Air University Review, May-June 1979

Tactical Air Power in Armored Warfare

the divergence within NATO

Dr. Steven L. Canby


The operational mode of the Royal Air Force (RAF), and for that "Latter of the Luftwaffe and British-dominated 2ATAF, differs significantly from that practiced by the USAF and 4ATAF. The RAF relies on low-level (and ultrarapid turnaround) operations. It lacks the tactical air control system (TACS), air defense suppression assets, and guided munitions of the USAF. These distinctions, plus the limited availability of forward air controllers/air liaison officers with ground units, restrict the RAF's ability to mount U .S.-style close air support. On the other hand, as compared to the USAF, RAF operations are less susceptible to disruption, the RAF can generate higher sortie rates, and RAF operations are more closely meshed with ground forces. It should be noted, however, that the doctrinal divergence between the air forces shows some signs of closing. The U.S. experience in the Nellis AFB Red Flag exercises and the debate within the Air Staff indicate that the USAF has begun to appreciate the RAF mode of autonomous operations. The question for the USAF is whether the Red Flag experiences are to be generalized to the force as a whole or limited to the younger participating officers and those with the A-1O, as the USAF continues to pursue elusive state-of-the-art technology that, some argue, negates the effectiveness of the single aircraft (e.g., oversize visually and electronically) as well as the force as a whole.)

Tactical air power has become the single most expensive component of the United States defense budget. Its share of defense outlays is larger than that of the strategic, ground, or naval surface forces. While tactical air power has played a crucial role in the past, its raison d'être has changed over time. In World War I, its salient military function was reconnaissance and artillery-spotting, a role soon overshadowed by the more glamorous but derivative mission of escort protection. Douhettype theories of strategic bombardment that have had a dominant influence on British and American air forces (and on some theories of modern war) gained their attraction from the possibility of avoiding the horrors and strains of attrition warfare on land1--a problem that the Germans solved quite differently in World War II by restoring mobility and the concept of maneuver to their ground forces.

In today's world, the Soviets deploy a combined-arms, tank-heavy force with large numbers of relatively small maneuver units, echeloned in depth. Given the scarcity of Western combatant strength (as opposed to active duty peacetime and mobilizable personnel strengths), some argue that the Soviets could overrun Western Europe in a matter of weeks or even days.2 Such scenarios, almost by definition, invalidate the classic tactical air missions of air superiority and deep interdiction. While air forces have come to recognize the importance of ground support, the requisite changes have been difficult to make. The existing inventories--ordnance, aircraft, and avionics--have been largely designed for deep penetration using conventional and nuclear weapons in a quasi-strategic mode. Most tactics and the organization to support them have also been designed for independent air operations.

In Europe the ongoing shift from a nuclear-oriented strategy to a conventional mission has raised two fundamental questions: which targets and what tactics? In answering these two questions, the United States and its European allies have evolved toward opposing viewpoints. For the U.S. Air Force this disagreement has come at a paradoxical moment. The legacy of Southeast Asia is a strong emphasis on precision weaponry and electronic defense-suppression techniques, both of which have seemingly resolved the problem of target destruction while reducing over-target requirements and losses. Indeed, tactical air forces can now be extremely destructive, provided that targets can be acquired for the newly developed family of air weapons (precision-guided and area munitions, as well as armor-piercing cannon) and provided also that the air-defense environment is permissive (e.g., that it lacks up-to-date electronic countermeasures and an opposing air force).

Critical questions remain unanswered. First, destructive capacity is not necessarily synonymous with military value. These terms would only be interchangeable if firepower were the essence of conventional warfare. This condition may exist in strategic bombardment, but it is not the case in armored warfare and certainly not in insurgency and other amorphous forms of conflict. Second, the operational mode developed in Southeast Asia has failed to come to grips with the problem of target acquisition. Targeting a high-contrast bridge in relatively clear weather is considerably different from targeting low-contrast mobile tanks in the European haze or light infantry in the African bush. There is, finally, a paradox: air forces designed for a sophisticated electronic environment in an Asian "infantry" context may be unnecessarily costly in a high-intensity armored conflict.

In short, of the more-probable conflicts that the U.S. may face--(l) armored warfare in Europe, (2) slow-paced infantry warfare in a Korean-like context, (3) intervention against a small power with some modern weapons, and (4) intervention in an Angolan-like situation-the USAF may be appropriately organized and equipped only for (2) and (3), not for the most dangerous (European) or most likely (Third World) scenarios. For the European it is likely to be ineffective; for the Angolan," overexpensive.

The requirements of a European war supposedly drive the size and shape of the U.S. air forces. As with the ground forces,3 the major question is whether the air forces have been properly structured for the mission. The U.S. approach has evolved toward a high technology system, based on real-time command and control, sophisticated defense suppression, and precision-guided munitions. The Europeans, on the other hand, argue that this system is unduly costly, too susceptible to countermeasures (i.e., nonrobust), and that it is based on an incorrect perception of the nature of the ground war.4 They make the telling point that the medium-altitude window in which the USAF is attempting to fly is in fact closed, and can only be kept open by hyperexpensive and uncertain defense suppression means. European programs, on the other hand, are oriented to the still-open low-altitude window.5 They have derived different views on command and control, operational methods, ordnance choice, and aircraft design, relying more on organizational technique than on high-cost technology.

operational style

As opposed to size, air structure--and relative cost and effectiveness--is set by operational style. The U.S., following its operational experiences in Korea and Vietnam, has opted for an operational style highly dependent on sophisticated technology. The Europeans for their part have opted for a cheaper approach, relying more on tactics and procedure. The result has been a breakdown in common alliance procedures and much controversy.

