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Published Airpower Journal - Spring 1989
Col Clifford R. Krieger, USAF
Air interdiction-air operations conducted to destroy, neutralize, or delay the enemy's military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces, at such distance from friendly forces that detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of friendly forces is not required.
-Department of Defense Dictionary of
Military and Associated Terms
LIKE counterair operations, air interdiction (AI) is a classic air mission. It appeared during World War I and came into its own during World War II. Over the last 70 years, air interdiction campaigns have had varying degrees of effectiveness. Air interdiction was an important factor in preparing for the Allied invasion at Normandy in 1944; however, its usefulness to the Allied effort in Italy was limited because it was conducted in isolation from the land campaign. In recent years, the Israeli air force has had mixed results with AI. Despite the fact that air interdiction is a classic air mission, it is little studied and thus little understood. Few people know what it is and what it can and cannot do. This lack of understanding has led to errors at the highest levels, adversely affecting the conduct of air interdiction. The danger for the future is not that resources will be wasted on AI but that, because of mismanagement, its potential will be ignored or perhaps even lost. Against a strong and offensively oriented opponent, such as the Warsaw Pact, AI must be employed as effectively as possible.
Commanders have a natural desire to command and control those external forces (e.g., air forces) that they depend on for support. This inclination is in accordance with the basic principle of unity of command. However, two considerations mitigate against that approach. First, commanders cannot continue to add units to their purview without eventually diluting their ability to provide command and control for each one. Second, at some point commanders will find that they do not possess the expertise needed to give close attention to the detailed technical structure of each organization. Although overextending the span of control is a less serious concern with homogeneous units, technical diversity can quickly become a problem. A third issue--the ability of a senior commander to quickly provide new objectives for certain highly fungible forces--will not be discussed in this article.
The air interdiction campaign is not an independent air operation but complements the efforts of friendly surface forces in achieving the objectives of the theater commander in chief (CINC). Like the campaigns of the surface component commanders, the AI campaign is structured to fulfill the theater CINC's overall objectives. In view of the common perception that an air interdiction campaign is designed to enhance the effectiveness of the land component commander, it seems strange to talk about conducting the campaign according to the theater CINC's objectives. These objectives are important because of the CINC's apportionment decision, which determines the total expected air effort and assigns forces that should be devoted to various operations for a given period of time.1 The US Air Force has long maintained that it is the prerogative of the unified or joint commander to apportion air effort to counterair, air interdiction, and close air support.2 Thus, from day to day the theater CINC can increase or decrease the amount of effort applied to the air interdiction campaign. The air component commander (ACC) recommends the air apportionment to the theater CINC and thereby strongly influences the final decision. In fact, the views of all the component commanders must be considered.3 At the very least, the theater CINC prescribes the size of the air interdiction campaign and indirectly determines how it is executed. The CINC or a higher authority may also provide more definitive direction about what the air interdiction campaign should accomplish and what may or may not be done.4
Because the construction of an AI campaign appears to be straightforward, many people are tempted to meddle in the planning. A number of individuals want to have their hands on the air power throttle--from senior government leaders concerned about the impact of target selection on world opinion to supported surface commanders who feel that they will benefit if they are running the show. The conduct of the campaign requires the expertise and constant attention of both the commander and staff of the air component. Whether the decision to conduct an AI campaign comes directly from the theater CINC, the ACC, or as a request from one of the surface component commanders, the ACC should have responsibility for the mission. Air interdiction is a classic case for the use of mission-oriented command and control, sometimes called mission order tactics.5 This concept of command and control (see table), which stems from German military tradition as far back as Helmuth von Moltke, is designed to give the greatest freedom to the person who knows the situation and emphasizes initiative at the lowest level. It thereby takes advantage of what the US military prides itself on--the initiative of the individual soldier, sailor, or airman.
Tenets of Mission-Oriented Command and Control
determines the objectives to be achieved and to this end assigns a clearly defined mission.
ensures that the forces, resources, and the authority required to accomplish the mission are available to the subordinate.
lays down details only to the extent necessary for coordination within a broad scope. These details usually apply to the interaction with such forces and resources not subordinate to the person executing the mission or not immediately available to him.
Source: German Military Thinking: Selected Papers on German Theory and Doctrine, Art of War Colloquium (Carlisle Barracks, Pa.: US Army War College, May 1983), 95-96.
