Winds of Change in Tactical Warfare

April 1, 1988

The winds of change—mainly political and budgetary in nature—are vectoring US tactical airpower in new directions at an accelerating rate. A combination of fac­tors ranging from arms-control provisions and pre­cipitous budgetary declines to adjustments in national strategy and revisions of allied relationships points to changes in the force structure of the tactical air forces (TAF5). These findings emerged from AFA’s national symposium “Tactical Air Warfare—Status and Pros­pects,” held January 21-22 in Orlando, Fla.

SHAPE’s Chief of Staff, Gen. Robert H. Reed, told the AFA meeting that the pending INF accord is a pivot­al factor. Because the INF accord eliminates this coun­try’s INFs in tow—from short-range to long-range ver­sions—and thus “puts us back into the situation we had in 1979,” tactical airpower once again becomes the prin­cipal provider of “deliberate nuclear escalation,” one of three pillars supporting the Alliance’s “flexible-response” strategy. Tacair’s tasks associated with the conventional warfare component of NATO’s flexible defense strat­egy—direct forward defense of the Alliance’s territo­ry—remain unchanged, General Reed pointed out. Di­rect defense is the initial phase of flexible response.

The direct defense task—supporting NATO’s ground and naval forces—potentially involves six land and three maritime campaigns in or near different regions of the Alliance and, of and by itself, necessitates major up­grades of US and NATO tactical airpower, he pointed out. Deliberate nuclear escalation interposes a firewall between the possible crumbling of direct defense and general nuclear war, the third element of flexible re­sponse. Deliberate escalation, meaning the selective employment of in-theater nuclear weapons, is intended under NATO’s doctrine to send a “primarily political signal to our enemies of our determination to do what­ever is necessary to defend the integrity of NATO’s territory,” SHAPE’s Chief of Staff underscored.

Three Categories

The first rung of the escalatory ladder is formed by nuclear artillery (with a range of up to twenty kilo­meters) and the twenty-five-year-old, obsolescent Lance short-range nuclear missile with an effective reach of up to seventy-five km. The second component of the “deliberate escalation” deterrent force is fur­nished by both shorter- and longer-range dual-capable aircraft (DCA), in the main F-16s, F-ills, and Tor­nados. The third component of deliberate nuclear esca­lation at present is made up of INFs that, because of their extensive range, “can bring a large target base in the USSR under threat [and thus have] enormous deter­rence value,” General Reed emphasized.

Three types of nuclear weapon systems make up the INF force and are to be eliminated under the INF ac­cord. The first type is the German-operated Pershing IA missiles—whose nuclear warheads are under US con­trol—with a range of some 250 km. The Pershing IAs will be phased out within three years. Because of aging, these missiles would have had to be replaced within five years. The second system covered by the INF Treaty is the extremely potent, 1,800-km-range, US-operated, new Pershing us that can neutralize Warsaw Pact rein­forcements and other targets all the way to Moscow. The equally formidable ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM), which can reach “beyond Moscow,” is the third system slated for removal under the provisions of the INF agreement.

Theoretically, General Reed acknowledged, it is pos­sible to argue that the US has sufficient strategic nuclear forces to make up for any shortfalls in NATO’s theater nuclear forces (INFs) that will result from drawdowns decreed by the INF accord. By extension, General Reed pointed out, it could be argued also that these US deter­rent forces should be based primarily in the CONUS, configured for a “dual-capable” role, and moved to Eu­rope during periods of crisis or tension to serve as a highly visible nuclear deterrent. But there is consensus within NATO that such a scheme would not be credible and, hence, not effective.

“Nuclear burden-sharing” within NATO, he empha­sized, is quintessential for credible deterrence. US will­ingness to use its nuclear forces solely in defense of Europe—”trading, for example, Chicago for Frank­furt”—is not plausible to the Soviets. The considered judgment within the Alliance, therefore, is that a maxi­mum number of European NATO states must share in the nuclear deterrence burden and mission. At present, he explained, eight NATO nations share in this task. But once the GLCMs and Pershings are scuttled, that number drops to only two, the US and Britain.