The USAF--at least until very recently--has argued that the Europeans have failed to understand modern warfare and the requirements of modern technology; the USAF also believes that the Europeans are awed by the U.S. approach and would opt for a similar approach if costs were not an obstacle. The authors own reading--based mainly on discussions with large numbers of European officers--is that the Europeans are indeed awed by the ability of the U.S. to ride roughshod over strength by virtue of its technology. They, too, would like to be capable of a similar approach, but they balk at its cost and doubt its wisdom. Cost makes the approach infeasible unless the numbers of combat aircraft are reduced--an approach which the Europeans find unacceptable. The Europeans believe (1) that strength should be avoided, not met head on; and (2) that technological approaches based on electronics are too susceptible to countermeasures and are therefore undependable.

The differences in operational style have two diverse sources: the Europeans have only regional responsibilities while those of the U.S. are global. Europeans have faced their situation with philosophical insight--the U.S. has employed its technological virtuosity. The Europeans have sought solutions with only their theater in mind. The U.S. has sought solutions applicable to many theaters, relying on technology to overcome all difficulties. In doing so, the U.S. approach may have the attributes of the lowest common denominator: either effectiveness in specific contexts is lowered or so much capability is built into the forces that costs in anyone specific combat context are unnecessarily high. In point of fact, such logically keen solutions can only occur under conditions of optimality (i.e., along the economist's envelope or transformation curve), and the U.S. may in fact be obtaining the worst of both worlds: less than the best performance in all contexts and unnecessary costs in each.

The problem inherent in the U.S. approach is perhaps highlighted by recent exercises (Blue Flag) in which the commander of Tactical Air Command stated,

Special emphasis will be (placed) on standardizing the operational procedures that the tactical air forces use in the Pacific and European Theater.6

Thus, in an attempt to obtain marginal economies (i.e., micro efficiency) from nationally standardized equipment and training practices, the U.S. is foregoing major opportunities (i.e., macro or structural efficiency) to optimize the force for local conditions (i. e., weather, terrain, and the nature of the threat). The result is a force unduly constrained by weather in Europe. Worse, the USAF approach neglects contextual distinctions, as for example between slow-paced infantry conflicts in the Pacific and fast-paced armored conflicts in Europe and in the Mideast.7

U.S. and allied viewpoints:
a juxtaposition

The controversy generated by reforming centralized control of allied air assets illustrates questions of substance and the ease with which national misunderstandings can occur. While the decision has now been made and facilities provided, the substantive issues of degree of control and the manner of execution remain unsettled, reflecting fundamental divergences between the U.S. and British points of view.

The American preference is for a strong centralized Allied Air Forces Central Europe (AAFCE) with its own command and intelligence arrangements, permitting direct monitoring of the situation and direct control (i.e., tasking) of subordinate units (usually wing but down to individual airborne flights on occasion). According to this view, command, control, and communications systems are now sufficiently pervasive and reliable that intermediate headquarters no longer fill time-honored criteria of reducing span of control. A central command staff can thus monitor the entire central front sector (ground and air) and can task the various national air wings directly, eliminating layering of air headquarters staff.

A succinct, quasi-official statement of the USAF view of the concept, implementation problem and a solution to the command and control problem are given by the then USAF Director of Doctrine, Concepts, and Objectives, Brigadier General John E. Ralph:

Concept. A significant role of U.S. tactical air power will be to supplement allied naval, ground, and air forces. The performance of this role, in conjunction with new capabilities, will demand hitherto unknown levels of speed, precision, and flexibility in our command and control arrangements. Present Tactical Air Control Systems (TACS) provide a fundamental capability on which more advanced command and control capabilities should be developed since it incorporates the basic ingredients required for optimum employment of tactical air systems.

Implementation Problem. Past command, control, and communication networks have been unable to meet adequately the information needs of the tactical commander. Vast amounts of data were generated at the execution end of the chain of command, but strategically sensitive details were often buried in a mass of "noise." That fundamental problem is still with us. Advances in selected communications technology have occurred so rapidly that information is assembled at rates beyond the current ability to transmit, process, or use. Software capabilities are inadequate to evaluate the data again criteria of immediate concern to the commander, nor can information be reprocessed and displayed in a manner consistent with battle dynamics.

Implementation Solution. In an effort to improve our capacity for processing data, an information system known as SEEK BUS is being developed which will interface all theater operating elements. This digital network will provide the tactical air commander with all relevant data available in the area of operations on a real-time basis. Automated inputs contain details about the locations of friendly and hostile forces, as well as weapons and target data. The system is receiver-controlled--only the data desired are displayed--and preprogrammed thresholds filter out non-essential information. A digital coding scheme permits display by selected area, category, element, or sub-element. The display may be sufficiently general to permit centralized control, or highly detailed for use by field units. In a fluid battle environment, such a capability would better prepare lower echelons for decentralized operations. An important characteristic of SEEK BUS is that all participants exchange data over a single communication channel at high rates, thereby minimizing problems of capacity and data obsolescence. Furthermore, it will be secure and highly jam-resistant with a low intercept potential. ...SEEK BUS and AWACS will provide local and theater commanders with an increased capability for planning, directing, coordinating, and controlling combat operations. These systems can also be the nucleus for close cooperation and compatibility among all Service and allied control systems.8

The British prefer AAFCE to be an overarching, coordinating headquarters with minimum independent intelligence-gathering and command arrangements. In this view real control (i.e., tasking) is retained at Allied Tactical Air Force (ATAF) level. AAFCE's role is that of allocation: to balance demand for and supply of air assets between the two army groups and tactical air forces. In practice, since the American-dominated 4ATAF has the greater air assets and the Northern Army Group (NORTHAG) lies across the more dangerous and likely avenues of approach, AAFCE's role is to reallocate 4ATAF assets to reinforce the British-dominated 2ATAF. AAFCE's implied peacetime role is to work out procedures for facilitating this cross allocation and reinforcement.

