systems

Perhaps the most important technological development that will have a significant impact on the air-land battle in the early part of the next century will be the deployment of autonomous systems in large numbers. One example of such a system would be a very small pilotless aircraft with a very efficient small engine, an airframe made of plastic or composite material, a supersensor in the nose, and a very small warhead. The supersensor, using one or more of a number of techniques, could be programmed to target a very specific type of enemy vehicle, aircraft, radar, or other system. This airborne vehicle would have a very long loiter time (many hours to a few days) and could provide a considerable capability in both the deterrence and warfighting realms.

The deterrence value of this vehicle could be its most important quality. The Soviets have historically had great respect for, and fear of, Western systems based on high technology. At times, they have overestimated the capability of these systems. This fear, admiration, and overestimation could be very helpful in causing Soviet decisionmakers to forgo contemplated offensive operations if they thought the alliance had large numbers of these autonomous vehicles deployed and on alert status in Europe. Sometime in the future it may be helpful to lift, ever so slightly, the dark veil of compartmentalization to enhance the deterrence value of some of these systems.

Autonomous systems that depend heavily on high-technology sensors, engines, and airframes are likely to be better than similar Soviet systems because the Soviets will probably continue to lag behind in these important technical areas. Hence, if Western civilian and military leaders are particularly prudent about how they manage compartmentalization, they can have the best of both worlds. In other words, technological leakage to the Soviet Union can be restricted, while defense and deterrence can be enhanced.

To further develop the point about autonomous systems, let me speculate about how they may change the face of the air-land battle. An enemy land force, facing a myriad of autonomous systems, will have to deal with real doctrinal, operational, morale, and tactical problems, particularly when it tries to concentrate the elements of the force. Movements of ground vehicles, for instance, will create noise, heat, and other observable phenomena that can be picked up by tiny but very discriminating sensors in airborne vehicles loitering over the battlefield and over other areas of high interest such as airfields and logistics areas. The enemy ground force commander will face a number of bad choices. One choice would be to destroy the vast majority of these autonomous vehicles in order to avoid suffering massive losses in the first few hours of major ground force movements. But the destruction of these systems will be difficult because they should be very small, very stealthy, and very agile. In addition, those that will be destroyed could be easily and rather cheaply replaced by others.

Another choice for the ground force commander would be to deceive these systems--that is, to spoof them in some way. This could have some very positive results, but it could also be very expensive. For instance, to produce the exact sound, heat, and shape of a Soviet truck may be almost as expensive as creating the truck itself and bringing it to the battlefield. In short, decoys only make sense when they are considerably cheaper than the real thing.

A third choice for the ground commander would be to concentrate the ground forces in such a way as to overwhelm these autonomous systems with too much data. This approach could fail, and fail massively, if the commander underestimated the capability and the number of these autonomous vehicles.

A fourth choice for the ground commander would be to accept the losses that these systems will cause and hope that the opponent will run out of such systems. This can work against an adversary who has not procured large numbers of these systems or developed the logistical, transportation, and deployment systems to ensure that enough of these vehicles are available to launch and relaunch into the battlefield area where the enemy is contemplating an attack.

Enemy airfields will also face the devasation that these autonomous systems can cause. Turning on external power units, towing airplanes, and taxiing aircraft may all become very risky operations if autonomous airborne systems are loitering over key enemy airfields. In the past, airfields have been vulnerable to attack, but the launching of aircraft could still take place at night, in marginal weather, and in between enemy air or missile attacks. In the future, however, a commander of an air base will have to deal with air attack by aircraft, glide bombs, missiles, and autonomous systems. In the past, attacks on air bases were of short duration, and airfield repair and the recommencement of launch and recovery of aircraft could take place after each attack. But by the year 2000, even the rapid runway repair vehicles may be programmed as targets of these overhead autonomous systems, and the repair of runways and taxiways may become much more hazardous than in the past.