Because the INF Treaty shifts the bulk of the theater nuclear deterrence role to tactical airpower, the resulting central modernization requirement is for a “tactical air-­to-surface standoff missile [TASM] with a range of be­tween 250 km and 400 km to allow us to broaden the target base that we could bring under threat,” General Reed continued. Such a TASM, he explained, would not only compensate for some of the lost range and capabili­ties incurred with the demise of the INFs but also—by dint of its nuclear standoff capability—”help work the penetration problem for tacair.” TASM, he emphasized, ought to be an air-to-surface weapon that can be put on F-16s, F-111s, Tornados, and, when operational, F-l5Es.

The European NATO nations, General Reed told the AFA meeting, “have indicated that they would support and buy such a system—but it is essential that the US take the lead” in the design and production of such a weapon. SHAPE’s position on TASM, General Reed elaborated, is that the missile must be cost-effective, preferably should have a range of 400 km but definitely not less than 250 km, and ought to be operationally available “as soon as the GLCMs and Pershings leave.” Stressing that SHAPE by no means wants “to tell USAF how to build it,” General Reed acknowledged, however, that a version of SRAM II, dubbed SRAM IV, is seen within NATO as a candidate for the TASM role.

“In the current budget environment . . . adapting SRAM II [rather than starting a new design at high cost and with a development time of about fifteen years] makes sense economically.” He hinted that Britain might want to participate with the US in the develop­ment of a SRAM-derived TASM. While agreeing that under certain circumstances air- and sea-launched cruise missiles could serve as a backup for TASM or be configured as conventionally armed standoff weapons, SHAPE’s Chief of Staff suggested that any cruise mis­siles with a range greater than 500 km might not be compatible with the provisions of the INF Treaty. That would be especially true if such cruise missiles were to be based in Europe.

Filling the INF Void

Another aspect of tactical airpower deserves immedi­ate attention and could compensate for the loss in deter­rent capabilities resulting from the scrapping of the INFs, according to General Reed—the longer-range component of USAF’s European tacair assets, which must be beefed up rapidly and broadly. One way of accomplishing this end, he pointed out, would be “in­creased deployments [of F-1 11 aircraft] from the US.”

Another pressing modernization requirement that flows from the INF Treaty’s provisions involves NATO’s short-range nuclear forces. NATO’s sole short-range nuclear missile, the Lance, General Reed said, was first fielded in Europe in 1963 and “will become totally ob­solete by about 1993.” He conceded, however, that re­placing the Lance could entail political agonies in Eu­rope akin to those encountered when the GLCMs and Pershing us were fielded several years ago. Ideally, the Lance replacement system should have a range of be­tween 250 km and 400 km.

In pegging basic NATO counterair requirements over the next two decades, a number of Western misconceptions and some deliberate obfuscations floated by the Soviets need to be cleared up, according to SHAPE’s Chief of Staff. He placed under the rubric of “dubious assumptions” the US “Counter-Air 90” study’s cate­goric contention that, in the future, tacair would neither be survivable nor be able to penetrate and that the Warsaw Pact almost certainly would put NATO’s air­fields out of commission. Counter-Air 90’s nostrum, therefore, became the ballistic missile, which was touted as the central force structure requirement. These theater ballistic missiles, the study postulated, would be used at the outset of a conflict to devastate Warsaw Pact airfields. Once the airfields were put out of commission, fixed-wing aircraft from the US and elsewhere would be brought in from outside the European theater. This ten­uous scenario obviously skews NATO’s real force struc­ture requirements in the counterair sector, General Reed pointed out.

Building on persistent, nagging questions about offen­sive counterair vs. defensive counterair issues, the Sovi­ets are now offering to trade some of their tank forces for a cut in NATO’s “offensive” fighter force, meaning mainly US fighters. The catch, General Reed stressed, is that the equation supporting this offer ignores the fact that 1,715 Soviet aircraft portrayed as defense intercep­tors are in fact dual-role aircraft equipped also to per­form offensive air-to-ground missions.

Dispelling the notion in vogue with US “think tanks” that NATO has overstated the Soviet threat in Europe, especially in terms of tacair, General Reed reported that SHAPE’s analyses show that a state of approximate parity exists in the NATO vs. Warsaw Pact aircraft force balance. When “in-place” forces along with reinforce­ments and strategic reserves on both sides are counted, the overall fixed-wing aircraft balance shows a ratio of 1.2 Warsaw Pact aircraft for every NATO aircraft. On the other hand, the ratio of multirole ground-attack fight­ers (FTR GA/MR) is 1.13:1 in favor of NATO.

