Air University Review, July-August 1981
Lieutenant Colonel Donald J. Alberts
In the past several years, doctrinal and lay discussion on the role of air interdiction have been widespread and varied, and some of that discussion has been worthwhile. Other times it has been more controversial and misleading than useful. In the long run, however, dialogue and discussion are proper peacetime avocations, no matter how temporarily misleading they may be. This article singles out the theorizing of Dr. Steven L. Canby, particularly his article "The Interdiction MissionAn Overview,"1 not in a spirit of vendetta but out of necessity, since he has used the forum of the staff and war colleges and the military journals to do a disservice to the interdiction mission. In addition, Canbys work is a useful focal point for discussion since he serves as perhaps the most articulate and widely published spokesman of a school of thought critical of the USAF approach to interdiction. Besides refutation, however, the real purpose of this article is to present an air perspective of interdictionwhat it is and is not, why it is useful and under what conditions, and what the implications are for force employment in the European scenario.
An air view is necessary simply because people steeped in the traditions of land warfare, especially Americans, often do not understand (or underestimate) the effects of air power in battle. The noted military historian and former ground officer Trevor Dupuy candidly admitted to such underestimation in his study of the effectiveness of the German armed forces through two world wars.2 Canbys exposition appears to be rife with such errors in understanding and estimation.
Canbyand he is not alone in thismixes air operations and classifies them incorrectly. He confuses the method of accomplishment (bombing, for example, which may be the same in all operational areas) with the objective or reason for acting which he largely ignores.3 This is most notable in his assignment of air base attack to the interdiction mission: It is not. Air base attack is one of the methods used to achieve air superiority and is an offensive counterair task. While my purpose here is to concentrate on air interdiction, clarity and completeness require a disgression into the operational area counterair.
Implicit in Canbys original analysis is the theme that air superiority is sought only to create a long-term favorable environment for the conduct of other air operations, among them interdiction.4 This is only a part of the historical and doctrinal argument for air superiority. An equally important reason, from the perspective of war as a whole, is to prevent enemy control of the air so that enemy air power cannot destroy friendly ground forces at will. The last time American ground forces were even occasionally at the mercy of hostile air was in North Africa during late 1942 and early 1943; American ground commanders (Patton for one) found the situation intolerable.5 This dissatisfaction led to a determined attempt to gain air superiority and the subsequent codification of the principle of centralized control of air assets, particularly tactical air, at a level high above the corps level of organization. American ground forces have remained unimpeded by the effects of enemy air from that time forth. Contrary to Canbys assertions, there were two air forces opposing ours in Korea; but the North Korean Air Force was quickly swept from the skies, and the Communist Chinese Air Force was largely kept bottled up in the far North as a direct result of a continuing campaign to gain and maintain air supremacy.
Other armies have not been so fortunate as to have had the protection afforded by their air forces as has the United States Army. Notable historical examples include the Wehrmacht in 1944-45, particularly in the West, the Egyptian Army in 1967, and the Red Army in 1941-43. Inability to gain air superiority (or, worse yet, being forced to accept a position of air inferiority) confers on the enemy the unrestrained and often devastating use of air power against friendly ground operations. Air neutrality or superiority confers, then, a high probability and possibility of interdiction; aircraft systems provide the capabilities.
That a properly employed counterair campaign can quickly bring decisive resolution of a large conflict was most recently seen in the 1967 Six Day War. On the first day the Israeli Air Force literally destroyed the Egyptian Air Force by air base attack and air-to-air engagement. The psychological effect caused by such an event on land force performance is always incalculable, but the Israeli Air Force roamed freely over the Egyptian Army and contributed immeasurably to its physical disintegration as well.