The Twenty-first Century
Air Base in Europe

Autonomous systems will not require air bases of the traditional size and scope, but planners must be creative in the deployment, launching, and recovery of autonomous systems in order to take full advantage of their size and stealthy characteristics. Of course, there will still be many aircraft that must operate off hard surfaces. Dispersal will become increasingly important, and technology, if properly exploited, can help a great deal in this area. Expert systems that provide help to maintenance technicians have excellent potential here. If each aircraft mechanic and each avionics technician has a small computer containing the knowledge of some of the very best and most experienced maintenance supervisors, the overall manpower needs could be reduced and the ability to disperse aircraft in small numbers to diverse locations would be enhanced.

The great emphasis on the very high reliability of aircraft systems will begin to pay off by the early part of the next century, and there will also be a modest decrease in the need for spare parts and for supply people to provide and manage the spare parts. These factors will help in enhancing the ability of an aircraft squadron to disperse quickly and to operate out of austere locations. Tactical deception must become a high priority for commanders of fixed air bases. There are many things that an air base commander will be able to do to make the air base very difficult for the enemy to find and, once found, difficult for him to identify the "real" targets.

Exploiting NATO's
Technological Advantages

Over the course of the next few decades there will be a technological race of extraordinary proportions. The United States and its NATO partners should be able to win this race. The Soviet Union and Eastern European nations have deep, abiding problems with the relationship between widespread public access to high technology and the need to maintain control over their populations. These problems will inhibit exploitation of high technology sufficiently to give the West an advantage that prudent public policy can exploit. Microcomputers, software engineering (the "hacker" role here can be most important if the defense communities of the West can attract some of the best of the hackers), miniaturization, expert systems, and intelligent computer-aided design can all make important contributions to air warfare. In short, the societies that have the most computerliterate populations and the populations with the most highly developed innovative and entrepreneurial skills should be the winners of this important technological race.

The real challenge for the alliance, however, is not the development of these new systems. The challenge is how to share this technology between and among NATO nations and how to develop the doctrine and tactics for the optimal use of these systems.

This coordination of technology, doctrine and tactics should be accomplished prior to the operational deployment of these new systems. Since changes in doctrine and tactics come quite slowly in the NATO environment, it is encumbent upon the leaders in the United States, Great Britain, West Germany, and other nations who are developing exotic new systems to share the basic technology and the operational capability with the leaders of the NATO operational commands. This sharing of information should take place at least a year before each new black program becomes operational. Individual nations must take the initiative to disclose this sensitive information because the NATO operational commanders will, in many cases, have insufficient background or insight to ask for it. It is clearly not enough that the research and development chiefs of each service and each nation share this information; the NATO operational commanders must be briefed in some detail.

The Changing Operational

The battlefield of the twenty-first century will be dramatically changed by the ground and air systems that are being developed now and that should be deployed over the course of the next 10 years. Periods of budgetary austerity may even accelerate this trend toward exotic new systems because many of these systems are considerably less expensive than traditional systems such as manned aircraft, helicopters, tanks, and artillery pieces. As service programs in each of the nations of the alliance are developed during upcoming austere budgetary years, decision analysis, mission area analysis, and systems analysis should highlight the value of these new systems. In addition, these analytical techniques, which have matured materially in recent years, should help in the difficult but important divestiture process. For instance, it is likely that both the A-10 aircraft (the primary American close-air-support aircraft) and the RF-4 (the primary tactical reconnaissance aircraft of a number of NATO nations) will not be replaced by manned systems when they become obsolete in the early part of the next century. These aircraft will probably be replaced in large part by autonomous systems that have a low unit cost and a very considerable mission capability. A great advantage of these autonomous systems that was not discussed earlier in this article is their potential to accomplish a multiplicity of missions with only modest changes to the sensor software. In other words, a lethal autonomous system could be designed to do all of the following missions: close air support, battlefield air interdiction, interdiction, counter-SAM attack, and airfield attack. A single weapon system should be capable of being changed from mission to mission by changing a small software package in the vehicle itself.

