U.S. aircraft operating over the Iraqi no-fly zone—such as the F/A-18 Hornets of VFA-105 right, returning to the Arabian Gulf from a Southern Watch patrol—are vulnerable to increasingly sophisticated surface-to-air missile systems. The solution to reducing the risk of shootdowns lies in unmanned technology.
In the past 30 years, U.S. forces have operated in environments where air assets have been relatively unchallenged in their ability to gain access to desired targets. Nations that have challenged U.S. air power have done so mostly with surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) and limited use of air-to-air aircraft. To date, U.S. forces have faced only first-generation Soviet-made surface-to-air equipment and have become quite skilled at suppressing the SA-2, SA-3, and SA-6. However, new-generation systems are far more capable in terms of range and lethality and less susceptible to U.S. suppression of enemy air defense (SEAD) techniques.
The Surface-to-Air Threat
Advanced Russian SAM systems have been in existence for the past decade. Dubbed "double-digit" SAMs because of their NATO designations (SA-10, SA-11, SA-12, SA-13), they offer much improved capabilities over the older generation systems. By mid-1999, Russian military equipment manufacturers had put the finishing touches on the latest SA-10 Grumble family of SAM systems, which surely will create major problems for SEAD planners and will be a major market leader for those countries not willing to deal with suppliers of Western air defense systems.1 The SAM systems are designed to be complementary, fully mobile, and to use fully all the latest equipment and electronic counter countermeasure techniques.2 Emphasis here is on the SA-10 family because it represents an emerging challenge with long-range/high-altitude area-denial capabilities. Depending on the model, the SA-10 has an effective maximum range of between 29 and 95 miles up to an altitude of 100,000 feet.3
SA-10 systems pose a significant problem for U.S. air-power projection ability. The deployment of advanced SAMs over the past decade has been slowed because of the collapse of the Soviet Union and hampered by arms embargoes against several major Soviet export clients such as Iraq and Libya.4 However, SA-10 systems are in service with Belarus, Bulgaria, China, Croatia, Cyprus, Hungary, India, Iran, Russia, Slovakia, and Ukraine.5 Jane's Land-Based Air Defense 2000-2001 states that "although not publicly stated, it is highly likely that Russian development plans include a long-range weapon equivalent to China's FT-2000 passive anti-radiation missile designed for use against electronic radiation emitting . . . aircraft already in service."6 Russian exports in the future are almost certain to expand as they bolster economic fortunes.
In addition to the long-range/high-altitude system threat, short-range systems continue to be developed with emerging passive capabilities and increased lethality. For instance, the SA-13 is being outfitted with an improved all-aspects infrared seeker unit, which operates in two frequency bands to give high discrimination against infrared countermeasures such as flares and decoy pods.7 Frequency agile radars and optronic systems are being developed that will be increasingly difficult to overcome.
Increases in range and lethality are going to change the fundamental way air-power projection is accomplished by U.S. forces. In the effort to apply air power in Kosovo during Operation Allied Force, a modest air defense system forced U.S. and NATO aircraft to operate at higher altitudes to avoid the missile/antiaircraft artillery threat. The successful air denial by the Serbs is likely to be expanded by future foes to include higher altitudes. The most important lesson for the United States should be that the radar-directed SAM threat cannot be ignored. There have never been any air operations carried out against an opponent defended with a missile system using contemporary radar missile guidance.8 A joint task force (JTF) commander who intends to employ air power over a hostile nation may quickly realize that enemy SAMs prevent U.S. forces from establishing air superiority. Future operational planning will have to consider ways to deal with these newer generation SAMs.
JTF Commander Considerations
Future power projection over a hostile nation with an integrated air defense system (IADS) will prove a difficult task. The authors of "Future Employment of UAVs" in Joint Force Quarterly state that "a variety of considerations portend a more sparsely populated battlespace. While generally supportive of recent military operations, the public increasingly is averse to the risk of casualties and prefers to substitute technology for lives."9 In addition, recent operations have included the need to reduce civilian casualties. The need to exploit the airspace over hostile territory will continue to be a requirement. The way in which this exploitation is accomplished necessarily will undergo some changes.