Within the context of counterair, one must ask why the Soviets have invested what many view as inordinate resources into air defense of the Soviet bloc land armies. It seems obvious that the Soviets fear (and with good reason based on the lessons of 1941-43) the effects of unrestrained or unchallenged air power applied against them. The Soviets have procured and deployed antiaircraft artillery, interceptors, and, later surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems, in massive numbers. One does not rationally do so except from fear of air attack, for SAM systems have no other battlefield purpose.6
The notion of localized air superiority or the creation of a favorable air situation has particular application to the European environment of today. It is not just a question of "the size of the air inventory in the USSR, aircraft sheltering and the enemy-to-friendly force ratio," 7 (although these factors enter into the planning process) but rather a full consideration of the political and strategic setting in which a conventional war in Europe might occur. NATO cannot consider a preemptive counterair campaign.8 For political and moral reasons, the strategic initiative must be conceded to the aggressor. Because the enemy will have the initiative, it is a question of attempting to make the best of what is inherently a less-than-optimum situation. Counterair will be necessary in some measure to protect friendly ground operations and allow friendly air operations to proceed without devastating attrition. It is not, as Canby implies, a question of performing counterair so that NATO air can at some later time perform interdiction. Rather, it is because the enemy will have the initiative, and since the exact form of his offensive cannot be foreseen, one expects that all forms of air operations will have to be carried out simultaneously in order to stop the enemy thrust. The priorities given to the various forms of air operations will be a command decision based on a political and military assessment of the situation existing at the time of war initiation. A change in the scenario should cause a corresponding change in the most efficient apportionment of air power. Control of the air remains the foundation of success for both the air and land elements of NATO. One cannot win the war without the other at the conventional level of conflict.9
Canby misinterprets NATO doctrine and air history by citing the target groups of:
airfields, nuclear delivery systems, marshaling yards, power plants, political centers and the like. These target categories can be classified into air base attack, strategic interdiction and supply interdiction.10
Well, not quite! Air base attack may be conceptually similar to interdiction (destruction, neutralization of enemy air elements on enemy airfields before those airplanes can be brought to bear on friendly forces), but it has never been included in interdiction by air power enthusiasts.11
The phenomenon of so-called strategic interdiction presents a conceptual problem because its existence in the past is arguable. I would not deny the possibility of strategic interdiction, for I feel strongly that there is and should be. The confusion here really centers on what is strategic and what is tactical. Much of what Canby describes as strategic interdiction might better be described as strategic conventional bombardment. The difference lies in intent. In air power terms, strategic is properly used in conjunction with the intent to affect the enemys society, precluding either the will of the enemy to continue his efforts, his capability to continue them, or both. Tactical, on the other hand, refers to the battlefield.12
Harking back to World War II, what was the difference between bombing marshaling yards in Normandy just prior to D-day and bombing marshaling yards in Munich or Frankfurt am Main? Both engagements used B- 17s. However, in Normandy, the desired effect was the isolation of the battlefield (tactical); in bombing Munich and Frankfurt, the desired effect was the disruption of the enemys means of production and his ability to shift forces, raw materials, and other resources between theaters as well as to demonstrate to the German population that they were not safe. This latter intent was strategic, affecting the enemys ability to wage war. Admittedly, the conceptual dividing line is a fine onebut it is there. Thus, much of what was done in the name of interdiction in the skies over and against the territory of North Vietnam was not interdiction.13
Strategic interdiction has existed and may exist again. An example of strategic interdiction, again from World War II, was the campaign waged against Japanese shipping in the vicinity of the home islands by submarine and tactical air operations in the later stages of the war. The effective defeat of Japan occurred without defeating the main Japanese armies in the field and without putting troops ashore on the home islands. These actions against the sea lines of communication were not directed at interdicting military supplies from reaching the field so much as preventing raw materials from reaching the home islands to be converted into the materials of war.
That leaves what Canby refers to as supply interdiction (which is in fact air interdiction) operations undertaken with the purpose of isolating enemy forces in the field from their sources of needed consumables. Canbys error here is to assume that supply interdiction (other than the two categories already discussed) is all that interdiction consists of.
The NATO definition of interdict is: "to isolate, or seal off an area by any means; to deny the use of a route or approach."14 The NATO nations have defined air interdiction operations as:
those (tactical air operations) conducted to destroy, neutralize, or delay the enemys military potential before it can be brought to bear effectively against friendly forces at such distance from friendly forces that detailed integration of each air mission with the fire and movement of friendly forces is not required)15
In NATO, interdiction operations are clearly tactical.16 In further explanation, NATO tactical air doctrine holds that:
interdiction targets may include troop and vehicle concentrations, supply trains and convoys, amphibious forces, communications centres and headquarters, bridges, railways, roads and waterways.17
The important point is that air interdiction is directed against:
combat forces and supplies when they are traveling along lines of communication, rather than locating and attacking forces that have reached the close combat area.18
Interdiction can be directed against supplies, butand Canby seems to ignore thisinterdiction is also directed against enemy forces and equipment. However, this mistaken perception is not uncommon. Many writers not familiar with air power doctrine make the same error, including professional air force officers. In the case of Americans and some of our European allies, this error might stem from our recent experience in Vietnam where interdiction became associated with the destruction of bridges, the cutting of roads, and the killing of trucks. Again, this is interdiction, to be sure, but not the whole of interdiction.
Canby limits his critique of interdiction to the interdiction of supplies only, thus making it difficult to refute his claim that it was notoriously unsuccessful in both Korea and Vietnam and resulted in very great losses for little gain. In fact, he goes so far as to state:
The empirical evidence is conclusive that the goal of forcing a military collapse of the deployed forces was not achieved.19
Ignoring for the moment that all military activity, including ground force offensives, failed to produce the result of a military collapse of the enemy deployed forces, one must look at the goal of interdiction and the nature of the empirical evidence.
