The first week of a peer vs. peer air war; a dilemma

It's been a classic dilemma of the Cold War: What should be done early on in an air war?

* Should the air forces focus on the air superiority fight (fighter vs. fighter) at first?
* Should they focus on the destruction of enemy air defences first?
* Maybe attack enemy airfields?
* Maybe blow up some important bridges?
* Attacks on hostile troops on road marches?
* Attacks on hostile troops in contact with friendly troops?
* Should squadrons relocate to more survivable airfields or stay at their home airbases?
* What kind of mix would be optimal?

The Israelis had this kind of dilemma - especially in the surprising Yom Kippur War 1973. They seem to have improvised. The substantial losses of their attack aircraft forced a campaign against hostile battlefield air defences on them in the midst of the conflict. In the end, lots of technological changes and special conditions prevent the Yom Kippur example from giving us reliable guidance about how to answer the dilemma.

The dilemma wasn't nearly as serious in the conflict against Iraq. The Iraq was simply no peer and not capable of immediate decisive action on the ground or air. Fighting against Iraqis was even less than a sparring match in comparison to WW3 expectations. Again, there's little to learn from the campaigns against Iraqi forces in regard to the basic prioritization dilemma.

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There might be an answer to the dilemma, though: Surprisingly, this may be a technological answer (and we should be sceptical about it for this reason).

It's obvious that several of the aforementioned options are related to the survivability of combat aircraft. Survivability against hostile fighters, against hostile attack aircraft (when on the ground) and against hostile air defences.

Now what if we were able to take this out of the equation? Let's assume we had a silver bullet that can strike operational level targets (typically 50-500 km depth, for example) while the artillery can strike close targets (and substitute for lacking close air support).
The air forces would then be able to fight for air war superiority, fight air force vs. air force. They would have the best probability of success, could later turn on the hostile ground forces and deliver a strong argument for the politicians who hopefully keep negotiating about an end of the folly.

OK, which weapon or munition could render fighters, air defences and attacks on friendly airfields quite irrelevant? The (quasi-) ballistic missile!

Such missiles are very survivable against most air defence systems, have a useful range for the operational level of war (the longer the range the faster - and thus more survivable!) and nowadays such missiles have the necessary pinpoint accuracy for the destruction of stationary (fixed and reconnoitered semi-mobile) targets: Air fields, long-range air defence batteries, bridges).

NATO air forces (and navies) have understood their potential, their potency as threat - and accordingly spent a great deal of attention and money on hard kill defences against such missiles.

They did not embrace the (quasi-)ballistic missile themselves, though. Missile types with less than 500 km range would fit into the treaties that are in force (except possibly ICOC 3-3).

It may be a prejudice, but maybe it's simply bureaucratic inertia coupled with conservativeness and special interests (fighter pilot generals wanting more fighter wings, not more unsexy missile batteries) that keeps these missiles outside of NATO air forces.
Foreign policy strategy (promotion of ICOC & BM counter-proliferation efforts in general) might play a role as well.

The exposure to Third World ballistic missiles based on Russian 1950's technology has distorted the perception of the (quasi-)ballistic missile threat. Such missiles are at times interpreted as useful only with non-conventional warheads.
It's almost forgotten that NATO had such battlefield missiles with conventional warheads in service during the Cold War!

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There are several modern designs of accurate (quasi-)ballistic missiles:

supposedly 300 km range

supposedly 400 km range.

Supposedly 300 km range.
The payload is several hundred kilograms each - enough.

The most obvious choice for NATO forces would probably be to introduce (more) ATACMS Block II into Corps- or Division-level army artillery units and to produce in license a longer-range version of LORA (to be honest, it's most likely cheaper to let them develop a LORA 2 and to buy a license than to develop a missile of our own!).

The dilemma could then be solved quite easily; NATO air forces could alternate between defensive (defence with fighters and air defences) and offensive (additional strike packages against battlefield air defences and relatively easily accessible installations) phases until it has won the air power vs. air power contest in one shape or another.
Strike missions against airfields, fixed and semi-mobile area air defence assets, bridges and the like (ministries?) would be substituted for with the fires from 300-500 km (quasi-)ballistic missile regiments.
Close air support could early on be substituted for with army aviation and artillery fires.

So far, the Western air forces don't seem to believe that this is necessary, though. They prefer air-launched cruise missiles of about 250-300 km range instead. Such cruise missiles require sorties just as the classic strike packages would do.

Maybe we should pay more attention to (quasi-)ballistic missiles as a gap in our air forces instead of paying obedient attention to other big ticket projects (fighters, bombers, air launched cruise missiles) and to the role of ballistic missiles as threats only.
F-35 and Typhoon critics are numerous - how many critical remarks about the lack of SRBMs in Western air forces did you see (except here)?


edit 2013: I should have mentioned the Indian Prithvi missile as well.


