Air University Review, November-December 1977
S. J. Deitchman
LITTLE can be said about the characteristics and component functions of new weapons and aircraft that is not already generally well known from reading trade journals such as Aviation Week. In recent years, however, I have been able to participate in extensive analyses of the quantitative relationships among these weapons and aircraft and the tasks they must accomplish. Such analyses can help generate perspective not available from simple comparisons of the numbers and characteristics of individual systems. It is this integrated view of current and future directions in the evolution of tactical air power that I will focus on in this article.
The rapid advance of technology raises uncertainty and concerns about the use of tactical air power today. In part because of the claims of some proponents of air power,1 there has been in the past, both remote and recent, a tendency to expect that it can, by itself, win key battles and wars. Experience has shown that this expectation is seldom realized. Air forces occupy no territory, and by themselves they have defeated no armies. But they can have a powerful impact on battles.
Thus it has long been true, from World War II to Vietnam, that the unopposed ability of aircraft to deliver weapons in immediate support of one side in a ground battle has made it difficult if not impossible for the opposite side to operate. American forces at Anzio in World War II had trouble establishing their beachhead until German aircraft were driven from the battle area.2 In the 1944 battle of the Ardennes, it was difficult for the Allies to exert immediate and integrated resistance while moving their overwhelmingly strong ground forces to meet the German attack because the weather was poor and their aircraft could not operate.3 In the 1967 Middle East War, Israel defeated the Jordanian forces by first pounding them from the air and then attacking on the ground while they were still reeling from the air attack.4 In Vietnam, the Viet Gong and North Vietnamese tended to break off a battle on the ground when American or South Vietnamese forces received direct air support. The strong use of air power was largely responsible for preventing besieged Khe Sanh from becoming a little Dien Bien Phu.5
The use of air in this manner, however, is controversial among the Western world's air forces. The controversy arises from the difficulty of achieving the necessary close coordination between the ground and the air forces, especially in highly mobile war and particularly if air tactics dictate very-low-altitude flight to evade the defenses, since under those conditions target acquisition and avoidance of fratricide are extremely difficult. Less concrete, but nevertheless important, each air force has its "style" and plans for combat under particular conditions consistent with that style. An Israeli Air Force colonel remarked to me after the 1967 war that the Israeli armed forces at that time did not believe in using precious and expensive aircraft as cannon. But, in fact, the problems of economy of force, together with the opportunities for rapid massing of heavy fire, in most of the Western military forces, have reinforced the trend toward less use of artillery and more use of aircraft for close support of engaged forces.
While the desirability and means of providing close air support may be controversial, there has been no disagreement about the advantages of using air to attack the enemy beyond the immediate area of conflict between the ground forces--from the distance just past artillery range and beyond. Here, targets and missions have been many. They range through destruction of command posts and communication centers; disorganization and attrition of units moving to the battle; elimination of long-range weapons such as opposing aircraft and surface-to-surface missile systems; and disruption of the supporting transportation system--roads, railroads, bridges, tunnels, junctions--to delay or prevent the forward movement of troops and supplies.
The effects of tactical air attacks in the enemy's rear tend to be more ambiguous and difficult to establish, however, than the effects of direct support of "troops in contact." The Germans felt that the Luftwaffe, in 1940, had protected the flanks of their advancing columns against French counterattacks.6 The Allied air attacks against German installations and communication lines in France succeeded in cordoning off a large area around the invasion zone in 1944, making it difficult for the Germans to shift their forces to meet the invasion and requiring them to incur the delays attending their ability to move only at night.7 This mode of using tactical air benefited considerably from the lessons of Operation Strangle, which had taken place earlier in Italy in 1944. This operation was supposed to prevent resupply of the German defensive Gustav line south of Rome. It did not succeed in doing that. Yet it was found afterwards, in the outcome of the battle and when the records on both sides were examined, that the extensive bombing of the supply and transport routes had prevented the German commander, Field Marshal Kesselring, from shifting units to and across the front in the face of the Allied offensive, and thereby made a critically important contribution to the success of the Allied drive north. (Even during the battle, Sir John Slessor, the Deputy Air Commander in Italy, noted that "supply denial could not be achieved without the need for ground action that would impose heavy consumption on the enemy." He also became aware that "air power could make a possibly more important contribution by denying the enemy armies their power of movement while under attack, when mobility would be at a premium."8)
A similar attempt at supply denial in Korea (also called Operation Strangle), in the summer of 1951, failed to prevent resupply by the Chinese and North Koreans. But it did force them to move troops and supplies at night and to make extensive efforts to camouflage those movements, at a cost in prosecuting the war which we cannot know. 9 Similarly, in Vietnam (leaving aside the quasi-strategic aspects of the air campaign, designed to persuade the North Vietnamese that they did not want to pay the price for continuing the war, or to act as a "bargaining chip" in negotiations),10 the bombing campaigns in North Vietnam and Laos failed to stop North Vietnamese support of the war and resupply of their own and Viet Cong forces in the south. But this support clearly required a large effort on their part, with extensive losses, to keep adequate supplies moving into South Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. More important in the long run, and not commonly recognized, the incessant bombing and gunship missions against the road net in Laos prevented rapid reinforcement of Communist forces in the south in the course of a single campaign season, by requiring about three months' footmarch from North Vietnam to the battlefields in the south along jungle trails, instead of a week's ride in trucks along the roads that had been built for moving supplies. The impact was illustrated dramatically in the spring of 1975, when this restraint no longer acted, and the North Vietnamese could take advantage of the confusion of the sudden South Vietnamese withdrawal from the Central Highlands to bring the war decisively to Saigon's environs with massive troop movements along good roads in a few weeks.11
Thus, it can be seen that although on the battlefield "victory through air power" alone is illusory, tactical air operating as part of a concerted air-ground campaign can have a powerful and direct effect on the outcome of battles and more subtle but no less important effects on sequences of battles by attacking the communications zone behind the front. Although in consideration of a conflict between two sides, both of which have extensive and effective air forces, the drive to gain air superiority by destroying the other side's aircraft has come to symbolize the struggle between air forces, it is clear that this effort is supportive of the primary mission. Air superiority or supremacy is needed to allow one side's own air force to have the desired effect on the ground battle and to prevent the air forces of the other side from doing the same.
