Document created: 26 July 01
Air University Review, May-June 1981
Wing Commander Nigel B. Baldwin, RAF
|If the Russians come, they are unlikely to court suicide by choosing a bright summers day with visibility to the horizon; they will come at night, exploiting the murkiest weather that their forecasters can predict and they will travel beneath a sophisticated and dense antiaircraft umbrella.|
General Johannes Steinhoff
At Crécy in northern France during the evening of 26 August 1346, as the French cavalry began its assault on the three English divisions, a thunderstorm swept the field. The sloping ground became a quagmire and, in one of the most decisive moments in history, the static English infantry destroyed the flower of France. Over nearby ground, nearly 600 years later, the infamous European weather was again exploited, this time by the offence. After fog, rain, and snow had prevented Allied aerial reconnaissance, the German panzer armies, achieving complete surprise, swept through the Ardennes to drive a wedge 60 miles deep between the Allies.
Throughout history, long winter nights and poor weather in the cockpit of Europe have challenged armies. There is now much evidence that the Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces are capable of taking the offensive in Europe round-the-clock, undeterred by poor weather. This article discusses the implications for NATO of this ability both now and in the 1980s and, in particular, emphasizes the difficulty of training aircrews to cope with such an offensive. Drawing lessons from my 16-year association with the Royal Air Forces Vulcan force (which, like the Strategic Air Command B-52, has a day/night, all weather, low level strike/attack role), feeling confident that, despite technological change, the night will always follow the day, and maintaining that the weather in Europe is unlikely to be mastered by man, I will highlight the problems NATOs Tornado commanders will face and suggest where training emphasis should lie if aircrews are to utilize the aircrafts expected performance to the full. I also argue that if aircrews are to fight at night and in poor weather, they will have to train in such conditions.
I consider the terms night and adverse weather to be synonymous. For the low-level aviator, one poses as many difficulties as the other.
Northern Europe during the winter months is dark all the time. During the winter months Central Europe is dark for about 16 hours out of every 24 and, even during the day, poor visibility combined with a low cloud base often makes visual, low-level flying hazardous. The U.S. Army Field Manual 100-5 states: "Approximately 1 out of 3 mornings during the fall and winter, US forces [in NATO] will have less than 1 km visibility . . ." The predominant weather is low overcast with rain. The summers, despite longer days, as many European and British holiday makers know to their cost, often offer little respite. One experienced RAF low-level pilot wrote recently: "The weather in Central Europe has such an effect on air operations that it might almost be considered a part of The Threat."2 To compound the problem, such weather is difficult to forecast accurately and can be hazardous enough to ground aircraft for days (and most certainly nights). This, of course, is the main reason for the avionic equipment of such aircraft as the RAFs Vulcan and Tornado and the U.S. Air Forces B-52 and F-111.
The Soviets, with a long history of night operations (40 percent of all attacks in 1944-45, including tank attacks, were launched at night)3 and a doctrine that emphasizes shock, have a finely developed capacity for night armoured offensive. A. A. Sidorenko in his classic The Offensive (A Soviet View) states that "Surprise is a basic characteristic of night operations" and "The role and importance of combat operations at night will increase sharply [they] will be more frequent."4 He emphasizes the importance of uninterrupted, day and night operations. Other analysts agree: "The initiative and penetration into the depths of the European theatre is to be accomplished mainly by tank and airborne units moving night and day."5 Such constant progress will be necessary. According to Professor John Erickson, the Soviets are planning a 30 kilometer advance every 24 hours in order to accomplish the main objective of any theatre campaign in Europe: "The effective and early destruction of NATOs nuclear means and defence capability and . . . the sealing off of Western Europe from its US ally."6 A recent analysis, based largely on U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency material, concluded that "Soviet ground forces possess highly sophisticated night operational equipment and that night training accounts for 40% of all individual and unit effort."7 In sum, the night offensive is a central part of Soviet doctrine and, if the desired rate of advance is to be achieved, there will be no let up for NATO as dusk or the visibility falls.
