Operational-level air warfare: Both the air force's and the army's perspective count

I dropped snippets about air warfare in several blog texts, now it's about time for an integration of these snippets into a whole. My hope is that it's interesting and maybe inspiring for readers.

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There have been several doctrines in the past - both in theory and practice. Few of them appeared to shine against a peer opponent in a rather short (months at most) conflict.
The Israelis lived off their fighter pilot superiority in the Near East, the Americans lived off their numerical superiority over Europe, Korea and Vietnam and off their general qualitative and quantitative superiority over Iraq. Germany depended on its qualitative superiority over the Soviet Union in 1941-1943 and the Soviet Union depended on its numerical superiority in 1944-1945. Likewise, Japan depended on superior pilot training in 1941-1942, while it was crushed by vastly superior resources in 1943-1945.

The only historical example of a peer v. peer air war which succeeded in a short time frame was probably the air war over France in May 1940. The German Luftwaffe focused its resources on the support of the decisive army offensive, while the French air force defended with an expectation of a long campaign and the British RAF lacked effective air/ground aviation at the time. The Luftwaffe suffered huge losses and failed to show any superiority in air combat despite a good superior fighter type. It still succeeded in providing critical assistance to the army. Later campaigns showed that the Luftwaffe's only real superiority laid in its commitment to the success of army offensives.

Modern air war has become much more complicated since WW2. Radar-guided missiles, area air defences, electronic warfare, much more effective night-time operations, much-increased support requirements of combat aircraft, airborne long-range radars, widespread use of ballistic missiles, widespread use of guided missiles against ground targets, beyond visual range air combat - the relatively simple recipes of the 40's are badly outdated.

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Assumptions are important due to the lack of relevant experiences. How should a peer vs. peer air warfare (as it happened over France 1940) look like today?

I suspect that this should not be answered solely from the point of view of the air force or the army. Both have their needs and a full commitment of the air force to army support would amount to a charge of the light brigade, as evidenced by the extremely high A-4 Skyhawk losses of Israel early in the Yom Kippur War.
An army needs to accept that the air force needs to allocate many of its resources to the setting of the right conditions for army air support.
An air force needs to accept that the ultimate form of air superiority is a tank on the runway. It must not prepare for or even fight a pure air war (if there's parallel and potentially decisive warfare on the ground), thereby completely neglecting the needs of the army (and the opportunities created by the army).

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The right balance is a piece of high art, for you cannot find it reliably with simulations, calculations or by extrapolation from historical air wars. I'll toss my design into the ring:

The air war would know four modes (~phases); any mode might be skipped depending on circumstances.

Mode 0: Force build-up

The air force does its best to build up enough power in the theatre for ambitious operations. This would be especially relevant for a surprised defensive alliance.

Mode 1: Fight for air force superiority

The opposing force is a (near-)peer, it would be able to stall attempts of offensive large-scale operations. Hostile fighters need to be downed (or their ammunition supply be depleted) and hostile area air defences need to be cracked up.
- Reduction of hostile fighter strength mostly through air combat
- (attempted) destruction of enemy air defences (DEAD)
- attacks on opposing air force bases in order to relieve the own defences
- attacks on hostile command and communications infrastructure
- few AF resources available for direct intervention in the land war

Mode 2: Strategic air warfare

Political and economic targets of the hostile nation are enticing for an air force; not the least because their destruction might prevent that the war lasts for years. The effect can be huge with few own lives at stake.
- attacks on rather political targets
   and / or
- attacks on economic targets
enabled by
- suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD)
- combat air patrols (CAP)
- few AF resources dedicated to direct intervention in the war on the ground
Strategic air warfare against economic targets should not require much time (more than a week) nowadays if the opposing air force has already lost much of its defensive capability. The drain on the precision munitions and drop tank inventories could be great, though.
Strategic air warfare against political targets (which would be much more than delivery of explosives to ministries) could last for many months, though.

Mode 3: Air force focuses on support of army operations

This focus is probably not possible against intact hostile defences; hence mode 1. A total elimination of hostile defences is on the other hand unlikely (see Kosovo Air War), thus a preference for sustained suppression efforts.
- continued suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD)
- continued combat air patrols (CAP)
- interdiction; interference with (and hopefully discouragement of) hostile road marches and supplies movements at daylight.
- close air support in support of the corps' Schwerpunkt and in crisis situations
- aerial reconnaissance complements and partially relieves the army's reconnaissance capabilities

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Mode 3 is the only one in which an army corps should be very confident about the availability of air power for the support of its operations.
The relative absence of such support at other times is important, for  an army needs to be able to make do entirely without offensive air support for weeks. This won't necessarily be how a modern air war unfolds, but the army nevertheless needs to be ready for it. The experience in Afghanistan where even infantry platoons in trouble can call in air power to the rescue is in stark contract to the possible situation of entire brigades being unable to call in a single air strike in a peer/peer war.