Mission-oriented command and control is missing in current discussions of air interdiction. Consequently, everyone who might receive some benefit from air interdiction wishes to have a say in how it should be done. The large number of cooks threatens to spoil the broth. Air interdiction must be conducted as a single campaign under the direction of one commander--the ACC--who should be held responsible for its execution. To do otherwise, given the limited air assets available, will fragment the effort and diminish effectiveness.
The air interdiction campaign delays, disrupts, diverts, or destroys enemy forces.6 It achieves one or more of these effects by conducting operations against a number of possible targets or target systems, including enemy combat units; transportation networks; command, control, and communications networks; combat supplies; or a combination of them. The specific form of an air interdiction campaign must be derived from the theater CINC's objectives, taking into consideration enemy threats and the opportunities for friendly action.7
The theater CINC's objectives for an interdiction campaign should be broad enough to permit the ACC latitude in meeting them. The CINC should identify these objectives in terms of desired outcomes rather than targets to be attacked or sorties to be flown. Although it may be easier to list targets or detail sorties, presenting the objectives in such terms cripples the planning process and results in a less effective overall air effort.8 Not only must ACC's know theater objectives but also they must know the objectives of the surface commanders so that they can provide them the best possible support and help them exploit the results of the AI campaign. Once the objectives are known, the air planners outline the various ways they can be achieved. An attack on bridges and road defiles may be possible, but--as our experience in Vietnam taught us--it may be far more effective to lay mines in harbors and attack docks. The issue is not one of hitting bridges or docks but of finding the best way to achieve the objectives, in view of the existing situation. Attacking supplies in dumps may be the answer, but attacking command and control nets may be equally effective. Selection of target systems should be coordinated with the surface component commanders to ensure that destruction of these targets fulfills land and naval objectives. When reviewing potential targets, however, the air component commander must also consider the threat each one represents.
Enemy targets cannot be viewed solely in terms of the number of weapon systems involved. In addition to the types and proliferation of defensive radars, aircraft, missiles, and guns, the terrain and weather may also be factors. For example, terrain can be used to mask our attacking aircraft from ground-based radars, and atmospheric conditions can aid or hinder either the defender or the attacker. Further. ACCs have a number of options available to them to counter the existing threat and aid in mission planning. These include intelligence assets and electronic warfare assets (e.g., defense suppression forces--those of the ACC and of the land and naval component commanders). Notwithstanding the effectiveness of electronic warfare assets, certain targets or target systems may be so costly to attack that alternate ways of achieving the objective need to be considered. More than likely, high-value targets that are well defended by the enemy will require a tailored package of attack forces including defense suppression, electronic warfare, and air-superiority aircraft. The nature of the threat may influence not only the selection of target systems but also the phasing and timing of attacks. For example, heavily defended bridges may call for sowing influence mines along rail lines in remote areas. Subsequent shifting of enemy defenses may then open up certain bridge targets for attack. The threat may also dictate friendly basing at extended ranges, which in turn requires integration of aerial refueling assets.
The ACCs must be alert to unique opportunities to apply air interdiction in especially effective ways. Often an AI campaign will resemble previous campaigns, but ACCs must examine all opportunities and exploit them when it is to their advantage. Such opportunities may be offered by the land component commanders scheme of maneuver, the campaign of the naval component commander, the enemy's situation, environmental factors, or the ACC's own existing condition. For example, enemy lines of communication may be very fragile, the weather may have shielded an area from attack or bogged down the enemy, or AI support of a Marine landing may divert enemy forces away from an impending Army offensive. On the friendly side, the range, of available aircraft may allow large bomb loads to be carried to deep area targets (e.g., by F-111s) or may require the campaign to operate against pinpoint targets close to friendly bases (e.g., with F-4E PAVETACK). Likewise, the pace of operations may be determined by limitations in either friendly supply or maintenance capabilities. Available intelligence may convince the ACC to attack critical logistics command, control, and communications nodes, thus disrupting movement of enemy reinforcements and supplies. If working with allies whose aircraft and munitions are second-rate, the ACC might use allied aircraft to attack soft targets on roads and rail lines and concentrate US air assets on defense suppression.
