Tomorrow’s enemies will not build air forces to counter ours. Rather, they will buy things to shoot down our aircraft—and that’s where the Navy must take the lead, because the Air Force is pulling back from the Joint SEAD mission.
While the need for suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD) is increasing, this warfare area is suffering from reduced funding. The services are evaluating missions and roles by assessing core purposes, capability, and direction for the future, but no single service is accountable for SEAD. The Navy should evaluate this mission—particularly in regard to joint and multinational operations—and claim ownership of the role of Joint SEAD (J-SEAD).
Suppression of enemy air defenses is a major component of the air superiority mission. SEAD degrades fixed and mobile surfaced-based threats so offensive air forces can attack targets. It also increases aircraft survivability by neutralizing, destroying, or temporarily degrading enemy air defenses in a specific area by physical attack or by electronic warfare.1 SEAD is conducted in two ways: destruction and disruption. J-SEAD encompasses all SEAD activities, such as jamming and antiradiation missiles (ARMs),2 provided by components of a joint force in support of one another.3
J-SEAD competes for resources with the other major area of air superiority: attacking enemy air forces, which is also essential to controlling the skies and allowing friendly ground, naval, and air operations to proceed. Today, an emphasis on the fighter, or air-to-air, mission continues.4 But even with budgetary limitations, shouldn’t more emphasis be on J-SEAD? How should this relate to commitment of resources? The answers are found by looking first at the threats and then at how current capabilities address them.
The end of the Cold War changed the threat. “It is now, and for the foreseeable future, assumed that U.S. ground forces won’t have to worry too much about defending themselves from enemy air attack. With the general demise of the Soviet air forces, there is no air power on the planet to contest Western air forces attaining general air superiority in a future war.” The challenge to air superiority has shifted as the enemy’s “. . . burden of defense will be on the guns and missiles of the antiaircraft units . . . [which] have never been as omnipresent as they are today. . . .”5
The most significant air defenses in regional hot spots of the last decade (Balkans, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Korea) were surface-to-air missile and antiaircraft artillery components of the integrated air defenses, not the air forces. Many Third World nations have modern fighters, but they are bought in limited numbers and employed even less. Recent history shows conservation of aircraft and reliance on surface-based air-defense assets for protection by Third World countries.
The need for J-SEAD in war is clear, but perhaps less obvious is J-SEAD’s importance in daily operations around the world. U.S. forces are tasked with missions that expose aircraft to hostile surface-based air defenses. Multinational operations in the Balkans and Iraq, for example, require J-SEAD to protect aircraft performing surveillance and other missions. In two years of operations with Joint Task Force Southwest Asia in southern Iraq after Desert Storm, six of nine significant military events involved Iraqi surface-to-air missiles; five of those involved retaliation by coalition aircraft, three of which used specialized SEAD aircraft.6
During the Gulf War, most SEAD was provided by individual services for their own strike forces. Overall SEAD assets in the Gulf region included 102 Air Force aircraft with dedicated roles and 39 dedicated and 308 ARM-capable attack Navy/Marine Corps aircraft.9 The dedicated suppression aircraft, or 12% of the fixed-wing aviation forces, supported operations for approximately 1,250 U.S. fighter/attack aircraft. Although the Air Tasking Order orchestrated the complex air operations, most Air Force strikes were covered by the Air Force SEAD, and all Navy/Marine strikes were covered by Navy/Marine SEAD. Coalition air forces had virtually no SEAD capability, so Navy and Marine resources made up for Coalition and Air Force SEAD deficiencies.9 More than 60% of Desert Storm SEAD sorties were flown by Navy and Marine aircraft.10
The official DoD report on the Gulf War speaks highly of SEAD, as does the House of Representatives report. Congressional findings were that “(a)ircraft equipped with SEAD systems were singularly effective in neutralizing Iraq’s integrated air defense network. The remarkable survivability record in Operation Desert Storm allowed consistently high sortie rates, which in turn allowed the devastating momentum of the campaign to build.”11 By every measure, Desert Storm SEAD proved suppression’s value in modem warfare. However, although SEAD was tremendously successful, there simply were not enough assets to support all the potential air strikes.
