2009/06/15

Air war support & Europe

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I was recently focusing my research more on air war support, the electronic stuff that supports the bare bones force of fighters, bombers and combination thereof.

A full air war system includes much more than combat aircraft. Some of the support categories were developed during WW2, others during the Cold War.

Here's a short list (I don't claim completeness):

- (standoff) radar jamming aircraft
- (standoff) communications jamming aircraft
- (standoff) electronic intelligence aircraft
- maritime patrol aircraft
- transport aircraft
- gunships
- air/ground radar aircraft
- air/air radar aircraft (AEW&C)
- Tanker (midair refueling) aircraft

All this on top of training aircraft, fighters, ground attack aircraft, bombers and SEAD aircraft.


The USAF had this full system (partially still in prototype stage) by the 1991 Gulf War and fully developed by the late 90's.

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I'm not fully comfortable with this monopoly among the NATO members.

I admit that it's not a great idea to duplicate high level capabilities in an alliance, but a bit of technological competition makes sense to me.
A full air war system in Europe would be an insurance just in case of a NATO split along the Atlantic.


NATO and UK duplicate some capabilities (especially AEW & C). The AEW & C technology used by both (and the U.S.) is a bit suspicious as it seems to be lagging significantly behind the state of the art (especially in regard to the antenna tech and refresh rate).

The attempt to establish a ground situation surveillance (SAR/GMTI radar) capability at NATO level similar to the AWACS force wasn't successful so far.

Efforts to pool some heavy air lift capacity at NATO level seem to be stuck at a small scale.
There was also an apparently successful effort to establish a multi-national air crew training facility.

I don't recall efforts to establish a pool of aerial refueling capacity, but it would probably make sense as well.

There's little need to have these support assets pooled at NATO level, though. The U.S. already has the stuff and doesn't need to be involved at government level.
The pools could instead be established at WEU or EU level.


This is how I would organize it:
(Unless someone hired me to think about this for months to come up with a better proposal.)

One wing for air situation surveillance
platform: medium airliner
long-range AESA search & track radar, passive location & classification of fighter radar and radio emissions

One wing for ground situation surveillance
platform: medium airliner
long range SAR/GMTI radar, passive location & classification of ground-based radar and radio emissions
(I'm aware that the frequencies overlap with the first type; it's as much about division of work as about technical differences)

One wing of standoff jammers
platform: medium airliner
radio communications and radar (ground and airborne) radar jamming
(to be complemented by extremely high altitude EW drones)

Two wings of quick change transport/tanker aircraft
platform: medium airliner

One wing of maritime warfare aircraft
platform: medium airliner
naval radar, visual and infrared surveillance, good value ASW equipment

One squadron of heavy airlift aircraft
platform: dedicated heavylift aircraft
ability to lift 50-ton vehicles over medium range

Additionally, centralize the multi-national pilot training in Canada.


National inventories:

* Strike fighters
(quantity of national wings matched to national budget, large air forces let their squadrons emphasize different air war aspects)

* EW aircraft on strike fighter base
(only in the air forces of Germany, UK, France, Italy and Spain)

* light airlift aircraft
(for everyday airlift needs, ranging in size from a flight to few squadrons)


My personal preference would be
(Legacy aircraft would of course be used as interim types.)

medium airliner - A350-800
(enough volume/payload and range for the jobs, future-proof)

heavy airlift aircraft - Il-76MF
(best value heavylift aircraft, IAE V2500 engines, only with full spare parts license, some could be operated as civilian-registered charter aircraft in a joint venture)

strike fighter - Typhoon, Rafale and Gripen
(already available; Gripen for small budget air forces to afford meaningful numbers)

light quick change airlift aircraft - An-74TK
(good value, BR725 engines, only with full spare parts license)


The British had a rather disappointing experience with their attempt to integrate a powerful SAR/GMTI radar into a large business jet. This means that the use of subsonic or supersonic business jets as platforms is likely no good idea till the systems become more automated, miniaturized and energy-efficient.

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The thought of a well-designed pool of European air power support assets is very enticing to me. It would avoid duplication of effort inside of Europe, make advanced support capabilities available to small air forces on a regular basis.

It seems pointless to have some support capabilities scattered with as few as two to twelve aircraft of certain types in operation in an air force. Meanwhile, no European air force has the full system of air war capabilities.

An integration by pooling of rare assets appears to be a useful step. It seems to me much more useful than dreams of fully integrated military forces or strange multi-national corps/divisions/brigades with a mix of single-nationality units.


A great (to me) side-effect of such pools would be that their use for war would likely require a majority agreement. This would pretty much take away advanced air power assets from plans for wars of aggression and most other wars of choice. It would usually take a consensus (caused by a defensive war of necessity) to free these assets for use.
That's the reason why UK and France wouldn't fully commit to such a pool, of course.

Sven Ortmann

edit: The "European Air Transport Fleet" agreement may be seen as an alternative approach. It's not such a clear-cut concept with economies of scale, though.

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1 comment:

  1. This is an excellent idea, and I believe that this is going to be the next big step in the development of the EU's CFSP/ESDP. It's not only a major asset that our militaries lack, but also fairly efficient and common sense, and let's not forget pretty likely because of the huge disappointment that is the A400M. I guess we have to wait and see what the Swedes will do once they have the presidency.

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