Airpower for Hybrid War

Oct. 1, 2009

In the early years of the new century, huge force-on-force clashes and low-level irregular warfare aren’t the only threats faced by US military forces. Relatively small hostile groups either have or could acquire in the next few years access to sophisticated and lethal weaponry.

With modest training, modern communications, and strong command and control, these forces can employ such advanced weapons in concert with established guerrilla tactics and gain lethal effects once unavailable to such fighters.

Analysts are calling this type of conflict “hybrid warfare”—blending elements of different forms of combat. Participants in hybrid contests will comprise both nation-states and nonstate actors—sometimes with both on the same side, sometimes opposing one another. This distinctly new type of military challenge requires national security strategists and force planners to understand new realities and prepare America’s armed forces.

Two F-22 Raptors and a B-2 Spirit deployed to Andersen AFB, Guam, power over the Pacific Ocean on a mission. (USAF photo by MSgt. Kevin J. Gruenwald)

Hybrid warfare blurs the distinction between pure conventional and pure irregular warfare. At present, it is also a term with at least three applications. Hybrid can refer, first, to the battlespace environment and conditions; second, to enemy strategy choices; and third, to the type of force the US should build and maintain. Early examinations of this phenomenon have often used the term to apply to all these possibilities. In February, Marine Corps Gen. James N. Mattis, head of US Joint Forces Command and NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, referred to both hybrid enemies and a hybrid force the US might build.

In hybrid contests of the future, US forces could confront state and nonstate adversaries who employ a range of what could be considered “conventional” weapons—from guided mortars to cruise missiles to cyber weapons—in a manner merging lethal and nonlethal effects. The adversaries may employ ambush tactics one day while engaging in fixed conventional attacks the next.

What is clear is that US air and space forces (in simple terms, “airpower”) can provide the foundation for the nation’s response. Airpower offers the war-fighting components military resources that can cover great distances, survive, persist, and gain desired lethal and nonlethal effects.

The key tasks in high demand are four: persistent awareness, rapid air mobility, precision strike, and integrated networks that pull together all force elements and coordinate execution. Clearly, airpower is the key.

Persistent Awareness

The complex nature of hybrid warfare demands of military commanders and civilian leaders an exquisite awareness of their operating environment or, as the Marine Corps puts it, a “sense of the battlespace.” They seek to understand the planning, force disposition, operations, and lethality of potential threats that endanger their operating environment.

Gaining this information requires a disciplined and extensive collection network. No single sensor or approach can provide all the necessary information. Commanders value and need a “layered” intelligence-surveillance-reconnaissance (ISR) architecture to meet varied requirements.

Floods of imagery. Unmanned aerial vehicles and associated full-motion video (FMV) have dominated the ISR arena in the last decade. Predator video, with its precise reconnaissance ability and persistence to stare at one location for extended periods of time, has become the high-demand asset. But Predator is not the only UAV providing electro-optical (EO) and infrared (IR) imagery. A number of UAVs have been deployed to support US forces in the Mideast, where many hundreds of systems are in operation today.

These UAVs include more than 10 types of small, man-portable handheld systems that meet only a tactical commander’s needs in the fight. At the next level, battalion and brigade commanders have seven additional UAVs. Collectively, these assets have allowed ISR imagery and FMV capabilities to be widely available with positive effects.

Predators and other UAVs are not the sole source of imagery information. USAF operates five EO-IR sensor-suite-equipped U-2 aircraft and six with optical cameras. The Global Hawk has provided imagery support as well, despite still being in development. The Navy’s P-3 has been adapted to support ground forces with EO and IR sensors, while the Air Force is also deploying the MC-12 Liberty Project Aircraft to supplement the Predator and Reaper force with EO, IR, and signals intelligence (Sigint) sensor suites.

FMV and spot imagery alone will not meet all ISR needs in the US campaign in a hybrid conflict. In fact, FMV and imagery support normally is at the end of the ISR functional chain—but is the first product many request. Fortunately, commanders have more assets available than spot reconnaissance aircraft that focus narrowly at one location. The ISR architecture layers assets to build commanders’ situational awareness.

Security forces from Moody AFB, Ga., demonstrate the capabilities of a Scan Eagle unmanned aircraft system at Hurlburt Field, Fla. (USAF photo by SrA. Emily S. Moore)

Surveillance, broad and deep. Gaining and maximizing situational awareness starts with being alerted or tipped off on an activity somewhere. Wide area surveillance (WAS), preferably with multiple sensors, is required to gain the persistent search capability to find and fix activities or persons of interest. Multiple sensors allow a blanketing of the largest area possible.