Stripped to essentials, the USAF view is that of a central commander making optimum use of total allied air resources through perfect knowledge of friendly and enemy air and ground dispositions and perfect control of one's own forces.9 In many ways, this is a carryover from strategic nuclear, air defense, and Vietnam offensive air experiences. Its difficulty and past infeasibility for a more complex, two-sided theater war is recognized, but faith is placed in technology to overcome present difficulties in communications, real-time surveillance and reporting, and data processing.

The British and, to a lesser extent, the other Europeans take exception to the fundamental precepts of the USAF view.10 Rather than build on the Tactical Air Control System (TACS), the Europeans reject its crucial features of flight planning and airborne control. They question the USAF's faith in technology, finding it overly costly, operationally uncertain, and unnecessarily restrictive. They also dislike the USAF view of supplement, which implies the detached, rather than integrated application of firepower.11

The British objections center on three points: (1) The U.S. approach implies a wrong view of the air war, that of an air force looking down on the fray rather than thoroughly tying in its operations with the army; (2) Central control is more appropriate for the U.S. style of operations than for the European style; and (3) Reliance on highly automated procedures means inflexibility rather than flexibility if affairs do not go according to plan (i. e., the logical structure of the procedures).

The first British criticism contains philosophical differences in the application of air power, centering on the British view that a strong AT AF collocated with Army Group Headquarters is the keystone in air-ground coordination. Accordingly, the proper coordination between two services and air force sensing of the ground situation can only come about when commanders and their principal staff are collocated. Corps is too low; AFCENT is too far removed from the fray. A fortiori, AAFCE is too far removed, and its marriage with AFCENT is more a matter of form than of substance.

Both air forces now agree on the importance of support of the army, as opposed to their traditional view of quasi-independent operations. To some extent, it can be argued that USAF is even more concerned with Army support than the RAF: The USAF now places considerable emphasis on close air support (CAS); the RAF does not. European emphasis is on battlefield interdiction of second echelon operational reserves.12 On the other hand, the relative U.S. emphasis on immediate support is offset by the diversion of aircraft within a CAS allocation to supporting air tasks and by USAF's greater emphasis on deep interdiction, implicit in aircraft design and the task force style of operation.

Philosophically, the air forces differ on the manner of integrating air with ground power. USAF, with its relatively detached view of shifting air assets from sector to sector, seems to view it as a means of applying raw firepower. Air power, with its great flexibility (i.e., mobility), is seen as the commander's central or strategic reserve. The British, partly because of more modest resources, see tactical air power as an expensive resource whose payoff must, in addition, be leveraged by assisting the ground force commander's scheme of maneuver.

The second British objection involves the difference in operational doctrine and tactics. By preference and because of aircraft design, the Europeans use "in and out" operations (i.e., fast turnaround) with small flights of two aircraft flying at low level (defined as 250 feet or less).13 For such operations, centralized control is an unnecessary encumbrance, and the U.S. concept of diverting airborne aircraft to targets obtained from real-time intelligence is infeasible because of radar tracking and communication difficulties with low-level aircraft and the need in low-level operations to preplan transit routes.

Accordingly, concepts like the USAF's Quick Strike Reconnaissance Program are not compatible with European low-level operations.14 Besides aggregating data for automated command, control, and communications (C3), this system is a prime means for guiding weapons platforms to their targets. The U.S. requirement for this type of target acquisition represents basic differences with the British and Germans in the role of tactical air power and the nature of the opposing targets.

For them, the primary function of attack aircraft is targeting the Soviet second echelon forces or immediate operational reserves. During a major offensive, these forces are in movement and present themselves like waves in large target arrays. The British and Germans, therefore, tend to hold their tactical aircraft on the ground until major target arrays present themselves and sorties are most needed, as would be the case during an armored breakthrough. At that time, aircraft are deployed to the area in question with pilots generally seeking targets of opportunity. High sortie rates are a mandatory component of this doctrine; command and control elegance is not. The USAF prefers lower but more sustainable sortie rates. This preference requires correspondingly more demanding target acquisition capabilities and inhibits high-surge sortie rates. Thus, to justify its air effort and organization for combat, the USAF has found itself requiring elegant surveillance, acquisition, and command and control systems in order to obtain sufficient targets during periods of reduced enemy activity.15 Also contributing to the U.S. preference for sustainable sortie rates, at least in the British view, is logistical convenience, which leads to apparent allocative efficiency according to supply (operations research) oriented criteria such as tons of ordnance delivered and total sortie rates. These objective measures of output, however, are unrelated to operational value.16

fallacy of the C3 force multiplier

The Europeans argue against command, control, and communications automation. In their view, automation is neither robust nor appropriate for their style of air operations. This results from three separate causes: lack of reliability of the equipment, vulnerability of the equipment in a hostile atmosphere, and the ability to spoof systems dependent on automated observation and processing of enemy behavior. The first two problems are technical. While prosaic, they are nevertheless compelling drawbacks to reliance on electronic sophistication. The third questions the logical premises underlying the concept of automated C3.

The high failure rates of equipment required for automated command and control pose a problem in operations and support cost in peacetime, which is only a hint of the sort of problem that can arise in war. In a benign environment, current surveillance, communications, and data processing technologies are just sufficient to allow elaborate systems to work. When that environment changes from benign and static to hostile and adaptively dynamic, the assumption that the technology will work properly becomes questionable. All electronic systems are subject to interference from both natural and manmade phenomena.

