Human Advantage within the Integrated Air Defence System
Much like the assertions made about the employment of modern combat aircraft, the ability for an Integrated Air Defence System (IADS) to operate is reliant on human performance. This is honed by training, experience, and teamwork, and is underpinned by technology.
The operation of an IADS is a complex undertaking, with key trade-offs in lethality and survivability. The ground-based air defence (GBAD) operators have ‘skin in the game’, and their performance influences the ability to successfully engage the target.
Despite technological efforts to increase the level of situation awareness and data flows within the IADS, there will remain a level of human cognition and decision-making that shapes the kill chain. From target detection, tracking and identification, through to prioritised engagement authorities, the ability to process, synthesise and act within the system will be challenged with missing or conflicting information. At the same time, the human operators will feel threatened and under pressure to react quickly or, conversely, become paralysed by indecision.
These pressure-cooker environments also demonstrate the human ability to innovate, to adapt tactics and modes of operation to solve tactical problems. Experienced air defence operators will absorb lessons learned and be quick to exploit any human error by the adversary.
As always, training and integration of capabilities remains the cornerstone to mission success.
HUMAN INFLUENCE IN THE SOVIET IADS
The Soviet Union was a key progenitor in the development of the Eastern-centric IADS network post-World War 2, largely due to the demonstrated US bomber threat, and raised the PVO Strany, a separate air defence branch of the military services primarily tailored to defeat the US bomber threat. The Soviet IADS was heavily centralised in nature with geographic air defence zones, comprising fighter interceptors, GBAD systems, and air surveillance radars – all connected and responsive through the air defence zone command post.
Typical of Soviet communist doctrine, it was extremely hierarchical, with the command post the sole arbiter for engagement decisions. In practice during peacetime this made sense, but it’s debatable how efficient this would be during major conflict when overwhelmed with targets.
This hierarchical method of C2 extended into the air as well. The Soviets also considered their fighter interceptor assets akin to ‘flying SAMs’, with very directive control (ground control intercept – GCI) and minimal autonomy for the pilots. GCI could, in fact, ‘fly the jet’ via datalink. This doctrinal influence of centralised C2 then permeated many export customer nations around the world where the Soviet air defence systems were exported, particularly the communist and Soviet bloc-leaning states.
An exemplar of this model was the Syrian IADS in 1982 during the Lebanon conflict. The Syrian IADS remained a heavily centralised hierarchical network that was vulnerable to disruption which translated further into their air defence operations, including poor employment of SAM assets. Despite the mobility potential of the Syrian SA-6 SAM systems, they had instead dug their systems into the Beka’a Valley in Lebanon.
The Israeli Air Force – with harsh lessons learned during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 – had trained extensively against the Syrian threat, and deployed an integrated force package of aircraft to target the Syrian IADS.
The Israelis utilised Remotely Piloted Vehicles (RPVs) to find and fix the SAM threats, followed by air-launched Samson drone decoys to stimulate the Syrian air defence operators to fire. The Syrians obliged and were subsequently targeted by fighter aircraft with anti-radiation missiles (ARM) to suppress the radars, followed by another fighter package with laser-guided weapons to physically destroy them.
The Israelis’ integrated electronic warfare jamming was provided by a heavily modified Boeing 707 aircraft which jammed the Syrian ground-control intercept radars and air surveillance radars. Due to the effectiveness of the jamming, there were at least 80 Syrian fighters in nearby CAPs awaiting instructions that never came – and were subsequently ambushed by Israeli fighters for significant loss.
The Syrian IADS was simply unable to cope with the orchestration and synchronisation of kinetic and non-kinetic effects.
The Syrian IADS tactics and employment from Yom Kippur in 1973 had not kept pace with the ever-evolving Israelis, and Syrian SAM and radar operators were poorly trained and poorly led, with no adoption of lessons learned from the previous conflict. The US looked at the execution of the Israeli operation as a blueprint for future suppressions/destruction of air defence operations, which was particularly relevant against the Iraqi IADS during Operation DESERT STORM in 1991.
