You might think that more combat aircraft would top the wish lists of most air force chiefs if they were granted bigger procurement budgets, but in fact, most would buy additional intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance and command-and-control capabilities instead of extra fighter jets.
That was the main theme to emerge from the Dubai International Air Chiefs Conference on 7 November. Every presenter stressed the value of layered battlefield intelligence and control, especially for precision targeting of enemy combatants in complex urban environments.
Counter-insurgency, or COIN, operations have become the norm in modern warfare, and continue to be relevant in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan, Libya and elsewhere.
For the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia-led forces operating in Yemen, the value of unmanned aircraft for intelligence-gathering and well-connected command-and-control infrastructure are critical enablers.
“Over the coming years, the UAE air force will spend a considerable amount of time and effort on developing and expanding its command-and-control architecture, with a new state-of-the-art air operations centre as the hub tying together our advanced net-centric warfare capabilities,” says Maj Gen Ibrahim Nasser Al Alawi, commander of the UAE air force.
“C4ISR and remotely piloted aircraft systems will greatly enhance our current ability to see the entire battle space and push decision-marking data to the right level at the right time," he says.
US Air Force Central Command head Lt Gen Charles Brown and Air Chief Marshal Sohail Aman of Pakistan both stressed the importance of precision-strike munitions, enabled by ISR platforms, to successful COIN operations.
“Today’s air forces must be more flexible, more intelligent when selecting targets, more precise with our strikes, and less destructive to earn the support of the people,” says Brown. “We must be ever cognisant of civilian casualties and unnecessary damage to infrastructure.”
Aman made similar points, saying the combination of ISR data from a variety of platforms including Lockheed Martin C-130s allows F-16s to launch precision-guided munitions from outside the audible range of insurgents to score direct hits with fewer civilian deaths.
For political reasons, US targeting specialists, known as joint terminal attack controllers (JTACs), are not forward-deployed in Syria, so decision makers are using full-motion video and layered targeting data from various platforms to authorise air strikes.
Referred to as “bomb-on-sensor” or “non-traditional close-air-support,” Brown says these types of stand-off engagements are becoming the norm against IS insurgents in Syria and are now being codified in joint operating doctrine.