NATO Air Forces Learning Lessons from Libyan Air Campaign

During the ongoing Operation UNIFIED PROTECTOR the French and British Air Forces find out that plans for their future might not exactly meet the demands in the field.

As the US aviation magazine Aviation Week reported last week, the French Armeé de l’Air (ALA) and the British Royal Air Force (RAF) might have made some of their plans for the future without thinking too much about how this works out in practice.

As Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, the chief of air staff in the UK, indicated in April, some of the equipment scheduled to be canceled proved to be of vital importance in the air campaign over Libya. The crucial synergy between intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (Combat Istar) is provided by three dedicated Aircraft: E-3D, Sentinel R1 and Nimrod R1. Only the E-3D Sentry AWACS (Airborne Early Warning And Control System) was to have a long-term future with the RAF.

The ageing Nimrod R1, an electronic intelligence gathering platform based on the airframe of the Comet airliner of the 1950s, was already being phased out but was kept in service because of the NATO engagement over Libya. But the successor, the american Boeing RC-135W Rivet Joint, is only scheduled to be delivered by 2014. For the gap of three years the RAF will have to rely on joint-crewed US Air Force Rivet Joints.

The five Sentinel R1, based on the airframe of the Bombardier Global Express business jets, is due to go out of service once the UK engagement in Afghanistan ends. But so far there is no replacement in view for the aircraft’s ability not only to detect airborne targets but also to switch to a ground-moving target indicator (GMTI). The decision about what system should replace the Sentinel R1 is only scheduled for next year and then it would take several more years until the system is operational. Unlike the Nimrod, with its airframe nearing the end of its lifespan, the Sentinel – only introduced 2009 – would be ready to be kept in service for some more years to bridge that gap.

The RAF has GMTI capability with its MQ-9 Reaper UAVs as well as with its Sea King 7 helicopters but especially with the Sea King the risk to operate it in hostile airspace might be too high.

In another field where the RAF faces unexpected difficulties is ground attack. Because of the switch from Tornado F3 to Typhoon only eight pilots were fully trained in ground-attack role at the beginning of the UNIFIED PROTECTOR and some of these were instructors. As a result the training of further pilots had to be slowed down. Furthermore, in the beginning Typhoon pilots had difficulties with the laser-target designation.

The lesson for the French ALA was that their air-to-ground guided missile, the Sagem AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire) is a 250-kg-monster. Using that for a precision strike, for example on a single surface-to-air (SAM) missile system would be like swatting a bug with a sledge-hammer. So the French are using the AASM with rubber or concrete instead of a warhead but with the guidance system in place. The missile hits a target with 300 meters per second and without the warhead there is still enough power to destroy a tank but it does not flatten everything 200 meters around the target.

As with other major engagements there seem to be a lot to learn for everybody involved. There is also hope that the lessons are not lost on the people making the political decisions.

(Sources: Aviation Week, Armeé de l’Air, Royal Air Force; 13 July 2011)




About Johann Brandstätter

Photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Bulgaria, working mainly in the Balkans and the Middle East. Conflicts & crises, social and environmental issues, defense & military, travel, transportation.
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