Air Power Theory and Force Classification (RCAF Journal - SUMMER 2016 - Volume 5, Issue 3)
By Mathew Preston, BA, MSS
Theories of air power often assume that the force studied is large and capable of strategic mass. The literature is essentially blind to smaller air forces; the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and the Royal Netherlands Air Force mean, essentially, nothing throughout the literature. They are not allowed the funding or manpower to muster numbers large enough to be considered capable of providing a strategic effect, nor do they have capabilities that are purely and inherently strategic (from a traditional standpoint), such as intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or intercontinental bombers like the B-1 or Tu-160. Often, air forces are considered to be either “large,” like the United States Air Force (USAF), or “small.” This definitional habit groups the RCAF and RAAF with air forces far less capable than themselves from a qualitative perspective. This, in turn, limits the strategic consideration given to incredibly modern but quantitatively limited air forces.
Traditional air power theory often focuses on the strategic uses of air power. Strategic bombing has largely characterized this theoretical framework, becoming practical in World War II (WWII) and achieving theoretical perfection with the advent of thermonuclear weapons. Following WWII, a distinction was created between strategic air power and tactical air power. The traditional separation of definitions has created a situation in which smaller air forces are unable to operate across the entire air power spectrum. The focus on large air forces within air power literature creates a theoretical problem, especially when considering air power as employed by the combined services of the United States. If these definitions of air power do not adequately describe the contributions and capabilities of smaller air forces such as the RCAF, then a new understanding within air power theory is required.
A number of theoretical and technological changes have taken place and facilitate the creation of a new classification system that can be used to discuss the application and operation of strategic air power in the modern context.
“For centuries most of the things shot by military men at their enemies have missed their target.” During the Vietnam War, in the air, at least, that reality had changed and was apparent in the minds of military men. Between 14 and 15 May 1972, air power saw a technological feat that would increase its effectiveness more than was ever before thought possible. Fourteen sorties of fighter-bombers managed to destroy two bridges in North Vietnam that had previously seen 871 sorties fail at the cost of 11 aircraft. The F-4 Phantoms were able to succeed where conventional bombers had failed due to the use of laser-guided precision-guided munitions (PGMs), and at $8,000 apiece, the Paveway bombs used were as effective as twenty-five unguided bombs of higher yield and that were more expensive. While there had been variations of weapons with guidance systems since 1943, the 1972 attacks marked the beginning of the modern era of precision weapons. What was especially significant for the current discussion is that while there had been laser-guided systems used in combat before the 1972 bridge raids, this was the first instance of a single fighter-bomber carrying both the bomb and the target marker. A RAND study in 1975 summed up the shift in capability thusly: “tanks may be efficiently hit by RPVs [remotely piloted vehicles] launched from big bombers, ‘tactical’ submarines could send cruise missiles against enemy ICBM silos.” The lines were blurred by PGMs. Therefore, these weapons are an important component to a definition of air power, as they have the “potential to destroy enemy ground forces either on the move or in defensive positions at a high rate while concurrently destroying vital elements of the enemy’s war fighting infrastructure.” They can be wielded to even greater proportional effect by small air forces; logistical chains are smaller and are required to move less, making it easier to get into the field faster.
Air power advocates have long dreamed of a day when the weapon, platform, and willingness to use them properly would come together to make air power a decisive force. Today, those dreams are reality. One need only look back to our raids on Schweinfurt, Germany, in World War II to see how dramatically precision weapons have enhanced our capabilities over the last 50 years. Two raids of 300 B-17 bombers could not achieve with 3,000 bombs what two F-117s can do with only four. Precision weapons have truly given new meaning to the term mass. [emphasis in original]
Even before the Gulf War—the campaign that generated the previous comment—PGMs were understood to be game changing. The aforementioned RAND study noted that “accuracy is no longer a strong function of range … if a target can be acquired … it can usually be hit. For many targets, hitting is equivalent to destroying.” The Gulf War showed that by far the most effective weapons were PGMs, most of those being dropped from fighters or small attack aircraft. The large bombers which made up Strategic Air Command’s forces were relegated to being bomb-trucks for cruise missiles. What this showed is that for the most part, barring payload size limitations, the fighter-bomber, or multirole fighter, is the most effective combat aircraft available to a modern air force. Most applicable to RCAF-sized air forces is that the multirole fighter is the best platform for the modern application of air power. In the era of PGMs, “the best combination is, not surprisingly, the trained operator on a smart platform with smart sensors dispensing a smart weapon.”