The task of the ACC and staff in the tactical air control center (TACC) is to tie all these and other factors together and produce a campaign plan to meet the theater CINC's objectives. This responsibility requires more than opening a copy of the Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manual. It requires a knowledge of the techniques and procedures involving fighter, bomber, and reconnaissance aircraft; the capabilities, limitations, and practices of supply and maintenance; and the tactical proficiency of various units. This expertise is gained through study and experience as airmen. Similarly, commanders and staff officers must be fully prepared for the conduct of air operations. Given the current limits on attendance at intermediate and senior service schools, Air Force personnel should take the time to pursue alternative educational opportunities.9 Staff officers must understand potential enemies--their doctrine, past military operations, strengths and weaknesses, as well as transportation networks and command, control, communications, and intelligence systems. Further, staff officers need to know the lessons learned from past air interdiction campaigns as well as the capabilities and limitations of manned and unmanned aerospace systems, the effects of weapons, and the doctrine of allied forces. This education, coupled with operational expertise and experience, will fully prepare commanders and staff for the conduct of theater air operations.
It is not enough that ACCs and their staffs be both smart and proficient. They must understand what surface forces can and cannot do. Further, they must know and understand the surface component commanders and their staffs. Electronic communications will not replace the value of speaking to each other. One of the best ways to encourage such communication is to collocate the headquarters of the component commanders. At the end of World War II, the US Ninth Air Force published an analysis of its operations in Europe. One comment in the Condensed Analysis is particularly germane:
One of the most significant lessons learned from tactical air warfare in the desert was that it was mandatory that air and ground cooperating headquarters function together in closest operational and physical unity. The practical step indicated by this thinking was that Ninth Air Force would have to form a mobile, compact operational headquarters which could keep pace with swiftest movement of the army group and could operate independently of the main administrative headquarters in the rear.10
When forces are operating in a major theater, collocation of headquarters should continue down the chain of command to at least numbered air forces and equivalent surface component levels. If collocation is impractical, senior representatives must be exchanged. Placing junior liaison officers in each other's headquarters is not sufficient. Because these officers must represent their commanders at the other headquarters, they must understand how their commanders think. This capability requires skill and sensitivity that go beyond mere liaison. To a certain extent, the lack of such collocation is presently compensated for by collocating tactical air control parties (TACPs) and air support operations centers (ASOCs) with land unit headquarters, and ground liaison officers with Air Force combat wings. One idea under consideration within the US Air Forces in Europe (USAFE) is to provide brigadier general corps air liaison officers (ALOs) in wartime.11 This idea is a step in the proper direction and, if Congress will allow the spaces, should be extended into peacetime as well. Such arrangements need to be continued and expanded to include equivalent representation at naval headquarters, when appropriate.
The surface component commanders assist the ACC by providing their requirements for air interdiction in terms of objectives and plans for achieving those objectives. When appropriate, they should also include recommended targets and target systems for air attack. The ACC then integrates the needs of the surface component commanders into the overall effort and considers their target recommendations in formulating a plan. Whatever the decision, the ACC should coordinate the plan with these commanders and inform them of any changes.
Having developed an effective air interdiction campaign, the ACC cannot sit back and let it execute itself. As Gen Helmuth von Moltke pointed out, "No plan survives contact with the enemy."12 The enemy is not an inanimate object but will react to our efforts and even initiate action that upsets our plans. Further, the ACC's ability to assign assets to the AI campaign varies daily according to attrition and variations in the war. No AI campaign can be static. The ACC must constantly review the campaign so that it responds to a number of factors, including the enemy threat, the surface situation of allied forces, and the status of friendly air power. In tracking enemy countermeasures, the ACC must have timely, accurate intelligence. Experience has shown that enemy forces usually adapt rather quickly to air operations directed against them. Sometimes the enemy response is quick, unexpected, and effective, as in 1943 when the Germans changed from night evacuation across the Strait of Messina to day evacuation. The Allied effort to cut off or destroy the German forces retreating from Sicily was thwarted by a failure to realize that the enemy had taken this risky step. Consequently, shifting Allied AI operations from nighttime to daytime was delayed. Sometimes the changes are more subtle, as when the North Vietnamese ran cables across streams, placing wood planks on them when bridging was needed and taking the planks up again afterward.
