In the right circumstances Ground-Based Air Defence can be a game-changer. Given that the Australian Defence Force invariably deploys when it fights, it is a capability our defence planners need to take more seriously.
The popular image of the fight to win control of the air is one of scores of fighters locked in swirling dogfights, epitomised by the Battle of Britain in World War II and MiG Alley in Korea. A less well-known method of asserting air control is Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD), which in certain circumstances has been very successful.
GBAD incorporates all or some of surface-to-air missiles, anti-aircraft artillery, early-warning systems, and command and control centres, almost invariably in fixed locations. It has often been the choice of technologically modest and under-resourced forces opposed to superior opponents.
The battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954 was a prime example. Despite not even having an air force, the Viet Minh (North Vietnam) were able to assert control of the air over their technologically-advanced French enemies using an ad hoc GBAD system.
Dien Bien Phu was one of a number of remote fortified camps the French established hoping to draw their elusive enemy into “meat-grinder” set-piece battles. Because of the camps’ isolation, their airstrips were vital for resupply, reinforcement, and launching close air attack missions, which in turn made local control of the air essential. The French believed their airstrip at Dien Bien Phu could not be threatened.
But the Viet Minh confounded French expectations by using 30,000 peasant labourers to man-handle two regiments of artillery and heavy mortars though the jungle onto the hilltops overlooking Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh now dominated the airstrip, which they made almost unusable. With their lifeline cut, the French were eventually over-run.
Egypt similarly employed GBAD to negate Israel’s overwhelmingly superior air force during the first week of the October 1973 Arab-Israeli War. In the June 1967 Six-Day War, the Egyptian Air Force had been destroyed on the ground by the Israeli Air Force in a matter of hours. Learning from that experience, in 1973 Egypt’s leaders essentially kept their air force out of harm’s way and relied instead on an intensive GBAD system of missiles and AAA, especially along the Suez Canal.
Complacent after its 1967 victory, the IAF was caught unprepared for this different threat and in the first few days lost about 15 percent of its strike/fighters. The loss rate was unsustainable. It was only after Israeli tanks and paratroopers had smashed a gap in the Egyptians’ GBAD barrier through which Israel’s jets could safely fly that the IAF was able to assert its usual dominance over the battlefield. Egypt’s use of GBAD was a clever tactic which succeeded for a week against a technologically and operationally vastly superior force.
An even more striking result was achieved by mujahideen guerillas fighting against Soviet invaders in Afghanistan between 1979 and 1989.
Initially the Soviets enjoyed uncontested air supremacy, which enabled their Mi-8 and Mi-25 heavy-lift and attack helicopters to play an apparently war-winning role, with the guerillas being unable to cope with the manoeuvre and firepower the helicopters provided. However, the situation changed dramatically in 1986 when the US supplied the mujahideen with Stinger shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles. In the next three years the guerillas shot-down some 270 Soviet helicopters, creating a decisive shift of momentum in the war.
Australia’s post-World War II experience with GBAD has been slight.
The Army has operated small numbers of short-range, point-defence-only weapons which could scarcely be described as a system. The RAAF went much further in 1961 when it established No. 30 Squadron at Williamtown, equipped with Bloodhound surface-to-air missiles and early-warning radars. With an intercept envelope of 45 kilometres range and 9000 to 50,000 feet altitude, the Bloodhound was typical of its generation. It was also typically inflexible. Even with a (dubious) claimed kill-probability of 90 percent for each salvo of four missiles fired, scores of batteries would have been required to defend Australia’s many high-value targets.
Following No. 30 Squadron’s disbandment in 1968, the RAAF has shown little interest in GBAD systems. Indeed, applying the maxim that attack is the best form of defence, the RAAF’s approach to the broader issue of control of the air has been active rather than passive. Of note here is the recent acquisition of twelve EA-18G Growler electronic attack aircraft, which can detect and jam most – some commentators say all – known forms of surface-to-air threats.
Australia’s 2016 Defence White Paper flagged an intention to acquire a new short-range GBAD system for the Army “by the early 2020s” and a medium-range system by the “mid-to-late 2020s”. These are good intentions but, to state the obvious, the time-frame is relaxed.
As the experiences outlined in this article illustrate (and there are more), in the right circumstances GBAD can be a game-changer. Given that the Australian Defence Force invariably deploys when it fights, it is a capability our defence planners need to take more seriously.
Cody Stephens is a law graduate who works in technology and innovation research