NATO has been reshaping itself and reviewing the role of its air power.

Tim Ripley/LONDON

IF THERE WAS ONE reassuring aspect of existing in a bipolar world packed with nuclear weapons, it was that at least you knew which side you were on. The US-led NATO alliance faced up to the Soviet-orchestrated Warsaw Pact, although, thankfully, neither side ever had cause to leave its entrenched position.

The Warsaw Pact has now become no more than part of the history of the Cold War, but NATO has soldiered on. While it searched for a new role in a multi-polar world, its continued existence is owed considerably to concerns that Russia's sojourn with democracy may be a mere dalliance.

In extending its longevity beyond the demise of its erstwhile enemy, NATO has inevitably ventured into territory previously occupied by the United Nations. In reality, this has been relatively easy to do - the UN's record of conflict resolution remains chequered. This is hardly surprising, given that it has rarely been given the mandate, materiel, or monetary wherewithal to do little more than "observe" while its resolutions are being trampled upon.


Little respite

The end of the Cold War has meant little respite for many of the West's air forces. Crisis-management operations in Iraq and the Balkans have placed continuing demands on NATO's main air powers. The first of these was in May 1991 in supporting the "safe havens" established for the Kurds in Northern Iraq. This involved both air and ground forces operating from Turkey to protect the UN aid effort. It evolved into an air operation to police the no-fly zone, involving French, UK and US aircraft flying from Incirlik air base in Turkey in an action dubbed "Operation Provide Comfort". In 1992, a similar effort was mounted to police the newly established no-fly zone in Southern Iraq - Operation Southern Watch.

In retrospect, the 1990-1 Gulf War gave the first indication that several of the main NATO nations - the USA, France and the UK - were prepared to act militarily outside the traditional area of NATO responsibility. NATO subsequently decided to set up the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, capable of operating "out of area". The Gulf War also gave a clear indication of the potential efficiency of air power, soon to be further exploited in attempting to resolve the military conflict in the former Yugoslavia.

Ironically, the cohesion which has allowed NATO to act, apparently decisively, in Bosnia is now under threat from the states of the former Warsaw Pact. The USA is keen to wrap many of the states in the security mantle of NATO, initially under the Partnership for Peace programme, but many of these countries aspire to full NATO membership.

One of the main causes of the UN's impotence is that it is broadly based. Securing anything more than the most general resolution, and the ability to enforce it, has often proved beyond the organisation. NATO will have to tread carefully in expanding its membership, if it does not wish to encounter a similar paralysis, admit officials.

If there is one abiding image of the Gulf War, it is that of precision-guided-weapons attacking Iraqi fixed targets. Air-power advocates have not been slow to hold up the defeat of Iraq as a justification for continued substantial expenditure on air arms. It also made Western leaders more disposed toward relying on air power to carry out sensitive crisis management or peacekeeping "strategic political" missions.


Political benefits

The apparent ability of air power to deliver the desired political benefits with negligible casualties, at least to the Western powers, has proved an added incentive to use the air option in policing what some have christened the "New World Disorder." The use of air power does not tie down large numbers of ground forces, therefore reducing the risk of substantial casualties among Alliance forces.

In the Gulf War, however, and in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, it has still proved necessary to place considerable numbers of troops on the ground to "secure the peace".

Recent high-profile Western air operations over both Iraq and Bosnia in support of UN resolutions have been fully multi-national efforts. Coalition operations can be considerably more attractive to political leaders in that their legitimacy is enhanced in the eyes of an electorate because of the international nature of the UN. This can prove doubly important if forces have to be based in foreign countries.

At the macro-political level, NATO has increasingly acted as the military wing of the UN in the former Yugoslavia, unencumbered of the latter's sprawling membership and Byzantine bureaucracy. At the micro-management level, NATO air forces, trained for large-scale conventional warfare in central Europe, have had to adapt rapidly to crisis-management air operations. They have had to deal with the often-conflicting needs of achieving mission objectives within the politically restrictive rules of engagement while struggling with limited resources.

In April 1993, NATO air power became involved in UN operations in the former Yugoslavia, with Alliance aircraft being used to police the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzogovina as part of Operation Deny Flight. Since then, NATO involvement has escalated to providing close air-support for UN troops, enforcement of the weapon-exclusion zones and protection of safe havens.

These activities culminated in the launching of Operation Deliberate Force in August 1995, to force the Bosnian Serbs to lift the siege of Sarajevo. NATO air support for the UN officially ended on 20 December, 1995, when the NATO Implementation Force (IFOR) took over responsibility for the policing of the Dayton peace accords in Bosnia. The IFOR can, however, still call on substantial NATO air power should a crisis arise.