The essence of the British view of warfare is that an army must be adept at coping with the unpredictable. Technology has increased, not lessened, the importance of revising tactics and techniques. Hitherto forces have commenced operations in accordance with doctrines that were well designed to make the most of available resources and to meet threats which were, on the whole, well defined in terms of quantity and quality. This has changed. The command must, therefore, be able to cope with unanticipated behavior on the part of the enemy by changing its own behavior. The command and control system must either be able to perform this function outright or provide the command staff with reliable assistance in coping with the enemy's adaptive behavior. In the first case, an automated command control system must be able to draw correct conclusions from unexpected data. In both cases it must be invulnerable to deliberate misinformation by electronic means (i.e., spoofing).

Spoofing affects a battle at two levels. In a microscopic sense, spoofing results in the expenditure of weapons on false targets. In the macroscopic sense, it results (through aggregation) in the misdirection of the command and control system. While the first is important because it influences the rate of weapons exchange in a conflict, the second can be pivotal to the outcome of a conflict. Surprise can be achieved in an attack, for example, and wars have been won through misdirection and consequent paralysis of the command apparatus, which is the, quintessence of blitzkrieg warfare.

The development of automatic processing has led (or soon will) to a situation that appears flexible. The command staff can look at its data in anyone of a wide variety of ways. Everything that is known about Soviet operational technique has been captured (we hope) by the models; counters have been thought out in advance, and the computer can draw on them virtually instantaneously. Unfortunately, these attributes provide flexibility only within the set of the predictable.

The use of highly automated command and control systems invites a variety of reactions, of which spoofing is only one. Dependence on a system and its potential importance in battle raises the value of counters to an enemy. For instance, assuming the Soviets have the first move, it is logical for them to time it to capitalize on a temporary ascendancy in the countermeasure game. While countermeasures can usually be developed in peacetime by simple application of more sophisticated technology, this option may be foreclosed in a fast-moving war. The fallacy underlying this potential vulnerability is to allow such reliance on any system in the first place: more diffuse organizational means of data gathering and command and control would be more robust.

The discussion here hinges on a point whose importance goes beyond the question of automated command and control in air warfare. It is pertinent to any attempt to substitute automatic processing for human data collection, analysis, and interpretation. The point is simply stated: Automaticity implies extreme inflexibility whenever the enemy can discover--and operate outside of--the bounds of the predictable. Both sides in a conflict must adapt their behavior to conditions created by the other side. Disallowing overwhelming advantage, the side which adapts most quickly and cleverly will win. If NATO relies on automatic processors, the Soviets could adapt their behavior to the creation of inputs which at least confuse us and, in the extreme case, defeat us. Alternatively, with our reliance on automaticity, we deny ourselves the ability to behave adaptively outside the set of the predictable.

The two major problems, which lead to these outcomes, appear to be the inappropriate transfer of air experience to ground warfare and the dilemma posed by the human factor. Man must be eliminated from an automatic system (or bypassed) if his sluggishness and subjective judgments are not to undermine the whole purpose of sophisticated automation. Yet it is only man who can ensure robustness and reduce the probability of large-scale deception.

Automated surveillance may not be a problem in a relatively static prestrike nuclear environment or even in a fast-moving air defense environment where systems are limited in number and readily detected by sensors. The problem comes in transferring this experience to monitoring ground forces that are diffuse, mobile, and operating in a cluttered background. As a practical matter, it is also likely to be difficult if not impossible to monitor the line of contact or forward edge of the battle area well enough for operational purposes. Army units get lost; subunits must perform away from the main body; interspersion of friendly and enemy units is inherent in armored warfare; and the enemy may use captured transponders and codes. Moreover, even if monitoring the line-of-contact were technically feasible, its value would be limited. Only the ground commander can anticipate, knowing enemy pressures and his own problems, thus gaining the time for second echelon interdiction and for correcting one's own deficiencies on the ground. This conclusion is reinforced if one accepts the European premise that tactical air power's role is to assist the ground commander's scheme of maneuver (versus the USAF's premise of centralized firepower). In this case the army is not only the source of demand, but the ground commander's perspective is a prerequisite for value weighting the various demands for tactical air and firepower support in general.

Operational Doctrine and Tactics

In the past, the USAF pushed common doctrine and tactics among the NATO air forces but has now muted it. The Europeans have sensed this shift; they strongly objected to standardized tactics, and their fear now seems allayed. As opposed to the utility of standardization for procedures, logistics, and interoperability, the Europeans do not regard standardized tactics as desirable for the following reasons:

offensive air operations

For the short run, the diversity of aircraft design inhibits common tactics and delivery techniques. Among other factors, commonality will not be possible for the next two decades, as the attack aircraft .now coming into the inventory--Jaguar, Harrier, Alpha Jet, and Tornado--operate best at low levels. New U.S. aircraft on the other hand, give greater maneuverability and better performance at the medium and higher altitudes. From the European viewpoint the present diversity in operational tactics and techniques offers them the best possible situation. Without being tested in war, there is no way of knowing which approach is the more valid. However, U.S. reliance on high technology to overcome ground air defenses forces the Soviets to devote disproportionate efforts to counter the U.S. systems. This allows the Europeans an alternative approach, relying more on organization and procedures than on technology, thus permitting them to buy larger numbers of aircraft at the expense of elaborate electronic environment preparation. It also means that since the U.S. is buying expensive defense-suppression systems, the Europeans could always, if necessary, supplement U.S. forces should their own approach fail. For this reason, the Europeans have adopted an open view as long as they are not forced into the U.S. mold. The Europeans do not argue that the U.S. imitate their style; rather they argue that NATO gains by the two approaches. Thus, while sincerely believing in their own approach, the Europeans retain a hedge against failure by the U.S. As will become apparent, however, the U.S. has no similar hedge and is more constrained in shifting to the European style because of equipment in general and training in particular.