There have been, since the mass use of air power in World War II, many arguments about priority in the air-to-ground war. Until recently these arguments generally took the approach that air superiority must be gained first, with subsequent attacks against the ground. The following quotation is typical, and although it dates from 1943 it expresses views still held in many air forces (including, until very recently, parts of the U.S. Air Force):
16. MISSIONS.--a. The mission of the tactical air force consists of three phases of operations in the following order of priority:
(1) First priority.--To gain the necessary degree of air superiority. This will be accomplished by attacks against aircraft in the air and on the ground, and against those enemy installations which he requires for the application of air power.
(2) Second priority.--To prevent the movement of hostile troops and supplies into the theater of operations or within the theater.
(3) Third priority.--To participate in a combined effort of the air and ground forces, in the battle area, to gain objectives on the immediate front of the ground forces. . . .
Airplanes destroyed on an enemy airdrome and in the air can never attack our troops. The advance of ground troops often makes available new airdromes needed by the air force. Massed air action on the immediate front will pave the way for an advance. However, in the zone of contact; missions against hostile units are most difficult to control are most expensive, and are, in general least effective. Targets are small, well-dispersed, and difficult to locate. In addition, there is always a considerable chance of striking friendly forces due to errors in target designation, errors in navigation, or to the fluidity of the situation. Such missions must be against targets readily identified from the air, and must be controlled by phase lines, or bomb safety lines which are set up and rigidly adhered to by both ground and air units. Only at critical times are contact zone missions profitable.12
However, such views are currently changing because of the recognition that wars where both sides can use their air forces may not (as will be illustrated quantitatively later) last long enough for the sequence to be enforceable. Thus it is now accepted that, particularly against superior forces, it may be necessary to undertake air-to-ground warfare and the attempt to gain air superiority simultaneously.13 But all these arguments have the same end in view: maximizing the opportunities for observing the enemy's dispositions and movements and carrying firepower against his ability to wage war on the ground.
Since World War II there has been considerable evolution of the techniques of air warfare, in keeping with the changing capabilities of both the aircraft and the defenses against them. Air attacks against ground targets on and beyond the battlefield have become complex operations requiring extensive communication, theater-wide coordination, and massive support.
To provide direct support of troops under fire, friendly forces must explicitly designate the individual targets for air attack. In the last years of World War II, and in Korea and Vietnam, where close support aircraft did not face significant air or surface-based opposition over the battlefield, the light, slow forward air controller (FAC) aircraft flying at fairly low altitude came to fulfill this role. The designation of targets for close support can, of course, also be performed from the ground. A ground observer or ground FAC is likely to be much more restricted in how far he can see than an airborne FAC--perhaps two to four kilometers in open country and possibly much less in the heat and smoke of battle--and at critical times he may be in imminent danger of being overrun. But since he is in intimate contact with the battle, he may be required to act because the airborne FAC is not available. 14 In the future, forward observers or FACs on the ground (or in the air, if they are not driven away by the defenses) are likely to be equipped with laser designators. With laser spot seekers in the aircraft, conversion to attack then requires little further communication with the FAC, thereby greatly increasing the rapidity and efficiency of the attack sequence.
The growing power of ground-based air defenses has thrown the viability of the slow airborne FAC into question. The FAC in a fast airplane would also be vulnerable to the defenses if he must orbit in search of targets, and if he must move as part of the attack formation, he may have as great difficulty in target acquisition as the other pilots. Often, however, this "fast FAC" may be the only carrier of the target acquisition means--such as a Pave Tack FLIR/ designator pod for night attack-and then he would be indispensable. In close air support, he would nevertheless still face the problem of identifying objects as enemy targets. For reasons such as these, there is experimentation with small, hard-to-detect remotely piloted vehicles,15 which can carry various sensors and laser designators and which, it is hoped, may in time be able to replace the vulnerable airborne FAC in the close air support system.