Much air power is available for support of operations on the ground in mode 3; it should be used for greatest possible effect. This requires a high efficiency; not the least because the air force might already be badly decimated at that time.
Great efficiency is required, and this necessitates a focus on the support on the operational level: Do what's decisive at that level, don't stare at the tactical level.
An army brigade may get much air support on a deception operation, but be stripped of all air support at the instant when the corps commander thinks that the deception has either failed or succeeded. Company commanders on the ground would not see a link between the difficulty of their combat actions and the availability of air support because their horizon is the tactical level.

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Modes 0, 1 and 2 would include little air force commitment to land war success. The army would nevertheless have its needs; a corps commander might decide that for example a certain bridge or two need to be destroyed. Would he have any assets to do this or anything to promise to the air force in exchange for an air strike on those targets?
He should. The army corps can help the air force against targets in range of its artillery (~80 km); that's self-evident and must not be withheld. An army corps supports the air force by rescuing downed air crews and army air defences may help against hostile air power as well; again, this is all self-evident and not subject for bartering. None of this would help against those bridges, though.

The army corps commander could on the other hand have exclusive control over long-range ground-to-ground missiles, such as Iskander, LORA or ATACMS. These missiles could offer a minimum air strike capability for the corps commander (against stationary targets) and they would give him something for bargaining. (Long-range artillery and army aviation add even more partial substitutes for air force support to the corps commander's repertoire.) This means he would be able to offer something in return for air support; ground and air force would realise their mutual dependence and would be forced to cooperate.

The air force could operate the very same missiles, but the ballistic missile lobby would need to fend off the manned aviation lobby and the unmanned aviation lobby for resources while there's no real competition in the army. In fact, the army's artillery would likely welcome the ballistic missile crowd and happily integrate them. ATACMS missiles can even be fired by launchers which can double as normal multiple rocket launchers.

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Let's also look a bit closer at the air/ground missions in support of army operations. I proposed a focus on two things; impair the enemy's operational mobility (~interdiction) and support for army operations (at the Schwerpunkt, maybe previously in support of a deception operation in order to feign a Schwerpunkt). The third mentioned kind of support - close air support at the location of a crisis - is a rather undesirable improvisation because it requires a crisis.
The reasoning behind these conclusions rests on successful historical examples. The potential of  Schwerpunkt air support was demonstrated by German forces in 1940 to great effect and the mobility impairment was demonstrated by Western Allies in 1944 to great effect. The only other equally impressive approach was a part of the 1991 Desert Storm preparatory aerial bombardment; accurate attacks on dug-in tanks in the desert discouraged the tank crews from being close to their tanks. This contributed to the surprise of these units by the eventually advancing ground forces. The critical enabler here was probably the lack of concealment in the desert; an almost unique feature of the campaign that prohibits a generalization of the approach.

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NATO and its air forces and armies never arrived at a convincing consensus about how to wage a peer/peer air war. There were always more enticing options than could be exploited at once. 
Some armies expected early interdiction of enemy reserves while the air forces were also concerned about the challenge by Warsaw Pact air defences and also about its offensive air war capabilities. The advance of ground forces would have threatened air bases and forced their evacuation, resulting in reduced availability and endurance of combat aircraft.
Army doctrines such as Air-Land-Battle did not really take into account the air forces' limited abilities while other army doctrines almost ignored the effects of air power on land warfare.
The history of the U.S.Army's rapid deployment ideas in 1999-2002 including the whole Stryker brigade idea showed that army commands could be as blind to the independent will of air forces as to rely on an air force's strategic air lift for their own bid to 'relevance' in short and surprising conflicts (this 'relevance' deemed to be in question because of air power's success over Kosovo in the first place!).

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We also need to remember that air warfare is still quite dependent on weather and target identification issues. Some forces even hamper themselves with overblown airspace deconfliction requirements.
The weather problem could actually lead to the addition of poor weather phases to mode 0; it makes sense to use poor conditions for catching up with maintenance needs and for allowing air crews to recover from the stress. Again, the army might be forced to make do without much air support. The early days of the Ardennes offensive 1944 and poor weather phases in Operation Overlord and decades later during OIF are good historical examples for these phases.