According to officers in the field, the first building block in establishing an airborne crisis-management mission is the political mandate which legitimises the operation. This can be provided by a variety of sources, be it the UN Security Council, NATO's North Atlantic Council or even an ad hoc multi-national coalition of nations. Apart from determining such elements as the actual participating nations, basing rights and overflight approvals, the most important aspect of the mandate covers the rules of engagement (RoE) under which the forces will operate.


Crisis management

Air force officials involved in operations in the former Yugoslavia point out that RoEs drive most aspects of crisis-management missions in ways not always readily apparent to those not involved. RoEs establish the requirement for identifying air and ground targets, as well as the criteria for opening fire and who can actually authorise offensive action. These in turn determine the airspace surveillance, ground reconnaissance, identification friend or foe (IFF), weapon-system employment and communications requirements. These, combined with the tactical plan and any hostile threat, provide the basic parameters around which an air commander will build his concept of operations.

The command and control organisation set up to run NATO's Operation Deny Flight reveals the extent to which RoEs determine the force mix and conduct of such air operations. NATO combat air-patrols were given the task of clearing the skies of aircraft not authorised to fly by the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR). The aircrew were also given the authority to engage aircraft carrying out combat operations against ground targets.

This guidance was translated into RoEs which required NATO pilots to receive the approval of three or four staff officers at the 5th Allied Tactical Air Force (5 ATAF) Combined Air Operations Centre (CAOC) at Dal Milin AB, Vicenza, Italy, before they could engage a target. Gen Hal Hornburg, director of the CAOC, says that the RoEs were so tight so as to avoid making any mistakes because of the political sensitivities of the UN mission.



This, in turn, determined that the CAOC had to maintain liaison officers at the UNPROFOR headquarters in the former Yugoslavia to allow the authorisation status of flights to be checked. It also required that a sophisticated communications network be established so that pilots flying over Bosnia could talk to the CAOC and receive permission to engage targets.

This was achieved either by linking into the NATO ground-communications network in Italy or by routeing through NATO Boeing E-3 Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft, USAF Lockheed Martin EC-130E Airborne Battlefield Command and Control Centre (ABCCC) aircraft, or US Navy Northrop Grumman E-2C Hawkeyes. All these platforms provided the ability to talk to the CAOC through both radio and satellite communications.

This procedure was used when USAF F-16C pilots engaged and shot down four Serb Soko Galeb ground-attack aircraft over Bosnia. The permission to engage was relayed through an AWACS within 3min of the aircraft first being identified.

The combined task force involved in the Provide Comfort operation in northern Iraq also had to work under rigorous RoEs, if for different reasons. One of the main concerns was to avoid any fratricide against Turkish forces operating in northern Iraq against PKK guerrilla targets. Turkish officers flew on USAF AWACS aircraft, monitoring the no-fly zone, and were also included in the operational headquarters at Incirlik in southern Turkey.

To date, both the operations in Iraq and Bosnia have stipulated RoEs demanding visual identification before any target could be engaged. This has effectively nullified any advantage to be gained from using fighters equipped with beyond-visual-range radar-guided air-to-air missiles. Even visual identification, however, is not infallible, as evinced by the loss of two US Army Sikorsky UH-60 Black Hawks in a friendly-fire incident over northern Iraq in 1994.

While the political benefits of multi-national air operations are important for obvious reasons, they create their own tensions and problems for the personnel putting the co-operation together.

One big advantage is the mix of capabilities which different nations bring to the operation. The increasing cost of combat aircraft, coupled with force draw-downs, has inevitably led to forced economies of scale, coupled with emerging specialisations within some air forces. Even the USAF is finding that it cannot afford to field the full spectrum of air power to which it would aspire. It is, for example, unable to deploy a "wet-film" airborne photographic- reconnaissance system, a gap which is being filled in both Bosnia and Iraq by Dutch, French, UK and US Navy aircraft. A similar gap in the USAF inventory also exists for suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) aircraft. Conversely its C-130 ABCCC and Northrop Grumman E-8 Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System platforms provide unique capabilities for crisis-management operations.

Following the successful placement of coalition air power under the centralised control of a USAF commander during the Gulf War, NATO air forces have readily put into use the concept of the US joint force air component commander. This allows national command of forces and, at the same time, maintains the "unity of command". In Bosnia and Iraq, joint headquarters such as that of the 5 ATAF CAOC, were set up to produce the daily air-tasking message (ATM). This is effectively a flight schedule for all the airspace in the theatre of operations. The joint headquarters also standardises the RoEs and is a focal point for the minute-by-minute control of the mission.

On an operational and tactical level, officers who have served in the CAOC-style headquarters say that they work because of the personal relationships built up over the years of working in NATO environments. Problems are largely the result of political undercurrents, or from defence ministries concerned with procurement or budget decisions.

Officially, NATO says that all the participating nations in Deny Flight receive almost daily tasking on the ATM to show "alliance solidarity". Allied air officers say that some defence ministries want their respective air forces to fly as many sorties as possible, to increase their profiles in domestic budget battles.