Before adding a new structure within the theoretical assumptions of air power, it must be stressed that there is no real distinction between strategic air power and tactical air power—only the reason behind its deployment. As strategist Edward Luttwak attests, “During the last fifty years or so, the habit has developed of applying the adjective ‘strategic’ to long-range forces and weapons, as opposed to ‘tactical’ bombers and missiles.” Adding that, “we obtained this unfortunate terminology from the rhetoric of the early airpower advocates.” To Luttwak, there are levels of weapons usage: tactical, operational and strategic. Weapons are not strategic, only the nature of their employment can be considered strategic. Colin Gray echoes this sentiment, which is simply shown in the title of his book Air Power for Strategic Effect. Air power is strategic when it is used strategically, not because it has certain characteristics in its material make-up. Some observers would note that it is impossible to act strategically without bringing sufficient mass to bear to defeat an enemy. This is a false notion of strategic. If the Trans-Pacific Partnership can be a strategic act (through establishing Western economic norms to Asia before China can implement its own framework), then having a small air force act in a particular way within a coalition can be just as strategic. This is especially true for middle powers, who are largely unable to achieve strategic goals with hard power alone. Instead, military force is deployed in concert with allies to achieve a political end. The goal of the war itself is not the political end, but merely being there to prosecute the war achieves the national policy. Arguably, this is the most relevant to Canadian strategy as well as most nations fielding air forces that would be equivalent in size to the RCAF. Functionalism wins the day.
Small air forces cannot create mass. This, however, does not prevent them from acting strategically. The strategic imperative of tier 2 air forces is, broadly speaking, to a) maintain their alliances (whether that be among a broad alliance or in the Canadian example to maintain the favour of the United States) and/or b) maintain peace, security and humanitarianism in exchange for either international or domestic political capital. In this way, making a meaningful contribution is a strategic imperative. Providing some C-130s to help move munitions does not endear oneself to USAF. Taking full control of a theatre of the airborne battlespace (say, for example, Canada is totally responsible for a specific area of the Libyan airspace) does. And this, in turn, can only be achieved if the tier 2 air force is qualitatively equal to a tier 1 air force. Basically, in order to act strategically, it is not enough to make a contribution; one must make a meaningful contribution.
Bearing this in mind, it can be seen that material defeat of an enemy is not the only—or even central—strategic objective of a small or medium-sized air force. Instead, the strategic goal is the political capital gained by playing an important role in the campaign (which can be actual war fighting, deterrence or simply reassurance). This requires a new way of thinking about air force composition and the employment of air power.
In many ways, this seems self-evident for any middle power, whether employing air, sea or land power. Air power, however, consists of unique characteristics that necessitate definitional refinement when considering its employment by middle powers. Technological developments come about exceptionally fast, and there are few, if any, great power conflicts that allow for real-world testing of tactics and technology. While land power undergoes technological change (and is even less likely than air forces to come into contact with a peer or near-peer competitor), the fundamental tactical employment changes little whether opposing a first-rate squad or an insurgency. With this in mind, the following definition is proposed:
Air power is the ability of an air force to employ its power, both kinetic and non-kinetic—such as search and rescue (SAR); airlift; or command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR)—in a specific area and over a specific amount of time in order to defeat an enemy or achieve a goal. This includes either material or political defeat of an enemy, or an increase in a nation’s standing within an overall power structure.