The two dominant WAS techniques are signals intelligence and moving target indicator (MTI). Both techniques scan a wide area and discriminate the target or person, based on exploiting the communications, signal, or movement against the background. Both have the ability to pinpoint an activity for further exploitation or to cross-cue another ISR sensor.

Ground forces do have organic surveillance systems. The Prophet ground system, for example, provides signals collection for brigade commanders. The sensor sits on a tall pole, extending the sensor’s range. Normally, it detects signals out to seven miles, depending on the terrain. If located on higher terrain, such as a 500-foot ridge, the sensor could range to 27 miles.

While these systems maintain their surveillance as long as they are protected and have power, a ground system’s range is limited compared to airborne assets. In the Sigint collection, USAF’s RC-135 operating at 30,000 feet can detect communications out to 244 miles. A Global Hawk or U-2 with a signals collection suite can find signals out to 300 miles. From its high perch, these aircraft can monitor more than 284,000 square miles—an area larger than Iraq.

In a similar manner, the E-8C Joint STARS monitors a wide area for movement of units, vehicles, and associated traffic in the battlespace. Just as the E-3 AWACS provides air superiority fighters an in-depth awareness of all air traffic and guides the fight for air dominance, Joint STARS provides similar knowledge and direction for ground activities.

The MC-12 will have a Sigint suite to provide direct support to brigade and similar units with a tailored WAS capability to cue the onboard MX-15 EO/IR FMV sensor or another EO/IR sensor. The MC-12 data will go directly to brigade operations centers and any joint terminal attack controller with the laptop-based ROVER (Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver). This digital C2 tool allows the ground party to see the video feed from an attacking aircraft and confirm the target.

Cuing from human intelligence. Other traditional intelligence disciplines play a vital role in the hybrid campaign. Perhaps the oldest method is human intelligence (Humint). While the public may think of Humint as information from spies, it involves details obtained from debriefs of captured enemy combatants or casual conversations with civilians in the battlespace. Humint can provide answers to the “five questions”—but is normally narrow in scope in terms of the speed, range, and flexibility of gaining data.

As with any ISR discipline, Humint can provide a vital cuing for other systems. One of the better known examples of Humint as part of a layered architecture was the strike against Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. Initially tipped by a Humint source, reinforced by a Sigint intercept, and then tracked through more than 600 hours of airborne ISR, the collage of ISR data allowed an F-16 with a Litening pod to zero in for the attack. This multidiscipline and integrated effort demonstrates that no single entity can operate successfully in isolation. Layering of ISR assets works.

TSgt. Bo Sullivan, flight engineer, prepares for takeoff aboard an E-8C Joint STARS aircraft. (USAF photo by SSgt. Aaron Allmon II)

Rapid Air Mobility

Airpower’s speed, range, flexibility, and survivability are valued for their ability to deploy and sustain US forces. Foremost is the assured and rapid response to reach any part of the globe on short notice—in under a day. While surface transportation remains the efficient means to deploy large-size forces globally, air mobility aircraft are the most effective when personnel or equipment are needed immediately, such as when the US moved relief supplies and personnel to Pakistan following the 2005 earthquake. Rapid air mobility is also vital when bringing injured personnel to the United States for treatment.

Aeromedical evacuation often starts with rotary-wing assets and ends with a C-17 or similar airframe landing half the world away with the injured person arriving at a world-class trauma center in the US. One case involved a Marine Corps lance corporal, injured in Iraq by an improvised explosive device in September 2006. He suffered burns and a significant injury to his right eye. Brooke Army Medical Center in Texas was the only hospital with the combined resources to maximize his recovery chances. Leapfrogging from helicopter to C-17, the marine arrived in Texas 30 hours after the explosion. More importantly, the effort saved his eye.

Flights such as these also reinforce the other partner in the air mobility mission—aerial refueling aircraft. The C-17 crew relied upon a number of air-to-air refueling efforts to prevent having to stop for fuel en route, saving time and the marine’s eyesight. The Air Force’s tanker inventory gives the force the speed to close global distances within a day.

Air mobility provides more than a bridge to and from the United States and the contingency operations area. Inside the theater, air mobility is critical. For example, given the size of Afghanistan, US forces are dispersed around the country, and theater air mobility provides the speedy response inside the theater of operations.

One manifestation of air mobility’s value is its ability to reduce risk to the force. As a part of the counter-IED strategy to negate the more than 900 IEDs planted in Iraq and Afghanistan each month, C-130s and other tactical airlift reduce vehicle traffic and, hence, reduce personnel exposure to that threat. In 2008, airlift aircraft moved more than 1,174,000 people into, out of, and around US Central Command—a 50 percent increase from a few years earlier. Airlift is one tool in the counter-IED strategy that includes aggressive intelligence gathering and preventive operations plus electronic warfare techniques from the air and on vehicles.