The Soviets, in the Su-19 Fencer, have deployed an F-111/Tornado equivalent. It is a two-seat, multirole, terrain-following radar (TFR)-equipped, third-generation aircraft capable of carrying 6000 pounds of munitions at low level to the United Kingdom and back. But, as will be shown later, I believe that to be effective in low-level air operations at night and in all weathers constant practice and high-skill levels are needed. There is little evidence that Soviet aircrews have mastered this role. But this limitation may not be so vital for the Soviets since their offensive can continue advancing at a rapid rate whatever the conditions. Whereas NATO commanders plan to use their tactical air power in "a fire-fighting role, designed in good part to offer a timely substitute for (nonexistent) ready reserves to block break-through attempts, the U.S.S.R. has evolved a groundforces combined arms team that should have far less desperate need for tactical air support."8 With their dense, highly mobile, overlapping antiaircraft artillery (AAA) and surface-to-air missile (SAM) air defense systems hardly affected by night or bad weather, the Soviets may not be embarrassed by a lack of supporting tactical air effort. To NATO, however, the use of air forces to interdict the enemy second echelon and beyond is fundamental.
NATO commanders and politicians often take comfort from the knowledge that their aircrews fly more often than their Soviet counterparts, and thus there is always the implication that they are better trained. Soviet airmen fly as little as " 5 hours in the winter. Over a full year they fly only 60% of the hours achieved by NATO pilots."9 Early in 1979, U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown stated that" Soviet avionics, munitions, pilot training, and flying time do not approach U.S. standards."10 And, as will be shown later, in the most difficult area of all flying training, low and fast at night and in adverse weather, that should make a vital difference. But, ironically, it may not be so. At present, particularly in winter, the capacity of the NATO air forces will be often severely limited. Certainly aircraft like the latest acquisition, the purpose-built close air support (CAS) aircraft, the A-10, will not solve the problem:
The aircrafts much vaunted fire power delivery capability and survivability, vital attributes though these may be, are as naught if the aircraft is incapable of seeking out its target or, worse still, is grounded by inclement weather, for the A10 . . . is essentially a fair weather system.11
So, it must be added, on present plans is the F-16. Of all the aircraft in the NATO inventory, only the 156 F-111 E/Fs of USAFE and the 48 Vulcan B. Mk 2s of RAF Strike Command have a full night/adverse weather overland capability at low level (that is, less than 1000 feet above ground level). In the event of a surprise Warsaw Pact attack in bad weather, it is likely that, of these aircraft, only a small proportion of the F-111s, and none of the Vulcans, will be available for a theatre commander to use in a conventional role. Refined in action during Vietnam, according to General William W. Momyer, USAF, "The F-111 low level bombing system was a revolutionary breakthrough in all-weather delivery."12 Analyst William F. Scott, former U.S. air attaché in Moscow, has written that the F-111, "with its low-altitude all-weather capability, is a major Soviet concern."13 As far as the Vulcan is concerned, despite spasmodic attempts throughout the aircrafts career to concentrate on TFR flying, it took the challenge of participation in a night Red Flag exercise in 1978 to overcome many years of hesitation and doubt and to develop satisfactory crew and equipment procedures that could be used safely in peacetime.
Previous to that Red Flag exercise, the Vulcans night/adverse weather TFR and associated equipment had been used only by day in good weather. Nevertheless, this effort has not come too late: three NATO air forces have begun to receive the Tornado, and many of the Vulcan lessons and training techniques will be relevant to that aircraft.
