The Limitations of Contemporary Tactical Air Power

When it agreed to the imposition of United Nations Resolution 1972 to protect the people of Benghazi Russia did not envisage that the outcome of that would see one of its few friends in the Middle East deposed and be killed. Mission creep that saw tactical air power applied across Libya was not part of the original deal as far as the Russians were concerned. The aim was to protect the people of Benghazi from what was likely to be mass slaughter or genocide on a very large scale.

In the aftermath of NATO’s successful prosecution of the mission the Russians made it abundantly clear that this will not be an option they will consider over Syria. Russian rhetoric on this has pursued two quite distinct lines. The first is to call for independent investigation of a number of alleged occasions when NATO’s air power is alleged to have caused civilian casualties. The second is to make it very clear that they will not see NATO impose regime change on Syria.

In the immediate aftermath of the campaign over Libya there were a number of commentators who were anxious to herald this as a new dawn in the precise application of air power. While it is true that the French Air Force and Royal Air Force pilots who conducted strike missions against pro-regime elements in Libya did everything they possibly could to avoid civilian casualties, some were bound to occur. That is the nature of warfare. No ISTAR assets, no matter if they are located on the platform delivering the strike or handing off a target from another dedicated suite of sensors, can completely lift the fog of war.

The situation on the ground in Libya was verging on the chaotic. Once the main air defence systems operated by the regime had been quickly neutralized, the targeting cell in NATO had to move on to a wider range of fixed and mobile targets. Some fixed targets were located in the course of the battle. It took time to develop the intelligence on ammunition dumps. Some vehicle assembly-points where pro-regime forces gathered to refuel and re-arm were fixed on a temporary basis.

The time from detecting where such activity was being undertaken to the point at which a strike could be called in was short. The inevitable delays in processing ISTAR data saw several tactical innovations as operators who traditionally work in the non-real-time environment of the ground were flown on ISTAR platforms. Their real-time assessments enabled the time delays associated with ground-processing to be significantly reduced. This allowed even temporary vehicle assembly-points to be targeted.

The pro-regime forces, however, were quick to adapt to the changing situation. Their adaptation of their mobile command and control facilities tested NATO right up until the end of the campaign. In the last month attacks had to focus on such mobile nodes as by then many tanks and armoured personnel carriers operated by pro-regime elements had been systematically destroyed. That the armed resistance lasted right up until the end of October is a testament to the ability of the pro-regime forces to outmanoeuvre NATO using relatively simple measures to maintain command over forces whose position was increasingly precarious.

Attacking command and control nodes using air power is specifically problematic. On several occasions it was clear that the pro-regime forces were deliberately placing their remaining nodes in places where if they were attacked civilians would be killed. The Israelis have seen this tactic employed by Hezbollah in the Lebanon and in operations in the Gaza Strip. The tactic of dropping a smaller bomb that did not detonate to warn the occupants of buildings to evacuate before lethal force was applied was one that evolved in the cauldron of war. This was nicknamed ‘knocking’ as it was likened by some to be a knock on the door before an armed weapon was deployed to destroy the target. To counteract this, the Israelis produced photographic evidence to show how Hezbollah followers had coerced people into remaining in the building.

It would seem that no matter how great the effort made, any conflict that relies on air power is bound to see a level of civilian casualties. Sadly it is a by-product of conflict that to date ISTAR technologies are unable to completely prevent. This is especially true when it comes to attacking underground and hardened command bunkers; a point illustrated by the international reaction to the destruction of such a bunker in Baghdad in the First Gulf War that had been thought to be a command centre. The actual role of that facility remains unclear even today, as competing claims of its role have never been fully resolved.

In December 2011 the prestigious New York Times released a detailed analysis of thirteen case studies it had considered in some detail where civilian casualties had occurred. The Times concluded that they had found what it termed ‘credible accounts of dozens of civilians killed in several distinct attacks’.

The problem when civilian casualties occur is particularly acute when the aim of a military mission is to protect people. Any collateral event causes acute and emotional responses. Time will tell if the Russian accusations of NATO involvement in killing civilians in Libya prove to be correct. A United Nations report that tried to find evidence of the deaths of civilians did praise NATO for its efforts to reduce civilian casualties. Several non-governmental organizations have remained sceptical of the report, implying that it was biased. As ever in these situations some things are very difficult to verify.

Giving itself some political wriggle-room, the United Nations did observe that several examples of the military documentation associated with attacks on a small number of targets appeared to be incomplete and called for an internal enquiry to be conducted by NATO. The accusations have moved a number of political leaders, such as the Danish defence minister Nick Hækkerup, to express regret for the deaths of civilians caught up in the war.

In his remarks Nick Hækkerup sought to lessen the impact of the report by noting that the alleged deaths of sixty people in NATO air strikes were small by comparison with what the pro-regime followers could have achieved had NATO not intervened. His concluding remark that when warfare occurs we have to ‘clearly and unequivocally state that there is a risk of civilian casualties’ and that political leaders need to be ‘frank about that risk’ shows the increasing pressure that exists today when images of dead women and children can be beamed around the world in a matter of seconds.

In the aftermath of the Libyan campaign the ongoing violence in Syria saw a number of political and military commentators call for a similar intervention. Steadfastly the Russians have resisted these calls. Their position has been reinforced by China which has expressed similar concerns about the outcome should NATO be called into action again.

