Air University Review, March-April 1985
Lt Col Harry J. Kieling, Jr.
THE first few hours, maybe days, of a war in central Europe will be a wildly disorienting experience. Intelligence reports, command and control, forward edge of the battle areas (FEBAs), friendly locations, targets--few of these battle essentials will take the orderly form we see in carefully controlled exercises. The U.S. Air Force attack pilot will be called on to sort through this confusion and effectively support outnumbered NATO ground forces. The attack pilot must know what to expect. He must know what this future battlefield will look like from the air.
Our tactical air forces have made quantum leaps forward in enhancing training realism in the past few years. The "aggressors" show us how to combat the Soviet fighter pilot in the air. The counterair specialist knows what his enemy will look like, how he will move, and where he will come from. Furthermore, Red Flag gives us a taste of air defenses, static lookalike targets, and the vicarious feel of combat. However, the attack pilot still knows less than he needs to know about what he will really see or need to look for on a battlefield that might well contain the world's largest force of armored vehicles. Knowing what to expect is important because much of the target discrimination and selection, particularly under the new concept of battlefield interdiction, maybe done by the flight leader without the luxury of a forward air controller.
What will this battlefield look like from the air? Let's approach this critical question from a slightly different perspective. Unclassified Soviet literature has been used as the information source to find out how the Soviets see themselves in the attack. The primary reference is The Offensive, by Colonel A. A. Sidorenko, a book almost fifteen years old but still highly readable and pertinent. This authoritative insight into the Soviet tactician's mindset provides a different and useful viewpoint for joint and combined force planners.
Reading this literature is useful because the tactics that it describes will not change drastically in the near future. The Soviet soldier is commonly a product of initiative-deadening repetition. How he is trained is how he will fight. What we read in books like Sidorenko's today is what will be seen on the fields of central Europe tomorrow if the "balloon goes up."
The Soviet invasion may or may not come with advance warning. How much warning time the West will have is a matter of speculation and beyond the scope of this article. However, a simple formula applies: less warning = less preparation = more confusion (on our part). The Soviets indeed appreciate the time-honored maxim of war that the "offensive has incontestable advantages . . . the main one of them is that the initiative belongs to the attacker."1 To simplify this military-political philosophy into one sentence: While the United States has an aversion to first strike, the Soviet Union has a war-winning philosophy that emphasizes surprise. Thus, if the political situation precipitates a war, the Soviets are most likely to initiate it.
The Soviet offensive will involve large numbers of men and machines on a huge battlefield.2 This circumstance will produce the so-called target-rich environment. One estimate places the number of Soviet and Warsaw Pact tanks facing NATO units in Europe at well over 25,000.3 Other features of this offensive will be lightning speed, incredible shock effect, and maneuverability. Under nonnuclear conditions, this fully motorized force could advance up to fifty kilometers per day.4 For the attack pilot flying two, three, or more missions per day, the target area might be very much different on each mission, even though he may be supporting the same unit or flying in the same sector.
What will be the overall impression the attack pilot will have on first seeing the land battle? Probably one of complete sensual overload: he will see war extending from horizon to horizon. Devastatingly concentrated artillery barrages may involve 100 individual guns firing into one square kilometer of battleground.5 More explosions will be going off deep in friendly territory as enemy artillery engages priority targets, such as artillery batteries, command and control centers, nuclear stockpiles, and reserve troop and tank formations.6 The air over the battlefield will be filled with aircraft. Hundreds of planes from many countries will be moving toward their designated targets.
One aspect of this air war that will be especially unfamiliar to American airmen will be the waves of Soviet fighter bombers attacking friendly troops and seeking out targets deep in our rear area. One lucrative target these fighter bombers will be attacking is friendly airfields.7 Under current Soviet doctrine, it is still unlikely that these high-performance aircraft will be used much along the immediate line of contact between the ground forces, although Soviet military thought may change in the future. It is likely, however, that attack helicopters from both armies will be heavily engaged along this front line. To add a new twist, these same attack helicopters may be engaging one another or enemy fighters in aerial combat.
For the attack pilot nearing his rendezvous or target, the mission will be to maximize his killing power--that is, hit where it will hurt the most. To do so, he must be able to make sense out of the chaotic situation that will confront him. This ability is particularly necessary if he has lost radio contact with friendly ground forces because of communications jamming or other enemy activities.