With this definition, air power can be employed by a broader range of actors and in multiple ways. An attack against the enemy’s army can be strategic or tactical, depending on the method of deployment of the armed forces. If the main use of air power is to destroy the enemy’s tanks, for example, air power is in support of an invading army; thus it is tactical. If, on the other hand, the destruction of the enemy’s tanks brings about the collapse of the enemy’s war effort, such as in Iraq in 1991, then the action is indeed strategic. In this way, aircraft can do the exact same job in both the strategic and tactical realms, showing that air power, while it can be used for strategic ends, is not inherently strategic in any way.
“For air forces, the size of the country’s population is not as vital as its characteristics.” Technology and training are key. This is especially true for air forces that are unable to match the quantity of larger and more affluent states. While technology and training act as force multipliers in all aspects of warfare this is especially true for air power. Technology and training are the first aspects that provide a division between the different types of air forces.
To simply rely upon small and large as distinguishing terms is problematic because use of these terms is dependent upon too many indefinable factors. Reference to small air forces and large air forces is common in the literature, but rarely are these terms clearly defined. If air forces are distinguished by size alone, then the importance of technology, training and favourable geography is lost. Additionally, the split into two broad terms, large or small, leaves air forces like Canada’s in the same category as less technologically and numerically capable air forces from small Caribbean and Baltic nations. Technology and training can be used to distinguish between the types of air forces. As S. A. Mackenzie describes, in one of the few works dedicated to small air forces: “Let it be that a small air force is one that, for some fundamental reason, such as economic, geographic, political or social, will have chosen not to conduct some element or part of the complete air power spectrum.” This definition limits an air force not by size, but by capability, which is a helpful distinction.
A high level of training and technical proficiency are also keys to any able air force. This is illustrated by Colonel John Boyd’s OODA loop. OODA stands for observe, orient, decide and act and is a mental process that is extremely important for pilots. The faster a pilot can complete the thought process, the better they will be, and the pilot who goes through the loop fastest, generally, wins. The better the training, the faster the OODA loop, and the better the air force is, as a sum of its pilots. “Done well, it [the OODA loop] becomes the key to winning … done exceedingly well, it becomes the mark of genius.” Only an air force that dedicates itself to an intensive training regime is able to produce pilots who are among the best in the world. If, using Mackenzie’s logic, air force capability is based on capabilities and not quantity, then one can also include the metric of power-projection capability.
Having been defined, the theoretical understanding of air power can be discussed without the misnomers of large and small. Instead of saying an air force is small or large, it would perhaps be more useful for a discussion on air power to separate air forces into tiers. A tier 1 air force would have to include those of the United States, Russia as well as, while not perfect examples, Britain and France. These air forces do not compromise any capabilities; all have full air-combat capabilities including dedicated air-superiority fighters, fighter-bombers, ground-attack platforms as well as full cruise missile and ICBM capabilities. These states have full capabilities in the non-kinetic means of air power as well, especially airlift, SAR, electronic warfare (EW) and airborne warning and control systems (AWACSs). Additionally, they have access to the highest level of technology and are able to project their power anywhere in the world due to either friendly air bases or naval air power. Technical advancement in the guise of simulators also allows pilots to undergo extensive training. So, the characteristics of a tier 1 air force are: no compromise on the type of capabilities, highest possible level of technology and the ability to project power anywhere in the world. This comes from the idea that the United States—due to its numerous carrier groups, foreign bases and agreements for basing with allied countries—is the most powerful air force numerically, technologically and through its ability to project force worldwide. Since the United States is the most powerful air power in the world, its key characteristics are the best to compare all others to, and its abilities are to be considered top tier.