The goal of interdiction is the isolation of the battlefield. There is only one historical instance I am aware of in American practice where tactical supply interdiction alone attempted to achieve the results claimed by Canby. This was Operation Strangle during the Italian campaign. The lesson to be learned, as it supposedly was then, is that air power alone cannot totally deny to the deployed enemy an ability to fight. "Strangle" was used against an enemy on the defensive largely operating out of prepared positions. But "Strangle" was not the whole of the operation. One must also consider the follow-on, "Diadem." The latter operation was the joint land-air activity against the same enemy forces in the same prepared positions. Interestingly enough, German rail activity was halted south of Florence as a direct result of "Strangle," and the effect of supply interdiction "would soon be evident when intensive ground pressure was combined with the air interdiction campaign."20
As for the empirical evidence, perhaps it is best to say that there is little, one way or the other, simply because very little analysis using acceptable data manipulation techniques has been performed. Thus, we are often forced to rely opinion based on inspection of data, rather than on evidence. A rather impressive piece of evidence does exist in reference to the Italian campaign. This analysis is found in a recent book by Trevor Dupuy and was partially an outgrowth of his earlier realization that he (and other ground-trained combat officers) seemed to have underestimated the effectiveness of air power. Dupuy demonstrates that in the Italian campaign when interdiction was applied, interdiction increased the effectiveness of friendly combat power by about six times more than the expected effectiveness.21 (And, although not the issue here, his analysis also demonstrates that interdiction is more effective than close air support, roughly by a factor of three.)22
This type of analysis has not been performed for other wars and other campaigns. We do not have access to enemy data. We have only the empirical evidence of the opinions of ground commanders who are not normally in a position to see the results of interdiction.23 Air commanders often see things differently. In Korea, for example,
Events since 25 June 1950 have clearly indicated that air operations have been one of the most decisive elements in stopping the enemys offensives and reducing his capacity to wage ground warfare.24
In tandem, close air support and interdiction, in the first year of the Korean War, inflicted 14 percent of the enemy casualties (most of which should be attributed to close air support) and:
destroyed or damaged 391 aircraft, 893 locomotives, 14,200 railroad cars, 439 tunnels, 1,080 rail and road bridges, 24,500 vehicles, 1,695 tanks, 4,500 guns, and 125,000 buildings which sheltered enemy troops or supplies.25
The aircraft referred to above were destroyed as the result of counterair operations. All other targets destroyed could have been, and most were, the results of interdiction. The point is not to impress with numbers. Rather, it is to suggest that the total support effort achieved something. It destroyed targets that the ground forces did not have to face. The enemy company or battalion or tank destroyed 15 or 30 kilometers behind the line does not enter into the ground commanders battle at the point of contact.
In Korea, we have also the evidence of enemy sources:
I would like to tell you frankly that in fact without direct support of your tactical aerial bombing alone your ground forces would have been unable to hold their present positions. It is owing to your strategic air effort of indiscriminate bombing of our area, rather than your tactical air effort of direct support to the front line, that your ground forces are able to maintain barely and temporarily their present positions . Without the support of the indiscriminate bombing and bombardment by your air and naval forces, your ground forces would long ago been driven out of the Korean peninsula by our powerful and battle-skilled ground forces.26
Taken in conjunction with actual air operations, the implication, then, is that interdiction had a far more serious effect on North Korean and Chinese operations than did close air support. Of course, we have no evidence whatsoever of what kind of casualties Allied troops would have taken in the absence of interdiction.
Vietnam is yet another problem. But one is forced to ask if interdiction can be overly meaningful in an insurgent war characterized by small unit guerrilla enemy actions. In Vietnam, enemy supply arrangements were extremely elastic, consisting more of a "push" than a "demand" system. The enemy was able to make extensive use of sanctuary areas for stockpiling. Nevertheless, one must also ask in retrospect how much of the Communist failure in the Tet offensives of 1968 and 1972 was due to inadequate supplies. The question is open.
Turning again to the current situation in Europe, Canby rules out interdiction operations directed against the enemy logistical network because of:
The difficulty of blocking a dense transport net with conventional ordnance.
The inability to loiter and to attrit enemy vehicles in a sophisticated air defense environment.
The ability of an attacker to anticipate requirements by forward stockage.
The time-lag before interdiction affects deployed forces.
The result is that supply interdiction cannot accomplish its objective of strangling the forward forces, nor, and more important, can it disrupt enemy operational planning and command.27
Nonsense! The first error in analysis is the artificial and counterfactual separation of supply interdiction from interdiction in general. A general criticism of the above assertions is that they constitute half-truths at best. They are dependent on a particular unfolding of the war-fighting scenario and a state of mobilization of Warsaw Pact forces that may not hold in reality.
Now to deal with each point in turn: certainly, it is difficult to completely block a dense transportation net with conventional ordnance. However, one does not have to cut off a supply network completely to be effective. Here Soviet logistic doctrine must be considered as well as the anticipated nature of modern warfare.