Based on these factors in combination with NATO’s agreed-on threat projections and modernization require­ments, SHAPE recently completed a two-band study of Allied Command Europe’s (ACE) air force structure requirements, with emphasis on counterair capability, projected out to the year 2005, General Reed told the AFA meeting. The study covered a range of capabilities and specified recommended force levels to be in place by 2005.

While the specific cost and force level figures are classified, General Reed was able to cite relative per­centage values. In the more moderate “base case,” the recommended growth over already programmed 1995 force levels comes to thirteen percent in air-to-ground and five percent in air-to-air capability. Corresponding boosts in multirole capability are pegged at eight per­cent, in EW at twenty-two percent, and in drones (main­ly radar attack drones, of which 400 are expected to be in NATO’s 1995 inventory) at ten percent. The number of medium-range SAMs is to go up by fifteen percent, SHORAD air base defenses by eighteen percent, and airfield damage-repair capabilities are to be doubled at forty-four bases by 2005, according to the NATO “base case” recommendation.

The Alliance, in principle, has “signed off’ on this force structure plan for 2005, General Reed reported. It is “less certain” that the Alliance will approve the more ambitious “growth case” recommended and deemed es­sential by twenty-five ranking NATO military experts. These recommendations are more ambitious, calling, for instance, for boosts in air-to-ground capability as well as in multirole force levels of twenty-five percent and in air-to-air and EW capability of about seventy percent.

The More-for-Less Dilemma

After declines in the US defense budgets over the past two years, the most optimistic, authoritative forecasts about the outyears through FY ’94 are “for no more than two percent real growth per year,” AFSC Commander Gen. Bernard P. Randolph told the AFA symposium.

The Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar Sys­tem, or Joint STARS—a “revolutionary system that will be the TAFs’ AWACS for the ground war” and a weapon that General Reed and other symposium speakers iden­tified as imperative for enhancing NATO’s tactical war­fare capabilities—typifies AFSC’s current budget plight, according to General Randolph. Even though Congress over the past two years took some $100 million out of Joint STARS, AFSC is expected to maintain the original schedule. Joint STARS’s purpose, he explained, is to look “day or night and in weather beyond the forward line of troops deep into enemy territory, detect­ing, locating, tracking, and classifying tanks, trucks, and other slow-moving targets. With that data, the right Army or Air Force weapon can be applied.”

First flight of the Joint STARS platform, a heavily modified Boeing 707, or EC-18C, is now scheduled for this spring and confined to safety-of-flight and antenna tests. The funding cuts sustained by the program made it impossible to provide the test vehicle with full-up sys­tems capabilities, he added. Joint STARS’s operational testing, meant to “get the bugs out and prove operational value for the user before production,” is to get under way in Europe in FY ’90. While the original schedule called for start of production in FY ’91, the AFSC Commander said that this goal probably would not be met. Early next year, the Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) is to review the program in terms of schedule and available funds, he reported.

The biggest challenge AFSC faces in Joint STARS’s development involves the software associated with the system’s twenty-seven major processors. This repre­sents some 500,000 lines of code, “most of it new.” The system’s software function is to “draw the targets out of the clutter and display them in usable form, [which turned out to be a job tougher than we thought], but certainly doable,” commented Lt. Gen. Melvin F. Chubb, Jr., the Commander of AFSC’s Electronic Sys­tems Division. He added that “it’s going to take us one year longer to get the software done, [but] I guarantee we will get it done. It’s going to be one of the greatest weapon systems we ever had.”

The first Joint STARS aircraft is at a contractor’s facility in Florida, and “we have . . . the software to lay out all of Florida and a good part of Europe,” the ESD Commander reported. The key hardware challenge as­sociated with the Joint STARS program, he said, is the system’s twenty-foot-long antenna, which is “crammed full of electronics [that in practical terms represents] roughly 400 little radars. That’s tough to build, and it’s going to be even tougher to test.” Building the Joint STARS antenna is “at least ten times more difficult than building the AWACS antenna, [because the former needs] to cover roughly a corps area in very rapid sweeps.”