European assessment
of their own tactics

In the European view, the solution to the air problem is to complicate air defense target acquisition by high traverse speeds of at least 450 knots and quick in and out deliveries which penetrate below radar and are too fast for optical response. Since armored warfare targets are clustered (e.g., tanks normally move in formations of at least ten, and single tanks are, in any case, uninteresting), the solution for high-speed aircraft with little pilot reaction time is seen to be retarded cluster weapons for area fire.

On the merits of high- versus low-level attack, USAF argues that target acquisition is too difficult, attrition is too high, and flexibility is lost in the low-level mode. Vietnam experiences are cited to justify these theses. The Europeans, for their part, concede the difficulties but argue that the U.S. alternative is even less attractive. They specifically contend that the U.S. experience in Vietnam is of limited relevance for the European context. In the European view, the nearly one-sided nature of that conflict in the air, the constraints of European weather, and insufficiently varied scheduling of U.S. sorties that unnecessarily exposed U.S. aircraft induced the USAF to prefer a task force mode of operations that may not be appropriate for Europe.

In low-level operations (under 250 feet), the significant threats are proliferated air defense systems (guns, low-level heat-seeking missiles, and heavy machine guns) organic to ground units. The larger surface-to-air missiles (SAM) systems (the SAM-2, SAM-3, and SAM-6) are not effective against aircraft flying at such low altitudes. Soviet air defense aircraft are dependent on ground-controlled intercept (GCI) and limited by their control system, coordination difficulties with ground air defense, and peacetime training. GCI radars cannot pick up low-flying aircraft even in the best circumstances during static warfare. In mobile warfare, detection problems are even greater. Nor do Soviet interceptors have a look-down, shoot-down capability. Even if they acquire it, however, background clutter at such low altitudes causes detection and tracking difficulties for both the aircraft and missile radars. If the interceptor tries to close in at low level for an attack with guns or heat-seeking missiles, most low-flying aircraft are capable of averting the attack by sharp turns or turning into the attack. In any event, Soviet airspace management control generally precludes such responses against low-flying aircraft. Judging by Egyptian experiences in 1973 and observation of Soviet training exercises, the Soviets have not solved the problem of intermingling interceptors and ground air defense. Soviet practice is for layering the defensive airspace. Interceptors generally operate above 10,000 feet; until very recently they have not been observed operating below 1500 feet. This spatial separation precludes the use of air-to-air guns against on-the-deck aircraft; it also virtually precludes heat-seeking missiles of the Sidewinder variety. Even if spatial separation were not so crucial, the Soviets' lack of low-altitude training and the general difficulty of low-level intercept make success unlikely.

The major threat to on-the-deck aircraft is typified by the ZSU-23-4 radar-guided automatic cannon organic to Soviet divisions. This cannon, though few in number, accounted for about 30 percent of Israel's aircraft losses in the October War. If aircraft are to attack ground forces, this weapon must be overflown or suppressed (the two U.S. solutions) or its radar envelope underflown (the European solution). The technical characteristics of this system's antenna mean that lock-on for detection, ranging, and tracking becomes tenuous at a height of about 50 meters. At such altitudes the breaking of the radar Jock-on is virtually assured by relatively simple ECM, obtained from pods on board attack aircraft.

Negating low-level radar guidance still leaves optical control for the ZSU-23-4 and the seemingly infinite number of automatic weapons in Soviet ground units. The Europeans assert that relative security from these weapons can be obtained from varied flight routes, terrain masking, and the angular velocity of high-speed, on, the-deck aircraft. Varied routes, which the Europeans contend that the USAF displayed inadequate concern for in Vietnam, yield relative surprise via the defender's inability to concentrate weapons and the virtual impossibility of nonautomated air defense weapons to maintain instant readiness. Terrain masking, prevalent in Germany (rolling terrain in middle and south Germany and forests and urban sprawl in the plains of north Germany), reduces the defender's reaction time and line of sight. Finally, the angular velocity of high-speed aircraft make tracking difficult for all but the automated air defense guns and heat-seeking missiles that have their own special vulnerabilities.17 Hence the conclusion is that higher speed and lower altitude mean less reaction time and a greater chance of aircraft survival.

Thus, in a major deviation from normal military thinking, the Europeans are not attempting to destroy enemy air defenses. Instead, they are attempting to circumvent the air defenses by a combination of relatively simple electronic countermeasures pods and low-level tactics, extending the expected life span of the low-altitude window by various optical confusion devices. This approach has the obvious disadvantage of being continuously restrictive on tactical air power's degrees of freedom. However, it has the countervailing advantage of focusing air power immediately on those army components likely to cause the most immediate damage to friendly ground forces. Which consideration is more important, of course, is scenario dependent. The European approach tends to favor fastbreaking scenarios; the U.S., more static conditions where time is less critical and air defenses can be worn down.18 In particular, the European approach is more advantageous for the often heard Golan Heights scenario, whereby NATO's air forces are to cope with the enemy's advancing ground forces until one's own ground forces can be deployed.

Flexibility means responsiveness to changing situations. In normal USAF usage, flexibility has come to mean real-time control of airborne aircraft. Low-level operations preclude diversion of airborne aircraft, which is valued by the USAF for exploiting real-time intelligence and for last minute shifting of close air support aircraft to more critical targets. The Europeans question these rationales and add that real flexibility is gained by generating more aircraft sorties (i.e., surging) and minimizing the diversion of aircraft to supporting roles. In this view a greater flow of aircraft through the launch point provides the means for responding to changing situations. A capability for aircraft diversion is seen as nice but inessential and unattractive as a result of cost and system vulnerability. They do not subscribe to the USAF view implied by the Quick Strike Reconnaissance Program, and they see more costs than benefits from last minute diversion of CAS aircraft.19 Such diversions gain only several minutes of flight time (particularly if CAS aircraft are located on forward sites as opposed to the U.S. preference for rearward main operating bases), cause mismatching of ordnance with target requirements, and foul army fire plan coordination, often leading to an army perception of air force irresponsibility and undependability.