If, in fact, the Middle East War of 1973 and published Soviet tactical doctrine are any indication, a war in Europe will be characterized by extremely high rates of expenditure for fuel and ammunition. For the offensive to be sustained in the face of active resistance, these consumables must be continuously replaced. Furthermore, the central problem facing the Soviet logistical system will be "getting the right material to the right place at the right time."28 The Soviet division carries its own logistic tail with it, does not depend on lines of communication, and is fully self-contained. However, resupply of the division is the responsibility of the Soviet Front through the Field Army. It is the connecting links in the operational rear (Front to Army) and between the operational rear and the troop rear (Army forward depot to division rear) that present the target set. These portions of the supply train are very much dependent on road trafficthat is, they are dependent on trucks and roads.29
Slowing the rate of enemys advance in battle by ground pressure greatly increases the demand on his operational rear system. Disruption of that system through air interdiction should in turn delay the arrival of priority items such as (1) ammunition, (2) POL, (3) spares and technical equipment, (4) food, medical supplies, and clothing30 at those points and at that time necessary to further the advance. The problem is not just to cut roads or drop bridges but to cut roads to force trucks off the road and into alternate paths at key times. Timely road-cutting creates chokepoints, which in turn create a target rich environment.
Thus, the inability of interdicting aircraft to loiter could be irrelevant to the entire problem if our target generation process is efficient. The Soviet supply system must continue to move to do its job. Stop it, delay it, hold it up, and the objective of degrading the ability to sustain forward movement or sustained combat is partially achieved. Stop it locally, follow up and attrit that particular group of trucks. This sequence, repeated many times over in a short span of time should tremendously compound the enemys problem of adhering to the operational plan, thus placing increased demands on the control process.
An attackers ability to anticipate and forward stock is clearly an advantage. But once supplies are placed forward in Front depot complexes, Army base depots, or even Army forward depots, they are grouped and, if located, become lucrative targets. There are three critical points in the Soviet ammunition resupply process, at least two of which are subject to interdiction and disruption. Ammunition is unloaded and reloaded at regiment, division, and Army dumps. Wherever this process occurs, a target is created. The other critical node lies in the dump itself.
Once ammunition is dumped (usually necessary, often desirable) it becomes difficult to reorganize its reissue quickly while fulfilling the need for camouflage and protection. This is an especial problem, as users all tend to want to draw fresh supplies at the same time. Solutions suggested are . . . an improvement in traffic control, and more use in the field of centralized automated loaders, lift trucks, etc., as already the norm in the depots.31
Fuel resupply, the second highest Soviet priority, also is beset by transfer and storage problems. By Soviet admission, refueling of vehicles and transloading of fuel takes too long. For all supply services:
Rear control is still far too slow and cumbersome especially for effective support of a war of manoeuvre. Orders take too long to issue and implement. Preplanning is not used often enough and delays are frequent.32
The time lag, then, is the focus of our attention. The more intense the fighting and the more rapid the advance, the more critical specific time segments become. On a European battlefield, we are not talking of weeks and months of supply buildup as in World War II and Korea.33 We are talking about hours and at most days. The operational intent for friendly air interdiction in this regard is not destruction or attrition per se but rather the disruption of the flow.
The Front depot complex may be located as far as 250 kilometers from the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA). The Army forward depot would typically be found 50 km to the rear of the Soviet FEBA and the Army base depot 100 km closer to the rear.34 Ground firepower does not extend to these areas. Air power does. Moreover, air power is not constrained by considerations such as corps boundaries. It is capable of being concentrated on the areas from which the main enemy thrusts emanate.
The time factor, when considered in terms of the war as a whole, is more difficult to deal with. In his analysis of the Italian campaign in World War II, Dupuy points to two weeks as the time period required before severe degradation of the German ability to fight occurred.35 However, the German Army was on the defensive and fighting from prepared positions. For a war in Europe, the Soviets will be on the offensive, which would seem to be more dependent on timely and consistent flow of ammunition and fuel if momentum is to be maintained. That some minimum time will pass before the effects of interdiction on enemy operations become noticeable appears to be empirically substantiated. But once the point is reached, and if pressure is kept up, the effects will surely increase in a nonlinear manner.36
If one is to follow the logic of supply system interdiction a bit further, one quickly realizes that the key to success does not stem from any of the four conditions asserted by Canby but rather from the ability to learn where the key supply nodes are located. This is a function of reconnaissance and electromagnetic combat. These nodes have physical and electromagnetic signatures, despite effective camouflage and cover. They can be found, they can be struck, they can be destroyed.37
Canby describes battlefield air interdiction (BAI) as:
the second generic type of interdiction. It seeks to destroy the road net, vehicles and supplies approaching the forward edge of the battle area (FEBA). More fundamentally, battlefield interdiction has the potential of disrupting the enemys operational plans andparticularly in conjunction with offensives and major counterattacksof dislocating the enemy command system. The random destruction of bridges and vehicles across a wide front has little military utility other than costing replacement losses which can only be significant in a long-term sustained conflict.38