The most commonly understood reason for the paucity of night/adverse weather aircraft is that few nations can afford or have the technological skill to develop the necessary avionics. But there is more to it than that. If the Tornado is to be used to its fullest, other factors will have to be considered. Few would disagree that if the aircraft is to fly in its destined role, both crew members will be fully occupied.night low-level training
Recently, one RAF Harrier pilot wrote:
The most important link in the chain is the pilot. It is he who must have blind faith, on a dark and stormy night flying at 600 kts and 200 feet, that his equipment will be not only totally capable but also totally reliable. The Aerospace Industry may be convinced of this capability, but the single-seat CAS pilot most certainly is not.14
Despite the aircrafts life-long, 24-hour role, most Vulcan low-level flying training has been done by day under visual flight rules (VFR), essentially 3 nautical miles visibility and 1000 feet clear of cloud. Of my nearly 3000 flying hours on Vulcans, only 16 percent has been at night and this despite the fact that there are only 8 hours of "daylight" every 24 hours of an English winter. Over the Vulcans life, as the RAF has been slimmed down and social change has hit society, many factors have pressured commanders and influenced the way in which, and particularly the time of day and night, their aircraft can be flown. In the United Kingdom, low-level flying areas and routes are usually closed late at night, facilities such as bombing ranges and early warning (EW) training ranges are equally restricted, and very few military airfields are sufficiently manned for peacetime, 24-hour operations. Squadrons have also been slimmed down: supporting personnel have been reduced in number, and commanders have become more conscious than ever of the need to keep overtime and working weekends to a minimum. As a result, night flying on Friday evenings is rare and on weekends denied (the low-level routes and areas are usually closed); thus, any night low-level training must be done between Monday and Thursday. When this shortening of the useful week is compounded by the vagaries of European weather and the need for good visibility for such training, it will be recognized that the commander who dedicates himself to increasing, or even completing, night training is an optimist. In addition, the nature of the European weather for long periods, especially in winter, is such that a suitable window for flying training often appears, if at all, only around midday for 3 to 6 hours. It is little wonder, then, that even winter flying training takes place during the day. So, paradoxically, the training that most needs continuitythat of night/adverse weatheris most hidebound by European weather, lack of daylight hours, and lack of facilities. Thus, it is no surprise that, in the Vulcans case, for example, it took more than 10 years before the straitjacket of TFR, day-only training could be broken. The impetus for that change was the challenge of a night Red Flag exercise.
night Red Flag training
The RAF Vulcan participation in Red Flag 79/2 in 1978 was " of the greatest value. [Amongst other things] it reinforced the crews confidence in their ability to operate safely, at night, lower than they had ever done before."15 But, for the RAF at least, Red Flag training can only reach a small number of crews, and thus of greater value in the long term was the training programme that had to be devised and the techniques that had to be developed before Nevadas mountains could be challenged. Previous to Red Flag training, the crews had used the aircrafts TFR in day VFR only. Whenever the equipment failed, pilots had always been able to see where they were going, and thus the rest of the crew had been reassured. As soon as night training began, it was noticeable that equipment malfunctions took on a much more serious aspect. The pilots sudden blindness was quickly communicated to the rest of the crew and tension and apprehension rapidly mounted. And this was particularly so when, for the first time, use was made of the RAF Strike Command low-level routes in Labrador for night low-level training. Previous night flying had been done over the European land mass with its sprawling, well-illuminated metropolitan areas. But when crews left the Goose Bay airfield lights, they found they could fly for hundreds of miles over featureless, uninhabited country, in pitch darkness. Flying below a layer of cloud, they received little help from the moon. No motorway lights, TV aerials, or isolated farmhouses told the pilots whether or not they could see, and, with less than perfect airborne radar fixing over such confusing and inhospitable terrain, they found the experience to be both eery and unnerving. Often, unwittingly, they flew into cloud, and it was only on breaking out that they realized they had done so. As a result, Goose Bay night and, by default, adverse weather, low-level training became a landmark in the Vulcans life story. The lesson and the capacity of Labrador for such RAF training has fortunately not been lost, and the breakthrough may have come just in time.
training in Canada
The difficulty NATO commanders have in training their aircrews at low level in Europe is common knowledge. According to Flight International, "NATO air forces are already worried by the restrictions placed on low flying in Germany," and there is "mounting pressure on the RAF to curb low flying."16 A British government minister recently discussed the possibility of increasing the RAFs use of Goose Bay with the Canadian government, and on 8 December 1979, it was reported that "Canada has no objection."17
But expanding low flying training in Canada for the RAF, and perhaps other Tornado users, would have disadvantages. Not only is Goose Bay in the wrong direction as far as Tornados potential area of operations is concerned, but the inhospitality of the Canadian terrain might be thought to limit its usefulness. To duplicate, for example, the extensive defensive systems and electronic threats of the Red Flag ranges in the barren, often subarctic wasteland of Labrador would be a major and expensive undertaking. But, overall, the lack of realistic targets and EW threats does not completely negate the importance of the area for Tornado training. Of far greater importance is the opportunity for crews to operate for long distances, unhindered by air traffic or peacetime noise-abatement procedures, over typically wartime terrain, at high speed concentrating solely on TFR and navigation. This is what will be unique and so valuable. Such training is more likely to breed possibly the most elusive characteristic of the capable night/adverse weather crew: confidence.