If, as Mackenzie argues, a small air force naturally compromises some aspect of the air power spectrum for reasons of geography, technology, economics or national character, then the logic can be extended that they also make compromises to the ability to project power. Countries such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and Norway exemplify a tier 2 air force. They do not compromise on kinetic capabilities in their manned platforms, and all operate multirole fighters as their primary combat vehicle. Major compromises occur in the size of their airlift capabilities; lack of dedicated air-to-ground platforms, dedicated interceptor or air-superiority aircraft; and a limited, if not absent, cruise missile or ICBM capability. While some, such as Australia and the Netherlands, are moving towards having naval air capabilities, most are unable to project power in this way, and none can operate in a high-intensity environment, far from home, without substantial help from an ally or allies. The capabilities that these air forces choose to deploy, however, are qualitatively on par with a tier 1 air force. The biggest difference between a tier 1 and tier 2 air force is quantitative, not qualitative. This is partially the result of the effectiveness and relative low cost of PGMs, although other technological and personnel factors are also important. Training is incredibly key in this respect. Only the rich—or incredibly dedicated—countries can afford to run their planes and pilots in real-world training to such an extent as to give them a competitive edge. With the growth of fifth-generation fighter capabilities, technological advancement will also become necessary in the very near future. Additionally, the high level of technology that is afforded to quantitatively small air forces, as the Australian example will show, illustrates the idea that it is no longer technology that separates large air forces from small. To sum up, a tier 2 air force has the following characteristics: qualitative technological parity with tier 1 powers, combat aspects heavily reliant on the multirole fighter, little compromise on capability (largely only in quantitative aspects) and, finally, the limited ability to project air power anywhere, anytime, without the aid of a major ally or coalition of allies.
Finally, a tier 3 air force compromises most air-spectrum capabilities, focusing largely on kinetic capabilities and geared towards operations only within its own region. A tier 3 air force is unable to afford advanced technology, especially in the EW and AWACS spectrum, and is, therefore, severely inhibited in any conflict involving a tier 1 or tier 2 air force. The ability to project power also determines the level at which an air force operates. As mentioned, a tier 3 air force’s level of power projection is relatively poor. While a tier 2 air force can project power anywhere in the world with some help of others (or in some cases with only the need for basing rights and not actual logistics), a tier 3 air force is only able to deploy worldwide if it is completely piggybacking on a larger and more capable air force. Largely, a tier 3 air force is able to operate only within its immediate area. Technologically, they rely heavily on previous-generation fighters and other aircraft, and training is limited due to finances. Due to their technological capabilities, many non-Western or non-industrialized countries have tier 3 air forces.
Since a tier 2 air force would most readily apply in the Canadian context, it is these air forces that will receive the most attention. First, this group’s focus—PGMs, multirole fighters, airlift, and now EW and AWACS capability—has made these air forces more of a tactically orientated group in the traditional sense. The RCAF, in particular, has historically deployed this way. During the early stages of the Cold War, the RCAF Air Division in Europe was first equipped with the F-86 Sabre, an air-superiority fighter, and later with tactically important aircraft, primarily the CF-104 Starfighter. This, along with the CF-5, was acquired primarily for the tactical-strike role in Europe. The big air forces, the United States primarily, would deal with the strategic aspects of air power, specifically bombing Russian facilities behind the lines. Canada, along with the other allied states, focused on this tactical type of air power employment. This has led to tactically orientated doctrines being accepted in these air forces. This can be seen in the procurement of aircraft, especially the primary fighter. When the CF188 was procured, it was largely chosen due to its multirole, tactical capabilities.
In the current era, tier 2 air forces are focusing on high-technology and multimission-capable aircraft. Australia is a perfect example of this. The purchase of EW capable EA-18 Growlers, F-35 fighters and Boeing Wedgetail (a highly capable EW, AWACS and C4ISR aircraft that is considered by many to be better than anything the United States currently deploys) reveals a focus on high technology, multirole and multimission capability, but in small numbers. Additionally, these are all traditionally tactical tools. None are meant to strike at an enemy’s homeland, behind the lines; they are for operational, front-line use.