The 1995 inventory shows the Air Force dramatically reducing SEAD, leaving only 63 dedicated aircraft and 72 HARM-capable attack aircraft. Meanwhile, the Navy and Marine Corps are maintaining SEAD, with 60 dedicated and 512 HARM-capable attack aircraft. The 1995 Annual Secretary of Defense Report to the President and the Congress paints a very bleak J-SEAD picture. The Air Force is reducing SEAD faster and deeper than its other tactical aviation forces by retiring both the F-4G and EF-111A, and will rely on Navy EA-6Bs for radar jamming.12 Navy SEAD reductions remain consistent with the overall decreases in naval aviation, but the EA-6B is not being modernized, despite the age and limitations of its specialized systems. Although 20 EA-6Bs will be upgraded in assuming the EF-111A role,13 the modification addresses safety-of- flight issues and does not correct warfighting deficiencies.
As bleak as SEAD modernization seems in the Navy, compare that “maintenance” approach to the Air Force SEAD commitment: retiring 60 F-4Gs and EF-111 As. Two carrier air wings (8-10 Prowlers, 72 Hornets) will carry more SEAD punch than the entire Air Force inventory projected for 1997. The distressing J-SEAD trend is as follows:
- 12% of fixed-wing assets dedicated to SEAD wasn’t enough and limited Desert Storm air operations.
- 1995 force levels are down to 6%.
- Projected 1997 force levels are less than 4%.
►In 1997, 85% of dedicated SEAD and 80% of HARM-capable aircraft will be in naval aviation.
As the Air Force reduces F-4Gs and EF-111 As overseas, current needs will require either tasking other capable assets or redefining the needs, or both. Replacing EF-111 As with EA-6Bs appears to be an example of the first case; however, a Desert Storm lesson was that 24 EF-11 1As for a single major regional contingency (MRC) wasn’t enough. Today, the sufficiency of splitting them between two MRCs is questionable. How do you apply 20 EA-6Bs to missions that would severely tax 24 EF-11 1As? Substituting an EA-6B for an EF-111A seems straightforward; they have variants of the same jamming system. But how do we account for different roles and missions?14 What appears to be a simple substitution, intended to gain economies of a single model aircraft, really requires a detailed look on how to do J-SEAD.
Who owns, flies, maintains, and pays for EA-6Bs? Who tasks them? If 20 EA-6Bs cannot do what 24 EF-11 1As were supposed to do—and there are 60 more EA-6Bs in Navy/Marine air wings—what role do they play in J-SEAD? This EA-6B/EF-111A issue, however, is just the visible part of today’s J-SEAD problem of greatly reduced quantity of assets.
Two words explain why J-SEAD is decreasing dramatically: money and priorities. But to find the real explanations as to why resources are draining from SEAD, look to the services’ doctrine. Air Force doctrine is clearly articulated in AFM 1-1, Basic Aerospace Doctrine of the United States Air Force. Aerospace forces perform four basic roles: aerospace control, force application, force enhancement, and force support. Closer examination of SEAD components in these roles explains the current emphasis, or lack thereof, on Air Force SEAD. Elements are found in two of the primary mission roles. The first element is in control of airspace, but prioritized after counter air (fighter) operations. The second element, electronic combat, is buried in force enhancement after airlift, tanking, and space lift. This doctrine is clearly reflected in the current Air Force SEAD activity:
- Retire EF-111 A.
- Reduce lethal suppression.
- Retire F-4G.
- Employ F-16 HARM Targeting System.15
- Explore alternatives to reactive SEAD.
After canceling F-4G replacement and EF-111A improvement programs, the Air Force is investigating a “preemptive destruction” SEAD mission. This concept uses standoff weapons currently in inventory or under development instead of Wild Weasel-type aircraft equipped with specialized electronic warfare targeting systems and HARM.16
Observation of how the Navy operates explains why naval aviation is maintaining SEAD.17 Navy aircraft are multipurpose, particularly SEAD aircraft. The EA-6B, for instance, does radar and communications jamming and fires HARM, tasks normally requiring three separate Air Force aircraft. In addition, all Navy fighter/attack aircraft (except the F-14) can fire HARM. This approach also makes reducing SEAD difficult; as naval aviation maintains or improves capability, the natural SEAD emphasis continues.