A significant impediment to rapid deployment in this area is a residual "Luddite" mentality, or opposition to technological change, that exists within the defense communities of all the NATO nations. In fairness to those who are skeptical about the magic of exotic technology, there have been many unfulfilled promises in the last few decades. In addition, the Clausewitzian concepts of the "fog of war" and "friction" must be kept in mind when planning for the use of military forces in the demanding and confusing battlefield environment. Hence, thoughtful skepticism must be the order of the day when contemplating the long-range future. The longrange planner must, however, try to avoid putting blinders on and losing the opportunity to grasp the technological, doctrinal, and tactical importance of the recent dramatic improvements in the reliability and capability of miniaturized systems.

The "technological slingshot," the acceleration of the exploitation of particularly promising technology, is a reality in the civilian world. It could become a reality in the military world, particularly if the advantages of development in the black world can be fully exploited. Whereas it took decades to take the concept of a telephone, a radio, and a television and turn them into fully operational and reliable systems, it has taken a much shorter time to do the same thing for the transistor, the semiconductor, and the laser compact disk. Although the military has generally not taken full advantage of this "technological slingshot," recent initiatives such as the US Air Force Project Forecast II were designed to do just that. All the nations of the alliance should consider emulating the Project Forecast II effort since only by determined, sustained, and innovative methods will the right technologies be given the proper emphasis and sustained support.

Another major aspect of high technology that will have important military applications and that should be exploited over the course of the next decade will be in mission planning and training. Mission simulation has finally become both reasonably realistic and a lot of fun. Tank crews, fighter pilots, and many others can now learn a great deal by driving or flying in simulators. Leaders must understand that simulators will not be useful until the crews actually want to use them and learn from them. As new modifications are made to individual weapon systems, the simulator should get the modification first. In that way, the crews can learn how to use the new capability of the weapon system before that capability is placed in the actual aircraft, tank, or helicopter. This procedure will also ensure an interest by the crews in climbing into the simulator on a regular basis. By the early part of the twenty-first century, considerable training costs will be saved through realistic simulation. Hopefully, these cost savings can be translated into more and better systems.

Mission planning using small personal computers will also be much improved. Already the hackers are showing us how much can be done on a small computer. A recent example is the very realistic and sophisticated computer game licensed by the National Football League called NFL Challenge, which uses over 120,000 lines of code but can be played on a personal computer (PC). Just before a pilot walks out to his airplane to fly on a combat mission, he will be able to glance at his portable PC, update it with the very latest intelligence data, and replan his route to and from his target in an instant. By the year 2000, he will be able to do this again when he is en route to his target as he receives updated intelligence information.

As long as the alliance has to face a medium-tech enemy, its ability to offset quantity with quality will remain strong, especially if strong research and development programs are in the defense budget of each of the major NATO nations. Compressed research and development cycles, institutionalized innovation, and long-range planning in each nation and in the alliance as a whole, as well as close coordination among nations, should be the guidelines for the alliance over the next 15 years.

In the years ahead, the alliance should focus more attention on concepts and doctrine and should develop institutional arrangements whereby new conceptual ideas can be shared, debated, and, in some cases, incorporated into NATO doctrine and procedures. Let me cite an example. In 1986 Col John Warden of the US Air Force wrote a seminal paper at the National War College in Washington, D.C. It won a major research award, and yet there was no easy way to ensure that strategists and planners in the alliance were exposed to his ideas. A clearinghouse for new conceptual ideas should be established in every major NATO headquarters and in every ministry of defense. If each major national and international headquarters had a small (five or six people should be adequate) long-range planning division with direct access to the top commander or leader, the alliance, over time, could develop a better strategic vision. In addition, these long-range planning divisions could be the place where bright young people (from throughout each of the commands) with fresh ideas could interject them at a high level.

The military chain of command, for all of its strengths, is an impediment to innovation. It is time that leaders of the alliance recognize this fact and take action to solve this problem. Conceptual thinking based on a solid understanding of operational factors has been largely lacking in recent years. Our concepts must keep up with our technology. Better still, our concepts should stay ahead of our technology if the advantages of our technology are to be fully exploited.