The provision of close air support calls for continuing and extensive efforts to solve the problems posed by ever evolving weaponry and tactics. Interservice coordination on the battlefield, the determination of target priority when there are limits on the numbers and availability of close support aircraft, procedures to determine whether and when air is to be called in--all are problems requiring continuing attention. The controversies of the mid-sixties and early seventies regarding the choice between Air Force fixed-wing aircraft and Army helicopters for close support arose from these adjustments.16 However, the U.S. Air Force's commitment to provision of close air support was confirmed in the crucible of war--during the years of Vietnam as well as in Korea--and most recently with the adoption, in 1974, of the A-10 aircraft specifically for this purpose. Vietnam also proved the value of the armed helicopter, which was able to operate in unique ways not available to fixed-wing aircraft, and today the controversies are muted with the two types of aircraft filling complementary roles.
For attacks well beyond the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA), air forces must obtain and evaluate target information without assistance from ground combat units, although the progression of the ground battle will influence surveillance and reconnaissance priorities. The data obtained by aircraft having various sensors--"eyeballs," cameras, radar, direction-finding equipment--all have different formats, precision, and time constants, and they must be processed and combined with other intelligence to produce information on the enemy, his weapons, and his movements in sufficient detail and in good time for planning effective air attacks. The rapidity of maneuver expected in war between armored forces--for example, a unit thirty to fifty kilometers to the rear of the FEBA might enter the battle in a few hours, or a missile launcher even farther back might fire at any time--requires great effort, in research and development and operational training programs, to improve the quality, focus, and timeliness of combat intelligence and target information. The problem, of course, is that the cost of the information increases dramatically as the time from sensing to presenting processed data for use decreases.
For example, as the task has been configured, an aircraft with a relatively inexpensive camera or a side-looking radar flies its mission, returns home, a recording film is developed, analyzed by photointerpreters, and the information sent to the commander, who must merge it with other inputs and then decide on target allocations. The entire process consumes from one to six hours, and during this time the armored unit mentioned earlier may have entered the battle, achieving surprise and perhaps decision. If it is desired to have the detailed information for analysis within a few minutes from the time the aircraft observes the armored unit the unit mayor may not be disposed so it is visible to the pilot*), automatic developing and scanning equipment and a data link, the latter designed to be electronic countermeasure (ECM) resistant, can be associated with the camera or radar on the aircraft. All of this equipment would raise the cost of the on-board equipment, while the photointepretation and data distribution system on the ground, as well as the C3-associated decision delays, would still be present. The provision of computers for information processing, synthesis, and display as well as jam-resistant communications links to transfer the data, all add to the cost, increasingly so as their capacity and timeliness increase. The attending centralization of functions also increases the vulnerability of the entire system to degradation or elimination by enemy attack.
*During the planning for the Market-Garden operation in World War II, two German armored divisions moved, unknown to the Allies, into the vicinity of Arnhem. The few observations and isolated tank photographs by reconnaissance pilots were not persuasive enough to affect the plans for the operation. See, Cornelius Ryan, A Bridge Too Far (New York: Popular Library, 1974), pp. 158-63.
All this, it might be noted, simply provides information of varying precision about a kind of target and where it was last seen. The attack pilots who arrive after some delay-length depending on whether they were in loiter or on the ground--must, in current circumstances, reacquire the target for attack when they arrive in the target area, if it is still there and in a form that matches the earlier description. Of course, in some circumstances on a dynamic battlefield populated by numerous forces, it may be possible to use a fixed reference that persists for some time. For example, if extensive traffic is moving through a road junction over a period of time, it may be sufficient, and may have an even greater impact on the battle, to designate anything found in the crossroads, rather than specific units, as targets.
In the attacks following target location and fragging of missions, many of the available sorties will engage in other than direct strike duties. Given the requirements for combat air patrol, defense suppression, and escort and standoff ECM support, the total number of aircraft engaged in a strike operation can exceed by a factor of two of four those actually involved in attacking primary targets on the ground. Moreover, in a surge situation such as that which might attend a breakthrough attempt by Warsaw Pact forces in a European war, several hundred attack sorties might be required in a few hours in the narrow space of a corps front and a few tens of kilometers beyond it.
The "command pyramid, "including the tactical air control center, direct air support centers, and forward air control parties--all with interconnecting communications among themselves, to the ground forces, and to all the aircraft--has grown to facilitate the integration of information and close coordination required in such air operations. Further evolution will be necessitated by developments in both offensive and defensive weaponry.
Once all this complex mechanism, whose objective is to have a significant impact on enemy fighting capability, has been established, it would be desirable if it indeed had the intended effect. However, while aircraft attack performance has continued to improve, as Shown in Table I, a persistent limitation on the effectiveness of tactical air has been the accuracy of weapon delivery. While the circle of error probability (CEP) of conventional (ballistic) weapon delivery can be a hundred feet or less in practice or test sessions on a bombing range, extensive experience and data show that in combat, with the uncertainty of target location and the stress of pilots under fire, typical accuracies are likely to be several times that. This is true for bombs; in some cases, such as strafing vehicles on roads, weapon accuracies can be better, but these instances, while not negligible in number, are specialized and do not typify the effectiveness of attack aircraft.