Almost, but not quite! Battlefield air interdiction is not a "second generic type" of interdiction; rather, it is a recognized category of air operation encompassed within the generic label of offensive air support. The NATO nations have ratified the concept of BAI that is contained in the NATO doctrinal and procedural manual, Allied Tactical Publication (ATP) 27 (B), Offensive Air Support.39
The purpose of BAI is:
to bring airpower to bear on those enemy forces not yet engaged but positioned to directly affect the land battle. To be more specific, and place the concept in its most complex environment, the targets which BAI is to deal are enemy second echelon regiments or divisions, moving toward contact with friendly troops already engaged by enemy first echelon regiments/divisions .40
As a concept, BAI was needed to correct some fundamental misperceptions held by land force personnel (and some air forces personnel also) about the nature of close air support and its purpose on the one hand and interdiction and its purpose on the other. The view that interdiction is something the Air Force does very far away from the land battle and with little relevance to it is all too prevalent among U.S. Army personnel. This view stems largely from our experience in Vietnam, where there was some empirical evidence to support it.41 We in the United States have also fallen into the incorrect habit of terming all air support delivered on the friendly side of the fire support coordination line (FSCL) as close air support (CAS), restricting air interdiction to the far side of the FSCLa position never, in fact, accepted in Air Force doctrine. Somewhere between Korea and today we also lost the concept of that category of direct air support which was not "close." BAI helps to correct the misperception. "CAS requires detailed integration of air strikes with the fire and movement of friendly ground forces: while BAI, on the other hand, does not."42 BAI is target-set centered. The focus is on forces. In the European context, the only place so far where BAI has international doctrinal legitimacy, CAS affects the ground commanders battle now, BAI affects it in the near-term future (an hour, a day?), and air interdiction affects it at some further future time. The level of battle involved also climbs. CAS affects the battalions, brigades, and divisions; BAI affects the division, corps army group;43 and air interdiction the army group and theater. In historical perspective, BAI equates to the use of air power to protect the left flank of Pattons 3rd Army by the Ninth Air Force after the St.-Lô breakout in 1944. BAI is neither CAS nor air interdiction as commonly perceived but shares elements of both.44
The rest of Canbys exposition on BAI is, in the main, accurate, though some points of uncertainty are stated as fact. I would not necessarily agree that BAI is to be most effectively applied at the point of penetration, nor would I restrict application to:
the penetration area behind the line of contact, at the penetration base to seal off the penetration or in the cone (or "funnel") extending from the anticipated point of penetration slanting outward and backward 100 kilometers or so into the attackers rear where his reserves are assembled .45
The Soviets have historically shown a tremendous ability to shift forces laterally in order to mass for, or exploit, a penetration. The key lies exactly where Army doctrine tells us it shouldin identifying the main axis of attack. While the terms cone and funnel do not bother me as Canby uses them, BAI would be better used to seal off the penetration along the side of the cone laterally along the FEBA. Again, questions remain to be answered: Where is the enemy? What is the direction of his movement and the relation of that movement to his main effort? And what are the army group commanders counterplans?
I would also take issue with Canbys second argument for his chosen point of application:
while Soviet air defenses are strongest in the cone, they are weakest in the penetration area itself.. . . only a fraction of his organic air defense units can be deployed in an overwatch position .In the penetration area, the radar redundancy and overlap and the weapon density in depth characteristic of Soviet air defenses will not be present, while ground air defense and tactical fighters cannot be coordinated.46
I am not at all certain that the facts support Canbys thesis. The Israelis in 1973 seem to have lost more airplanes trying to provide CAS and very close BAI than they lost in deeper penetrations. Our NATO allies, and many in the United States Air Force, strongly feel that CAS without adequate suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) will involve very high attrition of friendly aircraft. It seems, further, that the points of enemy penetration will be the very points at which CAS is most in demand. Therefore, much of what Canby asks for under BAI is CAS by another name.
If the enemy is in fact advancing under echelonment, as we expect, his forces closest to the front will be bunched up. The density of enemy air defense fire units is likely to be quite high, not to mention the effects of massed, unaimed, small arms fire, a practice known to be effective against aircraft.47
On the other hand, the operational reserves or second echelon units in the cone or moving laterally into the cone might have pre-positioning advantages, but if stopped and dispersed, as implied, some features of the Soviet air defense net play into the strength of our specialized SEAD assets. The problem is analogous to that posed by a zone defense in American professional football. Both the long "bomb" and running up the middle are to be eschewed in this tactical situationthe "short aerial under the zone coverage preferred." Further, due to certain advantages of specialized SEAD assets, it is possible to isolate certain air defense players more easily away from the points of penetration. The question is open, and tacticians within the Air Force are studying, analyzing, and suggesting appropriate courses of action. I personally feel it is a tactical problem that must await more concrete definition of the situation. Canby may be right; we simply cannot say at present.
Interdiction is an application of air power to achieve a particular effectthe isolation of the battlefield. Distinctions often made as to supply interdiction or mobility interdiction refer to the target set, which is not quite the same thing conceptually.
Interdiction is not a panacea, as many have felt. As in any military application of force, errors can and have been made. Probably the largest error typically made is the failure to concentrate air power in time and place. The maximum effect can be achieved by flooding a given area with air and attacking everything that moves. But one needs sufficient assets to perform this featone also needs air superiority.