The extensive effort to penetrate an enemy IADS highlights that manned airborne weapon systems are reaching the limits of their capabilities. Geroge Friedman writes that "every weapon system (or general culture of weapons) has a life cycle that begins with the simple purity of the offensive and culminates in a weapon system overwhelmed by its own defensive measures."10 SEAD packages that accompany strike missions today include almost as many aircraft as the strikers themselves. Defensive systems for tactical aircraft—including chaff, flares, expendable decoys, towed decoys, and laser countermeasure equipment—are becoming driving factors in overall aircraft weight and payload capability. The effort to get the aircraft into the target area and safely back has begun to overshadow the fact that it is carrying only a few bombs.
Protecting forces from enemy fire is not the only hazard encountered when conducting offensive operations. In Desert Storm, fratricide accounted for a reported 17% of allied military casualities.11 There are ongoing efforts to reduce fratricide in the future. The All Service Combat Identification Evaluation Team (ASCIET) conducts an annual exercise to address this problem, supporting the assessment that combat identification is an extremely difficult task. In a combat zone, friendly and hostile aircraft limit emissions to prevent being targeted, which limits our ability to track friendly aircraft. Once our aircraft are engaged with the enemy it becomes even more difficult to sort the friendly from the hostile. Add a few neutral aircraft into the equation and the problem intensifies. Eight years after Desert Storm, combat identification remains a very real problem. Results from ASCIET 99 show that fratricides still occurred in about 15% of the tests.12
The effort to establish protective measures for power-projection aircraft is a burdensome task that will grow in complexity and difficulty with the introduction of new generation SAMs. With the political restraints of force protection and reduced civilian casualties, the JTF commander will have to rely on a new method to exploit enemy air space, employing stealth sensors and standoff weapons with precision-strike capability. Sensors will have to penetrate enemy air space undetected as well as provide targeting information for standoff weapons. Standoff weapons will have to be employed from long range (100 nautical miles or greater) and have precision-strike capability.
UAVs and Standoff Weapons
Long-range cruise missiles such as the Tomahawk land-attack missile and conventional air-launched cruise missile are capable assets for known or fixed targets. However, a more agile system for air strike is required for unknown or mobile targets. In a hostile air environment the sensors will be required to linger over the suspected target area for extended periods and therefore will require low-observable characteristics. Because they are smaller, have extended endurance, and keep operators out of harm's way, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are best suited to conduct the sensor operation.
Current UAVs employ day/night and all-weather sensors (electro-optical, infrared, and synthetic aperture radar) and can operate for up to 20 hours. They can provide continuous imagery via satellite data-link to any element in the chain of command, from tactical operators to the joint force commander (JFC). These sensors can offer precision targeting, reconnaissance, intelligence collection, and battle damage assessment. The precision targeting capability bears directly on the operational commander's ability to project power in the face of sophisticated enemy air defense systems.
Real-time targeting information that can be directed to a standoff weapon will enable precision engagement without putting operators in harm's way. The method of employment calls for UAVs to provide surveillance and targeting data to the commander. The commander then selects the best standoff weapon, which is sent targeting information from the UAV and then fired at the target. If a unitary warhead is required for penetration or to minimize collateral damage, the UAV can provide laser designation for a laser seeker head on the standoff weapon. Otherwise, cluster munitions can be used with targeting data only. Note that in the process, the commander has solved his force-protection requirement and has the opportunity to employ precision weapons.
