Air power as part of an anti-tank effort

Recently I wrote "Why do I imply a marginal role of air power in AT [anti-tank] efforts?". Here's the answer.

(1) Interdiction in the old style is very difficult to pull off at great depth, particularly against respectable air defences and air power opposition. The easiest way to do it would be to blow up a few railway bridges with cruise missiles. That's of little use if there's a large choice of possible routes for the forces to be interdicted, and of no use against the forces that surprised you with a strategic surprise attack on day one.

(2) Interdiction in the theatre of ground operations - essentially the air attack on march columns on roads - is very difficult if timely warning enables the march column to stop and hide under foliage and camouflage netting in time. Such a route might also be protected by air defences.
Timely warning is not difficult because threat aircraft would need to announce their presence by active radars in order to survive the threat posed by fighters and radio communications can be expected to be effective in the rear, so dissemination of the air threat warning is possible.

The need to hide does reduce the average convoy speed and effective road capacity, but depending on how many air threat warnings were given during a day and how long they last this effect might be smaller than the effect of near-permanent air attacks during daytime in 1944/45 which reduced most movements to hours of darkness.

(3) Respectable air defences could be overcome, but typically this would require a combined arms effort in the air - a strike package. These sophisticated arrangements of different aircraft types with different roles, location and timings have their roots in the early Second World War, but were developed to something resembling today's efforts only by the time of the Vietnam War.
it's typical of strike packages that only a certain share of the involved aircraft would actually engage the main targets on the ground (rule of thumb; no more than 40%), and the effort would require dozens of aircraft. This leads to but a few ground attack aircraft being over the target area, and most likely so with more clear skies than presence. Much if not most of the time the target ground vehicles could move undisturbed.
This may lead to a Stop & Go tactic of the bloc with the inferior fighter force: Vehicle convoys would be protected even with active radars and radar jammers while on the move, whereas in presence of an overwhelmingly capable strike package everyone on the ground would hide inside buildings (barns, garages) or under foliage (woodland) plus camouflage netting. Small vehicles might also simply be parked and covered with inconspicuous objects that hide the engine hood's warmth.

It's about time for a relief for the eyes:

(4) Close air support has quite the same issues, albeit the ground targets would receive slightly less warning time.

(5) Autonomous killer drone attacks are feasible, but so far almost exclusively man-in-the-loop munitions were deployed. Systems like German Taifun / TARES or the U.S. LOCAAS didn't become part of arsenals. Their range would be limited to less than 150 km anyway, and targets would move long distances between launch and arrival of the drone.

(6) Man-in-the-loop killer drones of the infamous Predator/Reaper recipe are effectively occupation warfare and assassination tools. Every such drone would be nothing but an easy practice target to all air defences with sufficient range and ceiling. The radio link (including by communication satellite) would also be jammed rather easily, and it's highly questionable whether the bandwidth demands of a single drone video stream would be justified by the tiny firepower of such a drone when there are literally hundreds of other platforms in need of the services of the very same satellite communication network.

(7) Long range sensors would fail against a prepared (aggressor) great power. There are radar jammers that defeat radar aircraft like Sentry (AWACS), Erieye, J-STARS and ASTOR, creating huge safe areas into which such radar planes cannot look reliably. Additionally, such radar aircraft would be the highest priority targets and face very long range air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles. It may very well be that in a conflict about the Baltic states AWACS radar coverage could only be maintained over Germany, Denmark and the North Sea, but not over Eastern Poland or even the Baltic sates, much less the St. Petersburg area.
It would be quite irresponsible to launch risky strike packages at deep moving targets such as brigades on road march without even knowing about their location. Likewise, it would be most difficult for fighters on offensive combat air patrol to secure such strike packages without the benefit of support by AEW&C systems like AWACS. Their radars can only cover the ~ 110-160° front sector, and the fighters would need to make many turns very often in order to maintain all-round awareness of the air situation. Any pincer attack would be most devastating in regard to beyond visual range air combat tactics because evading missiles incoming from one direction might mean to run into missiles incoming from the opposite direction.

(8) Desert warfare has warped perceptions, and the Kosovo Air War did an incomplete job at repairing this damage. It's actually very, very difficult to find ground targets while flying at 15,000 ft or more - especially if it's a single seat strike fighter and the pilot also needs to pay attention to the air defence threat picture and the air combat threat picture. It would be much more likely to see such a pilot dump his few guided bombs on mere lorries or even false targets than on main battle tanks.
Conditions as in Kuwait and vicinity where pilots had the easiest possible job at detecting hostile ground vehicles are extremely unrepresentative for much of Eastern Europe. You get most close to this in Southern Russia and some parts of the Ukraine. But those are huge areas, and the ratio of strike fighters to area would be very different there than over tiny Kuwait.

(9) Air power that faces a strategic surprise attack may be in a much too poor shape for doing much about hostile tank forces for a long time. A cruise missile surprise salvo by bombers, warships and submarines could take out hundreds of highest quality combat aircraft in maintenance halls, aircraft bunkers and the tarmac of airbases. Other alliance air power would trickle in over weeks, but it would first need to ensure survival by a defensive campaign tactic if it stands no chance to defeat the threat air power by aggressive action. Such aggressive action would be hardly feasible in face of area air defences, safe for launching (air-launched) cruise missiles from safe standoff distances.

(10) I do not quite count aerial battlefield observation as 'air power' when I reject that air power would be very important for an anti-tank effort in a war between great powers in Europe. No do I play down the utility of air power against mechanised forces in for example the second month of a conflict. I do think that the former is about artillery striking with mere support by air, while the latter is unsatisfactory because early failure to cope with mechanised forces may be catastrophic and a (months) long war needs to be avoided due to its destructiveness.

This was written by a guy who wore the uniform of the German air force (Luftwaffe), so this is not army fanboy-ism.


1 comment:

  1. In my opinion you underestimate the difficulties to hide modern (heavy) MBT from Air-Assets. Moreover the striking power / precision today are much bigger than 44/45 or in the Kosovo Air War. I agree, that the anti tank effort of airpower is often overestimated, but it is no so weak as you suggest and we need new concepts for tanks because of the rising power of the air. The tanks must become much lighter, faster and highly mobile in every terrain and stealthy and we need more NLOS Assets on the ground.

    IMHO the result of the modern air power anti tank effort is, that the traditional (heavy) MBT is a dead end and must be replaced by a different concept.