In the second instalment of this two-part feature, ADBR will look back on operational experience from the Cold War era in the air-land environment and identify some of the enduring characteristics of great power competition which are relevant to Australia today.
Cold War ideology was largely a clash of ideas between East and West, with the boundary between war and peace mutually understood. Now a prolific and diversified range of threats characterise the contemporary battlespace and additional warfighting domains, such as cyber and the electromagnetic spectrum (EMS), adding significant complexity at the speed of light.
Yet despite the different context, the Cold War provides lessons for contemporary multi-domain operations, especially regarding preparedness and the projection of hard power against peer competitors. Cold War preparedness was defined, as today, by readiness and sustainability underpinned by intelligence, doctrine, logistics, and operational experience.
And just as current force structures and doctrine is shaped by recent experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan, Cold War doctrine was influenced significantly by the US preoccupation with the war in Vietnam.
In the July-August issue of ADBR we focused on the three constants of discipline, deception, and deterrence which defined everyday air-sea activity during the Cold War. Everyday activity involving regular interaction between opposing forces in international waters or international airspace, which gave rise to a maritime strategy informed by operational reality.
Yet preparedness in the air-land environment was fundamentally different, in that it was largely played out either side of the Berlin Wall with physical access further denied by integrated air defences and multi-tiered missile engagement zones. And without daily interaction, US Army Cold War doctrine contained little in the way of specifics about how it planned to fight, and so relied more heavily on higher level concepts rather than strategy.
Meanwhile, offensive systems in the air-land environment became increasingly sophisticated and reflected, among others, the growing significance of the EMS in air-land operations. Electronic warfare (EW) played a decisive role with weapon systems such as the EF-111 Raven, EC-130 Compass Call, and F-4G Wild Weasels supressing and dismantling Warsaw Pact capability before it could be used in anger.
In doing so, the US and its allies had established the foundations of an integrated and networked capability comprising offensive and defensive, kinetic and non-kinetic force elements set within the doctrinal framework of the AirLand Battle.
The common denominator between AirLand Battle doctrine and the maritime strategy was the unprecedented potential for destruction and an increased tempo of events.
In many ways AirLand Battle doctrine was a progenitor of the contemporary multi-domain battle, although its notion of manoeuvre in ‘deep, close and rear’ has been transformed by recent developments in the space and cyber domains, as well as technological advancements associated with intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) capability.
In a similar vein, Andrew McLaughlin looked back on the Australian contribution to the 1943 Dambusters raid in the July-August issue of ADBR, and highlighted the enduring challenges and importance of being able to strike targets in the deep and rear areas to achieve strategic outcomes. He described the critical role of intelligence and reconnaissance enabled by modelling and simulation when access is denied by geography and enemy defences.
Wargaming, supported by modelling and simulation, was also a key feature of Cold War planning and, in many ways, the development of AirLand Battle doctrine was simply a return to the basic principles of war. To that end, the development of AirLand Battle doctrine has remarkable similarities with the situation currently facing the US and its allies as it recovers from more than a decade of counterinsurgency war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, of course, the global financial crisis.
In a report on AirLand Battle doctrine delivered to the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA) in 1988, Douglas W. Skinner makes some interesting remarks which are as valid today as they were 30 years ago: “The Army (not to mention the other branches of the armed forces) had become so obsessed with a war that it had fought so long in Vietnam that it forgot the challenges it still faced in Central Europe and elsewhere in the world.”
Skinner goes on to say, “AirLand Battle does not reflect a mere change in fashionable thought. It is a reflection of the profound changes that have occurred in the US Army during the post-Vietnam era…the US Army over this period found itself tasked with the monumental job of resurrecting an effective fighting force from the ashes of physical depletion and psychological defeat at a time when the Soviets had made huge gains in their conventional and nuclear forces. When the Army finally did begin to lift its head from the smoky confusion of Vietnam and turn its attention to Central Europe, it found the situation there daunting, to say the least.”
Skinner’s report concludes, “There is no doubt that the once-marked margin of technological superiority upon which the West for so long relied as a means of partially offsetting the Soviet Union’s advantage in numbers has been significantly narrowed during the past decade and a half.”
Substituting the smoky confusion of Vietnam with the dusty complexity of Afghanistan, and the subsequent US pivot towards Asia to counter the daunting reality of China’s rise, shows how easy it is to forget important lessons from recent history and the profound impact of economic downturn on the force structure necessary for high intensity conflict.
New approach and attitude
In contrast to post-Vietnam pessimism, AirLand Battle was set within the context of a positive and more offensive mindset which regarded a future war with the Warsaw Pact as winnable. Skinner said it addressed the reality that, “future wars will probably be fought under diverse situations of varying levels of sophistication, ranging from the modern mechanised battlefield employing nuclear and increasingly lethal conventional weapons, to guerrilla warfare.”
It was also an important shift from an emphasis on tactics to an operational focus involving the rapid movement of people and materiel and the avoidance of direct confrontation with the enemy. AirLand Battle emphasised the role of sophisticated technology and weaponry as an enduring factor in modern operations.
