Air power is a concept which comprises of three fundamental elements
Air power is a concept which comprises of three fundamental elements: height, speed and reach. Height enables the observation and domination of activities in other domains; speed enables the rapid and responsive projection of power and reach enables adversaries to be influences, irrespective of their location . Continuing on from the definition from the Ministry of Defence, there are four crucial roles of air power: control of the air, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance carried out by our nation’s ISTAR assets, attack and air mobility supporting manoeuvrability and sustainability in both operations and peace time. Fundamentally, the aim of air power is to ensure responsive and precise firepower , which is delivered through its capabilities and attributes. As an influential force following its initial application in the First World War, air power has been deemed a feature which can, and should, fundamentally change the very nature of war itself . Throughout the course of this essay I am going to discuss whether airpower is being applied ‘properly’, relative to the speed of which air power has dramatically changed from the First World War, to present day. The development of air power acts as a means of facilitating old ways, as opposed to forming a revolutionary change—the use of force given must be directly as possible with resulting strategic objectives. In order to answer this question fully, I shall be defining the word ‘properly’ with reference to whether air power is being used to its full capacity and strategic influence as opposed to a mere demonstration of fire power in operations.
Strategically, the most relevant use of air power is in reference to OODA loops. A concept formed by Colonel John Boyd- a US fighter pilot- an OODA loop comprises of completing the following actions quicker than an adversary in order to win: observation, orientation, decision and action. As the loop becomes more developed, complexity increases. The fundamental aim of an OODA loop is to disorient your opponent, and in achieving so, they are left unable to see the scenario developing as quickly as anticipated, resulting in indecision. However, this aim can be distorted by having a false belief of the enemy, and them being able to move faster than anticipated, leaving the theory with a degree of uncertainty. Further uncertainty in the theory of OODA loops can be seen through the fact of Boyd never having the intention to produce a text of his own in order to explain the OODA loop, leaving a significant amount of the OODA loop theory up to interpretation- which can divert the concept to more strategic aims than originally intended. Under the OODA loop, an aerial dogfight brought together both the hunt and the chase of advanced technology- detailing the key stages needed in order to utilise agility and manoeuvrability as opposed to speed. From this strategy it is evident that the most responsive fighter will be the one who wins, under the tactics of the OODA loop a clear strategy is adopted. Emphasising Sun Tzu’s reference, without tactics, strategy is the noise before defeat . A key example of this is shown in the 1940 Battle of France where French decision making was disrupted by German forces deciphering the tactics behind French OODA loops, the capability of the German’s to uncover this contributed to their success. Without the use of OODA loops, we cannot sense, observe and thereby collect a variety of information of the processes , reflecting upon this it emphasises on the clear pattern of the OODA loop and the actions that one must follow in order to complete the loop. In a military capacity, this will be more often than not a routine activity- which could be a strategic hindrance due to the predictable nature of an OODA loop if you are being observed. Over time, aircraft has made this process easier for the pilots through adaptable and capable technology increasingly meeting the demand for air power today, enabling aircraft to meet the challenges presented by both temperature and altitudinal extremes. Under the influence of technology, the strategic logic behind the OODA loop is made easier, and becomes an additional role to the aircraft- as demonstrated by the laser, infrared and target acquisition designation of the AH-64 Apache, the most advanced multi-role combat helicopter for the US Army .
The concept of air power provides a focussed capability which can be extremely effective in resolving or mitigating a developing issue. Key attributes of speed, mobility and procession combined ensure it is an attractive element of military capacity. By use of force alone, the concept of air power has an offensive strategic connotation as its predominant function is to strike at an adversary’s vulnerabilities. Operating as a key example of attrition warfare- focused on the physical domain and using firepower as a destructive force . In reference to Lock-Pullan, the offensive refers to seizing the initiative , the initiative refers to the offensive spirit displayed throughout the conduct of operations- emphasising on the underlying purpose of every encounter with the enemy being to seize or retain independence of action. A significant example of this was shown in the 1973 Arab-Israeli War whereby the Arabs demonstrated the initiative in the modern battlefield, significantly contributing to their success. Thus reflecting heavily on the United States, resulting in an adaption of thought from the idea of tactical victories, to winning a war through an operational level of analysis- focussing on an overall campaign and how aspects within that have strategic effect in itself, providing a broader picture to the concept of the battlefield, resulting in conceptual thinking developing greatly in sophistication .