The Soviets call the "front line" or FEBA the "line of combat contact of the troops."8 This phrase appears to be workable for our use, referring to that point where the ground troops are engaged. The line of contact itself will likely come into existence, given the nature of today's technology, when the forces approach within three kilometers of each other and optically-tracked and wire-guided antitank missiles are exchanged. For the attack aircraft to operate in this arena requires close coordination with the engaged friendly forces. This "close support" has a number of obvious advantages. Exposure to enemy air defense artillery (ADA) will be reduced because run-ins can be over friendly troops. Additionally, enemy air defense artillery weapons systems (ZSU 234, SA-8, SA-9, SA-13), accompanying the first echelon of attacking troops, may be partially decimated if NATO ground forces select them as primary targets for their own tanks, attack helicopters, field artillery, and antitank weapons. Destroying this enemy air umbrella will synergistically enhance the tank-killing ability of the air force.
Another, often unquantifiable, advantage of working close to friendlies is psychological. It is an undeniable morale booster for the troops on the ground, fighting for their lives, to have their own planes streaking in low overhead and wreaking destruction on the enemy. For the ground commanders, application of air power along the line of contact may well be the decisive factor in a successful defense.
The disadvantages of operating along this forward line are equally evident. Target discrimination amidst the smoke, dust, and debris of battle will be extremely difficult. The close coordination required with attack helicopers, air defense, and artillery will create special problems, many of which have yet to be solved even in carefully controlled exercises.
Because of the confusion, the possibility is greater that individual targets may be engaged by more than one weapon system (either simultaneously or sequentially). When you are already outnumbered and using weapons as expensive as the tube-launched, optically-tracked, wire-guided antitank missiles and Mavericks, you can't afford to kill a target more than once.
What about number and density of targets? Let's take, for example, a Soviet motorized rifle regiment deployed into a line abreast attack formation. What does regiment mean to an attack pilot looking through a combining glass and gunsight? It might mean 2200 troops, 90-plus armored personnel carriers, 40 tanks, and 8 mobile air defense systems.9 All of this is concentrated across a sector two to four kilometers wide and five to fifteen kilometers deep. The width of the front would compare to the length of a 10,000-foot runway. Within this sample slice of battlefield, tanks will advance line abreast, with 100 meters between vehicles. Tanks and ZSU 23-4s can and will be firing on the move, and the infantry will be advancing and fighting from within armored carriers.10
As the enemy offensive advances, it will likely encounter chokepoints along its intended invasion corridor. These chokepoints may be created by canalizing terrain or artificially emplaced obstacles like minefields. As the enemy moves through these points, his target mass will become even more concentrated.11 The attack pilot should be aware of these chokepoints.
In the past, preflight planning concentrated on ingress and egress routes, the design of which rested largely on factors of survivability, fuel, and timing. All of these factors are critically important, but the attack pilot facing a massive wave of armored vehicles and aggressively trained combat troops may have to think and plan in more detail. To be fully effective, each sortie must inflict an amount of battle damage perhaps never achieved before by air forces. One way the attack pilot can enhance his chances of accomplishing this objective is by knowing the canalizing terrain and chokepoints. Canalizing terrain is nothing more than certain geographical features, such as mountain passes and dry roads through swamps, which force mechanized and armored vehicles into a funnel. Going through such a funnel will slow down and concentrate the advancing vehicles, making them easier prey for air attackers.
Water barriers are a second feature that should catch the eye of the alert preflight planner. While the Soviets have an incredible river-crossing capability, even they recognize the troops' increased vulnerability in crossing a water barrier.12 Also, tank or troop formations lined up on the bank waiting to cross a stream would make a lucrative target. But what about tanks crossing underwater? What are the tactics or weapons to be used against a submerged tank fording a river? Not an unlikely question, since the current generation of Soviet tanks all have a snorkeling capability.13
A third area that an attack pilot should know about is the preplanned "fire trap." A fire trap is a location preselected by friendlies as an opportune defensive position. Selection is based on being able to draw the enemy into the trap and then extracting a heavy toll from him. The attack pilot should be aware of these areas so that his weapons can augment the fire of the ground forces.
A fourth concept that the attack pilot should be familiar with is the company or battalion strongpoint. A strongpoint will be a strategically placed, heavily fortified position. The support and retention of such positions is crucial to the defense. Strongpoints may be towns or hills that are bordered by natural obstacles and sit astride avenues of approach that the enemy is likely to use. In some important ways, a strongpoint resembles the fire trap. It will be physically located where defensibility and favorable fields of fire will enable the defenders' ability to destroy enemy forces. Attack pilots need to be aware of the character and appearance of strongpoints so that they may also use their lethal weapons against an enemy tied up trying to penetrate or bypass the fortification. Aerial defense of these strongpoints may take on an even more complicated tone and become more crucial if these positions become isolated when a swift enemy advance simply passes by and encircles them.
