By: Eric J. Mehrtens
Approximate Reading Time: 12 minutes
In Part One of a two-part series, the author describes the threat that Anti-Access/Area-Denial weapons pose to current Iron Triad operations. Part Two will discuss solutions that use current technology to overcome future capabilities.
The United States Air Force (USAF) relies on its Command and Control and Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (C2ISR) fleet to stand off from enemy threats and “see and hear” the battlespace to direct friendly forces to attack at a time and place of its choosing. However, today’s adversaries have developed an Anti-Access/Area-Denial (A2/AD) bubble which renders the USAF C2ISR fleet virtually unusable in a contested environment. The creation of a Surface-to-Air Missile Defense (SAMD) platform focused on the fleet’s active protection will ensure the USAF can effectively command and control future air and ground operations.
The chief US air planner for Operation DESERT STORM, Colonel John Warden, highlights the importance of airpower by stating, “Since the German attack on Poland in 1939, no country has won a war in the face of enemy air superiority…” While fighters and bombers get the glory when it comes to aerial warfare, gaining air superiority does not occur without effective C2ISR. The Battle of Britain highlighted the necessity of effective C2ISR in order to gain air superiority. Despite superior numbers and aircraft, the German Luftwaffe lost the air battle to the British Royal Air Force (RAF) because the latter effectively harnessed its C2ISR capability. The RAF used radar, Identification, Friend or Foe (IFF) technology, and direction-finding capabilities to gather and analyze intelligence and then direct (or C2) its forces into the fight. In this way, the RAF was able to mass its limited air capability at the correct time and place to intercept the superior Luftwaffe and level the playing field. The Battle of Britain proved that an inferior force could defeat a superior adversary when that force maintains a situational awareness advantage.
Arguably, the US has enjoyed a situational awareness advantage throughout the aviation era. The USAF uses its C2ISR fleet, comprised of the E-3 AWACS, E-8 JSTARS, and RC-135 RIVET JOINT aircraft collectively known as the Iron Triad, to stand off from enemy threats and “see and hear” the battlespace to direct friendly forces to attack at a time and place of its choosing. However, with the US focusing on counter-insurgency operations since 2001, it has lost its C2ISR advantage to adversaries that have studied the way it wages war. Specifically, Russia and China have developed robust Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) that use long-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems “that threaten not only the ability of combat air forces to penetrate and strike, but also ISR forces that enable modern aerospace power.” While the USAF has planned and developed fifth-generation fighter and bomber aircraft, it has not addressed how to employ C2ISR in a denied area to direct those aircraft. As such, the US risks having the superior combat force while its adversaries have the situational awareness advantage. Thus, advances in adversary IADS render the traditional USAF C2ISR fleet virtually unusable in a denied area. The creation of a Surface-to-Air Missile Defense platform focused on the fleet’s active protection will ensure the USAF can effectively command and control future air and ground operations.
DESERT STORM Dominance
Cold War threats resulted in the creation of aerial platforms that could safely monitor Soviet air and ground activities from international or friendly airspace. The SA-5 was the most dangerous SAM threat to those platforms, with a maximum unclassified range of approximately 155 miles. More importantly, the SA-5 is a static, fixed system that requires prepared locations to operate. As a result, longer range C2ISR aircraft operated outside of threat range and directed strike packages to methodically suppress and destroy enemy air defenses. So, destroying strategic, fixed SAMs was relatively easy with superior situational awareness gained by airborne C2ISR assets.
Operation DESERT STORM exposed the flaws in Soviet Union-era air defense systems and doctrine. A RAND publication, The Winning of Air Supremacy in Operation DESERT STORM by Benjamin Lambeth, states that Iraqi IADS “featured hardened, redundant, internetted, and buried communications links, with some 16,000 [SAMs] and 7,000 [AAA] guns.” The Iron Triad combined with “effective communications and radar jamming yielded a winning combination by expanding the coalition’s situational awareness while denying it to the enemy.” Hence, airpower destroyed one of the densest IADS systems in the world at that time in thirty-six hours. The USAF employed virtually the same tactics when it invaded Iraq a second time in 2003. These overwhelming successes provided potential adversaries with a blueprint for how the USAF operated to gain air superiority and enable ground force victory.
After DESERT STORM, relative peace and US involvement in counter-insurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan provided Russia and China with over twenty years to develop a solution to the US way of war. One portion of that solution is an A2/AD bubble comprised of SAM systems, ballistic missiles, and anti-ship cruise missiles to prevent access and employment of US weapons systems. Lieutenant General VeraLinn “Dash” Jamieson, the USAF’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance validates this reality stating, “By 2030, the threats facing the United States around the world will be formidable. They will have twice, if not three times, the lethality and range of today’s threats.” Focusing solely on the SAM threat, one can see the seriousness of this problem.