AWACS Upgrades

One of ESD’s and AFSC’s most extensive and impor­tant upgrade programs in support of tactical airpower requirements is AWACS. With sixty-eight AWACS E-3s on or approaching operational status—and a strong po­tential that this number may reach 100 units—this sys­tem has “become a winner all over the world,” General Chubb pointed out. General Randolph added that USAF operates thirty-three E-3s, NATO eighteen, Saudi Ara­bia five, France is buying at least three, Britain at least seven, and “Italy, Japan, and others are interested.” The central challenge confronting the Air Force, the AFSC Commander pointed out, “is to keep the system viable into the twenty-first century.” This, in turn, mainly means improving AWACS’s jam resistance and its ability to cope with cruise missiles and other low-radar-cross­-section stealthy targets.

Two major E-3 upgrade programs are key here, he explained. One is known as the Integration Contract, or ICON, which adds Navstar GPS (global positioning sys­tem) capabilities, memory upgrades, and JTIDS (Joint Tactical Information Distribution System) Class 2H ter­minals as well as—possibly most important—electronic support measures (ESM).

He added that the US and NATO have signed a joint development contract that allows AFSC to spread devel­opment across a larger fleet size and gives a “big boost to interoperability.” Discussing part of the E-3’s memory upgrade, General Chubb told the AFA meeting, “We are going toward [magnetic] bubble [technologies] and other advanced processing [to] increase computational power at least tenfold.”

The second set of upgrades is known as RSIP, for radar sensitivity improvement program. RSIP, which should be ready for production in FY ’91, “will preserve our capability to detect increasingly small targets far enough out to effectively engage them. This is vital, as cruise missiles are becoming more and more of an is­sue.” Soviet low-observable systems, General Chubb elaborated, are rapidly “going down” in size, and the US has to “step up to this challenge.”

He added confidently that the AWACS upgrades “will see low observables . . . at least until the year 2000.” The Air Force, he pointed out, is looking at this chal­lenge “not just in terms of radars but lots of other things.” He mentioned bistatic radars in this context as long-term, billion-dollar solutions. The idea is to “illu­minate targets from space or aircraft and bistatically [with the radar’s receiver on a different platform from that of the transmitter] pick up those signals. This opens up new vistas.”

Another way of coping with stealthy targets, the ESD Commander said, is by means of advanced IR cameras employing staring arrays of some 100,000 elements. These devices, he explained, can see the skin and en­gines of B-52s through “pouring rain” or the separation of a Titan 34D booster system under any weather condi­tion. Representing a “thousandfold improvement” over such existing scanning IR systems as LANTIRN, these new devices “are not only cheap but can look right through smoke and see a tank, aircraft, etc.” This capa­bility, combined “with radar, makes obvious what we can do with small targets and low observables regardless of what domain the low-observable [target] is in.”

These advances, in turn, “get us ready for ‘smart skins,’ [some of which] we have already built. . . to look at stealthy targets. We now can detect and track birds, [a capability that] is in the stealth realm.” The big question about AWACS, General Chubb pointed out, hinges on one of two choices: either complying with one school of thought that recommends going to entirely new ap­proaches involving bistatic radars—”and here you are talking about a $10 billion kind of program—or to im­prove AWACS incrementally.” The tactical air forces have opted for the latter approach, he added.

Stepped-up Concern With Standoff

Tacair’s principal battlefield task is to deliver fire­power. But as General Randolph pointed out, increased standoff and true launch-and-leave capabilities will be indispensable for “future [USAF] fighter pilots to fight and win outnumbered.” The Soviets, he warned, have fielded more than 10,000 air-surveillance radars “within and beyond [their] borders [along with] 4,800 tactical surface-to-air missile [SAM] launchers—not including handheld—and 12,500 antiaircraft pieces.” One of the Air Force’s major tactical standoff systems, the AGM-130, is in jeopardy because of the program’s “snake-bit” development, the AFSC Commander re­ported.

The AGM-130–a GBU-15 whose low-altitude range is tripled with the addition of a rocket motor and modi­fied guidance system—is “needed badly” by the tactical air forces, but because of initially poor test performance “has not exactly inspired confidence among decision-makers. . . . The program is on the chopping block.” Ironically, a recent test came off flawlessly, contributing to AFSC’s conviction that “we have turned the corner after a year and a half of unsuccessful tests.”

AFSC could deliver the first AGM-130 to TAC by the early 1990s if production money for the FY ’88-94 peri­od is forthcoming. The 2,000-pound-warhead AGM-130, General Randolph pointed out, is “one-half the cost of alternate weapons. Nothing else can kill hard targets with single-shot precision.”

