On Target: Disrupting air supremacy: Emerging technologies threaten the West’s command of the air

Dr Alan Stephens 'On Target: Disrupting air supremacy: Emerging technologies threaten the West’s command of the air' in Australian Aviation, March 2018 p. 109


Air supremacy has been the essential start-point of every Western-led military campaign from the end of World War II up to today. The West’s politicians and generals have been safe in assuming that their armies and navies would be able to operate free from enemy air attack, and that their own air forces would exploit the skies to apply overwhelming force, gather information, rapidly resupply, and so on.


The West’s model of air supremacy has been founded on the classic “dog-fighting” approach to aerial combat, in which superior pilots equipped with superior platforms, information, weapons, and command and control systems, have dominated their enemies.


It seems possible, however, that a combination of emerging strike technologies and the spread of advanced ground-based air defence systems could disrupt that model.

Emerging strike technologies include long-range threats, typified by North Korea’s nuclear-armed intercontinental missiles (whose speed of development has caught US analysts off-guard); while short-range threats are typified by swarms of hundreds of drones, whose inherent characteristics - cheap, minimal infrastructure, “pop-up” from anywhere, sheer numbers, variety of weapons, etc - will pose novel challenges to a model based on pilots who cost $10 million each to train and who fly strike/fighters that cost $100 million each to build.


Turning to the spread of advanced GBAD, Russia reportedly is prepared to export its S-400 “Triumf” surface-to-air missile system, with Turkey and Saudi Arabia as potential customers; while Israel may sell its anti-rocket Iron Dome system to the Saudis.


Tactical innovation will be critical in countering these disruptive threats.


Although Western fighter pilots have shot-down a handful of unmanned aerial vehicles in the Middle East, it is early days in the fight against drones, and a great deal more thinking on the subject is required.


GBAD systems, by contrast, have been around for over a century, ranging from the anti-aircraft batteries of World War I to the S-400 in Syria today. Some of the more interesting tactical thinking within this domain occurred during the October 1973 war between Egypt and Syria, and Israel.


Arab air power had been utterly crushed by the Israeli Air force during the 1967 Six-Day War. Egyptian and Syrian planners consequently decided that in any future conflict they would try to fight the IAF on their terms, rather than the Israelis’. Specifically, this meant avoiding air-to-air engagements and instead relying on GBAD.


In the interval between 1967 and 1973, the Egyptians constructed a radar-, missile- and gun-based defensive system along the Suez Canal-Cairo axis, while the Syrians did the same in the Golan Heights. Constructed with Soviet help and incorporating advanced SA-6 and -7 missiles and rapid-firing ZSU-23-4 AAA, those defensive barriers were as intense as any in the world.


The war began on 6 October when Egypt and Syria launched a sudden attack against Israel, catching their over-confident enemy off-guard. Israeli commanders were shocked when their previously dominant Air Force found itself unprepared for the quality and tactical disposition of the Arabs’ GBAD. The IAF started the war with 290 frontline F-4 and A-4 strike/fighters; within days, some fifty had been shot-down. It was an unsustainable loss rate.


Unable to breach the GBAD, the IAF was in serious trouble. Unexpectedly, the breakthrough in the critical battle to control the air overhead the Suez Canal came not from fighter pilots, but from tank crews and infantry.


Prior to the war, Egypt’s generals had (sensibly) concluded that their ground forces should not move beyond the protective umbrella of their GBAD. However, excited by early success, they decided to extend their army’s advance. It was the worst tactical decision of the war. Lacking control of the air, the Egyptian Army was exposed to the classic Israeli combination of fast-moving armour, infantry, and attack aircraft, and rapidly lost the initiative.


On 15 October, by-now charging Israeli armoured formations and paratroopers crossed the Suez Canal into Egypt, where they destroyed scores of SAM and AAA sites, thus opening-up a gap in the GBAD system through which the IAF could operate safely.


In other words, the Israeli Army had established control of the air.


The notion that land forces can win control of the air should not be surprising. In World War II, Allied armies did precisely that as they rolled-up scores of Luftwaffe air bases and air defence systems during their march from France and the USSR into Germany; while during the American war in Vietnam, Viet Cong soldiers (who never even had an air force) regularly asserted local control of the air for specific periods using heavy machine guns and medium AAA.


The point to take away here is less about October 1973, and more about alternative thinking in the face of disruptive threats.



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