One of the more successful applications of air power in support of ground operations was the interdiction of Normandy in 1944. From that time forth the Wehrmacht could not move, reinforce, or resupply during the day in fair weather. The campaign of 1941-43 produced a similar effect on the Red Army, but not nearly as intensive. The Luftwaffe effort was fragmented and applied along the entire front. American use of air power in Normandy and afterward was tied more directly to the main strategic thrust.
One can mitigate the error of diffusion of effort if one has sufficient resources. As in other areas, this has been one of the Soviets great strengths. Mass is automatic concentration if one possesses sufficient numbers. In the past, the United States has also enjoyed quantitative and qualitative advantages. This does not seem to be probable for a European war in the Central Region. It would be an error in application to attempt to interdict along the entire front, just as it was an error for the Germans to do so in the Soviet Union. This practice reduces air to the role of flying artillery, something that the Luftwaffe came to view as a cardinal error in Russia.48 As the war progressed, the Luftwaffe became more closely tied to smaller units of the Wehrmacht and the scheme of maneuver of lower echelon commanders. The Luftwaffe continued to destroy tanks and Soviet equipment, but by this diffusion the ability to apply concentrated power was lost. In short, air lost its strategic value in terms of the theater battle. The Soviets could afford to make air flying artillery late in the war. They had the numbers.
Given that any conventional war in Europe will be initiated by the Warsaw Pact (thus the WP will have the first initiative), as defenders, NATOs air effort automatically will be somewhat diffused since we must fulfill multiple objectives. The WP may or may not start the war with an air operation. They may or may not mass air over their thrusts. They may or may not hold their air for use primarily in defense. NATO air forces must be prepared to perform air defense and CAS, neither of which can wrest the initiative from the enemy. Interdiction and offensive counterair force the enemy to react, force him to meet the unexpected over wide areas.
Given the total demands on NATO air, it is highly unlikely that the majority of air could be apportioned to interdiction. We are thus faced with at least a relative shortage of assets. The problem then boils down to getting the maximum effect possible from a limited resource. To do this, a combination of tactical disruption, destruction, and deception is necessary. We do not have the luxury of waiting for lucrative targets to present themselves, nor can we afford to attempt to destroy only tanks. As previously argued, a more effective method of "controlling the arrival rate of force units" at the FEBA in order to allow ground firepower and maneuver to meet the threat (after all, we have to resupply, replace, regroup, etc., particularly when on the defensive) without enemy surge might well be in disrupting the flow of supplies and forces to the front. We identify the main thrust and then isolate it by creating disruption in the traffic flow of second echelon regiments and the supply of engaged forces. The idea is to force a faster tempo of adjustments on the enemy than he can handle to keep his attack plan and momentum going.
Air is inherently an order of magnitude faster than ground units in moving to meet surface movement. If there is a multiplier effect in this form of warfare, it lies in getting the enemy to look over his shoulder and lose sight of his objective. Enemy units and supplies that never reach the point of penetration do not have to be faced by defenders. History seems to indicate that the farther from the FEBA the enemys power sources can be attacked the better. NATO ground forces need time, as well as space, to defend successfully. Interdiction buys that time.49 It is one of the Air Forces functions to organize, train, and equip itself to do this in the most effective manner in order to support the theater commander and his scheme of maneuver.
1. Lieutenant Colonel Steven L. Canby, USAR, "The Interdiction MissionAn Overview," Military Review, July 1979, pp. 22-27.
2. Colonel Trevor N. Dupuy, USA (Ret), Genius for War (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, 1977), p. 3. "It had become obvious that I, as a retired American ground-force officer, had brought two professional prejudices with me to the formulation of my model: I had underestimated the effects of airpower, . . ."
3. Canby, p. 24.
4. Ibid., pp. 23-24.
5. There are other related incidents after North Africa wherein air superiority was at least in question (e.g., Anzio).
6. Almost as an aside, one might ponder the Egyptian and Syrian use of their air forces in the 1973 war and the use of their air defense ground-based assets. The essence of air superiority is to control the air and use it for one's purpose. If the Soviet ground-based air defenses can prevent friendly air attack of their ground troops, they effectively can control the air. On the other side of the coin, if friendly air forces are able to prevent Soviet/Warsaw Pact tactical air from performing air operations against our troops and rear areas, then a minimum condition for success will have been achieved. TACAIR on both sides will be neutralized to be sure, but then the land forces have an equal opportunity to demonstrate power. Unfortunately, the Soviets would seem to have a tremendous edge in this regard. NATO needs its offensive use of TACAIR to offset the WP ground advantage as well as to beat off enemy air. Although this work will be referred to in more detail later, the reader should refer to T. N. Dupuys Numbers, Predictions and War (1979), p. 77 for the effects of air power on ground action. These are reflected historically for the cases studied in eight ways: "(1) The force strengths (S) of both sides are increased directly by the OLI (operation lethality index) value of direct air support aircraft; (2) Relative mobility is enhanced for the side with air superiority; (3) Vulnerability is reduced for the side with air superiority; (4) The effectiveness of artillery is enhanced for the side with air superiority; (5) Vulnerability is increased for the side without air superiority; (6) Artillery effectiveness is reduced for the side without air superiority; (7) Direct air support is degraded for the side without air superiority; (8) Supply capability is degraded by air interdiction." Air power enthusiasts have been trying to convince skeptics of this for years.