Night and bad weather have created additional problems for weapon delivery from the air. For fairly clear nighttime conditions it has been possible, although restrictive, to make ground attacks by parachuting flares to light the battlefield for a time. Low-light-level TV or infrared (FLIR) systems, under appropriate atmospheric conditions, can show targets such as tanks, trucks, or structures that stand out from the terrain. Although these devices now open up the night to "visual" attack on targets, the distances to which they can "see" and their image quality under many conditions are sufficiently limited that pilots cannot use them for random searching as they would use their eyes in the daytime. To illustrate, Figure 1 shows typical (calculated) probabilities of recognition of a tank by a forward-looking infrared (FLIR) sensor, for each hour and day of the month of January 1970, under conditions at Hannover, Germany. These data are extracted from an unclassified study originated under AGARD auspices.17 While with appropriate optics and displays, and under good conditions, such ranges might be as high as 6-7 km, it is apparent that atmospheric conditions often prevent seeing with the FLIR at all, and that high-probability recognition ranges will not consistently be over a few kilometers. Thus in order to use these aids to night attack, pilots must know a priori where they are going and what they are looking for and be able navigate accurately (with or without out-side assistance) to a point from which target reacquisition for weapon delivery is possible.
If the weather is closed in, then air-to-ground attacks must depend on radar systems (such as TPQ-27 or MSQ-77) or on other guidance schemes that use accurate navigation (such as LORAN C/D, GPS NA VSTAR, DME guidance) for direction to blind release points or to positions from which reacquisition by on-board radars is possible. Which on-board radars may be useful for acquiring large, fixed targets, pilots need some form of external assistance (even if it is only the form of contextual information provide from external intelligence sources in he missions briefing) to fly to the locations of small mobile targets and to identify the "blobs" on the radar screen as the targets they are seeking. If it is desired to become, more certain by becoming more elaborate and spending more, moving target indication (MTI) can be added to the on-board radars. Then the aircraft would be able to attack such targets as vehicles moving on roads (and these are often the targets of greatest interest) in what might almost be an armed reconnaissance mode--provided the vehicles are moving faster than the minimum detection velocity of the radar. The latter is gradually being reduced, although the radar costs tend to rise as capabilities are added. Accurate navigation or externally assisted guidance to the general target areas, and prior or current assistance in identifying the "blobs" as the targets to be attacked, would still be necessary; navigation to known road locations in enemy territory may be sufficient if friendly forces are not nearby.
The problem with all these approaches to bad-weather bombing is that they tend to be no more accurate than visual bombing, and in most cases less so--sometimes very much less. The utility of the achievable accuracies (in either the visual or radar bombing cases) depends on the weapons and the targets. The accuracies cited might, at an earlier time, have been considered satisfactory for delivery of nuclear weapons, but CEPs of several hundred feet might not be compatible with the current desire to combine smaller yield with higher accuracy to reduce collateral damage.18 Conventional high-explosive weapons delivered with such accuracies would be devastating to troops in the open or in unprotected vehicles or buildings, and they could also destroy large, fixed targets such as groups of buildings or arrays of stored supplies. But troops on a modern battlefield are likely to be in armored personnel carriers (APCs), and against hard targets such as concentrations of armored vehicles, any effect from inaccurate bomb delivery would have to come from the mass of weapons delivered in the area rather than from targets directly destroyed. This would be an uncertain effect and could not be relied on to be effective. Similarly, there would be little assurance that such structures as bridges could be destroyed or even seriously damaged.
In the early- to mid-1960s a number of technological advances appeared to help remedy these terminal effectiveness problems. One was the development of cluster weapons, such as Rockeye, which have distributed terminal effects. Against hard targets their effectiveness depends very much on the disposition of the targets in relation to the submunition pattern. If armor is closely spaced on a road or concentrating for an assault, such weapons can be very effective even in blind or radar-assisted release modes. Against widely dispersed targets (and the effective use of such weapons will doubtless encourage dispersion when ground units come under air attack), the weapon effectiveness falls off rapidly as CEP increases.
Two other approaches have concentrated on increasing the accuracy of weapon delivery or of the weapon itself. One has been the development of accurate bombing systems, such as that in the A-7D/E aircraft, using inertial navigation with a bombing computer for accurate target tracking and automatic weapon release. In the future, the navigation and positioning task might be done by a satellite navigation system such as the NAVSTAR, but the principle would be the same. Such bombing errors to about of their previous value,19 but they are expensive; and because they are complex, their reliability is not as high as might be desired.
The other new approach to accurate weapon delivery is weapon guidance. There have been guided air-to-ground weapons since World War II. The Germans made use of crude radio-guided bombs against Allied ships at Anzio,20 and the United States was experimenting with the AZON, RAZON, and TARZON optically command-guided bombs at the end of the war.21 The advent of laser guidance and successful optical contrast seekers led to the first practical air-to-ground weapons (popularly known as precision-guided munitions or PGMs) that could attack small, hard targets with accuracies of a few feet.
Of course, each new kind of equipment brings its own complexities, in this case such things as the need for a two-part team to use some weapons, the requirement for weapon release within the "guidance envelope" (similar to the need for a precise release point for ballistic bombs), the need for high reliability in the guidance system, and the requirement for appropriate atmospheric conditions or a lack of (inadvertent or deliberate) smoke on the battlefield that might interfere with guidance. Nevertheless, even accounting for all such problems, these weapons, combined with the load-carrying capability of modern jet aircraft, have drastically changed the nature of tactical air's potential impact. Table II sums up the implications of the combination by comparing statistics for Operation Strangle in World War II with the results of performance calculations for current aircraft, in terms of an arbitrary but meaningful measure: tank-killing potential. In appropriate circumstances, noted above, cluster weapons might achieve results similar to those achievable with PGMs. It is clear that although modern aircraft are much more expensive (by a factor of 20 or more) individually, a much smaller force can now do much more than was possible in World War II.