One weakness during DESERT STORM was the inability of the C2ISR fleet to accurately track and find mobile, tactical targets. Twenty-two of the thirty-eight aircraft shot down over Iraq were lost to mobile threats, highlighting this reality. As a result, adversaries made their strategic SAMs mobile. Today, Russia’s strategic SAM is the highly mobile SA-21 with an unclassified range of approximately 250 miles. In addition, the SA-21 is purportedly capable of detecting low observable or stealth platforms and intercepting ballistic missiles. The result is a highly survivable system that prevents the USAF’s aging C2ISR fleet from gaining a situational awareness advantage without risking destruction. In effect, as long as one operational SA-21 remains on the battlefield, the USAF will be hesitant to use its airborne “eyes and ears,” which prevents the Air and Space Operations Center (AOC) from being able to centrally control the air war in its initial stages. Simply stated, modern IADS pose a challenge for the USAF’s C2ISR fleet to overcome.
The Iron Triad
Centralized control and decentralized execution guides current USAF organizational, employment, and platform considerations. USAF doctrine states that these are, “the fundamental organizing principles of airpower, having been proven over decades of experience as the most effective and efficient means of employing it.” Centralized control is the principle that one Airman is responsible for the organization and planning of airpower to meet the needs of the joint force. The AOC executes centralized control by producing the Air Tasking Order, which is the “method used to task and disseminate to components, subordinate units, and command and control agencies projected sorties, capabilities and/or forces to targets and specific missions.” However, once tasked, sorties operate under the principle of decentralized execution. This principle allows the single air commander to delegate his or her authority to “lower-level commanders…within a C2 architecture that exploits the ability of front-line decision makers (such as strike package leaders, air battle managers, forward air controllers) to make on-scene decisions during complex, rapidly unfolding operations.” Each decision-maker uses the situational awareness received from the Iron Triad to help guide and execute the air mission.
Each leg of the Iron Triad provides a different capability that is critical to executing the air war and achieving air superiority. The E-3 AWACS uses its radar with an unclassified range of up to 250 miles, to see and direct the air battle. The E-8 JSTARS uses its radar with an unclassified range of up to 155 miles, to see and direct the counter-land battle. The RC-135 RIVET JOINT uses its electronics surveillance suite, with an unclassified range of up to 150 miles, to hear the electronic activities of an adversary. Each asset shares its data with the rest of the Iron Triad to form the full picture. In addition, all three aircraft have loiter times in excess of eleven hours allowing them to maintain stand-off and persistent coverage that no other aircraft can provide. The combined capabilities of these three aircraft enable the rest of the force to accomplish its mission much like the RAF did against the Luftwaffe in the Battle of Britain. Unfortunately, the 250-mile range of the SA-21 significantly degrades the ability of the Iron Triad from accomplishing its mission. The SA-21 located at Kaliningrad provides a case study to examine this challenge.
In November 2016, Russia deployed the SA-21 to Kaliningrad, its enclave on the Baltic Sea nested between Poland and Lithuania. As fears rise amongst the Baltic States of Russian aggression against them, akin to Crimea, it is useful to portray how this new air defense system would affect US and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) air operations. Unlike Crimea, the Baltic States are all NATO members, consequently committing NATO to respond if attacked. As mentioned previously, the only asset that would be able to use its radar outside of the SA-21 threat range would be the AWACS. This, in and of itself, is problematic because radar does not produce an ability to positively identify enemy aircraft. In addition, because the AWACS would be operating at its limits, it may not be able to detect where the aircraft departed from, limiting its ability to determine and transmit the type of threat NATO aircraft would expect to encounter. Hence, there is a need for the RIVET JOINT to assist the AWACS in determining what the radar contacts are via their electromagnetic emissions. However, this would require Russian aircraft to fly at least 100 miles towards the orbit of the RIVET JOINT to gain this data. Exposing Russian aircraft needlessly is not likely, neutralizing the ability of the RIVET JOINT to perform its mission until destruction of the SA-21.
The SA-21 also prevents the JSTARS, the other third of the Iron Triad, from accomplishing its mission. As discussed, the AWACS can only provide information about the air portion of the enemy’s IADS. The JSTARS coupled with the RIVET JOINT produces the ground picture. Since the SA-21 is highly mobile, it can re-locate rapidly allowing it to evade detection and destruction for longer periods. This is the bread and butter mission set for the JSTARS, which can track its movement from site to site and direct ground attack aircraft to destroy it in transit when it is most vulnerable. Unfortunately, the JSTARS would be unable to operate in this contested environment making it that much harder to neutralize a very capable threat. Hence, it is easy to visualize the fantastic problem that a robust IADS system poses to coalition air operations (see Figure 1 for a graphical representation of this problem).