7. Canby, p. 23. It is interesting to note that in Korea we achieved air supremacy over the battlefield, but we had to maintain it continually by offensive counterair farther north. We lost localized air superiority over "Mig Alley" and over the Yalu airfields such as Sinuiju. Air base attack involved too high a price for the temporary effects achieved (enemy basing in China prevented eradication of the enemy air force in any case). See Robert Frank Futrell, The United States Air Force in Korea, 1950-1953 (New York, 1961), pp. 265-84, 370-99, 471-79.
8. This is in line with the political nature of the alliance. There is no serious consideration of such in the literature. However, an initiation of tactical nuclear warfare might have offensive counterair as a first wave, depending on the tactical situation leading to the political decision to employ tactical nuclear weapons.
9. See note 7 above. Historical examples abound. The exception might be in the 1975 defeat of Army of the Republic of Vietnam. This truism does not hold for subconventional warfare, but those cases might indicate a misuse of air power. The issue is far beyond the scope of this article.
10. Canby, p. 23.
11. In NATO doctrine, as well as in USAF doctrine, the purpose of offensive counterair is "to destroy, disrupt or limit enemy air power as close to its source as possible." Allied Tactical Publication (ATP) 33A, Tactical Air Doctrine, p. 4-3. See also ATP 42, Counter Air Operations. ATP 42 is in the ratification process, having to date (May 1980) been ratified by Germany, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Portugal, United Kingdom, United States, and Denmark. The ratifications of France, Italy, and Greece are expected. (Iceland and Luxembourg do not have air forces.) If one stretched the term interdiction, one could make a claim that air base attack fits but is not the purpose of air base attack to engage air power facilities with air power vehicles? This hardly involves isolating a battlefield.
12. It is unfortunate, but the word strategic has been very much misused, particularly by Americans. It often is used to refer to a set of performance capabilities such as land and load. Todays tactical fighters carry more than yesteryears strategic bombers.
13. See Guenter Lewy, America in Vietnam (New York, 1978), particularly pp. 374-417. This book has been hailed as the most objective treatment of the war to date. Rolling Thunder (1965-68 bombing campaign of the North) had the initial objectives of "(1) to signal to Hanoi the firmness of U.S. resolve to defend South Vietnam against communist subversion and aggression: (2) to boost the sagging morale of the GVN; (3) to impose increased costs and strains upon the DRV if it continued its support of the southern insurgency." (p. 375) The interdiction aspect was added later. But from personal experience, the concentration of force and singleness of purpose necessary for interdiction to succeed was not possible within the overall political/resource context. Linebacker (I and II, the 1972 campaigns against the DRV) is credited with greater results at less cost. The interdiction aspect was higher in 1972 than in 1967. There were more resources available, and local commanders had more say in the execution of the mission. A greater concentration of force was thus possible.
14. Allied Administrative Publication (AAP) 6, NATO Glossary of Terms and Definitions for Military Use, April 1977.
15. ATP 33(A), para. 417.
16. It is almost a definition. The political goal of combat operations is to defend and restore control over territory lost. The only explanation of interdiction is in ATP 33, Tactical Air Doctrine. NATO does not own any strategic forces; therefore, there is no explicated version of strategic air power. However, ATP 33(A) mentions "other targets" that could be taken as "strategic interdiction." See ATP 33(A), para. 421.
17. ATP 33(A), para. 418.
18. ATP 33(A), para. 419,
19. Canby, p. 25.
20. Richard E. Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy, The Encyclopedia of Military History, revised edition (New York, 1977), p. 1104.
21. T. N. Dupuy, Numbers, Predictions and War, pp. 91-94.
23. Nowhere is the difference of opinion more severe than with the United States Marine Corps. Not only is close air support the only answer, but that close air support can only be supplied very effectively by Marines. For an example of the official emotion this causes, see Lynn Montross, Major Hubard D. Kuokka, USMC, and Major Norman W. Hicks, USMC, U.S. Marine, Operations in Korea 1950-1953: The East-Central Front, vol. 4 (Washington, Historical Branch, G-3, Headquarters U. S. Marine Corps, 1962), pp. 143-44, 185. Even though the Marines received the majority of their requests (using Marine aircraft) and at times the Marine divisions get more CAS sorties than used for four Army divisions, interdiction is consistently termed ineffective. After all, the enemy was still there and his soldiers had rifles and ammunition. Therefore, interdiction could not possibly be working.
24. General Otto P. Weyland, USAF, quoted in Futrell, p. 313.
25. Futrell, p. 344.
26. Lieutenant General Nam I1, "senior Red delegate," August 1951, quoted in Futrell, p. 345. Like many ground-trained personnel, the general was understandably not overly informed of air doctrine and did not know the categories of air effort actually applied against his side.