Extending on from this, it must be emphasised that air power should be utilised both quickly and overwhelmingly in order to have the desired effect of disorientating your opponent. Philip Meillinger, a retired United States Air Force Colonel believed that the use of gradual escalation robs airpower of both its physical, and its psychological impact . Under a quick application of force, a ‘Newtonian’ approach to identify and engage in decisive action in order to attack an adversary’s centre of gravity in performance of a system-of-systems. A prime example of this was seen in Operation Desert Storm which set the new standard for air power from 1991. Over the course of the 1990s, air power severely influenced the conduction of military operations other than war. A key aspect of this being peacekeeping forces, where the operations demonstrate the advantages of air power in the promotion of collective peace and security. Thus being a fundamental aspect of modern day air power application as seen in the Balkans in Operations Allied Force and Deliberate Force, exercised by Eurofighter Typhoons. Despite this, Operation Desert Storm remained predominantly defensive in its operations through targeting Iraq’s weapons factories, its electrical grid, oil refineries and its transportation system , in doing so the USAF was able to attack the centre of gravity and prevent the movement of vital commodities, resulting in Saddam Hussein failing to meet his aims. Contrary to this, following 40 days of bombing in Desert Storm, the USAF failed to deliver on its promises of removing the Iraqi leadership , thus resulting in a rebellion from its sister services, including the US Marine Corps. Under the tactics of ‘tank plinking’- removing tanks with the assistance of 500lb laser guided bombs, it is clear that air power is a force multiplier in aiding the support of ground operations, but this use of air power alone didn’t remove the Iraqi leadership. Emphasising the use of air power in conjunction to its neighbouring dimensions of warfare, ground and naval forces. In comparison to this, it could be deemed that the context in which airpower is used defensively acts as a key factor in determining success, as seen by the use of UK forces in Operation Odyssey Dawn where a 7.5 hour mission demonstrated air power’s reach and responsiveness in attacking key Libyan regime air defence nodes through four Tornado GR4 combat aircraft, complete with Stormshadow cruise missiles, supported by key ISTAR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance) assets of the Royal Air Force acting as their ‘eyes and ears’ in the air.
Airpower alone reflects on the phenomenal technological developments we have seen in warfare in the past century, with the military acquiring top of the range aircraft in order to complete their desired strategic ambitions it is imperative to consider the broad nature of airpower, including its defensive capability and use in military operations other than war. Advancements in technology for airpower leave us with a very exciting possibility: the concept of conflict with little or no unplanned destruction or unnecessary bloodshed . Contrary to this, these same advancements in technology can also coincide with the increased lethality of warfare and making destruction of a command and combatants an easier objective to achieve. As mentioned earlier, the presence of airpower in peacekeeping reflects on the spanning spectrum of conflict ranging to military operations other than war as opposed to high intensity conflict. Despite this, the principles of war applied should never be considered as uniform for every operation. Events in the Balkans resulted in the US and NATO reconsidering their use of airpower in order to further support peacekeeping forces on the ground, mirroring the use of air power aiding ground forces in Afghanistan- but this time in a defensive capacity. Through NATO bombing the very assets the Bosnian Serb Army required to defend itself against the Federation offensive, close air support in isolation was regarded of limited tactical value by Swedish evoy Carl Bildt , emphasising that airpower alone acts as a deterrent- through strategizing different forms of power such as ground forces combined with airpower, and their coordinating uses- effects can be maximised. Overall, Operation Deliberate Force underpinned the fact that airpower in conjunction with ground forces was a decisive factor in bringing the BSA into negotiations, yet it is emphasised by Forage that both Deliberate Force and Allied Force are not the perfect model for the effective use of airpower . In arguing this, it could be deemed that in strategically evaluating the use of airpower in operations, you may have access to information which was not then available at the given time- resulting in a hindsight critique reflecting on the failures more than the successes.
The application of air power in both Operation Herrick and Telic by the coalition was regarded as a success in reinforcing air—related concepts and development work, with a vital focus on counter- insurgency (COIN) operations, with an underlying focus on the perceived legitimacy of airpower. Legitimacy in operations ensures strategic foundations through negating the chance of unwanted actions and preventing escalation to the conflict, as seen through the Force Withheld strategy. Under the Force Withheld strategy is it fundamental for the commander to prove two things; the ability to use his destructive power legitimately and the ability to identify when non-destructive action might be as effective or corrosive in the long term . In aiding this, airpower can be seen through the application of ISTAR assets. Surveillance operations ensure accurate intelligence in identifying the composition and capability of hostile forces, providing commanders with the intelligence they require to make the decision of legitimacy and utility. Achievement of strategic ends does not always need to require a kinetic, destructive pathway. The application of added depth in operations has also been reflected in US Doctrine with the introduction of the AirLand Battle which responded to the strategic environment in moving away from attrition, as opposed to the US army’s post-Vietnam War doctrine manual which was focussed on the idea of sustained attack and pressure in order to corrode an adversary’s forces. Thus making it clear that the application of airpower is more than a mere demonstration of firepower and can be used in many dimensions.
The integration of air power as a multi-faceted assets has been emphasised through the introduction of military doctrine, particularly in the US. The implementation of AirLand Battle Doctrine brought together the emphasis of using combined arms operations alongside a high tempo command model of warfare. Air defence operations are fundamental to generating combat power due to bringing the force with protection from enemy air attack, and preventing the enemy from separating friendly forces while freeing the commander to synchronise manoeuvre and firepower. Through control of the air, commanders are able to have the freedom to conduct successful attacks that can neutralise and destroy an enemy’s warfighting potential. Through increased communication systems on aircraft today and integration of a system-of-systems this is made even more accurate and achievable.