NOW, even aside from the doctrinal differences about usage and the sometimes disappointing expectations for tactical air effectiveness that we have discussed, these advances do not yet seem to lead to the anticipation of--nor did experiences like Vietnam and the 1973 Middle East War show them to have--the unequivocal impact on modern land warfare that the numbers shown in Table II suggest they might have. Why?
First, the uses of air-delivered PGMs in recent wars were too limited to be decisive, and the awareness of their current shortcomings remains keen. Second, the high costs of the aircraft limit their numbers, so that even with the best performance in a large-scale war the available air force may well run out of sorties long before it runs out of vitally important targets and day-to-day missions. Third, tactical air will not always work as planned, either in achieving expected sortie rates or in its ability to deliver weapons under the good conditions usually incorporated in battle plans, because the enemy and the weather will not cooperate. Fourth and most important, the ground-based air defenses (which have also capitalized on guidance technology) have advanced to match the air attack capability.
Figure 2 is designed to convey schematically an impression of the type and density of overlapping coverage that can be obtained today by a complete, multistage air defense system using a combination of radar-directed guns and surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) having diverse radar and infrared guidance schemes. In Vietnam the presence of the relatively crude SA-2 induced our aircraft to operate at low altitude where they were vulnerable to optically and radar-directed gunfire. A defense array such as that shown in Figure 2 would be far more difficult to withstand and requires a great diversity of countermeasures, all adding to the cost and complexity of the attack. The nature of the problem was well illustrated by the Soviet air defense systems deployed by the Arabs against which the Israelis had to fly in the 1973 Middle East War.22
Of course, defense systems also have weaknesses; they are susceptible to jamming and deception, 23 and they are also vulnerable (after exacting a penalty) to multiple-aircraft attacks specifically designed to neutralize or destroy them. The surface-to-air missiles are large and expensive and not easy to transport and to load on launchers for sequential firings in large quantities on the battlefield. At some point a massive attack against the defenses could saturate their target acquisition and tracking capability and run them out of ammunition. However, the Soviet Union has compensated for the West's more technically advanced systems by sheer weight of numbers. Although their individual systems might be more easily countermeasured and might have to fire more missiles to hit an airplane, calculations show that the great volume of fire that their numerous and diverse system can put up could, unless tactics are changed, cause so much attrition of attacking aircraft that in a short time there would remain insufficient offensive strength to be useful. Here, then, is obverse of the capability shown in Table II.
Clearly, for tactical air power to do its work against ground forces, the defenses must first be defeated. In Vietnam, defense suppression tactics were developed so that in every attack against North Vietnam a significant fraction of the attacking aircraft were used to countermeasure and attack the defenses. Precision-guided munitions were used in these efforts, too, including, for example, radar-homing missiles such as the Shrike.
An obvious countermeasure to radar homing is to shut the radars off; but without them, of course, there is no defense. This problem for the defense can be alleviated by extensive use of decoys and by netting the radars to permit the entire, integrated defense network to react and support opposition, even if degraded, to penetrations at particular locations. Over North Vietnam, even with suppression, the defenses took their toll of both the attack and the suppression aircraft.
The advent of time of arrival distance measuring equipment (TOA/DME) emitter-location systems with appropriate, near-real-time processing will in the near future enable the delivery of missiles or guided glide bombs against the radar-directed defenses from standoff positions. Thus, losses during defense suppression would be much reduced, the nature of the aircraft systems required to support a strike would be changed to free more attack aircraft for their primary purpose, and fewer defenses would remain to oppose the attack aircraft. In the more distant future such standoff technology might be coupled with improvements in long-range MTI radar for use against the primary targets. However, currently and in the near future the problems of acquiring nonemitting targets, limitations on the number of weapons that can be launched and remotely controlled, and the projected high cost of the early generations of standoff weapons-all tend to inhibit the full development of the capability. The technology is likely to be used first for suppression of the longer-range, less mobile defenses, and in that mode it would assist attack of targets from altitudes above the range of the more numerous forward, highly mobile air defense systems shown in Figure 2. Weather permitting, or with the more advanced bad-weather attack systems that future radar and guidance technology may bring about, this would in any case be the preferred mode.
While suppression remains necessary, it will have to be done in concert with the air-to-ground attacks that are the reason for it all. The acquisition and processing of information about the defenses, rapid conversion to attack against them, simultaneous location, classification, and tracking of primary targets, and rapid follow-up by attack aircraft will all place new demands on the responsiveness of the C3 system; and as noted above, they are certain to require restructuring of the system, probably toward less centralization, especially during periods of intense operations.
Aircraft losses in these operations are likely to be heaviest during the initiation of the attack and during the suppression phase, while the defenses can be expected to become less and less effective, more disorganized, and low in missile stocks as the battle progresses. There would thus be a great advantage to pressing the attack once the difficult and expensive defense suppression stage has been successfully undertaken; as in ground warfare, mass and aggressiveness are important. This may be a difficult sequence to pursue, but it may be the only way to achieve success in the air-ground war until the day when advancing technology brings the capability for massed attack from standoff in reach.
