The war in Ukraine signals a return, with a vengeance, of the hider-finder game of air warfare, both for airspace superiority and to exploit the air for battlespace effects. Against what appeared at the onset to be a resurgent great power seeking to overwhelm a significantly weaker neighbor, Ukraine has relied on airpower, modern system tactics and training, and passion to at least level the playing field against the Russian onslaught to enable them to readily evade (‘hide’) from conventional force attacks and Russian air defense sensors while more efficiently finding conventional military targets. Though the war is far from over, it has already yielded numerous lessons that airpower advocates and joint-minded leaders should apply to other conflicts. Counter-land drone tactics and greater reliance on coordinated fires from multiple domains suggest that significant challenges are ahead for military operations. Long-simmering US doctrinal feuds that the US military has largely sidelined during the war on terrorism need to be directly addressed now in order to anticipate the future battlespace.
Drone paths diverge
The US Air Force’s precision-targeting model posits that airpower is a game-changer in war because it can bypass fielded forces and directly attack an adversary’s “vital centers,” in some cases by “cutting off the head of the snake” through targeting an enemy’s leadership. US drone operations have been guided by this model of targeting, as medium-altitude, long-endurance drones with precision munitions and reachback intelligence have provided a capability almost uniquely suited to the US military and its strategy in the war on terrorism.
Other states have attempted to emulate this model, in most cases with untested results outside US coalition efforts. In Iraq, the US military’s attempt to build a drone fleet capable of taking over coalition intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions ended largely in failure. International regimes such as the Missile Technology Control Regime have historically limited the capabilities that the United States could apply to the war in Iraq, and what could be transferred could never be used effectively. Though early fears of drone diffusion focused on the US model becoming widespread and human targeting becoming more normalized, in practice few nations have adopted the US model for strategic airpower. Instead, most nations practice a more operational-level air-support-to-land operations model, for which a wholly different construct of drone warfare is emerging.
Drones in Ukraine exemplify this second model of air support to ground operations as a deep fight strike asset targeting tank columns, troop formations, and other military assets beyond the reach and visual range of ground forces. This builds on lessons learned from the 2020 Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, where the TB2 and other systems significantly shifted the balance of power in what had, to that point, been an indecisive conflict played out in several acts. Today these drones are increasingly backed by networked systems for resilience and battlefield capabilities, but their targets remain traditional military targets (equipment and formations) rather than precise leadership targets requiring an elaborate find-fix-finish engagement process.
The hider-finder game accelerates
Drones, loitering munitions, and long-range rocket-propelled artillery have proven invaluable in aiding the Ukrainian military in prosecuting the war against the vastly larger Russian military. Ukraine is effectively exploiting the seam between traditional “fast-mover” manned airpower and land-domain assets—slower, lower-altitude and short-range air assets such as helicopters. These weapons are potent operational force multipliers for modern militaries, and even for adaptive small units, from conventional military forces to terrorist entities. This seam is most likely a fleeting opportunity, as Russian counter-unmanned aerial system (UAS) capabilities have expanded and degraded the effectiveness of Ukrainian drones during the conflict.
Innovation, and war, begets counter innovation. This pattern has dominated air warfare from its inception. The bomber will always get through, until it is thwarted by radar and surface-to-air missiles. Stealth beats radar, so concealment and dispersal of targets, increased standoff missile ranges, and exploration of future counter stealth detection offsets fifth-generation advantages. Contrary to some early claims, Ukraine and other recent conflicts continue to demonstrate that the revolutionary potential of many of these technologies has been exaggerated. Rather than a situation where airpower dominates the deep fight, the friction of war at the airland seam has grown, even though the seam itself may be disappearing with new technology.
The fire support coordination line (FSCL) gets blurrier
For much of the Cold War and through the 1991 Gulf War, US soldiers and airmen faced sharp divisions over the meaning and interpretation of the FSCL. For airmen it was a demarcation line dividing areas of operations (AO) between air force targeting and army artillery targeting. The air component-controlled air interdiction and strategic attack, the land component controlled close air support, and the FSCL was the planning line that divided the air and land. For soldiers it merely represented the range of artillery and the limit of their internal fires deconfliction.
To a degree, the US Air Force and Army overcame doctrinal disagreements in the 1990s, with the Army recognizing that “deep battle” is not simply support for the close fight and the Air Force increasing its focus on air interdiction, but soldiers and airmen still retain different attitudes about this doctrinal shift. Many airmen saw the Army yielding to the Air Force vision in the 1990s, with the Air Force solely conceding the line did not explicitly serve as an AO boundary, but rather a measure to “facilitate the expeditious engagement of targets of opportunity beyond the coordinating measure.” A truce between the Army and Air Force over this issue has lasted largely because US operations since 1991 have largely occurred where only a close fight dynamic was required for counterinsurgency, leaving the Joint Task Force’s fire control element to manage virtually all targeting.
This works in conflicts largely without an FSCL, but in future fights the Air Force’s desire to be the central coordinating agent for the deep fight may reignite the 1990s’ debates. Even in the early transition to large-scale land occupation of Afghanistan in 2002, sharp divisions between the air and land components of the US military over planning and execution were abundant. The growth of multiservice drones, missiles, and rocket-propelled artillery, the historic pressure of ground commanders to extend the FSCL, and Air Force leaders’ contention that they can more efficiently and more economically execute long-range precision-strike missions than other components of the US military, are likely to pose challenges to future operations. A new force-employment model for the deep fight, beyond basic coordination measures between air and land/maritime components—one that accounts for drones, missiles, and rockets that fall in the seam of classic airland operations—should be a priority for Joint Doctrine moving forward.
The US Air Force prides itself in the knowledge that no US soldier has been lost to an enemy air attack since April 15, 1953. But in the era of small, low-altitude drones and increasingly potent standoff missiles and rockets, how relevant might that fact be in the future, and who ultimately bears responsibility for protecting ground forces from such threats? If the war in Ukraine thus far teaches anything, it is that the basic Cold War idea of AirLand Battle was largely correct—an integrated airland, modern system army could thwart a significantly larger nonmodern system for a period of time and set the terms of battle, dramatically slowing the advance and creating a window for reinforcement. The change since the 1980s is primarily the growth of long-range-fires capabilities, as well as the diminished signatures and support infrastructure required for longer-range missiles and tactical aircraft.
The US military and its allies must reimagine their deep-fight capabilities. The US Army today controls surface-to-air missiles, drones below group-five classification—similar in size and capability to the MQ-1 Predator or larger—and long-range fires. The Navy provides similar extended capabilities for the maritime environment. In future combat, the FSCL may well be a thing of the past, replaced by long-range fires and the Joint Fires Cell owning the targeting mission with the Air Operations Center wholly in a supporting air-management role. Embedded airmen training and operating regularly in these forces must be incentivized for airspace control and other related fields. New constructs for battle management moving away from service culture-specific dogmas must guide the planning, acquisitions, and joint doctrine development process. The alternative might be either making the US Army Air Corps great again with a combined anti-aircraft, combat aviation, and drone force under one unified command for the deep battle, or worse—the prospect adversaries will exploit the airland seam and end the US dominance of the close-air fight.
Michael P. Kreuzer is the Chair of the Department of International Security at the USAF Air Command and Staff College and a career US Air Force officer. He holds a PhD in Public and International Affairs from Princeton University. All views and opinions are his own and do not represent the US Department of Defense or the US Air Force.
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