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I've heard and read a particular opinion often: The assumption that air power would cause a huge portion of total damage against hostile ground power. I don't think so.
The 1991 air war provided near-optimal conditions for a demonstration. The enemy was predictable, had largely ineffective air defences, lacked effective concealment and most enemies waited patiently.
Nevertheless, five weeks of powerful aerial bombardment caused less destruction of army material and ground power in general than four days of campaigning on the ground did.

The Luftwaffe of the 2010's would have less than 200 combat aircraft while the Heer could have the equivalent of one or two corps. The strength ratio is similar in allied countries. The defence of NATO would not happen in a terrain resembling Kuwait - it might resemble Kosovo (where air power failed to reduce ground forces significantly over months of bombardment) instead. Some areas of Europe lack concealment and features as much as Kuwait's desert, though.

Air forces could never commit all their peacetime power to army support in wartime; about a third or less is a more reasonable expectation in a war of necessity, especially after losses. 50 Typhoons won't defeat an opposing army corps. They can take out fixed installations, force caution on the enemy and do some damage - that's what they were adapted to do. They're not particularly well-armed against columns of vehicles with 100 m spacing, for example. German Typhoons can in theory carry seven guided bombs to kill seven trucks, but it's reasonable to expect much, much less lethality simply because that's how war worked historically. The same applies to the Brimstone missile of British Typhoons. The availability of the Brimstone missiles is limited to two air forces (only one of them in NATO) and the stocks can easily be exhausted. They're way too expensive for spending them on trucks and need to be reserved mostly for high-value vehicle targets.

Air power is not going to be the primary means of defeating the enemy if there's a ground campaign.

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There's still one important question: Who says that the air force operates on a particular day in mode x?
The answer should be simple: The joint theatre commander.
Well, actually, the theatre commander may need to follow directions from superiors including a politician, but he's the one who should decide within general directions from above.

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My concept is certainly not the piece of high art which offers a perfect balance of competing needs, but I think I showed how the introduction of rather unusual hardware, an organizational decision and the acceptance of different modes of air warfare can help to come to a compromise which incorporates the competing needs in a hopefully acceptable and promising package.

Is there any conclusion for the Bundeswehr in here? Well, it should look at ATACMS Block II for the Heer, for starters. It could review its air/ground capability against vehicles. Everything else is little more than a matter of will.



  1. Its interesting to note that most u.s. battlefield commanders complained about the airsupport received in 91.
    Even then, platoons seemed to expect constant aircover.

    As for brimstone, i'm not sure i agree with its numerical limitations.
    You dont need to destroy every truck in russia, every truck matters.
    Trucks, drivers and cargo can and will be replaced but if you destroy half of a brigades trucks, you paralyse the formation.
    More resources can be sent, but if you hit a convoy of tank mechanics, exactly how many spare ones are warehoused...

  2. Snippets in response:

    Our picture of aerial warfare is dominated by the U.S. (and I dare say still heavily influenced by the Vietnam war). It is not a universal picture. I see two factors as the real contribution of the U.S. to aerial warfare: (i) Take the fight to the enemy = range, (ii) strategic aerial warfare (one could say = payload over range against the core assets of a state and society). The USAF's dearest game, interdiction, is just that - a game. Even for the USAF the real justification of its existance was SAC, as only SAC provided an independant capability. Which answers my view: Aerial forces are split in ground warfare support (with Army Aviation doing the dirty work, and the Air Force fliers putting up the air superiority umbrella) and independant strategic long range warfare (these days mostly with unmanned and robot assets, in a real war with nuclear weapons only). Flying around with tactical aircraft and dropping bombs in the enemy's hinterland - USAF style - without ground troop follow up is just a terror tool.

    Generally speaking sequential and aufbauende aerial operations are not possible any more. Who but the U.S. has the resources for that these days? That's why "softening up" the enemy is not an option for 95% of antagonists.

    The Marines are a much better role model for the average modern air force than the U.S. Air Force.

    Euro-NATO never had an aerial doctrine besides the use of nuclear weapons in suicide missions.

    "Relevance" - a key word these days when it comes to the U.S. Armed Forces. The majority of what we see is DoD infighting and service branch masturbation. No lessons here except how NOT to do it. The U.S. national security establishment is an inward focused social club, not focused on producing external strength and stability. A very anglo-saxon story.