Conceptual Approaches

Let me close this short essay with a discussion of the need for long-range planners to go beyond conventional wisdom and to think radical and heretical thoughts. So much planning done in the alliance is not much more than the extrapolation of current policy and programs into the distant future. Long-range planning must avoid fiscal, conceptual, organizational, technological, political, psychological, and economic barriers to clear thinking. For instance, there is much to be said for the use of the "alternative futures" technique in thinking through the planning process. Two or three alternative "Soviet Unions" in the year 2005 might provide the planner and the decisionmaker with a better understanding of future opportunities and possibilities. It seems quite clear that the Soviet Union is going through some important internal change right now and a straight-line extrapolation of the Brehznev period into the twenty-first century would not seem prudent. On the other hand, it is too early to make definitive judgments about the Gorbachev legacy for the next century. If the alliance is to thrive in the future, it must think clearly about its major adversary. The use of the alternative futures approach may be helpful.

As far as military planning is concerned, radically new concepts are worth examining even if the only purpose they serve is to stretch the minds of planners and decisionmakers. John Warden may be correct when he looks into the future and sees air superiority as the primary mission in the air-land battle. Others with equally innovative concepts should be encouraged to come forward and advance their ideas with little or no risk to their military careers.

If the alliance is to win the air superiority battle and be the ultimate winner of the war of the twenty-first century, therefore, major reconsideration of Army and Air Force (as well as Navy and Marine) doctrine needs to be undertaken between now and then. The further the nations of the alliance are removed from the last war, the harder they must work to ensure that their military forces and doctrine are relevant to the next war. The fact that most innovators are uncomfortable in large bureaucratic organizations means that there will always be a shortage of ideas and innovators within the military services. If the civilian and military leaders of the alliance recognize this very natural tendency, they can compensate for it in a number of ways. A senior and very experienced analyst, a trusted member of former Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's staff, has pointed out that some of the very best intelligence work is being done by individuals and organizations outside of government and that one of the great advantages of contracting out more work is that fewer people remain inside government to provide bureaucratic barriers to the implementation of new ideas.

In addition, very influential individuals like Senator Sam Nunn are not only asking the tough questions but also are showing a greater discomfiture with the answers they are getting to questions relating to strategic planning and institutional innovation. The military must reach out for help to overcome the personal and institutional impediments to innovation.

Another serious problem the alliance will face in the years leading up to the twenty-first century will be the widening differential in military capability between the high-tech nations of the alliance and those nations that for economic or other reasons do not move forward rapidly as far as military technology is concerned. Military leaders in an alliance must be able to discuss issues together; and if the leader from a high-tech nation is constantly "dazzling" his counterpart with the esoteric terminology of high technology, the communication barriers will only become more troublesome. It will be the task of all leaders to nourish the alliance by understanding the barriers to good communication and coordination and breaking down these barriers on a regular basis.

The air battle in the early part of the twenty-first century may well be the decisive battle and, as a result, demands our attention, our time, and our best intellectual efforts. Too much time is being spent by leaders on current problems and too little time is being reserved for long-range thinking and planning. If this paper can, in a small way, be a catalyst for better planning and better thinking, it will have served its purpose.

This essay was developed from a paper presented at the National Defense University. A somewhat similar address was delivered to the Future of the Royal Air Force Conference in London in 1987.


Maj Gen Perry M. Smith, USAF, Retired (USMA; PhD, Columbia University), resides in McLean, Virginia, and was commandant of the National War College at the time of his retirement in 1986. He was a command pilot with more than 3,000 flying hours, primarily in fighter aircraft, including F-84s, F-100s, F-4s, and F-15s. General Smith was a visiting professor at the National War College, has been a faculty member at the US Air Force Academy on three separate occasions, has held various command positions in West Germany, and has served at Udorn Royal Thai AFB. During his career, he served in a variety of positions, ranging from branch chief to Joint Chiefs of Staff planner. General Smith is graduate of National War College.


The conclusions and opinions expressed in this document are those of the author cultivated in the freedom of expression, academic environment of Air University. They do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, the United States Air Force or the Air University.

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