Of course, if the defenses are mobile and numerous, all will not be taken out or evaded with certainty; and some of those struck might be repaired. Thus, even the advanced technology is unlikely to defeat all defenses at once, and the outcome would not be certain for either side. What is certain is the growing cost all this use of advanced technology entails for both sides.
We could, as the British say, "do the sums" to add up the total cost of the attack, including the remote or standoff defense suppression and attack systems, the complex target acquisition, and the guided weapons and divide that cost by the number of targets that could be destroyed, including the effect of losing aircraft to the defenses. We could also add up the cost of the defenses, including the search and tracking radars and the netted command and control system, required to destroy some numbers of the attacking aircraft and thereby save targets on the ground from being destroyed by them. The resulting cost trend, as sophisticated attack and defense systems proliferate, would be such that either to destroy a target or to save it from destruction may come to cost more than the target itself. Thus, both sides must increasingly justify the expenditures, not on an individual-system, cost-effectiveness basis but in terms of the value of winning the battle or the war, which is not quantifiable in any practical sense.
Among the difficult-to-quantify alternatives are the tactics and objectives of air-to-ground warfare. The advent of PGMs and the consciousness of the massive armored threat that has accompanied our renewed concentration on NATO problems have encouraged a trend toward air support concepts that stress one-on-one dueling between attack aircraft and armored fighting vehicles at critical locations. But the cost trends noted, as well as the difficulties of doing the job, suggest caution about excessive reliance on this approach. Analyses show that in the environment of armored warfare, the air component may well pay for itself better by attacking supporting arms such as artillery, or by interdiction beyond the battlefield to delay and weaken the entry of second-echelon forces into the battle, than by destruction of armor per se. However, the latter will be necessary sometimes, and it might best be undertaken at locations near the FEBA, where the ground forces can help suppress the close-in mobile defenses, or against units attempting to exploit a breakthrough, when they may outrun many of their covering defenses. All this speaks for a variety of weapons and tactics, extensive and effective coordination with the ground forces, and great flexibility and responsiveness to local and strategic developments in prosecuting the air war.
THUS far we have deferred consideration of the air superiority battle and the use of interceptors and fighters to escort and protect or to intercept and destroy ground attack aircraft. Here the relationship between the major players is the same, withal adding greater complexity. While the United States and other Western countries have developed air-to-air technology to a higher level than the Soviet Union,24 the U.S.S.R. has acquired greater numbers of systems. 25 Until the late 1960s, the Soviets appeared to concentrate on short-range interceptors such as the MiG-21 in various versions to supplement and back up their ground-based air defenses. NATO, while it has ground-based air defense systems, earlier concentrated more on the use of high-performance fighter aircraft, such as the F -4 and F-111, to gain air superiority primarily by destroying opposing air forces on the ground.
However, with both sides building shelters extensively (and the extension of shelters elsewhere, as the experience of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War demonstrated), 26 it is now extremely difficult to destroy an air force on the ground; thus unless nuclear weapons are used, there is little hope of success for the old doctrine. Hence there must be more reliance on air-to-air combat and effective ground based defense systems to gain air superiority or superemacy. The new generation of Western fighters, such as the F-15 and F-16, has reversed the trend toward increasing gross weight while concentrating more on the performance characteristics useful for air-to-air combat, and a new generation of air defenses, including the Rapier/Roland/Crotale family and the Patriot (formerly SAM-D), is also appearing.
Concurrently, the Soviet Union appears to have changed the policy that concentrated on short-range interceptors and light to medium bombers in favor of increasingly heavy attack aircraft with long-range strike capability. The trend in Soviet tactical air development relative to that of the United States is shown in Figure 3.27 This does not imply that the U.S.S.R. still adheres to the air superiority doctrine that was outmoded by shelters. It does suggest, however, the growth of an offensive tactical air capability patterned on or similar to ours. The intensification of interest and effort by the U.S. and NATO in ground-based air defenses is being driven in part by awareness of this trend. Thus, as shown in the summary chart of Figure 4, the synthesis of technological opportunity and perception of the opposition imposes its own cyclic logic and convergence on both sides' capability, tactics, and doctrine.
Also shown in Figure 4 is the appearance of the U.S. Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) command and control system. While the idea behind the AWACS is certainly not new, this system introduces a new order of capability in airborne warning control. The central role of radar in command control and weapon guidance in warfare has encouraged a trend toward very low-altitude flight to gain the advance of a near horizon and terrain masking--this despite the attending greater difficulty target acquisition. Both NATO and the U.S.S.R. to different degrees have undertaken of the two possible steps to defeat this tactic: proliferation of ground-based radars elevation of radars on aircraft. Extensive low-altitude radar coverage on the ground obviously requires considerably more men and money than are needed for fewer radars that provide high-altitude, age alone. In addition, a multiplicity of altitude SAM defenses must be proliferated with the gap filler radars, if the information they provide is to be used, or else the bat information and control system must be made more complex to control fighters after integrating data from a multiplicity of sources, or both. The Soviet proliferation of mobile SAM defenses clearly helps do part of mobile job for them.