During Allied Force, UAVs detected targets of interest but there was no system in place to pass that information directly to the weapon controller.13 This link between the sensor and shooter is essential for effective operations. The U.S. Air Force is in the process of equipping UAVs with laser designators to reduce the exposure of personnel to hostile ground fire while speeding up the ability to attack targets of opportunity.14
The key to developing this capability is ensuring that sensor data are disseminated properly, not only to the shooter but also to the decision-making center of the operational force. An easy solution to linking sensor to shooter data would be to arm the sensor. However, because the 1988 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty bars "an unmanned, self-propelled vehicle that sustains flight through the use of aerodynamic lift over most of its flight path" and has a demonstrated capability to deliver weapons, the Pentagon has been reluctant to press with arming UAVs.15
Command and Control
For the commander to employ UAVs and standoff weapons effectively, he must have an accurate picture of the battlespace. The key will be to generate a single integrated air picture (SIAP). The SIAP is a display of friendly, neutral, and enemy aircraft and weapons that would appear on battlefield commander's computers as a result of fused, or integrated, tracking data coming from all of the available sensor platforms in the theater.16 Developing the SIAP is a critical component of missile defense and other missions.17 The operational commander will be able to establish the defensive boundary and then use the SIAP for power projection purposes.
The component systems and sensor platforms to produce a SIAP exist today, although their output data are not fused into a single product and identification capability is limited. Ground radar, airborne radar, and airborne signals intelligence platforms can share information via the joint tactical information distribution system. In addition, the Navy is developing the cooperative engagement capability in which shared track data can be used for weapon system employment.
Combining the SIAP with UAV information would enable the commander to "see" the location of friendly assets in relation to proposed targets and direct sensors to areas of interest, select the best weapon-employment system, and assess the effectiveness of the weapon through imagery. Current efforts to produce an air picture fall short of incorporating all assets and are poor at solving the combat identification problem. With the establishment of an air picture and a concept of how weapons are going to be employed, the focus moves to airspace control.
The current joint publication addressing combat zone airspace lays out considerations for airspace control and airspace designation.18 These considerations include and define 29 separate classifications for airspace. The airspace control plan will always have to take into account host-nation and multinational political constraints, capabilities, and procedures of military and civil air traffic control systems, but when 29 additional airspace measures are required to safely manage the multitude of aircraft that are required to work the battle space, the complexity increases considerably.
A joint task force commander who can conduct interdiction and strategic strike missions with UAVs and standoff weapons using a SIAP will not need a complex airspace control plan. The initial benefit is that there will be far fewer aircraft in the airspace. Current procedures that call for suppression of enemy air defenses, offensive counter air, defensive counter air, airborne command, control, and communications, and in-flight refueling will not be required. Return to force procedures will be simplified as well because there are fewer aircraft returning. Airspace control measures only will be required for the airborne sensor platforms producing the SIAP and airborne standoff weapons shooters.
The simplified battlespace environment will aid in the effort to produce the SIAP. Combat identification will be an easier task because friendly tracks (except UAVs) are not entering hostile airspace. The simplified nature of the battlespace will enable the JTF commander to reshape command relationships.
The SIAP will have to be sent to all standoff weapons shooters, including land, sea, and air forces. When all of the theater assets are working with the same information, there will be no need for individual land, maritime, and air component commanders. Command relationships would be better served through objective-oriented commanders. A close combat commander, fires support commander (including airborne sensor control), and logistic support commander then would replace the previous three (land, sea, and air components) and be better oriented for tasking.19
The fires support commander could use real-time targeting data to decide which fires support platform was best suited for the mission, then call for immediate fires. When engaged in close-combat operations, the fires support commander would be the supporting commander for the close combat commander, with the ability to employ the standoff platforms as necessary. A close working relationship necessarily would exist between the close combat commander and the fires support commander to coordinate fires in close proximity to the fire support coordination line. Because shared assets are being used for both deep and close fires, the coordination should be self-synchronizing. The ability to manage all land, sea, and air assets would enable the fires support commander to mass effects where and when they are needed. Again, this concept of operations is reliant on an accurate SIAP to enable the real-time management of assets.
The biggest drawback in this proposal is that not all of the capabilities exist today. Although UAV/ standoff individual capability exists, the link between the sensor and shooter is not in place. The SIAP is still a work in progress. Link capabilities do exist among sensors and command centers, but there are interoperability issues between air/naval assets and Patriot systems. In addition, the combat identification capability does not exist. The SIAP is a long way off in terms of combat identification. A single air picture, however, is available now.
