SEAD and fair weather opposition

A Major Jeff “Seed” Kassebaum, USAF -apparently a career SEAD guy- sounded off in the JED Journal 2011-12 issue (a professional journal on electronic warfare). His article was a quite direct attack on complacency and doctrine-reality mismatch:

This was apparently the dominant experience from the SEAD fight over Libya:
Libya’s IADS [integrated air defence system(s)] was non-traditional in the sense that they strayed away from Cold War era rigidity in command, control and communication (C3) and had the capability to incorporate modern technology into their air defense system. Tactically relevant SEAD cannot ignore the technological incorporation of commercially available, seemingly “non-military,” additions to the threat’s IADS.
So basically the pro-government Libyans were allowed to keep their civilian radars active and they did keep them running. They did not shoot back effectively even with the knowledge derived from these radars, though.
The last 10 years of close air support (CAS) and electronic attack (EA) in CENTCOM has resulted in a generation of aviators accustomed to a permissive air environment with a minimal surface-to-air threat at medium and high altitudes. These kinds of permissive environments can dangerously trend toward complacency and lack of respect toward credible surface-to-air threats.
and he goes on with
This trend became a reality in Libya, when the strategic and operational game plans opposed tactical force packaging from the start of the conflict and lacked a robust plan to locate and suppress the threat IADS.

This made me wonder:

How bad is the complacency and lack of serious preparations if even someone who's trying to shake things up with a warning call pretends that the almost negligible Libyan air defences were good enough to expose NATO shortcomings?
Or maybe he's ringing the alarm bell too much?

Or do I underestimate what decades-old ill-maintained missiles can do to 90's tech air power when manned by poorly trained and -led personnel? In that case I should probably sound off about the state of strike aircraft survivability (especially on-board ECM)!?

Context: "IADS" is as far as I know most often used to describe modern air defence networks with area defence SAMs, ShoRAD systems, robust communications, area surveillance sensors - and capable fighter aircraft (and pilots!) as necessary partners of the ground-based elements.
The Libyan opposition was -if I am not badly mistaken- basically the old 60's-era  hardware, mostly deteriorated and operated by marginally trained personnel. I suppose a dozen generals and several dozen colonels are in dire need of sudden retirement if Libyan air defences already posed a threat that made the peace-time complacency look bad. After all, you can easily stay beyond the reach of whatever arsenal of ManPADS (VShorAD) equipment the Libyans had and still find, ID and hit whatever you want on a terrain as theirs.

(Disclosure: I argued elsewhere last year vehemently that the Libyan radar-based air defences were so much in shambles that doing specific DEAD (destruction of enemy air defences) or SEAD missions against nodes etc amounted to killing innocent Libyans (the enlisted Libyan air force personnel was not exactly the same as the regime or known for attacking civilians) in a mission that was called for in order to protect Libyans. NATO basically began its "protect Libyans" mission by killing the same, and I argued that this part of the campaign was unnecessary and thus wrong.
This was the reason why I finally wrote the "Elegance in Warfare" blog post back then.

S Ortmann


  1. I don't pay much attention to this any longer, but I can speak with some authority that Serbia's very poor (upgraded 1950s) air defenses scared the hell out of our Air Force. In fact that was the end of the so-called Stealth F-117. After things had settled down we were able to find out that all our problems were caused by one guy, a Lt Col if memory serves, who was left to his own devices. We will always show well against 7th century men in Afghanistan, but one of these days the US air farce will be swept from the skies and that will be the biggest paradigm shift in warfare since the invention of air craft. It's always wise to pick your enemies, I have no qualms about that, but it's not wise to judge technical performance based on fighting a very weak opponent. I doubt very much if we'd fair any better today, and maybe much worse, if we were to fight a thinking enemy like the NVA.

  2. Maybe one major issue is the increasing complexity of ways, means and combinations for air defence. Any strike planner will be faced with unknowable (and non-traditional) air defence efforts. As a consequence they may stick to cautious strike templates, peeling the onion very slowly.

    On the other hand the same complexity issue applies to the air defence planners as well. Given all possible combinations and tools for air defence it is unlikely that they can find the optimum solution to a given strike scenario, again sticking to templates and known equipment.

    Case in point, that lone serbian air defence officer with limited resources. He had a plan to maximise the effectiveness of his tools, whereas the rest of serbian air defence showed poorer performance.

  3. On the "newer is better" theme I always envision the M14 against the M16 or the G3 against the G36. Supposedly newer isn't always better. Even in technology. As of "pseudo-stealth". Well if you have older radar it will work on longer wave lengths. As a result the whole deflecting shape stuff doesn't matter any more.

  4. IIRC NATO did loose a plane over Libya to "mechanical failure" that looked an awful lot like bullet or shrapnel holes in the pictures. Perhaps this contributed to the panicked tone of the article.