27. Canby, p. 25.
28. C. N. Donnelly, "Rear Support for the Soviet Ground Forces," International Defense Review, vol. 12, no. 3 (1979), p. 346.
29. Ibid., pp. 346-47.
30. Ibid., p. 346.
31. Ibid., p. 349.
32. Ibid., p. 350.
33. While forward stockage can be used, once the offensive starts these supplies, particularly munitions and fuel, must be moved farther forward. In Italy, the Germans eventually used all available transport to move supplies and thus was not available to move troops. The Soviets have also shown a tendency to use whatever is available.
34. Donnelly, p. 342.
35. T. N. Dupuy, Numbers, Predictions and War, p. 84.
36. As an aside, air doctrine really does not have a parallel for the ground dictum of pursuit. It is sometimes considered under the principle of the objective, but this is an area to be explored. Once the enemy is hurting, it would perhaps seem preferable to continue what is a successful operation toward complete denial than to switch to some other objective. For counterair, this principle is understood and applied almost without thought. In a European scenario one might suspect that the effort would be gradually extended farther back behind the enemy FLOT, which should make it easier going for the ground force to achieve counterattack or offensive objectives.
37. The logic of the thought does not necessarily end in destruction of the dumps. It might be better to monitor the flow, create bottlenecks, and destroy the trucks, force rerouting, etc. This would maximize the load on the enemy command and control net. Destruction of a dump would remove it but allow the enemy to switch to other dumps for resupply. The process would have to be repeated many times. However, timely interruption of flow leaves the problem running, so to speak. The enemy must cope, and at the same time, the receiving units are out of ammunition or fuel and thus exploitable.
38. Canby, p. 25.
39. The United States ratified ATP 27(B) in September 1980. NATO has authorized the printing and distribution of the document. Formal promulgation was to occur in the summer of 1980.
40. Colonel Bruce L. Brown, USAF, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas A. Cardwell III, USAF, and Major D. J. Alberts, USAF, "Battlefield Air Interdiction," Doctrine Information Publication, No. 7 (Hq USAF/XOXLD), 1979), p. 1.
41. After all, the interdiction areas were in North Vietnam, Laos, and later Cambodia. It is interesting to note, however, despite Canbys assertion that supply interdiction is futile, that the Laos and Cambodian incursions had as one of their objectives the destruction of enemy supplies.
42. Brown, Cardwell, and Alberts, p. 3.
43. Or, field army. The United States Army currently has no echelon above the corps. In Europe, the field army level is bypassed in the Central Region, having two army groups instead. Some of the allies still use the field army.
44. BAI can best be viewed as a coordinating device when it is operating inside the fire support coordination line. It allows air to be applied against a target set as that set moves. It is particularly appropriate for the defensive and counterbreakthrough applications. For the offensive, preplanned close air support and air interdiction could achieve the same results. BAI was developed to deal with echelonment, but the concept is not new.
45. Canby, p. 26.
47. There is a widespread tendency to think in terms of aimed fire. However, barrage fire from automatic weapons and small arms can be quite effective against low-flying aircraft. It has been effective in all wars that the United States has fought. The fire merely has to be in front of the aircraft. Attempting to track is counterproductive from the enemy gunners point of view.
48. See Generalleutnant Hermann Plocher, The German Air Force Versus Russia, 3 volumes covering 1941, 1942, 1943, revised and edited by Harry Fletcher, USAF Historical Studies, Nos. 153, 154, 155; and, Study No. 163, German Air Force Operations in Support of the Army (Maxwell AFB, Alabama, 1967). There is a constant complaint of having moved from "indirect support" to "direct support"; more and more from operations similar to AI to those resembling CAS.
49. It is for this reason that I would not rule out, as some have done, the so-called deep interdiction or strategic interdiction against the supply lines across Poland and East Germany. While not precisely a second battle problem, such a campaign would depend on such factors as the arrival rate of reinforcements from the CONUS versus that of second to "n" echelon armies arriving from the Western U. S. S. R. the state/degree of mobilization in NATO warning time, the air balance, the degree of air superiority, the expected cost, other requirements both military and political, etc. It is not a simple problem lending itself to a simple solution.
Lieutenant Colonel Donald J. Alberts(USAFA; M.A., Georgetown University; M.S., University of Southern California) is Special Assistant for Southern European Affairs, European and NATO Affairs Directorate, International Security Policy. Previously, he served in PACAF as a Wild Weasel pilot and full-time, additional-duty wing training officer; his other operational assignments have been in fighters in both USAFE and PACAF. Colonel Alberts taught political science at the Air Force Academy from 1971 to 1975. He is coauthor and coeditor of Political Violence and Insurgency: A Comparative Approach and Insurance in the Modern World. Colonel Alberts was author of the outstanding Review article published during fiscal year 1977.
DisclaimerThe 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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