European assessment
of U.S. tactics

Generating a task force, the essence of the U.S. approach, requires considerable planning and flight forming, and its operation requires in-flight control. Thus, while the Europeans emphasize decentralized in-and-out flight patterns whereby small flights--usually two aircraft--are constantly launched and recovered, the U.S. is oriented toward discrete operations with large groupings or blocks of aircraft with subgroups performing specialized tasks. An analogous difference is between sending ships out individually and forming convoys by holding ships together until escorts are available and swamped base facilities can turn them around. The convoy nature of task force operations inherently implies slippage in sortie rates.

While defending their own approach, the Europeans question the U.S. approach. They assert it is more appropriate for deep interdiction than for direct support of ground forces. The British and Germans specifically contend that U.S. tactics are too costly, vulnerable to technological challenge, and inhibiting to pilot initiative. They also assert that U.S. tactics cause needless physical vulnerability, target acquisition difficulties, and low sortie rates. Most of these liabilities follow from the USAF's task force approach:

The nature of future tactics and delivery parameters will dictate a high degree of aircrew and unit specialization. Weapons complexity, coordination between sensor designators and delivery vehicles, compression of time-over-target, integration of escort, support, and strike elements, and specialized sophistication of the threat are all factors leading to that conclusion. As a result, some units will have to be proficient in interdiction and close air support; other units, in escort and combat air patrol; and, as now, there will be reconnaissance and ECM specialization.20

A task force approach is obviously expensive because of the high cost of specialized electronic aircraft and the low ratio of attack to support aircraft. This cost can only be justified if costs were commensurate with results, something not intuitively obvious to European air staffs. They contend that an air force with the U.S.'s price tag would be priced out of existence by their parliaments. More fundamentally they assert that air forces must beware the temptation of focusing excessively on their own internal evolution.

The Europeans have mixed emotions relative to U.S. technological prowess. This prowess is viewed with awe, often giving Europeans a feeling of being unable to compete. But because they are more financially constrained and forced to seek alternative solutions, they see weak links in U.S. reliance on technology. These are navigation, electronic countermeasures (ECM)/defense suppression, and target acquisition.

Whereas they have increasingly relied on self-contained, digital inertial navigation systems, they see the U.S. relying on positive control from ground radar stations. Partly to satisfy rigorous peacetime safety requirements and partly to provide the valued flexibility obtained from being able to control and divert airborne missions, the U.S. does not emphasize autonomous techniques. In the European view, this creates a liability if the system becomes saturated, if its radar emitters are homed in on, or if its communications are jammed.

The second technological vulnerability is the inherent uncertainty of electronic warfare. The task force approach utilizes airspace above small arms and automatic cannon fire. This is the domain of surface-to-air missiles and GCI-controlled fighters. In this domain, ECM and defense suppression are absolutely essential for holding loss rates to acceptable levels and to avoid aircraft jettison of their ordnance in order to protect themselves by maneuvering. Electronic warfare is notoriously adaptive; solutions dependent upon it can hardly be considered robust against an equally sophisticated opponent.20 If the U.S. has managed to maintain a technical and intelligence advantage, the system will work well. If not and the Soviets have managed to obtain even a transitory advantage, the results could well be disastrous because of a basic asymmetry in military postures: the Soviets depend on their ground forces; it is NATO which depends on its air forces to offset strategic surprise and its deficiencies on the ground.

The third technological vulnerability is reliance on sophisticated target acquisition sensors. In Europe ground targets are difficult to acquire from the air due to haze, smallness and camouflage of individual targets (e.g., a tank), and cloud ceiling. While the Europeans are attempting to solve the targeting problem by area weapons, the U.S. has chosen point accuracy via the A-10's GAU-8 gun and various terminally guided smart weapons. Unfortunately, at the altitudes at which these weapons work well, ground-fired automatic weapons are highly effective. When attacking combat units, the fire from these weapons cannot be suppressed; most are not electronically guided, and their suppression is tantamount to attacking whole target arrays. Unless high loss rates are acceptable, this forces attack aircraft to avoid antiaircraft fire by over-flying it or by relying on long slant ranges. The latter, of course, is possible only if enemy forces are not still below the aircraft as in the case of CAS or rearward point targets (e.g., air bases) where enemy dispositions will be considerably thinner than in forward areas. However, at these altitudes (10,000 feet) and slant ranges, only large targets like bridges and air bases are readily detectable; individual targets in combat units are generally not detectable except for vehicular movement on high contrast roads. However, when detectability is a function of movement, ground units in rear areas can often avoid PGMs by generating thin overhanging smoke or by ceasing movement and blending into the background until the flight passes by.22 For use against combat units, smart weapons at standoff ranges need close-in designation: a ground designator for close air support and possibly remotely piloted vehicles (RPVs) for armed reccetype interdiction. This is now implicitly recognized by an increasing emphasis on cooperative systems. What has not been recognized is that once the pilot is no longer needed for target acquisition, the manned aircraft becomes redundant. In cooperative systems the problem is simply guiding or tossing a warhead into a designated reflection envelope or cone. With smart artillery, more refined missile systems, and midcourse guidance coming into the inventory, manned aircraft are not required for the tossing function.23

Pilot initiative is also seen to be affected by TAC's positive control. In the European air forces (as in the USAF), good pilots are viewed as major determinants of force effectiveness. A good pilot is seen as self-reliant, quick thinking, and aggressive. These characteristics are demanding and require extensive training to develop. Inculcating these pilot attitudes is felt to be incompatible with a flying system binding pilots to rigorous safety requirements and airspace management control. As an example of the problem, Soviet pilots are widely reputed to be poor and lacking in initiative, partly through the inhibiting effect of their encompassing GCI system.