There is no objective reality concerning strategic air power or tactical air power; air power is only used for tactical or strategic means. PGMs are the main tool of modern air forces and are employed primarily from multirole fighters, meaning the ability of tier 2 air forces to apply air power can be fully evaluated. If, as discerned previously, air power is the ability to act both strategically and tactically, as defined by the commander of the operation or political leaders in a specific area, for a specific amount of time, how do these tier 2 air forces fit within air power theory?
The ability to act both strategically and tactically is largely dependent on the nature of what is meant by strategic. Traditionally, in the air power context, strategic is equated with targeting the enemy’s homeland in order to bring about the collapse of their war efforts. This can be seen in the writings of Douhet, Trenchard and even Warden. As discussed, tier 2 air forces are largely geared towards tactical operations or, at least, what are perceived as tactical operations. With the newfound ability of PGMs to strike smaller targets, there is no need for city bombing. Therefore, there is no need for a dedicated weapons platform for strategic bombing in a high-intensity conflict. Since the multirole fighter is highly capable, especially in the deployment of PGMs, and tier 2 air forces rely heavily on the multirole fighter, then in the arena of bombing, the tier 2 air forces are well positioned for this capability. The multirole fighter’s importance to modern air power, even to a tier 1 air force, can be demonstrated by these air forces shrinking the number of different aircraft that their fleet is made up of as the abilities of the multirole fighter become more apparent. The American replacement for the Harrier, A-10, F-16, F-18 and F-15E by the F-35 shows this as well as the Chinese movement to a two-ship air force (the J-20 for air superiority and J-31 for more strike-orientated missions). Increasingly, one or two highly capable variants of the fighter-bomber or air-superiority fighter are being seen as able to do the majority of the heavy lifting. As this is how most tier 2 air forces are outfitted, it sets them up to be just as capable to deploy air power as a tier 1 force, at least in the immediate area of operations, if not theatre wide.
The notion that it is the commander who decides what is a strategic and what is a tactical deployment in terms of air power is one that is actually harder for a tier 2 air force to work with at a political level, at least as individual actors. As mentioned, tier 2 air forces are rarely, if ever, able to operate in an expeditionary fashion without the aid of allies, largely due to the limits a tier 2 force has in numbers. When deployed overseas, they operate largely as part of a coalition. This means that they are not able to set the strategy of their own campaign. Often they are under the command of another (e.g., a North Atlantic Treaty Organization [NATO] mission commander) where they are unable to determine what application of air power is strategic and what is tactical. For example, the RCAF played a role in the Kosovo air strikes in 1999, but they were only given strike packages, the nature of which were determined by NATO headquarters. Tier 2 air forces are simply being a good soldier and bombing the target. This, however, does help to illustrate the fact that a tier 2 air force is able to act both strategically and tactically.
Finally, the last aspect of air power—the ability to operate in a specific area for a specific period of time—is fully within the realm of the tier 2 air force. Since tier 2 air forces, as described, are largely qualitatively equal to a tier 1, then all that is preventing a tier 2 air force from achieving air supremacy is numbers. The technological ability to suppress enemy air defences, both air and ground based, is one that is becoming increasingly important with tier 2 forces. The Australian example of the F-35, Growler and Wedgetail procurement, all with either a strong stealth and/or EW capability, shows that the ability to suppress highly capable air defences is falling within the reach of tier 2 air forces. This ability allows them to operate in a given area, free from enemy harassment, for a given period of time. This includes the ability to operate for a specific amount of time in a specific area both kinetic air power, such as ground attack or close air support, and non-kinetic air power, such as airlift and SAR. Imagine a bubble of safety around a nation’s air assets in theatre. This is what modern air power represents geographically.
Why create a new definition of air power? And why does this matter, and how can it affect small, yet well-trained and capable, air forces? Air power is by far the most theoretical of the dimensions of war. Because technology changes much faster than the rate at which high-intensity engagements with which to test theories against occurs, it is important to develop theory and doctrine in order to stay up to date in training and ways of thinking. If times they are a-changin’, then so should the way the times are a-thought about.