Tactical airlift can sustain the force in the way that surface convoys have in the past. The development of the Joint Precision Air-Drop System (JPADS) has given airlifters the same precision that fighters and bombers have with their GPS guided munitions. In 2008, C-17s and C-130s air-dropped more than 16.5 million pounds of supplies to tactical fighting positions in Afghanistan, allowing forces to maintain their presence and readiness. This is a fourfold increase in two years. More importantly, precision airdrops, according to a US Army statement in 2008, “saved soldiers’ lives [by] offsetting ground convoy requirements.”

In addition, air-drop operations can play a vital role in support of the overall strategy in the hybrid campaign. During the winter of 2008-09 in Afghanistan, nearly 40 percent of all airdrops were humanitarian missions—delivering rice, water, firewood, and blankets to isolated villagers. More than just lifesaving materials, the airdrops reinforced the positive image of the government support to the people.

Rapid, assured air mobility is vital to any US campaign in a hybrid warfare contingency. It places the force into the region where needed and when needed while also sustaining a critical lifeline into and out of the theater. Within the theater or country, it reduces the risk to the force while enabling logistical operations in general. Without air mobility, it is difficult to imagine a successful global US campaign.

An E-3 AWACS conducts a mission over South Korea in June. (USAF photo by A1C Chad Warren)

Precision Strike

Hybrid warfare seems tailor-made for close air support—or CAS—operations. As a hybrid campaign often will involve warfare “among the people,” it requires soldiers and marines to operate in, live with, and move fluidly through the populace. This fact often dictates foot patrols to provide presence and to build relationships with businessmen, village leaders, and the people on the street.

For ground forces, conducting these presence missions while operating in armored vehicles or tanks would create an adverse effect—isolating the security force from the people it must protect and reinforcing the outside nature of US forces. While improving the safety of ground forces, operating from inside armored vehicles does not build trust nor fortify the legitimacy of the government. To avoid this perception, US forces are lightly armed as they operate in cities and villages.

Operating in this manner yields the initiative to hybrid adversaries—permitting the belligerents to mass and attack at the time and place of their choosing. Placed quickly on the defensive, US ground forces turn to CAS to neutralize the hostile force. In 2008, the air component in US Central Command flew more than 37,000 CAS missions and expended more than 5,900 munitions.

Airpower’s value for striking enemies, however, cannot be measured by the quantity or tonnage of weapons employed. The presence of aircraft over friendly forces deters hostile action. Army SSgt. Chris Summers in the 101st Airborne Division captured the importance of airpower’s presence when he said: “Airpower plays a vital role in dismounted or mounted maneuvers through hostile areas. When CAS is on station, it greatly reduces the threat. If we do get hit, only a handful [of enemy troops] will be brave enough to fire, knowing [aircraft are overhead].”

From its vertical perch, airpower has a maneuver advantage not available to ground forces. During operations in southern Lebanon, Israeli armor often faced constricted roads and lanes inside the villages. As a result, infantry forces operated without the benefit of reinforcing armor; but CAS aircraft made up the gap—and with often improved effects.

Armed with 20 mm or 30 mm weapons, CAS aircraft can have pinpoint accuracy with low collateral damage. Likewise, the advent of the Small Diameter Bomb, the GBU-39, allows US forces to strike within four feet of a target. If needed, it can hit a room where the hostile forces are, from a vertical or horizontal approach, and with less risk to other occupants in the house. Airpower’s ability to locate and destroy the belligerent’s forces alters the options available to opponents.

A TACP with the 4th Air Support Operations Group Det. 1 uses night vision goggles during a close air support exercise at Kirkuk AB, Iraq. (USAF photo by SSgt. Lee A. Osberry Jr.)

On many occasions in Afghanistan, the hostile forces have transitioned from guerrilla, hit-and-run style attacks to engage in a more conventional fight. In the summer of 2006, Taliban forces attempted to hold ground in an area known as the Pashmul Pocket, 30 miles west of Kandahar. With an extensive trench system and well-developed network of supporting fires, Taliban fighters tried to coordinate fires and counterattack as they lost ground. The coalition force, with superior ISR, command and control networks, mobility, and precision attacks, defeated the Taliban.