United States Air Force Vision
The USAF recognizes the problem but continues to grapple with finding solutions to overcome it. The Commander of Air Combat Command, General Mike Holmes, states, “’If war kicked off in Northern Europe, soldiers would already be under the umbrella of an integrated air defense…none of those systems we are fielding now, including our current JSTARS or a replacement JSTARS would allow the US to break that kill chain.” Unspoken, but still affected, are the AWACS and RIVET JOINT platforms as the USAF’s Air Superiority Flight Plan 2030 highlights, “The increasing lethality and reach of adversary weapons will significantly increase the risk to large BMC2 platforms like AWACS in 2030. This will limit their ability to see and manage activities in the contested and highly contested environments.” In addition, this threat becomes problematic for any large, slow, and less maneuverable aircraft like aerial refueling platforms, cargo planes, bombers, and other ISR manned and unmanned systems. As a result, this problem is only going to become more complex with time as adversaries work to push more and more aircraft further away from their territory by increasing the range of their SAM systems.
The USAF has touted the ability of its fifth-generation fighters to provide increased situational awareness and intelligence capabilities with their advanced sensors as a partial solution to this problem. The force is working towards a way for all assets to be able to share their information in real-time via the combat cloud. The combat cloud is an idea advocated by the USAF’s former Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence; Lieutenant General David Deptula (retired). The idea is that all intelligence-producing platforms (air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace) will be able to share their information virtually into a secure network for instantaneous use by decision makers. In addition, each intelligence-producing platform would have its own entryway into the network, making the system redundant, with no single point of failure. The USAF’s Flight Plan 2030 recognizes the combat cloud as a future capability describing the way forward as a “Data-to-Decision Campaign” that will help improve its find, fix, track, and assess methodology for more efficient target prosecution.
However, it is important to note that the fifth-generation sensors have limited range and duration. In addition, while they may be able to provide greater access in less permissive settings, they still rely on C2 capabilities for battle management and may not be able to use their full suite of features to contribute to the cloud as they seek to avoid detection in high threat environments. Matt Hurley’s article, “Beyond the Iron Triad,” summarizes the crux of this issue:
Assets like the B-21, F-22, and F-35 will be engaged in the combat cloud in a highly dynamic tactical fashion. Sometimes, they will be solely dedicated to highly specific missions…In those situations, even the most advanced aircraft may find themselves busy just trying to survive. That will leave little, if any, bandwidth for broader C2ISR functions on the part of the pilots. There will also be times when these aircraft will purposefully go off the cloud network and not actively transmit significant quantities of data to avoid detection in hostile airspace.
Likewise, the enemy will also attempt to disrupt and/or destroy additional sensors that would also be feeding into the cloud to help build a holistic picture. While adversaries will likely be unable to upset every sensor or node, it is probable that situational awareness will become significantly degraded. Therefore, the requirement for long-range, stand-off capabilities that have persistence and can fuse disparate data streams into a coherent battlefield picture is still required.
The joint force’s current solution for protecting the Iron Triad, which it deems as High Value Airborne Assets (HVAA) or “assets so important that their loss could seriously impact the JFC’s operation/campaign, destabilize a multinational coalition, or provide the adversary with a tremendous propaganda victory” is two-fold. First, it uses active protection, which consists of fighter escorts and air defense systems to intercept enemy aircraft. Second, it uses passive protection, which consists of keeping the HVAA outside of the adversary’s SAM range and/or far enough away from enemy airfields to be able to leave their orbit with enough time to out-run enemy aircraft. Hence, the only way to keep these assets safe is to intercept enemy aircraft or to destroy adversary SAM systems. However, there is a solution yet to be explored which could keep the Iron Triad safe for short durations while performing its mission.
Major Eric Mehrtens is a USAF Intelligence Officer with over 1,300 flying hours on the E-8C JSTARS as an Airborne Intelligence Officer along with a tour as the 48th Fighter Wing Chief of Intelligence. Maj Mehrtens has completed eight deployments to the Central Command theater of operations. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree from Louisiana State University, and Master’s Degrees from the University of Oklahoma, the Air Command and Staff College, and the School of Advanced Warfighting. The author can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the individual author and do not necessarily represent the views of any governmental agency. References to this study should include this statement.