Mine fields placed at any chokepoint, water obstacle, or fire trap will geometrically enhance the target-killing capability of both the ground forces and the attack aircraft. Timing is critical for optimum results. If the attack aircraft are on station or on a quick-response ground alert, the ground forces can estimate the time the enemy forces will first reach the mine field and the attack aircraft can then plan to arrive on target at that time.
The Soviets, however, are well aware of our predilection for mine field emplacement to create or enhance killing zones. They are prepared to breach the mine fields by placing their lead elements on the forward edge of their own artillery preparation. They envision the first shock troops right behind the bursts of trailing shells.14 Target discrimination for the attack pilot will be extremely difficult under these conditions.
If the Soviets are successful in smashing through and developing their offensive at the high rates of speed they expect, a unique opportunity may present itself to NATO attack pilots.15 The Soviets anticipate that as the attack advances rapidly, "the presence of open flanks ... will be an ordinary phenomenon."16 Air attacks on these exposed flanks could be as devastating as professional hunters slaughtering buffalo. Flight paths and run-ins would come over friendly troops, and the exposure risk would be less than that of flying directly into the front-line troops in a meeting engagement or deliberate attack. Striking the exposed flanks would also yield some of the softer and more vulnerable combat service support targets.
Soviet doctrine emphasizes speed and shock power. Maximum speed for tanks and armored vehicles can be obtained by moving in column formation along high-speed avenues of approach.17 Doctrinally, this formation will deploy into battle formations (basically a line abreast versus column) only to the extent necessary to overcome defensive positions.18 What this means to the attack pilot is if he can enter the target area through or around the belt of enemy air defenses assigned to the first-echelon regiments and engage these tank columns, the results should be spectacular--particularly if he times the attack to trap the column in canalizing terrain. If, after a few such devastating raids, the enemy deploys out of column to negate the effectiveness of the air attack, then a secondary benefit is achieved: his rate of advance is slowed.
CLOSE air support of ground troops will be of major importance in the high-intensity battlefield of the next way and must be based on more than the idea of friendly cooperation. The target-rich environment and its attendant confusion requires close coordination in planning defensive positions and analyzing terrain features. Sophistication on the part of the attack pilot in finding and hitting targets is also needed. By understanding his opponent, the attack pilot is more capable of finding the chink in the enemy's armor and delivering a death blow. Such sophistication may well be the decisive factor in a war that begins with us outnumbered.
Hq AIRSOUTH, Naples, Italy
1. A. A. Sidorenko, The Offensive (A Soviet View) (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1970), p. 1.
2. Ibid., p. vii.
3. The East-West Conventional Balance in Europe," Air Force Magazine, December 1983, p. 128.
4. Department of the Army, Soviet Army Operations (Arlington, Virginia: U.S. Army Intelligence Threat Analysis Center, 1978), pp. 3-89.
5. Ibid., pp. 3-96.
6. Sidorenko, P. 125.
7. Ibid., p. 28.
8. Ibid., p. 60.
9. Soviet Commander's Tactical Planning Worksheet (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, 1978). p. 5.
10. Handbook: Organization and Equipment of the Soviet Army (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combined Arms Combat Developments Activity, 1978), pp. 5-16.
11. Sidorenko, p. 14 1.
12. Ibid., p. 183.
13. Handbook: Organization and Equipment, pp. 5-31.
14. Ibid., p. 144.
15. Sidorenko, p. 87.
16. Ibid., p. 93.
17. Field Manual 71-100, Brigade and Division operations (Armour/Mechanized) (Fort Leavenworth, Kansas: Combined Arms Center, 1977), pp. 4-10.
Lieutenant Colonel Harry J. Kieling, Jr. (B.A., University of Arizona; M.S., Troy State University), is Deputy Chief, Exercise Section, Hq Allied Air Forces Southern Europe, Naples, Italy. He is an experienced fighter pilot and served as an A-10 squadron commander at Suwon AB, Korea. Colonel Kieling is a graudate of Squadron Officer School, U.S. Army Command and Staff College, and the Industrial College of the Armed Forces. His articles have appeared in Fighter Weapons Review, Military Review, and TAC Attack.
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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