The 1982 manual of the FM 100-5 stated that the operation concept of FM 100-5- the United States Army’s doctrine regarding the conduct of its operations. Throughout the course of this document there is a stress on the focus of initiative and distorting the enemy. Lock Pullan regarded to ‘success on the modern battlefield’ to correlate to the ‘basic tenets of AirLand Battle doctrine’, including fundamental assets such as initiative, depth, agility and synchronisation . Planning for this should ensure that the combined effect of arms is greater than their stand-alone capabilities – an amalgamation of the forms of warfare ensures the most strategically sure outcome. The shift in this doctrine process is reflective of the transition from attrition to operational manoeuvre as mentioned earlier. Throughout the 21st century there has been a clear direction of understanding in lieu of simplicity in the growing information age, where understanding is defined as being able to ‘know, comprehend, and share common relevant knowledge of the global battlespace to facilitate operational execution’ , in doing so an economy of force can be operated where all elements have tasks to perform.
Strategically, the positioning of air power can be seen as a political act. An example of this can be seen in the threat the US poses to China in respect of their strengths and certain vulnerabilities in air power. Areas such as stealth aircraft, unmanned systems, information technology, airborne warning and control, early warning systems, and strategic transport capability are those of inspiration to China’s development based upon actions by its utilisation by the USAF . A USAF presence in both Japan and Guam poses as a threat to China, representing that air power is a key factor of the US military which makes it a challenging opponent for China in a case of US intervention, and emphasising the fact that presence alone without the direct application of air power is enough of a political statement alone in some circumstances. A Royal Air Force example of this can be seen in the utilisation of Typhoon aircraft being permanent standby in both the UK and the Falkland Islands under Quick Reaction Alert to provide national defence and security and assure air control through combat air patrols. Without having to use firepower the symbolic presence of the Eurofighter Typhoons acts as a reminder of the hard power they can implement if necessary.
Opposing this is the use of airpower as a soft power strategy, as executed by the Royal Air Force Aerobatic Team- the Red Arrows who play a monumental role in international engagement which fly the flag for the Government, thus aiding their initiatives overseas. Extending on from this is the soft power demonstrated by the UK in their participation in Operation RUMAN, the UK military’s contribution to Hurricane Irma in 2017 where the Royal Air Force deployed C-17 and A-400M aircraft within hours in order to provide immediate relief to those who had experienced damage to their belongings and homes in the Caribbean Islands. In addition to meeting the UK’s humane and moral requirement to aid those in need, Op RUMAN represented the UKs support for the reign, demonstrating soft power enabled through the capability of air power. The use of air power as a soft power tool can be as influential in the long term as a demonstration of firepower in order to meet operational aims.
In conclusion to determining whether air power is being used ‘properly’, relative to its quick and ever growing investment it is clear that the effectiveness of air power is reflective of the context it is being applied to. Independently, air power is capable of achieving a desired political objective, however it is evident that it is most effective when integrated with other facets of military power as seen in the application of air power by the Coalition in Afghanistan. Speed and flexibility of air power provides it with reach in the battlespace ensuring vital projection and sustainment- thus resulting in military advantage. In respect of today’s military climate, the rules of war have adapted through increasingly blurred lines of war and peace and the introduction of military operations other than war in achieving strategic goals has grown. A full spectrum approach to strategy must not neglect diplomacy, economic and military assets all reinforced through vital information intelligence. The four roles of airpower can only occur through enablers: base, sustain, connect and protect, the employment of these enablers ensures that airpower can be used to engage in defence tasks. The use of air power is one capability which will be used in conjunction to a full spectrum of military capabilities in any action. This is vital due to the strategic context in which UK air power in particular is being employed, is becoming a complex, unstable and uncertain environment. The use of air power provides a tailored response to evolving circumstances through its array of capabilities. Due to the changing nature of airpower and the increasing developments we are seeing from combat aircraft used in the Battle of Britain, to the V- bombers of the Cold War and now the introduction of the F-35 Lightning 2 following the service of the Eurofighter Typhoon and Tornado GR4, to the introduction of the A400M and key ISTAR assets such as the Sentinel and the Reaper drone, the strategic environment in which airpower operates mirrors the design and capabilities which we require in order to perform to our maximum capability in an operational climate. In evaluating the use of airpower in former conflicts and settings, it can only be used as a learning tool to reflect on both the strategic capacity and use of the aircraft and the command and control measures relative to the operation. From evaluating this information it can be utilised in future conflict to ensure that vulnerabilities and problem issues are minimised. Despite this, the changing character of modern warfare becomes increasingly context dependent, resulting in the broad capabilities of air power being used for the best suited role, where an aircraft can perform to its maximum potential in order to complete the mission at hand.