Noting the Russian concerns as to how the definition of a no-fly zone over Benghazi developed into a series of air strikes all over Libya that saw a pro-Russian regime fall, diplomatic and political leaders sought to change the language. All mention of a no-fly zone over Libya was removed from the table. It was as if the term had been wiped from the lexicon of military options at a stroke. As one term left the military lexicon, another emerged. This was ‘safe corridors’.

Understandably given their vehement opposition to any form of intervention in Syria the Russians were quick to reject the notion. They saw the idea as being a no-fly zone by any other name. Any attempts to broker a new United Nations resolution to gain a diplomatic way to move forward using this idea was dismissed out of hand. In its view Russia had been duped over Libya and was not about to allow itself to be drawn into seeing its last regional ally deposed.

Of late that stance has moderated as the Assad regime has seemed to exploit what it believes to be fulsome Russian support. President Milosevic made a similar mistake over Kosovo. Even the Russians, it would seem, have a bottom line. If Assad has to step down to allow free elections to occur, then the recent noises emerging from Moscow may find some traction in the international community.

While the threat of using air power was never on the table politically, it may just have created the conditions in which the Russians have been forced to give up on President Assad. The talk in Moscow is of a Yemeni solution. This is where power was transferred from a long-standing and hated dictator to a temporarily-installed leadership while national elections were planned and carried out. In Syria it might just work.

If President Assad was to resist the calls for change, the clamour for international action would continue. Despite restrictions on the internet and other media reporting, the rebels have shown themselves as being adept at keeping the scale of the onslaught being unleashed on the civilians in some cities in the eye of the international media.

With military solutions involving any form of boots-on-the-ground approach being something that NATO leaders would be very reluctant to employ given they are within sight of extracting themselves from Afghanistan, the only options appear to be to apply air and maritime power. This inevitably raises comparisons again with events in Libya as these were the two instruments of military power that were applied.

If NATO planners had to revisit the use of air power, what options could be on the table? Airbases in Syria’s northerly neighbour Turkey would be an obvious consideration. Turkey, however, may not wish to become politically involved, fearing a backlash from Islamists who would use any intervention to step up their terrorist activity in the country.

The Royal Air Force base at Akrotiri in Cyprus would be an obvious location for flight refuelling tankers that would have to fly to support missions being flown over Syria. For the air-crews involved the dangers would be appreciably different. In 2011 in Libya the pro-regime air force remained firmly grounded once NATO imposed the no-fly zone. It is very debatable whether the Syrian Air Force would adopt similar tactics.

Attacks against the AWACS and air-to-air refuelling capabilities employed in conjunction with the fast jets would rapidly see an escalation in the situation. Images of the wreckage of a VC-10 or NATO E-3 would not play well at home in NATO. The Syrian Air Force might just conduct an attack to test the resolve of any international coalition that had been formed to implement a United Nations resolution.

Over Libya the non-appearance of the Libyan Air Force helped the ad hoc coalition of countries involved. Those assigned to the air-to-air mission were not seriously tested. For countries like Sweden the Libyan campaign was pain-free apart from the expenditure on maintaining a force on operations. If a similar situation developed over Syria the loss of a Swedish pilot may quickly provide an acid test of the degree of political commitment.

Carrier-based air power would naturally become part of a solution if the United States was able to dedicate the 6th Fleet to the task. The arrival of the USS George Bush off the coast of Syria in November 2011 just ahead of the pre-planned arrival of a Russian naval task force led by the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov provided a stark indication of the juxtaposition of political views over Syria.

One of the obvious issues with the definition of a safe corridor is what it precisely means. Does it infer that what is in fact created is a protected zone in which civilians can live without fear of attack from military forces loyal to President Assad? If so, how would that work?

To guarantee the safety of the people inside the safe corridor air power would have to be capable of intercepting and destroying any pre-emptive move made by pro-regime military forces to encroach on the area. Inside the safe corridor the international community would have to be able to supply the needs of the people. Food, water, medical aid and shelter would all need to be brought in. It would be a massive humanitarian operation whose end would be difficult to envisage. The lessons from the no-fly zones over Northern and Southern Iraq to protect threatened ethnic minorities from repression by the Saddam regime provide a good example of just how long such missions can last.

The first imperative of any application of air power over the safe corridors from a military viewpoint would be to create a permissive environment. In Libya that saw the Libyan air defence system come under sustained attack in the first four days of the campaign. By the end of those four days senior military commanders went on record to say that its operation had all but been totally neutralized.

The Syrian air defence system is very different. It is more up-to-date than its Libyan counterpart. Suppressing its operations may take any force trying to impose a safe corridor slightly longer. Attacks on command bunkers controlling its operation would inevitably result in civilian casualties. The words of the Danish defence minister would be readily recalled as soon as any pictures started to emerge.

The simple fact is that in such situations air power has its limitations. When any form of military power is used people will die in the crossfire. That is not to sound callous. It is to recognize a reality of war; one that in this era of virtual reality and war games sometimes gets missed.

Until ISTAR assets can provide the pilot with the kind of situational awareness that ensures any attack that places civilians at risk is called off, the application of air power will have attendant dangers. Thinking otherwise is to contemplate nirvana. For the oppressed people of Syria it is to be sincerely hoped that a political way forward is found. If not, NATO’s airmen who so carefully undertook the campaign in Libya may be called into action again.


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