Intelligence should play three roles during the execution phase of the air interdiction campaign. First, it can provide up-to-date information to assist current operations. This data is critical for planning attacks on mobile targets. Although the ACCs should not make the campaign dependent upon the capabilities of real-time sensor systems, they should fully exploit the capabilities of these devices. Second, intelligence can indicate how the enemy is adapting to the campaign so that ACCs can respond appropriately. Third, intelligence can help analyze the effectiveness of the various parts of the air interdiction campaign, especially concepts newly introduced. Because they are at the center of both intelligence and air-status reporting, ACCs are best able to revise the campaign as necessary and thereby achieve the theater CINC's objectives. Further, based on the intelligence available, the expertise of the ACCs, the competence of their staffs, and the progress of the air interdiction campaign, the ACCs are able to recommend changes in immediate and near-term plans to the surface component commanders.
After examining theater objectives (including the objectives of the surface component commanders), threat characteristics, and capabilities/limitations of friendly forces, the ACC determines the targets and, if necessary, tailors the attack packages. In accordance with mission-oriented command and control, however, participating units along with individual flight leaders and aircrews select appropriate tactics, techniques, and procedures. This process results in the best use of initiative and the most efficient use of expertise at the proper level. Further, because subordinate air commanders understand the objectives of air interdiction, they can continue the campaign despite interruptions in communications with higher headquarters. That is, they do not have to receive a daily Air Task Order to continue combat operations. Moreover, aircrews can rely on their training and expertise to conduct armed reconnaissance operations when so tasked and to attack targets of opportunity when so authorized.
Air interdiction not only assists a surface component commander by reducing the enemy's ability to reinforce and maneuver, but also it helps the commander and subordinates maneuver to defeat enemy forces. For example, a land-force commander, performing at what the Army calls the operational level of war, fights battles of maneuver (fire and movement). In planning and fighting the campaign, the commander needs the cooperation of air power. That cooperation could take the form of counterair operations, air interdiction, close air support, air reconnaissance, or tactical airlift. When a particular scheme of maneuver requires air interdiction, both air and land forces must be closely coordinated. Diversion of air power or the delay of Army defense suppression or unit movements will disrupt the overall effort and put the success of the undertaking at risk. Any changes in air interdiction must be closely worked out with the land commander. Similarly, any changes in the land commander's scheme of maneuver must be coordinated with the air commander.
The other side of mission-oriented command and control is that the superior--the theater CINC--ensures that forces, resources, and the authority required for accomplishment of the mission are available to the responsible subordinate. Although the assets are in theater due to previous service programming and the wartime execution decisions based on apportionment of forces in the Joint Strategic Capabilities Plan (JSCP), the theater CINC determines where the forces will be used and for what purpose. The CINC is responsible for the theater strategy and sets the objectives. This determination of priorities can make or break an air campaign. If the CINC directs the ACC to give priority to counterair and close-air-support operations, this decision will limit the assets available for air interdiction. If the CINC directs the ACC to conduct major air efforts in several areas within the theater, this action may dilute the effectiveness of air power and prevent a unified effort.
To ensure proper use of resources, the theater CINC provides forces to the people, who can best use them to achieve theater objectives. Consequently, the air component commander is responsible for all air assets, including the limited number of specialized aircraft. Within mission-oriented command and control, the concept of centralized planning and decentralized execution is applicable to the air interdiction campaign. There are two reasons for centralized planning and decentralized execution: limited assets and the efficient application of those assets. The ACC must usually operate with less than the desired numbers and types of forces. Further, the speed, range, and flexibility of air assets require centralized planning.
For example, in early World War II when the Allies fought with limited resources, centralized control with decentralized execution was essential for successful operations. Although these assets were capable of doing a variety of missions, priorities had to be set. Granted, the speed and range of air power gave the commander flexibility in deciding where and when to use it. But if air assets were committed in penny packets to meet the needs of many parties, they accomplished little, and air strength was quickly dissipated. The same situation obtains today. To try to operate an air interdiction campaign by parceling out air assets to various surface commanders means that sufficient forces and resources necessary to do the job will not be available. In effect, the principles of mass and economy of force will be violated.