The role of J-SEAD will not dramatically change naval aviation. In fact, naval aviation has provided most of the SEAD for joint operations in the last decade. In April 1986, during El Dorado Canyon, Navy A-7 and F/A-18 aircraft fired ARMs to suppress Libyan air defenses for Navy and Air Force strikes attacking separate targets. EA-6Bs provided stand-off jamming for both services’ targets, and EF-111 As provided jamming for F-111 bombers. SEAD was largely responsible for the success of the raid. While the raid on Libya marked the beginning of deliberate efforts to combine Navy and Air Force SEAD in joint battle, it also employed four times as many Navy SEAD aircraft as Air Force.18 After El Dorado Canyon, Navy SEAD grew significantly: EA-6Bs and A-6s were equipped with HARM and the increasing number of F/A-18s were all HARM equipped. EA-6B squadrons also began deploying with five, instead of four, aircraft.
When called upon for Desert Storm, “the Navy’s defense suppression capability was impressive and provided an essential capability to support early air operations.”19 “The Navy’s HARM shooter team put real teeth into the (J-) SEAD mission. For many, Navy F/A-18s, A-6s, and EA-6s with HARM were the preferred SEAD packages in theater. Navy (and Marine) resources were used to make up for Air Force and coalition SEAD deficiencies. . . .”20
Since Desert Storm, the Navy has continued to provide more HARM and SEAD aircraft in the Persian Gulf than the Air Force.21 A similar situation has developed in the Balkans. In both cases, the EA-6B Prowler has been the focal point because of its unique multirole SEAD ability (HARM and jamming); however, other Navy aircraft are involved. The application of J-SEAD assets in today’s operations is managed by the Joint Forces Air Component Commander (JFACC). The Air Tasking Order (ATO) provides a fair share of J-SEAD resources for all strikes. This process brings Navy SEAD directly into today’s joint operations. With few Air Force assets, the JFACC will routinely call the Navy for J-SEAD.
The Navy has done, and is doing, the J-SEAD mission. But how many people realize this? The Navy must decide to take initiative in J-SEAD—or risk doing the mission in ways not of the service’s choosing. Has the Navy focused on and allowed joint needs to help guide service business (manning, procurement, training, etc.)? The Navy’s acceptance of J-SEAD will formalize service support and transform a day-to-day mission into a role.22
There are three factors to consider before embracing J-SEAD as a Navy role:
- Is the role consistent with Navy doctrine?
- Is it a smart contribution to collective efforts for national defense, or will a better capability result at an affordable cost that supports jointness?
- Is the Navy prepared for the job, and can it afford to adjust to do the job properly?
A fundamental element of naval doctrine is the concept of enabling,23 the ability of forward-deployed naval forces to respond rapidly to a crisis, to take action controlling escalation, and to prepare for the arrival of ground and ground-based air power. Once these forces are on scene, naval forces fight alongside them and—after the objectives of the operation are achieved and the ground and air power withdraw—cover the post-conflict period. J-SEAD is the ultimate enabling mission for today’s air warfare. It allows for the broad range of aircraft operations—from strategic bombing to tactical strike missions to logistics—in a previously hostile airspace with relative safety. This, in turn, allows air warfare to do its part in the joint campaign. Suppression employed for Navy-only operations is service SEAD (which is also required); the same equipment, tactics, and training employed for joint and multinational operations become J-SEAD. J-SEAD is perfectly matched to naval doctrine—specifically the enabling concept.
All future major U.S. military operations are expected to be joint, but the last decade heralded the routine employment of tailored, joint forces for a host of “lesser” missions, some with air defense threats. Providing J-SEAD to Joint Force Commanders will not dramatically affect the employment of naval forces; rather, the Joint Force Commander will know exactly whom to go to when the mission requires J-SEAD.
The Navy is well equipped to do J-SEAD today. Significant improvements can be made, though, by focusing on big payoff measures readily available. For example, not a single Navy officer is serving on a joint combatant commander staff in a billet for planning and execution of J-SEAD. J-SEAD in the Navy must go beyond the obvious electronic attack components of suppression. The application of new-generation precision-guided munitions and Tomahawk cruise missiles against air-defense systems is an important part of J-SEAD that the Navy can properly address. Furthermore, as the military technological revolution brings new tools, the Navy can readily apply weapons such as remotely piloted vehicles to the J-SEAD role. In the future, the importance of J-SEAD capability will grow beyond air-defense suppression and into information warfare and command-and-control warfare. SEAD is nothing but the tailored application of information and command-and-control warfare against enemy air-defense systems.24 Growth in these warfare areas will likely task J-SEAD assets in new ways beyond current missions and increase requirements for SEAD-type capability, already in short supply.