The U.S. tactical style is also criticized for increasing aircraft vulnerability. First, while defense suppression may well hold down losses to ground air defense systems, higher operating altitudes put attack aircraft in the midst of the Soviet fighters. Besides causing losses, this requires the presence of escort fighters and the frequent jettisoning of ordnance. Second, a task force formation (as opposed to the small flights of the European in-and-out style) require a forming up period. These are detectable and extremely vulnerable to interference. Thereafter the need for escort protection is compounded by advance warning to opposing air defense fighters. Third, whereas several ground support aircraft entering the European inventory can operate from forward dispersal sites, the U.S. remains tied to aircraft systems requiring main operating bases and vulnerable runways.

Finally, as the European air forces have shifted from a nuclear orientation to an emphasis on a short conventional war, sortie rate generation has assumed increasing importance. British Harriers have practiced surge rates as high as ten per day during summer maneuvers. The Germans expect equal capability with Alpha Jets. This has required new operational procedures and moving forward and away from main operating bases. The British note that even with F-4s, which require flights of four aircraft (versus the normal two), more elaborate facilities, and are assigned more demanding missions than Harriers and Jaguars, they are obtaining sortie rates considerably greater than the USAF in Europe. The British and Germans argue these higher sortie rates are a direct result of differences in operational style and their interpretation of operational flexibility and decentralization.

For the European air forces, flexibility and decentralization occur at headquarters, flight launch, and from the flexibility implicit in higher sortie rates. USAF operations have the opposite characteristics: relative rigidity in headquarters planning and flight launch but great flexibility in the control of airborne aircraft. Such characteristics, of course, are necessary for task force-style operations.

If the U.S. approach is geared for deep interdiction, its relevance is open to question. The European transport net is too dense and time too critical for supply interdiction to be a meaningful tactic. Air base attack has become difficult; if air base attack again becomes a viable tactic, it will be through specialized area weapons like the British JP 233 runway cutter (for air base disruption), not zero CEP smart weapons (as, for instance, against aircraft shelters, many of which may be empty). Moreover, deep interdiction targets are fixed coordinate targets, targets more appropriate for missiles with midcourse correction than for manned aircraft.

If offensive air operations are intended to be meshed with the army scheme of maneuver and firepower support, then air forces cannot afford large numbers of aircraft for the purpose of attacking small numbers of individual tanks. If the objective is tanks, air forces cannot afford low sortie rates, the diversion of air resources to support a relatively small number of aircraft actually attacking, or large downtime due to weather. Thus the task force approach is inappropriate.24

force modernization

Force modernization, since it implies expensive outlays, is a salient theme having high political visibility and many facets. For air forces its special poignancy derives from the large number of aircraft now approaching obsolescence. For some, modernization is a vehicle to push standardization. Industry sees it as an opportunity to push sales; technologists, to push technology for technology's sake; politicians, to push constituent employment; and government, to enhance their balance of trade, political influence, and domestic arms industry. Even the military may push it as an opportunity to buy political support,25 as well as to lower their own unit costs. Modernization is thus a means for a variety of motivations, none of which is necessarily consonant with the end of force improvement.

The U.S. government has advocated force modernization for the last decade as a way of "providing all the horseshoe nails" needed to realize the full potential of NATO's existing conventional forces.26 During James R. Schlesinger's tenure as Secretary of Defense, force modernization also became a means to standardize NATO forces for the twin purposes of improving interoperability and of providing plow-back savings.27

The fundamental difficulty in force modernization is discerning real requirements, as opposed to marginal improvements of the present system by replacing old weapons with new. The Europeans argue that no one has thought through the interaction of air and armored forces. Largescale spending on air modernization may not be worthwhile if it subtracts from the funds available for ground forces or causes reductions in air structure.28 Any program of air modernization will suffer from these uncertainties. U.S. proposals for NATO modernization suffer from still a third deficiency: that of misunderstanding the perspective and thought processes underlying allied behavior. While the U.S. decries the lack of allied standardization, the USAF stakes out policy positions based on its own perspective and operational modes. Thus the process of modernizing U.S. and European air forces for conventional warfare is actually leading to even greater operational divergences as the NATO air forces switch their equipment inventory from one designed primarily for nuclear strike to one designed primarily for ground support.

From A military viewpoint, it is probably desirable that the Europeans have resisted U.S. blandishments toward standardized air forces. The U.S. approach is costly and uncertain; if it works, the Europeans retain the option of supplementing U.S. aircraft in the U.S. electronic framework. The real problem is thus reducing the cost of tactical diversity in offensive air operations while retaining its many benefits. As long as fundamental differences exist in operational philosophy, U.S. and allied equipment will reflect these differences, a fact that does not preclude equipment interoperability and common procedures and administrative reporting.

Potomac, Maryland


1. Giulio Douhet, The Command of the Air (London: Faber & Faber. 1943).

2. Maj. Gen. Robert Close, "Feasibility of a Surprise Attack against Western Europe," NATO Defense College, Rome, Italy, 24 February 1975.

3. See, for example, Steven L. Canby, "The Alliance and Europe: Part IV: Military Doctrine and Technology," Adelphi Paper 109 (London: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 1975).

4. For the best published account of the European position, see Johannes Steinhoff, Wohin treibt die NATO? Probleme der Verteidigung Westeuropas (Hamburg: Hoffman and Campe, 1976), pp. 143-78. For the most authoritative open literature accounts of the U.S. approach, see Edgar Ulsamer, "Tac-Air--History's Most Potent Fighting Machine," Air Force Magazine, February 1976, pp. 22-26, and Brig Gen. John E. Ralph, "Tactical Air System, and the New Technologies," in Geoffrey Kemp et al., The Other Arms Race (Lexington: Massachusetts: D.C. Heath, 1975), pp. 15-33.

