Strengthening the intellectual foundation for our profession of arms.

Future Thinking – Attrition and the Next Air Defence Battle

September 14th, 2016 by Mike Squire

Soldier Launches a Switchblade; a Back-packable Precision Strike UAV. Courtesy of AeroVironment.

Soldier Launches a Switchblade; a Back-packable Precision Strike UAV. Courtesy of AeroVironment.

The forces that we prepare today will be the forces that we take into the battle tomorrow. For the Air Defence capability, that battle may last a matter of seconds; however, the effect of that first battle may be decisive in the outcome of the war. As a simple risk mitigation activity, this would surely lead us to consider the necessity of those forces being as well prepared for that eventuality as possible. To prepare for that battle, we would also want to predict how we need to fight to win. What will the battle look like for the new generation of Air Defence Commanders?

Let us define the challenge as objectively as we can: we need to find something which is employed in the airspace environment. We need to identify that something. Whatever effect that something was trying to create, we need the result to be favourable for us and our force. We need to control our resources efficiently, without impeding the combined arms battle and while conforming to the integrated air defence battle. We need to survive the fight, and help the rest of the force to do the same.

For the context of the next fight, we know there are a lot of varied threats in the conventional (and potentially unconventional) battlespace. Rockets. Cruise Missiles. Helicopters. Micro unmanned aerial systems (UAS). 5th Generation fighters. Ballistic Missiles. Suicide UAS. Mortars. If we listed them all, we could have well over 25 categories of threat; some possessed only by world super powers, others owned by anyone with a credit card. Initially, this array of threats may appear as an overwhelming problem. It is not. What is important to recognise is not the problem itself but the change in the character of our fight: our battle will evolve to become a battle of attrition, necessitating the employment of layered systems of effectors (kinetic and electro-magnetic) and layered systems of sensors (the vast majority being passive), supported by an adaptive and robust command and logistic network.

A Philosophy of an Air Defence Battlespace

Let me explain my philosophy behind our battlespace more clearly: if something moves, emits, is non-conformal or disrupts emission paths, it will be detected. There is no such thing as absolute stealth; something may have a very low radar cross section or trail, depending on its aspect, but there is always a way to detect it. The new generation of Air defenders will be able to detect anything, at long range, without relying on optical acquisition or the radiation of sensors. If we radiate, we will be detected. Fortunately, we no longer need to radiate. Advanced processing and multi-static technologies will change our sensor battles for the better; this is a significant change, giving us an opportunity for wresting the initiative. Conceptually, it will be possible to exploit the entire force as a synthetic aperture; every antenna on every vehicle has the potential to become a passive sensor, contributing towards a collection effect.

Identifying something can be achieved via several methods: positive identification (visual, aural, IFF), procedural (airspace control measures) and non-cooperative recognition. With regards to the latter method, emerging technologies in optics, as well as processors, will allow this to be conducted on a more prodigious scale and with more accurate results. This is important, if we consider one possible situation: our battlespace becomes saturated with numerous UAS: many serving as decoys and suicide systems, others serving as ISR platforms, others supporting weapon systems and others transporting cargo and personnel. In this scenario, it is likely that the UAS threat which we will face will possess the same radar cross section as a plastic toothpick; this will reduce the timeliness of our identification, leading us towards networks of passive sensor arrays in-depth. Interpreting whether a UAS swarm is performing a feint or a main attack will be almost impossible. It will be difficult to mitigate or accept such a risk. As a result, it is likely that all targets will need to be neutralised. Therefore, we will need to employ an effector with suitable range, suitable effect, efficiency and accuracy to neutralise as many threats as is reasonable.

Video Link: Click here to watch an F16 Fire a drone from its flare dispenser.

Video Link: Click here to watch an F16 Fire a drone from its flare dispenser.

Effecting the Threat: Options and Challenges

Selecting capable effectors is a difficult proposition. The scenario I outline above may trend us towards electro-magnetic radiation as the ‘effector of choice’, but this type of system may become vulnerable to counter measures such as inertial guidance , cooperative swarm guidance (requiring burn through by the effector) and home-on-jam, but to name a few. A missile, while having the range, accuracy and effect, is not necessarily an efficient effector. A gun system, while efficient, accurate and effective, does not necessarily have the range of other effectors. A defensive counter-air UAS, while flexible, accurate and effective, may be expensive and vulnerable to jamming. Directed energy weapons, while possessing significant potential, will require heavy power-supply systems and may require dwell-time on target. No one system if likely to provide a silver bullet. Therefore, I foresee a requirement for layered effectors, especially gun, missile and jamming systems. Conceptually, it may again be possible to exploit the wider force in a cooperative manner; every remote weapon station may have the potential to be cued, slewed and fired into an engagement area, synthetically expanding the counter-air effect dramatically. Clearly, with such a cooperative capability, comes significant risks and considerations, such as permissions/authority, awareness, accuracy, safety and the element of surprise; but, conceptually, it is an attractive proposition.