The Navy will be the primary J-SEAD provider for the next decade; the only real question is how well the mission will be done. As the Air Force relinquishes J-SEAD to the Navy, J-SEAD must be evaluated as a Navy role in the services’ missions and roles working groups. A formalized role is the future of joint warfare.
1 DoD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, Joint Pub 1-02, December 1989, p.355.
2 Because the High-speed Antiradiation Missile (HARM) is the only U.S. ARM used for J-SEAD, many references to ARM state HARM. For the purpose of this article, the terms are synonymous.
3 JTTP for Joint Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses, Joint Pub 3-01.4, December 1993, p.I-1.
4 The F-22 dominates Air Force policy and objectives; specific references are too numerous to list. Although the concept of multirole employment is creeping into F-22 discussions, it is being designed for the classic fighter air superiority role—defeat the enemy in the air.
5 How to Make War, a Comprehensive Guide to Modern Warfare for the Post-Cold War Era, James F. Dunnigan, William Morrow, and Company, 1993, p.199.
6 Two other events involved Tomahawk strikes, a ninth was a shootdown of an Iraqi MiG-25. LtGen. Michael Nelson, USAF, and VAdm. Douglas Katz, USN, “Unity of Control: Joint Air Operations in the Gulf—Part Two,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1994, p.61.
7 Aircraft inventory derived from “Conduct of the Persian Gulf War,” Final Report to Congress, DoD, April 1992, pp.106, 108, 110.
8 Any aircraft delivering air-to-ground ordnance can contribute to destructive SEAD; however, “dedicated SEAD” describes aircraft with specialized equipment and a primary mission of lethal or nonlethal disruptive SEAD.
9 RAdm. James A. Winnefeld, USN (Ret.), and Dana J. Johnson, “Unity of Control: Joint Air Operations in the Gulf,” Joint Forces Quarterly, Summer 1993, p.95; excerpted from Joint Air Operations: Pursuit of Unity in Command and Control, 1942-1991, (Copyright 1993 by RAND Corporation) Naval Institute Press, May 1993.
10 Cdr. William J. Luti, USN, “Battle of the Airwaves,” Naval Institute Proceedings, January 1992, p.52.
11 Rep. Les Aspin and Rep. William Dickinson, Defense for a New Era: Lessons of the Persian Gulf War, Brassey’s (U.S.), Inc. 1992, p. 18.
12 William J. Perry, Secretary of Defense, Annual Report to the President and the Congress, February 1995, p.7.
13 Perry, p.208.
14 EA-6B missions include radar jamming, HARM, and communications jamming; EF-11 1A’s mission is strictly radar jamming.
15 The Report of the Secretary of the Air Force in the SecDef Annual states: “By upgrading a portion of our F-16s with HARM targeting systems, we will more than offset the retirement of the aging F-4G Wild Weasel.” Suppression experts argue if the F-16 HTS is a suitable F-4G replacement; no one claims it is as capable.
16 J. Knowles, “Air Force Breathes New Life into SEAD Mission,” Journal of Electronic Defense, March 1995, p.22.
17 Marine SEAD is comparable to the Navy’s, but there is no doctrinal basis for providing Marine air for J-SEAD. Marine air is for ground forces support. For a detailed observation of services SEAD approaches, see LtCol. James R. Brungess, Setting the Context: Suppression of Enemy Air Defenses and Joint War Fighting in an Uncertain World, Air University Press, June 1994.
18 Col. W. Hays Parks, USMCR, Naval Institute Proceedings, November 1986.
19 RAdm. James A. Winnefeld, USN (Ret.), Preston Niblack, Dana J. Johnson, A League of Airman: U.S. Air Power in the Gulf War, RAND, Project Air Force, p.267.
20 Winnefeld and Johnson, p.95.
21 Nelson and Katz, p.63.
22 The primary function of the services is to provide forces organized, trained, and equipped to perform a role, to be employed by the combatant commander in the accomplishment of a mission.
24 Naval Warfare, Naval Doctrine Publication 1, p.28.
25 “A classic example (of command and control warfare) is the suppression of enemy air defenses through overt electronic warfare.” Naval Warfare, Naval Doctrine Publication 1, March 1994, p.67.
Commander Krech flew J-SEAD missions in Desert Storm with Carrier Air Wing One from the USS America (CV-66). He participated in the DoD directed Joint Tactical Aircraft Electronic Warfare Study, investigating current capabilities and the future of suppression of enemy air defenses. He is assigned to the Naval Doctrine Command.