Air superiority in a European war in the next years (V)

Maybe you found any of the previous parts disappointing. That may be because all but the first one were meant to prepare the ground for this one.

we've come a long way
Let's look at the grand picture of air superiority in a European great war in the 2020's this time.

The assumptions are
  • the probability of kill of active radar-guided missiles is 0.20...0.50
  • both factions are enough in a balance of power that this air war isn't all about one pounding the other as in 1991 and 1999
These conditions might very well be met in Europe, particularly if a strategic surprise attack on airfields knocks out dozens if not 100+ Typhoon fighters.

- - - - -

Air war planners could plan for plenty defensive combat air patrols (CAP) backed up by AEW&C and tankers AND sophisticated, powerful strike packages. The latter may early on be meant for destruction of enemy air defences (DEAD - this acronym is real) missions or the launch of cruise missiles on distant targets. I suppose this is a kind of default assumption for what NATO would do.

There are many problems in this, though:
  • The AEW might be pushed back by 300+ km from the typical forward position of hostile fighters and S-400 systems. They may even end up being worthless over the continent and be re-tasked to serve over the North Atlantic Ocean and North Sea instead.
  • A great many first rate fighters would be needed to maintain a chain of CAPs, likely hundreds. Any weaker such chain would collapse under massed fighter attack too easily.
  • DEAD missions may disappoint against mobile SAM batteries, but more importantly the anti-radar missiles do not outrange the air defences. Even AGM-88 likely hasn't much more than 100 km range. A strike fighter would need to fly into the no-escape zone of several area air defence missile types to reach launching position, and this is made worse if the radiating SAM battery is well behind some missile launchers. The concept of DEAD is questionable if a low air defence missile probability of hit and small stocks of modern air defence missiles coincide, and that may very well be what we have today. The destruction of such batteries may lead to the battery's remaining missiles getting transferred to batteries with surviving radar equipment, and in worst case the launchers are able to participate in the air war without a radar in the battery at all, relying on target information provided by aircraft (maybe even illumination in case or semi-active radar homing missiles) or ground-based infrared sensors instead. SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences) on the other hand isn't sustainable for long because it consumes too many expensive anti-radar missiles.
  • Aerial cruise missile launches aren't a terribly promising activity either. A few priority targets could be hit by naval cruise missiles, and some priority targets at little depth could be hit by artillery. Strike fighters like Rafale could launch two cruise missiles each, but they could exhaust the national supply of such missiles in a day.

The default assumption of NATO simultaneously trying to have a robust defensive effort (defensive CAPs with AEW support) that makes up for its numerical weakness in area air defences AND offensive actions with strike packages ASAP is thus rather questionable. I don't think that close air support right away would even be considered in face of still intact opposing air defences and fighter forces.

- - - - -

Now let's have a look at what might make more sense. My assumptions for this are
  • increased procurement of modern area air defences
  • increased procurement of ballistic PGMs / quasi-ballistic guided missiles
Neither of these changes would be in the best interest of the pilot-dominated air force leadership of any country, so they would almost certainly not recommend such a path.

On the defence, one would create a layered air war map.

The most forward layer consists of the ground forces manoeuvre brigades. They may be spread out over a large area, but would also have each one area air defence battery attached and have many and resilient organic SHORAD systems. This layer is about 100...200 km deep.

The second layer consists of irregularly positioned mobile area air defence batteries. The increased range (compared to 1980's) allows for a good coverage, and hostile combat aircraft could often be simultaneously engaged by air defences from multiple directions, disabling running away as a defensive tactic. Our fighters would be in this region occasionally, but engage only under most advantageous conditions. They run and thus bait whenever anything goes wrong in their tactic. There's no point in exposing 1st rate (or lesser) fighters much in air combat because area air defences can essentially do the same thing; launch active radar guided missiles with enough energy in the terminal phase to achieve a reasonable probability of kill even against aware fighters. Hostile aircraft could be affected by ground-based radar and radio jammers and be detected and tracked by ground-based infrared and UV sensors in this zone, placing them at a severe disadvantage in air combat. This layer may be another 100...200 km deep.

Pelena-1 AEW jammer
The third layer consists of defensive CAP and AEW on station. Their radars look into the second layer, and AEW is so far behind that it could run away from threats in time at Mach 0.8. Most often it would track threats, but not be the first to detect them. It's also so far from hostile ground forces that ground-based jammers don't affect it any more and even S-400 wouldn't reach the AEW aircraft.