But raising the radars on high-flying air, and providing them with ground clutter rejection and ECM resistance are also expensive, and the aircraft are, of course, exposed. If they fly at high altitude well behind combat area, friendly fighters can give m a measure of protection--how much protection is a subject of extensive argument. All systems, including ground-based radars, vulnerable to attack; the AWACS aircraft be configured to carry out the equivalent the ground-controlled interception (GCI) function from the air. In doing this they would become airborne command centers controlling the air-to-air battle. Thus, the air-borne radar and associated combat control stem contributes to its own protection, and can lead to much more effective and efficient use of the ground and tactical air resources than would be possible otherwise--as long as the airborne system survives. The potential vulnerability of the AWACS system and its high unit cost (on the order of $60 million, in 1976 dollars, per aircraft, 28 for 30 to 40 aircraft) have raised considerable controversy about its acquisition, both in the United States Congress and with our NATO Allies who have been invited to purchase it. But, although less conspicuous because there are many more units of equipment, each one relatively inexpensive, a wholly ground-based system that would be equally effective across a large front such as that in Central Europe may well cost about as much and may be equally vulnerable, although in different ways.
NOW THAT we have laid out the main directions of the modern evolution of tactical air warfare, we must take stock of their meaning. In part, this depends on the comparisons we have made between trends in Western and Soviet forces and doctrines. Although Western technology continues to be more advanced, the Soviets are advancing also, so that differences in technology evolving over the years might be considered to remain constant, on the average. What the Soviets lack in quality they make up for in quantity, and the big question is whether the better quality of American and other Western weapons more than compensates for the greater Soviet quantity.
Without attempting an answer to this question, which depends on complex and uncertain analyses using the detailed performance characteristics of systems on both sides, it is convenient to explore another aspect of its significance in terms of "exchange ratio" --targets destroyed per attacking aircraft lost. Suppose that we retain the technological edge as technology advances on both sides, so that the exchange ratio can be assumed to remain the same even as both sides' systems improve (it would not remain the same if one side improved while the other did not). Then the increasingly greater destructive capacity attending the system improvements will cause the loss rates on both des to be much higher. The effect on the pace of air warfare is illustrated in Table III. This shows the need for adjustment of air-to-ground tactics and priorities, discussed earlier, to maximize the payoff from a very large vestment that may be drawn down very rapidly.
All of this describes the anticipated situation were the two strongest nations or alliances to interact militarily. But the nature of the technology is such that this kind of dénouement can take place elsewhere--it occurred, for example, in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, where Israel had a powerful air force d Egypt and Syria had some of the Soviet air defense weapons. We also found in Vietnam, that although the North Vietnamese air force itself was very weak compared with that of the United States, we were far from having a free ride, because of the early warning systems and air defenses supplied to the North Vietnamese by the Soviet Union--and there were none of the SA-6s and few of the IR SAMs that the Israelis encountered in 1973. In some perhaps significant degree, the problems described for the worst case must be anticipated everywhere.
This development brings us, finally, to the problem of developing a force structure within a budget while incorporating the technological evolution that is becoming a evolution: advanced aircraft, navigation, and target acquisition; PGMs; standoff defense suppression and other countermeasures; AWACS. Figure 5 compares the trends in Air Force budgets and two key elements of the combat system, fighter aircraft and air-to-surface weapons, since 1950. The sequence of weapons selected also represents a progression of standoff capability, symbolizing the new attack technology. While the costs in Figure 5 have not been corrected for inflation, such correction would not change the main trend illustrated: individual system costs are increasing much faster than the overall budget. This uncomfortable relationship has led to a search for Lebensraum within the available resources, and that in turn led to the concept of the "hi-lo" force mix.
This has commonly been interpreted to mean that we would reserve relatively small numbers of the most sophisticated systems for use against the most capable enemy (e.g., in Europe) with large numbers of simple, and therefore cheap, systems for use elsewhere. The problem with this conception is that "elsewhere" may not be different from Europe in terms of opposing capability, and consequently the elements of a successful tactical air system are not separable in terms of scenario. But the high-low idea has merit if it is reinterpreted in terms of an integrated force structure.
It does not take sophisticated and expensive aircraft to launch standoff weapons, to carry a TOA/DME receiver, or to deliver either PGMs or close-in weapons once defenses have been effectively suppressed and targets acquired. The A-10, for example, could serve just as well as an F-4E, F-111, or F-16 in these roles--its large payload would be an advantage. For capabilities now coming into being, the sophistication lies in data processing on the ground, in ECM-resistant C3, in countermeasures-resistant weapon guidance, and in such aids to target acquisition and weapon delivery as FURs and target designators. A force mix combining these elements in appropriate proportion would reduce reliance on self-sufficient aircraft, each of which can perform all of the tasks in air warfare, and would increase reliance on integrated and coordinated subsystems, some in the air and some on the ground, each performing an essential part of the task. Even with appropriate redundancy to cover loss of critical elements of such a force, it will be found that as a whole it would be less expensive and more effective than one which attempts to use "high" technology exclusively for one scenario (but is too small as a result) and to use "low" technology exclusively for another scenario (but is consequently insufficiently effective). In fact, when pressed to it by the exigencies of combat in Vietnam, the USAF adopted such an approach in the field. I believe that the constraints of budget must inevitably encourage the evolution of tactical air power in this direction during peacetime preparation for the tactical air mission, the face of evolving technology and its costs.