The AFSC Commander also reported that “Have Nap, also known as Popeye, an Israeli TV-guided long-range standoff missile, [has been] tested on B-52s for SAC, and over the next year, we will test it on the F- ill for TAC.” Israel’s Rafael is the prime contractor, with Martin Marietta the potential US coproduction source. The weapon’s first two tests on B-52s suggest “low maintenance requirements and very high availability, [making it SAC’s] weapon of choice to meet near-term standoff requirements,” according to General Ran­dolph.

But there is a down side: Because of Have Nap’s small warhead-720 pounds—”it is only capable against rela­tively soft targets.” He added that “the jury will be out for some time on Have Nap vs. the AGM-130 and the Navy’s SLAM.”

Over the longer term, the Air Force is embarking on a seven-nation development effort involving modular standoff weapons (MSOWs) that, depending on module matching, could provide maximum ranges as short as twenty to thirty miles and as long as 300 miles, General Randolph told the AFA meeting. The MSOW program is in source selection, with full-scale development pre­dicted for FY ’92.

Four Advanced Concepts for Standoff

The Air Force is working on yet another generation of standoff weapons, “true launch-and-leave weapons for the twenty-first century, called brilliant, autonomously guided munitions,” according to the AFSC Commander. In this context, AFSC is exploring four brilliant muni­tions concepts for TAC as part of the so-called balanced technology initiative (BTI), which involves “dollars set aside by Congress as seed money to finance new tech­nologies with the promise of leapfrogging recent Soviet advances in defensive capabilities.” He added wryly that Congress cut the Pentagon’s FY ’88 BTI request from $300 million to $100 million.

One of the four concepts, labeled AGW, for autono­mous guided weapon, is meant to guide a Mk 84 warhead against high-value, fixed targets by means of an imaging infrared seeker. Initial tests have shown that “the seeker works very well in finding and tracking such prebriefed targets” as bridges, powerplants, or runways, even un­der adverse weather conditions, General Randolph re­ported.

Another concept, the Millimeter Wave Weapon, in­volves a standoff technology that relies on an autono­mous, lock-on-after-launch feature to allow attack of mobile air defense targets. Maverick missiles guided by millimeter wave sensors underlie this approach, accord­ing to the AFSC Commander.

Even more ambitious brilliant standoff technologies are being pursued by AFSC under the headings of tac­tical Laser Radar (LADAR) and Advanced Synthetic Aperture Radar Guidance (ASARG), respectively. LADAR builds on the successes the Air Force reaped with two-dimensional imaging infrared seekers by adding a third dimension—range—to achieve complete 3-D imagery. LADAR, General Randolph reported, “has done well in picking tactical targets out of clutter because of outstanding resolution.” LADAR, he added, is also being looked at by AFSC to provide midcourse navigation, terrain-following, and obstacle avoidance—in addition to the precision terminal homing function—for the cruise missile advanced guidance project.

The fourth concept, ASARG, is meant to overcome limitations in terms of acquisition-range and adverse-weather performance that afflict even the best existing passive and active IR systems. ASARG will provide “an all-weather imaging capability with high-resolution mi­crowave or millimeter wave radar images,” according to General Randolph.

Clutched In on ATA and ATF

The Air Force position “is that ATA [the Advanced Tactical Aircraft, now designated A-12 and under devel­opment by the US Navy as the lead agency] is something we are going to buy.” AFSC, he stressed, is “plugged into the ATA system program office in a big way.”

Concomitantly, the Navy is working very closely with the Air Force on the latter’s ATF (Advanced Tactical Fighter) program. The Navy funded studies involving the ATF contractors that “have clearly shown that there are no impediments in the current design of ATF that might stop its adaptation to the carrier role,” he dis­closed.

The Navy has so certified to the Secretary of Defense, who in turn will so certify to Congress.

The ATA and ATF, he stressed, are two very different aircraft with two very different missions; ATF is an air-superiority fighter, and ATA is an air-to-surface attack aircraft. The Air Force leadership has informed the ATF contractors that—budget cuts notwithstanding—”we are sticking with the ATF schedule and funding to the best of the Air Force’s ability. We intend to continue this program, we need ATF, and we will keep our commit­ment with industry.”

Edgar Ulsamer, a longtime Senior Editor of this magazine, retired last summer, but still keeps close tabs on aerospace issues.