On the offence, sea-launched cruise missiles and quasiballistic PGMs would be the primary means of attack, depending on information from satellites and long range reconnaissance patrols mostly.

This would go on for a while, just as the bloc's forces build-up in Europe takes a while. The influence on air power on the ground campaign would thus be slight even if but a few brigades participate in said campaign so far. The intelligence collection effort would be huge in this phase; tactics and radar & radio modes would be observed, and countermeasures (mostly tactics) would be devised and adopted by the forces.

Most of the alliance's might would be assembled and in various almost satisfactory states of readiness in Central, Southeastern and Eastern Europe two weeks after the conflict begun. There would be no naval cruise missiles left in range, and the supply of quasiballistic PGMs would be mostly expended as well. More likely than not the air war was a Drôle de guerre with little losses of 1st rate aircraft on both sides, but a noteworthy reduction of the inventories of top quality medium and long range air combat missiles and area air defence missiles. The organic air defences of manoeuvre brigades may have suffered at the hands of artillery and land-launched anti-radar missiles (which were pioneered by the Israelis long ago).

Now the map would change a lot, mostly by compressing the 2nd and 3rd layers into one. The best fighters (F-22, Typhoon, PAK-FA, Su-35, Su-30SM) would fly CAPs at high altitudes (60,000+ ft), cooperating and fluidly switching between offensive and defensive. Having near-all-round sensor coverage (as apparently planned for PAK-FA) might help a lot here because support by ground radars and AEW might be unreliable (AEW still far behind and ground radars often switching off in fear of anti-radar missiles). They would be prioritised regarding medium and long range missile supply, so these fighter wings would rather use older missiles than run out of missiles entirely.

I need to break this text up a bit for readability.
Strike packages would be mounted, but typically so for short attacks on opposing forces brigades. Encircled brigades might be bombarded with hundreds of glide bombs (even without any target detected by air) once the pocket is reduced in size enough to limit the choice of buildings and woodland for hiding to an unsatisfactory total. The same might happen to bottleneck roads, which might be ruined at several kilometres length.
Other brigades might be engaged while on the move, when their air defences cannot provide good support. Some brigades might be identified by military intelligence as having lost most or all of their air defence radars, and would be engaged from 15,000+ ft altitude with little risk.
Hostile fighter forces and area air defence batteries (including S-300 & S-400) would be better understood by now, and would have lost much of their lethality due to attrition, reduced missile supply and quickly implemented countermeasures. The numerical relationships would be different than initially as well, since the strategically surprised bloc would have deployed the bulk of its air power into the warzone by now.

B-2 bombers would likely be used for diversionary attacks, fixing opposing fighters and air defences far away from European battlefields by hitting distant targets. F-35s are quite short-ranged (and tanker aircraft still couldn't survive far forward, so they would extend the range and endurance of combat aviation by a margin that doesn't justify their peacetime expenses). They could still slip through identified temporary weak spots in the opposing forces' defensive air war scheme. Their sensor abilities might make them more indispensable as target spotters and identifiers on close air support missions and as sensor support for artillery, though.

Still, the influence of the air war on the ground campaign might be too late to be decisive IF the defending bloc provided good air defences to his own ground forces situated close to the frontier and developed so very good mobile warfare ground forces that they could "win" the campaign without much close air support.


P.S.: This was the pre-planned culmination of the series on air (warfare) superiority.  I may continue the series later, but then most likely with an emphasis on the non-traditional realms of air warfare; small aerial drones and exoatmospheric issues.

I have put many assumptions and conclusions into this series. It is most unlikely than any non-gullible reader would follow and agree with me entirely.  That's no problem - I hope readers have instead found some gems that were of interest, maybe some thoughts or even only some information. Maybe my writing shed some different light on long-known facts. Anyway, I wouldn't have come to part V if it hadn't been at least a little fun to myself.


  1. This is a rather complex topic (and I fear I might be somewhat out of my depth here). However, as I understand the core issue, it will always boil down to mobility vs firepower. Aircraft will always have the advantage in mobility and ground based air defense will have firepower - meaning weight restrictions vs freedom of movement. Of course there will be certain limits to both realms.