Air power only remains a credible option for crisis management as long as Western air forces retain the technological and tactical edge over potential opponents. This is particularly true of areas such as air-superiority aircraft and air-defence systems. Countries such as Iraq and Serbia, have, for different reasons, proved to have been outclassed. The Iraqi air force, on paper a credible deterrent force, failed to prosecute either defensive or offensive air operations during the Gulf War with any commitment.

Sheer weight of numbers has been the dominant factor in Bosnia. Recent operations have also seen much of the burden of maintaining this edge fall on the support forces in neutralising enemy air-defences, jamming and eavesdropping on enemy communications, and protecting friendly forces.

It is largely because of the use of SEAD aircraft such as the (now retired) McDonnell Douglas F-4G Wild Weasel and Northrop Grumman EA-6B Prowler, supported by Boeing RC-135 Rivet Joint and British Aerospace Nimrod MR2 electronic-reconnaissance aircraft, that Iraqi and Serb surface-to-air-missile (SAM) batteries have not been able to engage allied aircraft on any real scale.

In the current political environment, even the loss of a single aircraft can turn an ongoing mission into a major issue, as the shooting down of USAF Capt Scot O'Grady over Bosnia in June 1995 demonstrated.

Because of differences in the threat in each theatre of operations, some air forces have taken to customising their aircraft to meet these threats with self-defence systems, such as missile-approach warning systems, jamming pods and chaff/flare dispensers. These items are often purchased in small numbers to equip only the airframes actually dispatched on crisis-management missions, because of the large cost involved in equipping all air forces fleet of a particular aircraft.



Five years on from the start of Operation Provide Comfort, Western aircraft are still patrolling no-fly zones over Iraq and there seems no end in sight to this major commitment. The same is the case with operations supporting NATO in Bosnia. Because of political objections from host nations and the shrinking size of Western military establishments, it has been necessary to maintain forces to support operations over Iraq and the Balkans by means of short, two or three months, deployments. By now, there are few members of the Royal Air Force, the French air force, or the USAF who have not spent some time in Italy or the Gulf. Some units are on their seventh or eighth deployments, particularly in units such as AWACS, SEAD, airlift or tanker squadrons.


Creating problems

While this spreads vital operations experience among a wide range of personnel and allows equipment to be operated in a realistic environment, it also creates problems. Air crews, particularly those in specialist support units, who have endured months of flying the same mission profiles against the same threats quickly lose proficiency in other areas.

The high operating tempo is also proving draining on airframes and personnel. During the inquiry into the Black Hawk friendly-fire incident, the high numbers of deployment days for USAF AWACS crews, sometimes over 200 days a year, was identified as a contributory factor leading to the degrading of skills levels and lowering of morale in the E-3 community. RAF fighter pilots serve only two months on temporary deployment to prevent their dog-fighting skills from degrading because combat air-patrols over Bosnia are so monotonous - they have little opportunity to put their skills to full use.

If the West's policy of relying on NATO air power as a crisis-management tool is to remain a viable into the next century, a variety of measures may be needed.

Continued investment in command and control systems, along with secure communications, is essential to ensuring that the delicate minute-by-minute management of air operations can continue. Satellite communications offer increasing possibilities to conduct operations across great distances. Already, this is being fitted as standard to large airframes, but eventually this will spread to smaller combat aircraft.

Weapon systems needed for these missions need to be particularly capable of target discrimination, often conflicting with the desire for long-range systems needed for general war. US Navy Lockheed Martin P-3C Orions which are used to patrol the Adriatic to enforce the UN air embargo, for example, fly with short-range Hughes AGM-65 Maverick television-guided missiles rather than the traditional, long-range, radar-guided McDonnell Douglas AGM-84 Harpoon missiles, because the latter weapon would act like a "polecat in a henhouse" in the confined waters of the region, possibly homing in on Allied warships or civil shipping.

Continuing investments in advanced weapon systems by potentially hostile regimes, such as Iran, Iraq, Serbia, Croatia and North Korea, particularly in surface-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft, makes the case of continuing to upgrade Western air forces if they are to avoid suffering unacceptable losses.


Vital support

Support forces such as SEAD and electronic-reconnaissance platforms assume an importance disproportionate to their numbers. Such advances have been made in reducing the size of the subsystems and avionics carried on these platforms that it is to be hoped that they could be podded and carried on the wing stations of general-purpose combat-aircraft airframes or in unmanned air vehicles.

Perhaps the most pressing issue facing Western air chiefs is the size of force needed to maintain the current intensity of operations. The RAF, for example, maintains Tornado GR1 detachments in Turkey and Saudi Arabia, Harrier GR7 and Tornado detachments in Italy, along with support-helicopter forces in Bosnia and Northern Ireland. Tanker, C-130 and AWACS squadrons are similarly stretched. If manpower levels are cut further, then something will have to give.

Source: Flight International