The various services, commands, and agencies have roles to play in all military operations we conduct today. Certain assets can play a vital role in the AI campaign even though they do not belong to the ACC. Five types come to mind:
(1) National Intelligence Assets. Intelligence resources may meet the needs of more than one theater. They should be controlled at the national level, but tasking might be delegated if communications allow.
(2) Strategic Air Command (SAC). SAC can quickly place a large amount of ordnance on a target and can increase the effectiveness of other forces. It can provide a mixed force of bomber, tanker, and reconnaissance aircraft. Because of the importance of these assets in deterring nuclear war, operational command ties remained with CINCSAC.13 We now recognize, however, that responsibility for control of these aircraft should pass to the theater commander so that targeting, allocation, tasking, and execution of these assets will be in the hands of the person who knows what is going on.14 We have yet to acknowledge that the responsibility should belong to the air component commander rather than the theater CINC. Under a new concept presented at the 1988 US Air Force Aerospace Power Symposium, SAC proposed that a strategic area of responsibility (SAR) be designated within a theater and that SAC forces operate in that SAR under what amounts to mission-type orders.15 The SAR would be an area accessible only by heavy bomber or principally by this aircraft.
(3) Naval Air. Depending on the theater CINC's objectives and the state of battle, the naval component commander may have carrier sorties available. Similarly, Marine air-ground, task-force aircraft sorties may be available. If the overall theater situation so dictates, these excess sorties should be placed at the disposal of the ACC's control system for targeting, allocation, tasking, and execution. This recommendation does not imply that the ACC should control all air operations of the naval component commander. Far from it. When naval component commanders are using organic naval air to conduct the naval campaign, they are in the best position to understand its capabilities/limitations and to integrate it with surface and subsurface operations. In fact, the ACC cooperates with the naval component commander in fulfilling theater objectives. This cooperation is in addition to that provided by the ongoing counterair and air interdiction campaign (e.g., assisting with defensive operations at sea). When the naval component commander has organic air culpability and associated command and control capabilities--as in an amphibious operation--the ACC provides the air effort, including targeting, allocation, tasking, and execution. ACCs support naval component commanders who have no organic tactical air (e.g., commander, Naval Forces Southern Europe--COMNAVSOUTH) in much the same way they provide close air support to land component commanders.
(4) Special Operations Forces (SOF). When SOF forces are operating in an area where the ACC is conducting AI and are conducting operations applicable to the AI campaign (e.g., gathering intelligence), they should be part of the ACC's effort.
(5) Army Weapons. As the Army employs weapons with ranges upward of 200 kilometers (kin), it becomes clear that those systems need to be closely integrated into the air interdiction campaign to take advantage of their extreme range. The ratification of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty will soon remove ground-launched missile systems with ranges exceeding 500 km, but other long-range systems remain in the Army inventory or can be procured.16 The question of command and control of surface-to-surface missiles becomes more important as technology makes them effective participants in non-nuclear counterair and air interdiction campaigns. Logically, control of targeting, allocation, tasking, and execution for such weapons belongs to the commander responsible for the overall direction of a particular campaign. If these systems are not integrated into the AI campaign, it is possible that they might inadvertently destroy friendly aircraft. For example, if timing is particularly bad, a Lance missile could conceivably arrive at the very moment that AI aircraft are delivering their ordnance. At the very least, these weapons should be closely integrated with the ACC's tasking because no one would conduct close air support without closely integrating it with the land force's scheme of fire and maneuver.
In sum, air interdiction must be conducted as an integrated campaign by a single commander who has the tools and authority to accomplish the mission. The ideal candidate for conducting AI is the air component commander because this officer commands or controls most of the applicable assets and has the information to make timely decisions. The ACC should be the coordinating authority for the overall interdiction effort in the theater and must always keep in mind the objectives assigned by the theater CINC. Mission-oriented command and control is fully applicable to air interdiction, and not until it is rigorously applied will we be able to gain the maximum benefit from our efforts.
Col Clifford R. Krieger (USAFA; MA, University of Southern California) is chief of the Strategy Division, Joint Chiefs of Staff. He has served as commander of the 86th Tactical Fighter Wing; as assistant deputy chief of staff, plans, at Headquarters USAFE; and as chief of the Doctrine Division at Headquarters USAF. He is a graduate of the Royal Air Force Staff College, Army War College, Air Command and Staff College, and Air 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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