the approach to be used
In the same way that instrument flying is taught, there are several steps to be taken both on the ground and in the air before a crew can achieve any confidence and skill. The flight simulator is an obvious starting point. If the experience of Vulcan crews is to be capitalized on, when Tornado crews are trained the flight simulator must not be seen as a substitute for flying training in the more difficult areas. Rather it must be an adjunct. It must be used to give initial confidence and to teach procedures and crew cooperation. But the aircrew must train in the air if their confidence is ever to be more than illusory. That training should, of course, be done in steps: flying by day, then at dusk, then at night; flying in good visibility, then poor, then blind. (And, for the unconvinced who believe that high speed, close to the ground in cloud or in fog is not possible in peacetime, a study of U.S. Air Force Tactical Air Command F-111D experience would be worthwhile).
training over the sea
If the barren wastes of Labrador and the busy airspace of overland Europe are denied at night or in adverse weather to the less experienced crews, the sea is not. Low-level night flying over the sea should not be dismissed as too simpleas it was for many years in the Vulcan force. It is safe, it is ideally suited for learning evasive manoeuvring techniques, it can be challenging for the navigator, and, perhaps most important of all, it is relevant to all Tornado crews that will have to contend with coastal penetration of enemy defences. It is as good a starting point for a crews night low-level/adverse weather training as could be devised and far, far better than flying by day and pretending it is night. But there is another problem for the Tornado commander to overcome first.
the lure of competitive flying
Until participation in Red Flag, the major regular pressure to raise aircrew skills and equipment performance in the low-level Vulcan force derived from the twice-yearly involvement in bombing and navigation competitionsusually with SAC B-52s and FB-111s as company. Not surprisingly, such competitions concentrate on a low-level strike aircrafts raison dêtre: the accuracy of the bombing attack. Little attention is paid to getting to the target. Good weather, for day photography of targets, is necessary, and, if radar bomb scoring is to be used, final attack heights above targets are artificially high. All these requirements work against a commander developing night and adverse weather flying skills. And, after all, it is difficult to judge a competition on these latter skills. It is much easier to tabulate bomb scores and, perhaps subconsciously, assume that that is a true judge of ability. But, as Red Flag training has shown time and time again, if the attacking aircraft does not reach the target, the finest bombing technique in the world will be of little use. Although attempts are being made to include en route threat assessment and avoidance in such competitions, it is likely that artificialities will remain, and thus Red Flag training, with its emphasis on survival rather than competition, will stay as the major forum for the development of operational techniques.
the flight safety implications
Despite Red Flags reputation for high aircraft accident rates, there is no reason to believe that night and adverse weather training need be dangerous also. Indeed, the reverse may well be true. Throughout this article, the thread of crew cooperation and confidence has been dominant, and it is my view that, paradoxically, it is because night and adverse weather training is so challenging and difficult that it is likely to be safer. It is more likely that the avionics of the Tornado will perform to specification if the equipment is used regularly and in earnest. (It is no mere coincidence that Vulcan TFR serviceability doubled almost overnight when Red Flag training began in 1978. On Red Flag 79/2 it performed perfectly more than 90 percent of the time, and this experience has been reflected since across the whole fleet.) Aircrews are less likely to make mistakes if they are well trained, well briefed, and confident in their equipment and themselves. Because darkness and/or poor visibility concentrate the minds of the crews so much more than "normal" flying, aircrews are less likely to overreach themselves or be caught napping. The major challenge confronting Tornado commanders will be to see that all their crews develop the skill and confidence to cope with such conditions. They will need the courage of their convictions and considerable support. If both are forthcoming, the aircrews could soon be flying their aircraft in weather conditions and in a manner previously undreamed of in RAF history.
It is significant that General Steinhoffs statement at the beginning of this article of Soviet intentions was made as he watched a demonstration of NATOs latest CAS aircraft, the A-10. There is considerable evidence to suggest that Soviet and Warsaw Pact forces will not expect to let up their advance when night arrives or the visibility falls. Rather, to obtain shock and surprise, they are very likely to exploit Europes notorious weather and long winter nights. Because of the combined arms concept, with its integral air defense umbrella, any limitations on Soviet air power in such conditions will not be too important. To NATO, however, such a limitationespecially as it will, at present, prevent its air forces slowing down the second Soviet echelons and carrying out effective counterair operationsmay be conclusive.