The advantages gained by tasking fewer combat aircraft are applicable only to situations where the enemy air defense systems preclude the use of manned aircraft. Today, the opportunity to use UAVs exists in no-fly zones or in actual combat operations. The use of multiple stealth UAVs during peace operations would create collision avoidance problems for neutral/friendly air traffic. Current Federal Aviation Administration rules restrict UAV operation except under very controlled circumstances. Therefore, for operations other than actual combat, manned systems still will be used.
Current operational UAVs are not completely stealthy to radar. Typically they do not provide a good radar track, but UAVs were shot down over Kosovo and Iraq by SAMs and thus are susceptible to attack. Although not operational currently, UAV production efforts are under way that include stealth as a major design factor. In fact, there are existing units that incorporate stealth technology with microtechnology to produce extremely small prototypes with 6-inch wingspans that can process and deliver the same intelligence information as the larger operational models.
The automated nature of these proposed operations also creates a contentious issue. Moral considerations for conducting "push button" military operations may spark negative reactions from the public and nongovernmental organizations. The use of such weapons to obtain strategic objectives will pose the same problems strategic bombing has posed. Pinprick strikes used to coerce the leaders of a hostile nation to do our will may only galvanize the population against us. Compared to nuclear missiles, this system comes as close as any military capability in use today in giving forces the ability to apply significant destruction without subjecting themselves to danger.
Manufacturers will continue to develop SAMs with more sophisticated and lethal capability. The proliferation of these systems is sure to be an important planning factor for any operational commander in the future. Future uses of air power projection will require force protection and include limited civilian casualties. To meet these requirements, our capabilities will have to include standoff ability and precision weapons. These two criteria are at odds with each other—the more standoff range that is obtained, the more difficult the precision capability becomes. UAVs and standoff weapons can offer a solution to this problem.
Our capabilities have managed to stay one step ahead of the defensive capabilities of the adversary. However, the time is coming when we are going to have to establish new methods. In the future, air-power projection will require more detailed and timely intelligence combined with the ability to attack from a safe distance. The capabilities that exist today can be refined for the near future to conduct air-power projection in a modern hostile environment.
Commander Hudson, a former student at the Naval War College, is an active-duty E-2 pilot.
1. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001 (Great Britain: Bath Press, 2000), pp. 11-12. back to article
2. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001, pp. 11-12. back to article
3. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001, pp. 142-43. back to article
4. Steven J. Zaloga, "The Evolving SAM Threat: Kosovo and Beyond," Journal of Electronic Defense, May 2000, p. 45. back to article
5. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001, p. 143. back to article
6. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001, p. 12. back to article
7. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001, p. 152. back to article
8. Jane's Land-Based Air Defence 2000-2001, p. 49. back to article
9. James R. Reinhardt, Jonathan E James, and Edward M. Flanagan, "Future Employment of UAVs," Joint Force Quarterly, Summer 1999, p. 36. back to article
10. George Friedman, The Future of War (New York: Crown Publishers, 1996), p. 25. back to article
11. Mark Garris, "Compatible Computer Systems Needed to Avoid Friendly Fire," National Defense, May/June 1999, p. 17. back to article
12. Garris, "Compatible Computer Systems," p. 18. back to article
13. Report to Congress: Kosovo/Operation Allied Force After-Action Report (Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2000), p. 70. back to article
14. Marc Strass, "Air Force Seeks to Give Deployed Predators Laser Designation Capability," Defense Daily, 17 August 2000, p. 1. back to article
15. "USAF Makes Predator Its First Armed UAV," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 12 June 2000, p. 34. back to article
16. Hunter Keeter, "CEC Could Become the Core of a Joint Air Defense Network," Defense Daily, 13 December 1999, p. 1. back to article
17. Hunter Keeter, "JFCOM Vows to Closely Scrutinize SIAP Management Selection Process," Defense Daily, 28 April 2000, p. 1. back to article
18. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Joint Doctrine for Air Space Control-Combat Zone, Joint Pub 3-52 (Washington, DC: 1995), pp. B-1-B-8. back to article
19. Douglas A. MacGregor, "Command and Control for Joint Strategic Actions," Joint Force Quarterly, Autumn/Winter 1998-1999, p. 25-33. back to article