  1. I wouldnt limit it to "airwar" but I'd say a rough order of where to devote resources would be
    Troops in Contact
    Enemy Aircraft in the Air
    Enemy airbasing (although it might be acceptable to let an enemy airforce attack a dug in infantry force of yours if you can hammer most of their airfields in the meantime)
    Enemy Air defences
    Exposed enemy
    Transport Bottlenecks
    And finaly entrenched enemy.

    The biggest threat to your own airpower (and frankly everything else) is enemy airpower.
    Even discounting direct fires, airborne intelligence has such a disproportionate effect that your enemy is effectivly deaf and blind.

    As for Quasi Ballistic Missiles.
    I actualy like them, although not for the UK at your ranges, but I can see the appeal to Eastern Europe and Israel.
    The US did actualy do a lot of work on them, under the Brilliant Anti Tank program, which had the USSR not collapsed, would probably have seen the formations you suggest.

    The UK is simply never going to have ground based rocketry forces 500km from important enemy airbases.

    I would however be delighted if we had a ship borne missile with a range extending to 1000km

  2. I've thought along the same lines for some time. NATO these days takes it's air superiority for granted. If you can take out enemy air defences and aircraft with your own aircraft without taking serious losses it's much more economical to use aircraft and bombs, but if you're fighting a near-peer opponent who has competent air-defences, the ballistic missiles look alot better. Such missiles may cost much more than bombs, but they are much less expensive than planes and pilots.

    An initial salvo of such missiles against air defences and then airfields would allow the aircraft to focus on critical infrastructure and enemy groundforces in the early stages of the conflict, at most having to clean up what the missiles missed in terms of air defences.

    For a force that has a disadvantage in the air, the ballistic missile strategy is really the only real option for neutralizing enemy airpower beyond the reach of ground based air defences. I think this is the reason the Russians focus much more on such weapons than NATO.

  3. IMO, it's a question of expensive munitions vs expensive platforms. It appears that the US prefers the latter. Rockets are expensive. This may not have mattered 30 years ago when (IMO) guidance packages dominated the cost of PGMs, but not anymore. In case of GPS, precision guidance is practically free. Stealth aircraft give you the ability to get close and strike with cheap unpowered PGMs. You basically get more explosives on target for your money. I think it fits the American war-fighting mindset: war as high-tech attrition.

  4. IIRC, many if not most of the ATACMS shots in OIF were at the request of the USAF to hit known or suspected air defense sites.

  5. Missiles are much cheaper, just as accurate and (if the first two points don't do it for you), PRODUCTION COSTS ARE EXPONENTIALLY LESS, than any air/missile combinations. It's not exactly a secret that any war against a moderately technical society, like Serbia, could be very hard on our air fleets. We overcame some of our problems by making aircraft fly at 5000 meters. The very fact that even countries who could not respond, like Iraq and Bosnia, knew the aircraft were there and had a great deal of warning, should give us all pause.

    This is not to say that manned aircraft are dead, just that our current methodology/aircraft will spell disaster in any kind of surprise conflict... and most conflicts are a surprise. The very idea that the F-35 or F-22 are survivable is ludicrous. If they can be seen they can be killed and someone working from a Radio Shack catalog will find a way to bring them down. And how would we make up those losses? We'd be lucky to ramp up F-22 production to six units a month. I like the idea of (quasi) ballistic missiles very much. Chances can be taken with them that will never be taken with manned treasury busters. In bad weather or against heavy AA missile complexes (not run by Arabs) ground support and deep attack simply can't happen. We need something else.

  6. EN
    Do you have some actual numbers to show that missiles are cheaper than bombs?
    A Tomahawk is listed as $500,000 on wikipedia.
    What does a 1000lb bomb with an IR seeker cost $5,000?

    In peace time, maintaining 50,000 tomahawks is undoubtably cheaper than maintaining 500 jets and 50,000 bombs, but once the tomahawks are gone, they're gone, and they cost a lot more time and money to replace than a bombs do.

    Did Iraq and Bosnia know our airforces were there?
    Theres plenty of footage of Iraqs air defences fireing flak at empty skies, the bombers long gone.
    Loads of examples of extremely sophisicated air defences being blinded in the first strike, as there radars are ALARM'ed or HARM'ed as the first targets can be found.

    "The very idea that the F-35 or F-22 are survivable is ludicrous. If they can be seen they can be killed and someone working from a Radio Shack catalog will find a way to bring them down. And how would we make up those losses? We'd be lucky to ramp up F-22 production to six units a month"

    An F35 is more survivable than a LORA, ones designed to come back and one is failing pretty badly if it comes back.
    Do you think we can replace expended SCUDs faster than we can replace lost combat aircraft and expended bombs?
    Genuine question.