There will be two significant challenges which I foresee for the future Air Defence force, in the execution of their task: command and control (C2), and logistics. Because of the need to remain undetected, we will either need to constantly move (and not be targetable) or, more likely, rarely move and rarely emit (remaining as inconspicuous as possible). It should be taken as certain that we will be the target of suppression efforts: radar jamming, signals jamming, indirect fire, gas, smoke, directed energy, decoys, suicide UAS, disruptive information and raids. While unappealing to do so (because of the want to remain passive), our force will still need to share the common situational awareness and control our fight. To that end, our C2 relationships and C4I will need to remain flexible and possess significant redundancy. Every commander at every level will need to understand the battle, understand the plan and have the ability to either take command or execute independent action. Our ability to reorganise C2 relationships dynamically will be critical. We must not be afraid to shoot first; we cannot risk failure through hesitation. To that end, our higher command will need to be comfortable with the concept of UAS fratricide and ensure that we are provided with robust Rules of Engagement (RoE) and control measures – engagement zones will need to be ‘engagement permissive’ and ‘transit restrictive’. Destroying every threat in a UAS swarm will be resource intensive; weapons, sensors and munitions will require a significant saturation of mass on the battlefield and an equally significant logistic trail. Make no mistakes, the fight with UAS will evolve into pure attrition battles. If the UAS win, the enemy will have air control for subsequent strike efforts. Once a gap is created in the defence, strike assets will be able to pour through and affect the deep battle decisively. Therefore, we cannot afford to fail: mass firepower and logistics win wars of attrition. Without the mass firepower and logistics, a small professional army is a defeated professional army.

Missile systems will not be confined to the counter-air role; they will perform multi-mission roles, including (but not limited to) surface strike and anti-shipping. In this sense, let us conjure the analogy of a medieval long-bow archer sat behind a defensive barrier of shields and pikes; every target on the battlefield is a potential kill, but the defensive position must hold firm, the arrows must be plentiful, the targets must be detected and the weight of fire must be heavy and at range. Our effectors may fire deep into the operational battlespace. This may lead us towards Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) roles, shaping the enemy towards more favourable engagement areas for Air Force, Navy or Coalition assets. Equally, we may be employed in massed fire support roles to enable manoeuvre. Regardless, the same principles of attrition warfare will apply to our shaping or fire support role, at the tactical level. In these roles, we may be asked to conduct independent operations. We may be positioned on an island. We may be positioned on a merchant ship. We may be positioned on a high rise building. Regardless of these potential environments and roles, I believe that our absolute focus must never shift from primarily training for the combined arms battle, in a joint and combined force; any task other than that will become a naturally easier experience.

Possible air defence emplacements in the South China Seas. Via

Possible air defence emplacements in the South China Seas. Via

Reflections on History: The Battle of Maleme Airfield

I will leave you with a reflection on history: one of the heaviest and bloodiest Air Defence battles in history was conducted by Australian Air Defenders, in the Battle for the Maleme Airfield in 1941. For those men, it was their very first battle. They had never seen a shot fired in anger and the capability had not been employed widely for over two decades. The idea of enemy forces employing parachute or glider forces on a large scale would have been considered improbable for planners of the day. For many of the other forces in the Australian Imperial Force at that time, they probably would have wondered as to the utility of an Air Defence unit in combat. They also would have relegated the priority of the Air Defence resources and logistics as low. However, the minute the Germans started bombing and assaulting Crete, I imagine that perspective changed quickly. Those Air Defenders had only one chance to prove their proficiency, and there was no second chance to get the battle plan, the equipment, the training, the resources or the logistics right. When the sky was eclipsed by German aircraft, their true mettle and true ability was tested but the outcome largely depended on their available firepower, their command and control, and their logistics. Therefore, learning from this history, we must consider what our next Air Defence battle will look like and realise just how important it is to invest in our capability right now: train, plan, innovate, promote, read, test, adapt. Do everything possible.

Questions for Consideration:

– What might an all-corps AD solution look like for the Australian Army?
– How could hyper-sonic threats be employed for penetration of the defence?
– What does artillery logistics look like in a modern attritional battle?

Recommended further research (Google is your friend):
• Battle of the Bekah Valley: Drones deceive SA-6
• Task Force Normandy: Helicopters infiltrate Iraqi Radar positions
• The Georgian Conflict: Independent Buk tactics destroy Su-24s
• The Former Yugoslavia: Innovative SA-2 tactics destroy Stealth Fighter
• Multi-Static Radar Systems
• Spectral and temporal imaging arrays
• Counter Rocket Artillery Mortar intercept • Multi-Mission Launchers • Electronically Scanned Phased Arrays
• Directed Energy Weapons
• Swarm Tactics UAS
• Maleme Airfield, Crete, 2/3rd LAA Regt
• Anti-Access/Area Denial
• Harpee and Switchblade UAS

About the author

Major Mike Squire is an Australian artillery officer who has experience with a variety of air defence and counter-fire systems, in numerous command and instructional positions. He has deployed on several operations. He is currently a student at the Australian Defence College.

Image from “A Glimpse Into China’s Military Presence in the South China Sea” is republished with permission of Stratfor.


Grounded Curiosity is a platform to spark debate, focused on junior commanders. The views expressed do not reflect any official position or that of any of the author’s employers – see more here.

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2 Comments on "Future Thinking – Attrition and the Next Air Defence Battle"

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Mark Montague
Re: The second question, how hypersonic threats could be used to penetrate the defence. Hyper-sonic threats have the potential to bypass the defence entirely, indeed this was the premise behind an hypersonic aircraft called the X-20 Dyna-Soar developed by the USAF in the 1950’s. Among many attributes it could ‘skip-glide’, bouncing off the atmosphere from orbit like a stone to get anywhere on the planet. The Dyna-Soar could then, by changing its angle of attack, dip lower into the atmosphere to drop bombs or launch a missile. Anywhere. A system like the Dyna-Soar (especially if autonomous) could theoretically be launched… Read more »
Chris Bulow

Also regarding the hypersonic issue. Its not just a threat. Its a massive opportunity. Australia is a world leader in hypersonic research contributing heavily to both the HiFIRE program (testing flight mechanics, materials and instrumentation required for hypersonic flight) as well as the SCRAMSPACE program (development of air breathing hypersonic propulsion systems). E.g. UQ in Brisbane achieved hypersonic propulsion in a lab test before NASA was able to.