This is not to say that previous definitions were wrong, or insufficient, or, for that matter, that some things do not stay the same. It is always important to find the enemy’s centre of gravity, for the air campaign as much as for the total war effort. Additionally, while the weapons change, the principles never will. Step one, and always step one, achieve air supremacy, or in a highly equal engagement, air superiority, and then attack the enemy as needed. The end goal of air power will always be to achieve air superiority in a theatre, allowing the free use of air power. The attack on the enemy may be strategic, such as Warden’s concentric circles of prime targets, or tactical, like the attack on Muammar Gaddafi’s armour to protect civilians and aid rebel fighters. Sometimes, the two merge, such as in DESERT STORM and the attack on Republican Guard tanks. Regardless, there will always be targets inherently tactical, inherently strategic and ones that blur the lines. No change in technology will change these realities.
The most important thing that a comprehensive definition of air power does is that it expands the definition’s applicability by making it more specific. It does little for air power theorists to define air power simply as something done from the air. This creates a definition so broad that it makes thinking about the issue too abstract.
Another reason to expand the definition of air power is that most theorists have geared their work towards large, or tier 1, air forces. Giulio Douhet called for Italy to field a force of 20,000 bombers, while John Warden was writing in the American context. By expanding the definition to include a specific place for a specific amount of time, the idea of all places at all times is eliminated, which is a realization that air power is really only achievable by the United States.
Creating a definition and theoretical framework that is as applicable to smaller air forces as it is to large ones provides the ability to both assess the performance of all air forces and recommend suitable procurement, deployment and doctrine moving forward. For example, the idea that a tier 2 air force can be qualitatively as good as a tier 1 is expressed in the new definition, but a tier 2 air force can only properly employ air power if it maintains an array of capabilities. It may compromise some capabilities, but very few if it wants to compete and employ air power successfully. Unlike the trend in smaller armies, to become niche forces in order to better serve coalitions, smaller air forces must maintain a strong all-around capability.
Recently, in the Libyan operation of 2011, Canada showed the importance of a multicapable air force. Due to upgraded systems, the CF188 was one of the most capable multirole fighters in the operation. The newly acquired CC177 Globemasters made it possible for the RCAF to operate independently, albeit from Italian airfields, an act that would have been impossible with only the CC130s that were previously Canada’s only heavy-lift aircraft. The CP140 Auroras that were brought into theatre provided highly capable sensors, and despite their limited number, highly trained Canadian CF188 pilots utilizing the newest technology flew a surprisingly high proportion of the sorties, despite providing only seven fighters. Only a qualitatively equal air force, with many different capabilities, would have been able to perform as well.
Despite the awesome power afforded by air platforms, it is still a relatively young field, which is why there are so many theorists with so many views. It has yet to reach maturity and is constantly changing due to technological advancements, which are much more influential in air power than any other dimension of warfare. Despite this, there is rich scholarship on the issue, both by academics and practitioners of air power. Due to the nature of air power, the plethora of writers and the lack of a real foundational base (like a Clausewitz), it is hard to reach a real consensus on how to define air power, let alone employ it. That should not, however, stop us from trying.
Mathew Preston is a strategic consultant (and owner) at Heartland Strategic based in Calgary. He received his Master of Strategic Studies from the University of Calgary’s Centre for Military and Strategic Studies. He is also a part-time farmer, musician and volunteer firefighter. He tweets @prestonm2 and occasionally blogs for the Canadian Global Affairs Institute’s 3DS Blog.
AWACS―airborne warning and control systems
C4ISR―command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance
ICBM―intercontinental ballistic missiles
NATO―North Atlantic Treaty Organization
OODA―observe, orient, decide and act
RAAF―Royal Australian Air Force
RCAF―Royal Canadian Air Force
SAR―search and rescue
USAF―United States Air Force
WWII―World War II
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