As three major NATO air forces, the British, Italian, and West German, begin to deploy the Tornadowhich along with the USAF F-111 is NATOs best hope to bring air power to bear at night or in adverse weathermany lessons can be drawn from experience gained developing low-level night and adverse weather skills amongst RAF Vulcan crews (and, by implication, USAF SAC and TAC F-111 crews).
Tornado commanders will face the same pressures as present-day air force commanders: public dislike of low flying training, limited available flying hours, limited ground facilities. There will be a temptation to leave the most difficult exercises to the last or to postpone them, as very nearly happened with the Vulcan B. Mk 2. But latter day Vulcan experience, culled from the training required to cope with night Red Flag exercises, has shown that if crew confidence, which is vital for the night/adverse weather role, is to grow, the procedures and techniques must be practised in the air and not just in the flight simulator. The familiar territory of Europe is too unrepresentative and constrained by air traffic and noise abatement restrictions. However, the RAF Strike Command low-level routes in Labrador are almost ideal for such training, and that area is the best hope for realistic low-level training in the future.
Unless emphasis is placed on night and poor-weather flying from the beginning of an aircrafts life and an aircrews operational training, the Tornados avionic equipment will be incapable of performing its task when needed and the aircrews skill and confidence will be insufficiently developed. That confidence is the key. It must be built up in stages: first by day, then at dusk; over the sea and then over empty terrain. We should expect NATOs Tornado crews to fly at low level regularly at night and in adverse weather in peacetime with confidence. There will be no time to learn this most elusive of aviation skills if the most formidable army the world has ever seen begins a rapid advance under a leaden, darkening European sky.
Air Command and Staff College
1. United States Army Field Manual (FM) 100-5, Operations, 1 July 1976, p. 13-1l.
2. Wing Commander J. G. Saye, RAF, "The Role of Close Air Support in Modern Warfare," Air War College Research Report, 1979, p. 33.
3. John Erickson, "Soviet Combined Arms: Theory and Practice," University of Edinburgh Monograph, September 1979, Part 1, p. 51.
4. A. A. Sidorenko, The Offensive (A Soviet View) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1974), p. 200.
5. Kenneth R. Whiting, "Soviet Theater Doctrine and Strategy," Air War College Associate Programs, vol. 1, chapter 8, p. 19.
6.John Erickson, "The Ground Forces in Soviet Military Policy," Strategic Review, Winter 1978, p. 68.
7. Major C. M. Flannery, U.S. Army, "Night OperationsThe Soviet Approach," Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1978, p. ii.
8. Colin S. Gray, "Soviet Tactical Airpower," NATOs Fifteen Nations, August-September 1978, p. 46.
9. "Airpower for the Pact," Flight International, June 1976, p. 1513.
10. Harold Brown, Defense Posture Statement to Congress, 25 January 1979, p. 90.
11. "The Fairchild Can-opener," Air International, June 1979, p. 267.
12. General William W. Momyer, USAF, Air Power in Three Wars, Department of the Air Force, 1978, p. 181.
13. William F. Scott, "Soviet Perceptions of US Strategy," Air Force, March 1979, p. 73.
14. Saye, p. 35.
15. Squadron Leader C. G. Jefford, RAF, "Red Flag at Night-Vulcans Delight," Air Clues, April 1979, p. 128.
16. "RAF Looks at Canada for Low-flying Training." Flight International, 27 October 1979, p. 1339.
17. "Tracer," Flight International, 8 December 1979, p. 1897.
ContributorWing Commander Nigel B. Baldwin, Royal Air Force, is RAF Adviser to the Commandant and a faculty instructor, Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell AFB, Alabama. He has flown the Vulcan throughout his career and served as officer commanding No. 50 Squadron, RAF Waddington. Wing Commander Baldwin is a graduate of Royal Air Force College, Cranwell, RAF Advanced Staff College, Bracknell, and a Distinguished Graduate of USAF Air War College.
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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