HUMAN INFLUENCE IN THE WESTERN IADS
With the birth of the USAF in 1947 there came a constant source of tension with the US Army regarding the ownership of air defence assets. The USAF and US Army squabbled over SAM systems during the 1950s, which was largely resolved only due to the looming Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) threat. This cultural friction has simmered between the services ever since, with poor coordination and deconfliction between air and air defence assets, and little in the way of actual mission integration.
This became readily apparent in Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003, with the first noted instance of Patriot SAM batteries deploying deep into Iraq with manoeuvring land forces, to defend against the Iraqi short-range ballistic missile threat. During the campaign two allied aircraft were shot down by the Patriot system, one American F/A-18 and one British Tornado. The Tornado had an issue with its Interrogation Friend or Foe (IFF) system, and its steep approach to the Kuwaiti airfield appeared to the operator as an ARM threat – despite Iraqi air not participating in the conflict.
The F/A-18 was engaged near Karbala just prior to the Baghdad offensive, with the operator likely attributing the track as a short-range ballistic missile. A post-conflict report reinforced the need for greater SAM operator training for Patriot crews, including exposure and handling of spurious tracks.
An F-16CJ Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (SEAD) aircraft also engaged a deployed Patriot with an AGM-88 HARM inside Iraq as the Patriot tracked the aircraft. The F-16 pilot was not aware of Patriots operating in the An Najaf area, highlighting the issue of coordination between the services.
The perceived chemical weapon threat was real, and defence against these threats was considered of higher precedence over effective deconfliction in the air. Overall, these incidents highlighted the fratricide risk for Western air forces during high-intensity conflict due to poor situational awareness, assessment, and decision-making within the IADS.
HUMAN INNOVATION IN THE IADS
Despite being based upon the Soviet IADS model, the Serbians overcame the design parameters of their IADS during Operation ALLIED FORCE. The network was disparate but remained intact throughout the conflict, with redundant communications, minimised emissions, and SAM mobility and concealment. The Serbians had learned lessons from the Iraqi IADS during DESERT STORM, and thus traded off lethality for survivability. Despite the loss of legacy SAM systems, the Serbians managed to preserve the bulk of their mobile and more modern systems, posing significant resource costs and residual risk to allied air operations.
Overall, the Serbians launched more than 800 surface-to-air missiles, with approximately two thirds considered unguided, for only two confirmed kills. Although broadly ineffective, the Serbians can claim some success for shooting down an F-117 stealth aircraft – a first for an IADS. This was achieved with the use and placement of the legacy SA-3 SAM system, with awareness of recurring strike routes and aircraft operating patterns in the airspace.
The absence of SEAD and EW aircraft in support of the F-117 ingress empowered the Serbian SAM operators to focus their efforts on detecting incoming strike platforms, without the need to use sporadic radar operation. The P-18 SPOON REST target acquisition radar used to initiate the engagement was of a lower frequency range, against which stealth technology is not optimised.
Serbian innovation in this instance was largely in recognising the US complacency during strike operations and exploiting the opportunity when afforded. Anecdotally, it has been reported that the Serbians damaged another F-117 after the shoot-down, suggesting efforts to repeat their success.
The operation of an IADS is a complex system that requires not just technology, but rigorous training and application of tactics, techniques, and procedures to coordinate the successful engagement of air targets.
Mission integration with friendly aircraft is the perennial problem; mission integration is key to their success as a holistic system. Often, nations do not resource these critical areas of force generation for IADS employment, leaving their operators overwhelmed during high intensity combat operations.
Ultimately, despite the technological advances in sensors, computers, and automation, the conduct of air defence operations remains a human endeavour. Human fallibilities will still influence the operation of the system, and the trade-off between lethality and survivability will remain a key influence in IADS performance.
Awareness of the requirement for robust training, force integration and appropriate tactics will ensure that the IADS remains a potent threat to air platforms in the future.
Developing a human advantage is the key.
This article appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of ADBR.