5. After arguing that this window was closed, the USAF at Nellis AFB, Nevada, and Marine Corp, have rediscovered the advantages of on-the-deck flight operations Much of the U.S. problem has been caused by the semantic confusion of terming the dead man's altitudes of 500-1500 feet as low.

6. "TAC to Test Electronic Warfare Abilities," and "TAC Training Emphasized by Commander," Newport News Times Herald, 30 November 1976 and 4 January 1977 (reprinted in Current News, Part II, 7 December 1976, p. 14-F and 12 January 1977, p. 11-F).

7. For excellent articulations of the firepower versus maneuver theme, see the debate generated by William Lind, "Some Doctrinal Questions for the United States Army," Military Review, March 1977, pp. 54-65, and Col. (Ret) John R. Boyd, "Patterns of Conflict," Military Review, January 1977.

8. Ralph, pp. 29-30. Emphasis added.

9. See concept above. This statement, of course, is somewhat oversimplified, but it is the essence of the publicized USAF position. Some elements of the Air Staff contend that approach was perhaps oversold outside the Air Force and that if USAF did believe in the extreme claims, there has been some backing off. Nevertheless, official briefings and discussions (as well as R&D developments) have led the Europeans to the perception of an extreme position

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. The term "second echelon is ambiguous since all Soviet units employ the concept of first and second echelon. The specific German and British meanings are the reserve divisions of the Soviet Front's first echelon Second echelon front forces are viewed as too far removed for any immediate impact on the battlefield. However, the German interpretation is somewhat broader than that of the British. The British mean the reserve divisions of the attacking armies; the German interpretation includes first echelon follow-up armies In time-distance factors, the British emphasize up to 100 kms, impacting the battlefield within 24 hours; the Germans 200-300 kms, impacting within 2 to 3 days

13. The definition of low and medium level seems to be very much in the eye of the beholder. For those steeped in Vietnam operations, low level was 1000 feet; medium altitude was above the envelope of air defense guns at 10-15,000 feet. As the USAF has become reoriented to Europe, low level has become increasingly defined as below 1000 fect and more like 500 feet.

14. This system is intended to, " integrate airborne reconnaissance information into ground processing units and a Commander's situation display to permit immediate strike decisions. At the same time, the commander will maintain centralized management of strike and reconnaissance assets." Ralph, p. 28.

15. It should also be noted that relatively low activity is characteristic of nonarmored conflicts. In Korea and Vietnam, conflicts were more prolonged, and the movement and timing of reserves were not so critical. Rearward activity was accordingly less intense, and buildups were more gradual than in armored blitzkriegs.

16. A case in point (which the British cite) is that in Vietnam, interdiction sorties apparently depended more on the numbers of sorties potentially available with the aircraft in the theater than on strategy or considerations of the relative effectiveness of the sorties among the target areas

17. For instance, in the October War, reports indicate that few if any Israeli aircraft were downed by SAM-7s New versions of the SAM-7 with greater speed and a larger warhead should be far more effective.

18. A critical uncertainty for the USAF approach is that air defenses cannot be worn down nor ground forces themselves attacked if target contrast forecloses standoff precision-guided munitions (PGM) and organic air defenses are too proliferated or too readily replaceable.

19. See Ralph, p. 27; also note 14.

20. Ibid., p. 32.

21. Cases in point are the potential of bistatic and "quiet" monostatic radar's for ground air defense. With the latter, the game of defense suppression will become increasingly difficult and expensive. With bistatic radar, it becomes infeasible.

22. If flight, were plentiful, as in World War II, this option might still be desirable from the small unit commander's viewpoint, but not from a senior commander's viewpoint which requires units to meet specified schedules and not adversely affect others. One can argue that more sophisticated sensors could negate the blending option. However, these sensors are even more costly and can be readily spoofed by prepared static units.

23. For a detailed discussion of these issues, see Steven L. Canby, Terminal Guidance on the Battlefield: Obtaining its Potential Payoff (Santa Monica, California: Technology Service Corporation, May 1975).

24. This conclusion is scenario dependent. It also assumes that the European research and development program will produce considerably better area munitions than those currently available.

25. This theme seems to be particularly strong in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy.

26. Alain C. Enthoven and K. Wayne Smith, How Much Is Enough? (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), p. 156.

27. The major objectives of equipment interoperability are fueling, common communications, and compatible ordnance. Avionics and engine maintenance usually require returning to the borne base or having replacements brought in. This is true even for an aircraft as ubiquitous as the F-4 because of its many versions and enhancements.

28. Among the budgetarily constrained European air forces, there has been a conscious attempt to maintain a credible bean count, even if it has meant less than the best aircraft and environmental preparation The Swedish Air Force has probably been the exception. The Saab Viggen has consciously been bought at the expense of numbers. In Britain, one sees more of a compromise whereby overt structure is maintained at the cost of aircraft per squadron and squadrons per wing. The German and Italian air forces are going the hi-lo route in the sense some very expensive aircraft like multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) will be bought while numbers are maintained by cheap light attack aircraft The Belgians and Dutch will probably follow a similar route, their "hi" aircraft being the F-16 The European rationales for their hi-lo approach is the flexibility obtained from overlapping capabilities by having some aircraft capable of more than one mission.


Steven L. Canby, Lieutenant Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve, (USMA; Ph.D., Harvard University), is a mobilization designee in Deputy Chief of Staff Operations, Department of the Army. His active duty service included tours in Germany and the Infantry School. He is the author of numerous studies on military manpower and military tactics and force structuring. Dr. Canby is a graduate of the Infantry Airborne, Ranger, and Command and General Staff courses.


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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