    "I like the idea of (quasi) ballistic missiles very much. Chances can be taken with them that will never be taken with manned treasury busters."
    Dont get me wrong, I like them, but they have some massive weaknesses.

    Lets say we pick up an enemy missile launch and fire a missile of ours back, did we hit it? Probably not, it was a few minutes after launch we detected it, a few minutes to fire back, a few more to impact and the launcher has decamped and ran a mile.
    A pilot can be given a broad area, use a MkI eyeball to find it and confirm destruction, admitadly he can also lie and missiles can use a MkVII camera eye.

    Even if its a static target like a bridge or airfield, missiles dont return to base to confirm damage done, we cant even send a second attack run the next day to check the firsts damage.
    Do we missile an already destroyed bridge every couple of days, just in case?

    But I digress.
    A first strike quasi ballistic missile capability, somewhere in the range of 500-1500km, with several hundred missiles could certainly disable much of your enemies airpower, either by destroying planes on the ground, the support infrastructure (Fuel, weapons, pilots, fitters) or the runways, along with destroying known enemy air defences and maybe even harrasing "ready" soldiers is a pretty awesome ability, but it doesnt replace aircraft, in either utility or sustainability.

  7. Strangely, modern air-launched cruise missiles (Apache, Storm Shadow ...) are in exactly the same price rangeas the cheapest GLCMs (Tactical Tomahawk).

    GLCMs and MRBMs of more than 500 km (and less than ICBM range) are de facto prohibited by treaties with Russia, though.

    Battle damage assessment is rarely done with "attack runs". A drone with a similar concept as CL-289 would be a good candidate for snap shot reconnaissance - especially against fixed and semi-mobile targets.

  8. Sorry, Tactical Tomahawk is of course not a GLCM. It's ship-based.

  9. I know Storm Shadow works out at about £1m per missile, but its a pretty specialist piece of kit (and a rip off)

    Hellfires cost more like £30,000, cant find a cost for Brimstone, but it cant be that much more, although these are of course much smaller weapons.

    Just found JDAM, now has a unit cost of $30,000 per weapon, the 500lb paveway one $19,000.

    Compared to $500k-$700k for a TT.

    As I said, they have a use in the early days of a short war, but they dont have a sustained role to play.

    "Battle damage assessment is rarely done with "attack runs". "
    True, I was just trying to be brief, the main point was we would need to send a returnable platform, well, we could send a one way sensor package, but that would be expensive.

    "GLCMs and MRBMs of more than 500 km (and less than ICBM range) are de facto prohibited by treaties with Russia, though."
    Most of my thinking was UK based, for whome ship launched makes much more sense than ground launched anyway, but for much of europe, 500kms will be quite useful.
    Its just what do you cut to fund it.

  10. "As I said, they have a use in the early days of a short war, but they dont have a sustained role to play."

    I hope that after a round of typo hunting ("until" instead of "unit") it's clear that the blog post was only about the early phase when air forces are overworked.

  11. "it's clear that the blog post was only about the early phase when air forces are overworked."

    True, but it still needs to be funded, an uplift in early days hot war fighting would come at the loss of sustained action ability.

  12. You forget that the missiles would take out targets that would otherwise require additional risky sorties. Aircraft have a rate of attrition, and that one can be quite substantial against a yet unbroken opponent.

    It may be that adding a few munitions (not prone to political debates comparable to debates about Typhoon numbers) would save more Typhoons in a hot conflict than you could afford to buy for the same money.
    And that doesn’t even take into account that missiles have almost no operating costs in comparison with Typhoon and its well-trained (more than 165 flying hours per year) pilot (or two).

  13. One thing I've wondered about is how effective is hardening of one's infrastructure these days? SDB salvos may very well saturate defenses, but what good would they do against something like this?
    Conversely, how effective are ballistic missile attacks against airfields? Any attacks for that matter? I know that in the DS air campaign, Iraqi air shelters were knocked out by direct LGB hits. Does that mean an SDB-sized munition would have had no effect? Were Iraqi air shelters the hardest possible? Is it possible to do better now? All that I'm saying is give reinforced concrete a chance. At the very least super-hard strategic facilities should give potential agressors pause.

  14. It seems to be an option to mount three SDB in one ATACMs. SDB has proved its ability to penetrate at least one type of aircraft bunker.

    It could therefore be possible to launch a few ATACMs which relese SDBs which in turn destroy flight control tower, some maintenance buildings, aircraft bunkers. Some SDBs might even dig into the runway without exploding. Such UXE under the runway would normally make the runway unacceptable for aircraft operations.

    In the end, the mere threat might suffice to devaluate all hostile airfields in up to about 400 km depth (maybe 500-600 if we talked about an Iskander-like missile).