IN CLOSING, I might give some attention to anther important philosophical aspect of this unexpected outcome of the march of military technology, which will also become a public issue in discussions of rising defense budgets: if achieving the desired effectiveness of tactical air has been made more difficult and the price keeps rising, why pay the price?
It remains that tactical aircraft are the most flexible means to mass heavy firepower on short notice and bring it where it is desperately needed; to carry firepower deep into enemy territory when that is appropriate; to shift attacks rapidly from one form of tactical target to another and from one location to another as the military situation demands; and to observe what is happening beyond the sight of the land forces so that ad hoc action can be taken to shift effort to meet shifting military situations. It is also clear that, since the anticipated effectiveness of air defenses rests, as does that of tactical air, on many uncertainties, the side that has tactical air while the other does not is still likely to be able to use it to help impose its will at critical times in a conventional military conflict. It would be difficult or impossible to win such a war without tactical air, even though tactical air cannot win it alone. (The outcome in Vietnam might seem to some to belie this, but without arguing that war here we might remember the observation made earlier: the North Vietnamese did not win until the absence of U.S. tactical air gave them greatly increased freedom of movement on the ground.) But tactical air is in a period of rapid change, and the greatest success will go to those who adapt most rapidly and effectively.
Institute for Defense Analyses
1. See, for example, A. P. de Seversky, Victory through Air Power (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1942); C. Bekker, The Luftwaffe War Diaries, translated and edited by F. Ziegler (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1968), pp. 148-51; R. Leckie, Conflict--The History of the Korean War, 1950-53 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962), pp. 53, 318; The Pentagon Papers (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), pp. 307-44.
2. Samuel Eliot Morison, The Two-Ocean War (Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1963), pp. 359-60.
3. Hugh M. Cole, The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge, vol. 7 in United States Army in World War II, The European Theater of Operations (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Chief of Military History, 1965).
4. Author's discussion with Israeli Air Force personnel.
5. Lt. Gen. W. Pearson, The War in the Northern Provinces (Washington, D.C.: Department of the Army, Vietnam Studies Series, 1975).
6. Bekker, p. 142.
7. Morison, p. 387.
8. F. M. Sallager, Operation "STRANGLE" (Italy, Spring 1944: A Case Study of Tactical Air Interdiction, Project Rand Report R-851-PR, prepared for the United States Air Force, February 1972.
9. Leckie, pp. 318-21.
10. The Pentagon Papers.
11. Washington Post, May 30, 1976, p. A-1.
12. War Department Field Manual FM 100-20, Command and Employment of Air Power, 21 July 1943. Emphasis added.
13. See, for example, AF Manual 2-1, Tactical Air Operations--Counter Air Close Air Support and Air Interdiction, Department of the Air Force, 2 May 1969, p. 3-2.
14. Department of the Army Field Manual FM 100-26, The Air-Ground Operations System, March 1973.
15. Aviation Week & Space Technology, July 14, 1975, p. 49.
16. See, for example, Close Air Support, Hearings Before the Special Subcommittee on Close Air Support of the Preparedness Investigating Subcommittee, Committee on Armed Services, U.S. Senate, 92d Congress, October-November 1971.
17. Figure from L. M. Biberman, Effect of Weather at Hannover, Federal Republic of Germany, on Performance of Electro-optical Imaging Systems, Institute for Defense Analyses Paper P-1l23, August 1976.
18. Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Military Applications, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Congress of the United States, 93rd Congress, First Session, Part I, pp. 36-37.
19. For example, Accuracy Demonstrations for Delivery of Iron Bombs, Litton Systems Inc., Guidance and Control Systems Division, Publication No. 13396, September 1975.
20. Morison, pp. 356, 359.
21. Guided Missiles and Techniques (Washington, D.C.: Summary Technical Report of Division 5, National Defense Research Committee, Office of Scientific Research and Development, 1946), pp. 27-47.
22. Aviation Week & Space Technology, December 3, 1973, pp. 18-21.
23. For a complete discussion of electronic warfare, see Aviation Week & Space Technology, January 27, 1975, Special Report on Electronic Warfare, pp. 41-144.
24. See, for example, New York Times, September 22, 1976, technology in the MiG-25 (Foxbat) fighter.
25. See The Strategic Balance, 1975-1976, International Institute of Strategic Studies, London.
26. Aviation Week & Space Technology, May 25, 1970, p. 19, and December 3, 1973, p. 21.
27. Data given in Aviation Week & Space Technology, June 28, 1976, pp. 19-20.
28. Report of the Subcommittee on Defense Appropriations, Department of Defense Appropriation Bill, 1977, Committee on Appropriations, House of Representatives, 94th Congress, Second Session, p. 152.
Seymour J. Deitchman(M.S., State University of New York at Buffalo) is Vice President, Planning and Evaluation, Institute for Defense Analyses, Arlington, Virginia. Before joining IDA in 1960, he worked as an aerodynamicist at NACA's Langley laboratory, with Bell Aircraft Corporation, and on a variety of Air Force and Army tactical and equipment problems. From 1963 to 1969 Mr. Deitchman was in the Department of Defense concerned with R&D support for operations in Southeast Asia. He was a member of the group that designed the unattended ground sensor system applied there. He is author of two books on defense problems and of articles on various subjects.
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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