    Germany? The Bundeswehr is not combat capable. Good chance it never was, except a handful of Starfighters destined to nuke the East.

    Talking about Theatre Commanders: I think it would be essential that officers above O-6 loose their service branch affiliation and become an own breed, including cross-training. Goes back to having a proper General Staff structure. Interestingly the U.S. is half way there with the Unified Combat Commands. They just don't want to go all the way and create a General Staff.
    But the Europeans should do it! Preliminary structures are already in place, but the SHTF before Europe moves in anything.

    The conclusion and consequence for the Bundeswehr can only be the Unified European Armed Forces in a Unified Europe. And a Euro-Wehrmacht should have a proper General Staff under some kind of European politcal Grand Strategy committee; then forces pools Land - Aerial/Orbital - Naval/Amphib; Directorates for Mobility/Logistics/Sustainment and ISR/Intel; Strategic Commands Deterrence/Defence - Cyber - Special Ops, and then permanent Unified Theatre Commands tasked with operational warfare.
    Organic growth and capability expansion are key: First territorial & EEZ defence (incl BMD), then a strategic ISR capability, then limited power projection capability in the immediate area of interest (roughly from the Arabian Gulf to the mid-Atlantic, and from Central Africa to the North Pole), and finally a global power projection capability (conventional and nuclear). It's useless to even think about independant German capabilities.

  3. apparently the british armed forces have 12k cargo trucks.
    Long term depletion with airpower is unlikely, but still, short term, disruption is still probable.

    I think interdiction is still possible, if you broaden it to severing the supply lines rather than hitting the vehicles themselves.
    Motorways are well mapped, a stormshadow at every junction would be well beyond what civil engineering is going to fix in a few hours.

    As for joint command.
    Europe isnt unified, the simple fact is the german government isnt willing to sacrifice ten thousand germans in a war to hold french polynesia or spanish north africa.

  4. Neither should France or Spain.
    French Polynesia isn't even covered by the Lisbon treaty.
    Melilla and Ceuta have together 150 k inhabitants, many of them no EU state citizens. Their defence would require a war with ten thousands or hundred thousands of dead in the region - a horrible ratio even assuming that almost all dead would not be EU citizens.

  5. "French Polynesia isn't even covered by the Lisbon treaty."
    Which makes it rather useless for France, as I said in the first place....

  6. The Lisbon treaty is a bit more than just an alliance, of course.

    I don't recall whoever threatens Tahiti anyway. Event eh Japanese didn't come close to it.
    New Caledonia is likely going independent in a decade or two; not worth to wage a war.

  7. War or not war is not something that is in Europe's hands to decide. War it will be, just a question when and where. Reason behind is the absolute need for Europe to become an peer partner/enemy of the U.S. and China. And this will lead to proxy wars, whereby "war" spans a wider meaning than just guys shooting at each other with assault rifles. Any other option is defeatist and ends in subjection and heteronomy.

  8. Let's agree to disagree here, for I have a completely different view.

  9. AFAIK the Lisbon Treaty also covers Ceuta and Melila, just like a number of French overseas territories in the Caribbean (the Dutch may change the status of their islands down there in the future making them part of the Netherlands, the country not the kingdom). If Germany alone has to sacrifice ten thousand troops to retake one of these territories, I wouldn't ask myself why were fighting this war, but what the hell we're doing wrong! I seriously doubt that even one of the member states with overseas territories would be willing to sacrifice such a high number of military personnel (and we haven't even talked about collateral damage). It's also implausible that any power would be able to threaten one of the territories. And unless all 27 foreign intelligence agencies of the EU member states remain completely oblivious to any threat against one of the overseas territories rapidly reinforcing these islands with one or two infantry battalions and a squadron of combat aircraft will do just fine.

    Regarding the CDSP: on of the German MoD's undersecretaries said that the European defence ministers are currently in the process of drawing up a joint training concept (and maybe standardised equipment) and we'll most likely see joint air defence, cbrn, ... training in the future. That's long overdue.

  10. Distiller said, "The Marines are a much better role model for the average modern air force than the U.S. Air Force. "

    I disagree. The Marines amphibious doctrine uses fixed-wing air power as essentially flying artillery, until artillery can come ashore. They largely ignore Sven's Modes 0-2, expecting the USAF and USN to handle it.

    However, as Sven said, the US operational model is to pool all air power (including Marine) under the Joint Forces Commander. Even under this model though, there's no reason why the JFC and JFACC can't dedicate Marine air sorties for Marine units.

    Centralized planning but distributed execution.


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