In its efforts to achieve this balance between manoeuvre, firepower, and the increasing influence of high technology, AirLand Battle highlighted the need to further modernise the concept of logistics. Skinner’s report stated, “Logistical demands and consumptive requirements of future battles will be unprecedented. It is estimated that an armoured division of M1 Abrams tanks will consume 450,000 gallons (1.7m litres) of fuel during each day of sustained combat in a typical NATO battle scenario.”
It is all too easy to simply frame future conflict in terms of the operational platforms and gloss over the operations support and combat service support elements underpinning defence preparedness. And as LTCOL David Beaumont highlights on page xxx of this issue, this will increasingly involve Defence industry as a fundamental input to capability (FIC), and an important source of operational advantage.
Although not explicit in Skinner’s report, there is an ongoing and critical requirement for high-quality intelligence-led assessments to inform the prioritisation of concepts, force structure, force design, and strategy.
Cold War intelligence assessments were made without the enterprise level ISR capability available to modern command headquarters and their staff. This relative lack of data meant more time was spent in analysis and wargaming rather than sifting through terabytes of raw intelligence material to find a needle in a haystack. And while tactical imagery and intelligence has its place, an over-emphasis on tactical exploitation can undermine efforts to develop the operational art, decision-making, and the thinking necessary for campaign success.
A lost aspect of AirLand Battle is that land and air manoeuvre enabled each other, were synchronised by time, and centred upon the corps as the operational building block. The corps was important because it had its own organic logistics, airpower, and intelligence capability, and was able to plan and execute integrated air-land operations.
Corps level objectives were three days hence, which is where the 72-hour Air Tasking Order (ATO) cycle originated. That is a different planning mindset to contemporary air and land forces which are used to the land component setting the manoeuvre tempo and direction, and the Air component simply providing tactical support.
The corps served as a natural focal point for the distribution of airpower, while still under centralised control of the Air Force. The allocation of airpower to the corps commander was an attempt to improve decision-making and target prioritisation, and to optimise effects allocation across components for the benefit of the whole force.
AirLand Battle also encouraged the development of an operational mindset rather than chasing daily tactical objectives and, in doing so, focused strategy and effort on the Soviet weakness. Intelligence assessments identified the Soviet Union’s three core weaknesses as being tactical rigidity, predictable echelonment, and technological inferiority.
Skinner’s report opined that tactical rigidity results “from a rigid overly centralised system of command and control, and partly from an endemic obsession with organisation and planning in all governmental activities. Characteristic of their command and control system is that it attempts to retain direct control over the smallest details of military operations.”
He says, “This was evident in the plodding meticulousness of Soviet operations during World War II, and there are signs that their tendency to ‘micromanage’ has persisted in their recent invasion of Afghanistan. In addition, the Communist Party had direct inputs to the military command and control system, reinforcing this tendency, as well as adding strong ideological flavour to strategic and tactical decision-making.”
The concept of Soviet second-echelon forces was different from the Western employment of reserve forces, and was seen as a weakness in that they had a predictable, pre-assigned mission, and were structured accordingly. The Western concept was viewed as being far more flexible, deceptive, and effective with reserve forces able to adapt to contingencies and the prevailing operational circumstances.
To this day, technical inferiority is an easier weakness to address.
Lessons for Australia
As the ADF moves towards an increasingly challenging and complex operational future, it should do so with a nod to the past.
AirLand Battle doctrine was a return to the fundamental principles of war, and many of its characteristics chime with modern ideas about preparedness for multi-domain operations. And Cold War ideas about the utility of the corps as an operational building block are substantially applicable to modern day Australian Joint Task Forces.
However, an important aspect of Skinner’s 1988 study was that it was commissioned to “provide a point of reference from which to view the Navy’s maritime strategy and Marine Corps MAGTF doctrine”. The study concluded AirLand Battle was aligned with US maritime concepts and strategy and that they could co-exist despite the different operating environments. Both emphasised the importance of seizing the initiative and anticipating the enemy’s actions, both emphasised the notion of forward defence and carrying the fight to the enemy, and both stressed the importance of defeating the enemy and threatening it with serious losses.
In a modern context this will require superior situational understanding, built on a bedrock of sophisticated logistics and intelligence capability, integrated targeting and planning, an agile reserve force, and a potent and lethal multi-domain deterrent.
And finally, the AirLand Battle was built on the notion that numerical advantage alone would not determine the outcome of war and the US and its allies should not be daunted by the overwhelming advantage of the Warsaw Pact.
AirLand Battle emphasised that weapons and personnel are only as good as the commanders and, “the validity of their advance planning, the quality of their staff work, and the willingness of soldiers, who constitute their quantity, to carry them out. Any system, array of forces, or sets of plans have inherent weaknesses.
“AirLand Battle exhorts commanders to study potential enemies, to discern these weak points, and anticipate their plans of action. Reliance on tactics alone, so its proponents argue, will not be sufficient to guarantee success in the next war.”
History and its repetition suggests this is good advice, and the multi-domain deterrent appears to be our biggest gap.
John Conway is the Managing Director of FELIX, Australia’s first independent not for profit Defence company, and has worked in the Australian Defence Industry for almost a decade.
He is a Board Member of the Sir Richard Williams Foundation, and his experience as a Joint Commander and fast jet aviator includes Cold War Europe in the Second Allied Tactical Air Force (2 ATAF), the Balkans, Middle East, and Eastern Mediterranean theatres of operation.