Operation Medusa, as the fight in the Pashmul Pocket was called, was not an isolated event. The years 2007 and 2008 would see similar fights stemming from both planned and ad hoc encounters. In 2008, US forces operating in Kunar province stumbled into a pitched battle following an insurgent ambush. The fighting lasted three days and resulted in another defeat for those opposing US and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

In addition to lethal effects, airpower’s precision engagement creates a variety of nonlethal yet beneficial outcomes. One example is how CAS aircraft provide column cover or escort for ground forces as they move. As Summers mentioned, the presence of overhead attack aircraft has a powerful deterrent effect. The aircraft persistence, speed, and survivability enables that effect.

Fifth generation fighters such as the F-22 and F-35 can provide additional, unique capabilities to the hybrid campaign with their nonlethal attributes. These aircraft are more than “stealth” fighters—they can potentially serve as C2, ISR, and electronic attack platforms. US airpower in the early part of the 21st century will be netted—with the F-35 and F-22 serving as key nodes. When not needed for lethal firepower, the F-35’s and F-22’s sensor suites can search and track a variety of surface targets while being controlled from ground locations. Information will flow via the Multifunction Advanced Data Link (MADL), which will connect all stealth assets.

Network Integration

ISR forces teamed with rapid air mobility and precision strike capabilities are only effective if orchestrated and focused in a coherent manner. Such unity of effort is not unique to air operations but necessary for all components for all operations.

The extensive collection of organizations—military and nonmilitary—involved in the hybrid campaign demands their plans and operations be integrated. Given their disparate efforts, this synchronization and collaboration can be daunting; but its demanding nature makes it vital to focus the collective effort.

Airpower can fill this distinct need with extensive experience linking and commanding organizations over great distances. During Operation Enduring Freedom in October 2001, the combined force air component commander (CFACC) provided planning guidance and directed execution for B-2 bombers in the middle of the United States, C-17s and their fighter escorts based in Europe, and carrier-based attack aircraft. This was truly a global effort.

Space-based communications and state-of-the-art information technology and planning tools enable the unity of effort. While all warfighting components rely on these resources, airpower is unique in its daily use of such extended and integrated networks.

The second challenging element of integrating networks is the requirement to unify the diverse partners—air, land, naval, and civic components.

While airpower provides a premier network to unify the joint campaign at the theater level, its resources also provide a means to extend the planning, coordination, and execution for units in the field. Ever since Lt. Gen. Elwood R. Quesada placed pilots with Army tanks to facilitate the breakout from Normandy, air commanders have excelled at working with front-line units in austere conditions.

Today, the tactical air control party continues this legacy. These airmen are now equipped with advanced communication tools: In Iraq and Afghanistan, TACPs have the ROVER, and can send target coordinates and other relevant attack information to aircrews using a situation awareness data link or Link 16 data link.

At the same time, TACPs located in the brigade operations centers have access to additional information via a variety of ground control stations. For example, the Joint STARS common ground station allows those responsible for executing the ongoing operations to see units and forces moving in their area. This information sharing is in addition to the E-8’s ability to send data directly to a number of ground elements such as attack helicopters and command vehicles via Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below and the Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System.

Brig. Gen. H. D. Polumbo Jr., then commander of the 380th Air Expeditionary Wing, brings a U-2 Dragon Lady in for a landing in Southwest Asia. (USAF photo by SrA. Brian J. Ellis)

Given the unpredictable and uncertain nature of the hybrid battlespace, additional tools are needed to gain greater effectiveness and efficiency of US forces. Airpower’s attributes allow it to enhance the campaign with its ability to cover distances and provide airborne communications nodes to unite distributed units and capabilities. One example is Objective Gateway, outfitted on an RQ-4 high-altitude UAV, that will extend the ground communications networks hundreds of miles and over ground obstructions such as high terrain or urban buildings. From its vertical position, Objective Gateway will connect ground forces on opposite sides of a mountain ridge or opposite sides of the country.

Airpower will soon also provide ground units with access to an extensive database of tactical information.

Ground entities can gain access to real-time information via the Heterogeneous Airborne Reconnaissance Team (HART). Also available on a Toughbook portable computer, ground personnel can access instant information from airborne ISR platforms, such as Scan Eagle, Predator, Reaper, MC-12, Hunter, and so forth. Just as important, if a commander prioritizes subordinate units, the higher priority unit can task or request information from the airborne ISR asset to meet its ongoing operations. HART gives ground personnel real-time and seamless situational awareness.

Hybrid operations mark an evolution in warfare. While the environment has changed, and the style of warfare has changed, airpower’s enduring attributes are critical to the hybrid fight. Airpower’s speed, range, flexibility, precision, and persistence enable it to rapidly adjust and adapt to the dynamic environment in which the hybrid belligerent operates.

Michael W. Isherwood, a retired USAF colonel and fighter pilot, is a senior analyst at the Northrop Grumman Analysis Center in Washington, D.C. This is his first article for Air Force Magazine.