    I've heard from the Finnish that a lot of the suggested capabilities of ground-based air defense systems are rather optimistic (and I guess it applies the same way to aircraft). A NASAMS battery isn't going to be nearly as effective as it says on the Wiki page or brochure. That is why Finland wants to carry on with the procurement of new aircraft instead of a much more comprehensive set of air defenses, because they judge the cost of an effective air defense cover just as expensive or even more expensive as operating modern fighters, while not having the same flexibility as the aircraft.
    Clearly there is a physical limit to what you can effectively launch from the ground and have reliably hit a fast-moving and unpredictable target. The heavier (longer range or faster) you make the rockets, the more difficult they maneuver. Making the rockets multi-stage adds weight and complexity (questions about reliability) and designates limits to their capabilities against shorter range targets. The limit for an S-300 air defense rocket, which is meant specifically against fighters, has a supposed upper range of around 100 km, which itself is optimistic and depends on many factors. And that is before we start going into the gritty details of the reliability of radar data. Sure you can see the target, but can you reliably lock it (especially with newer generation airplanes)?

    Another issue that is interesting to me is the development of counter anti-air technologies. It is not unfeasible to think of an AEW working inside its own anti-air-defense bubble. Just recently the Israelis allegedly shot down an anti-air rocket (S-200 possibly?) that might have posed a threat to their fighters. Again, this complicates the picture quite a lot. And the issue becomes more prevalent as fighters gain even more situational awareness and communication capabilities.

    I'm not saying the issues you raise are wrong, far from it. However, I do think the issues are much much much more complicated and can't be solved with simple linear logic, where A+B=C. The variables are constantly changing from day to day and trying to catch up to every single piece is a monstrous task. I don't envy the people, whose job it is.

    1. Finland is a special case, comparable to Canadian or Siberian air defence.
      The ratio between budget and area or forces and area is very low there.

      Their conclusions on relative benefits of SAMs and fighters are not necessarily transferable to NATO 'front line' air warfare.

      I generally don't see much utility in air forces of countries like Finland or Switzerland.

  2. This was an excellent series and i want to thank you veryy much for your work at this point.

    In my opinion bombers (mainly as weapon carriers) and stealth-drones (mainly as spotters) could be the most effective combination in such a future air war because of reach, weapons load, flexibility and so on. Stronger Ground Air Defences are in my opinion to defensive and according to my ideas a concentration on the offense is necessary in a future war. But that is only my personal thought and of cause a more defensive approach fits perfectly to your political beliefs.

    Bombers will soon outclass classical multirole fighters in a air-war even in aircraft to aircraft combat but they need "spotters" with stealth and higher range as an F-35 (for example), item a stealth drone.

    Instead of a strong ground based air defense a strong bomber / drone force could provide the same amount of air defense for the same costs (i guess) and can then deliever much more fighting power in the offensive because it can be used in several ways and not only for air-defense as the ground based systems.

    Such a bomber force could also be stationed out of reach for an enemy suprise attack on airfields and so on to avoid a "pearl harbour" scenario.

    For the same reason i am very convinced from your (old) ideas about using higher caliber (76mm and more) air defence artillery for ground attacks and vice versa. More versatility, more flexibility, more redundancy, more useful in the offense.

    In my opinion every system should be designed and usable (if possible) in such a way that you can use it against different targets, for different tasks and that it is especilly useful in the offense.

  3. I'm curious to hear your thoughts on electronic attack and deception in such an air war. Your discussion of the S/DEAD mission seemed to focus on the means to kill or suppress ground based air defence with anti-radiation missiles. What about electronic attack? This article (https://www.wired.com/2007/10/how-israel-spoo/) is now about a decade old, meaning that (assuming the capability actually exists) there's been plenty of time to advance measures and counter-measures, but hacking air defence networks could be more effective than missiles. It could also prolong that capability. There are also options to saturate air defence systems with decoy drones, exposing radars, exhausting ground-to-air missile stocks, wearing out operators and so on.

    That said, I fully agree with your assessment that CAS missions could not be counted on in the opening phases of such a war, with the corresponding concern that NATO forces are too light in artillery.

    1. I have a bias towards assuming that the opposition is competent. Competent opposition would not have its equipment hacked or codes real-time cracked when using indigenous or competent ally-made equipment.