Air Weapons: Making Sense Of Mass Confusion


May 3, 2012: When NATO agreed to provide air support for Libyan rebels in 2011, it was quickly realized that only the United States had the specialized aircraft needed for round-the-clock aerial refueling, electronic warfare, and intelligence collection. But the U.S. Air Force discovered that, despite all the intelligence collecting and analysis capabilities, which had been heavily used in Iraq and Afghanistan over the previous decade, something important was missing. In short, the targeteers (specialists who figure out which of the many potential targets should be hit, when, and with what) were out of practice for the sort of large scale bombing campaign Libya represented. Except for a brief period in 2003 (during the invasion of Iraq), targeteers had not encountered this kind of situation since the 1991, liberation of Kuwait. Since September 11, 2001, targeteers have had little to do, as most bombing was ground support in response to calls from ground troops. Although there were simulations available for targeteers to practice their planning skills, not much of this training was done. Thus, when Libya came along air force targeteers found themselves scrambling to improvise. As a result the support for the Libyan rebels was not as effective as it could have been. The Libyan rebels didn't notice, nor did most NATO air commanders. But U.S. Air Force personnel with memories of 2003, and 1991, did and training for major operations like Libya or, in the future, Syria, North Korea, or Iran are under way again.

The training is basically about target planning. That means listing which targets are out there and deciding which should be hit, and when, in order to inflict the maximum damage, while minimizing friendly losses. As far back as World War II Operations Research (OR) techniques (put simply, a combination of math and common sense) were first used. This is still the case, but computers now do all the number crunching, along with spiffy computer graphics to present the results.

But there is yet another problem discovered in Libya, the difficulty in finding out if a target had been destroyed. This is all about BDA (Bomb Damage Assessment), a problem air forces in general, and the U.S. Air Force in particular, just cannot get a handle on. BDA is the business of figuring out what impact your attack had on the enemy and is conducted by satellites, UAVs, and recon aircraft after you bomb.

The problem of the guys in the air getting fooled by the guys on the ground, began during World War II. This was when air forces used large scale aerial bombing for the first time. Right after that conflict the U.S. did a thorough survey of the impact of strategic bombing on Germany and Japan. It was discovered that the impact was far different from what BDA during the war had indicated.

The air force vowed to do better next time. But as experience in Korea (1950-3), Vietnam (1965-72), Kuwait (1991), Kosovo (1999), Iraq (2003), Lebanon (2006), and Libya (2011) demonstrated, the enemy on the ground continued to have an edge when it came to deceiving the most energetic BDA efforts. The only proven technique for beating the BDA problem was to have people on the ground, up close, checking up on targets while the fighting was going on. That is often difficult to arrange.

 But there's yet an even more fundamental problem. The army and air force have a different outlook on planning and risk. The air force sees warfare as a much tidier and predictable affair than does the army. In this respect the air force and navy are closely aligned. Both are technical services, who are used to exercising more control over their forces than do army generals. The army sees warfare as more unpredictable and has adapted to that unpredictability. Army generals have always been skeptical of the air force claims, and it's usually the army guys who are proved to be right. But because air force and navy equipment is so much more expensive, those services get most of the defense budget and the political clout that goes with it.

Since the Iraq invasion the U.S. Air Force has been keeping fairly quiet about its ability to do things on its own. That's because there's a war on and the army is doing most of the work. Moreover, the relationship between the army and air force has been fundamentally changed by the introduction of micro (under ten pounds) UAVs and GPS smart bombs. The army has thousands of micro-UAVs in action, giving every infantry commander his own air force, at least as far as air reconnaissance goes. And then there are the smart bombs, which have restored army faith in close air support. And the troops have noted the pilots and their bombers are way up there, out of gunfire range. Down below the army is running the war, just calling on pilots to push a button (and release a smart bomb) from time to time.

The GPS guided smart bombs have revolutionized warfare but not to the air force's advantage. The greater reliability and accuracy of the GPS bombs means that far fewer bombs and bombers are needed. The air force still has its 69 years of air superiority to worry about. Many officials in the Department of Defense fear that this advantage may be lost if the United States does not keep up with the coming shift to robotic fighter aircraft. The pilots who run the air force (and naval aviation) are not keen on adopting robotic air superiority fighters but less partisan observers have seen such parochialism cause disasters in the past. Because of all these changes, and the challenges they present to the air force, it's no wonder that targeteer training got forgotten.



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