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The Future of NATO Airpower – How are Future Capability Plans within the Alliance Diverging and how can Interoperability be Maintained?

Available here and here. By Justin Bronk, Royal United Services Institute, Whitehall Paper 94, 2019.

This review combines several readings of Justin’s book, as well as the opportunity to meet the author and chat through a number of the air power themes contained in the book.

Themes and Analysis – not ORBATs

If you are looking for a review of NATO’s individual air forces, then this is not the book for you. However, if you want a concise and highly effective analysis of the challenges facing NATO airpower as it enters its 71st year, then you are in luck. In just 70 pages, Bronk captures the challenges faced by NATO’s air forces, be that facing near peer/peer adversaries or the demands of an arms race that is increasing in both complexity and cost at an exponential rate. It is a short, sharp intervention that homes in on the key factors at play that will, or perhaps already are, effecting NATO’s ability to fight in the air.

NATO and China?

Bronk’s opening gambit is to analyse the challenges presented not just by Russia, but also by China. The emphasis on China did take me by surprise initially, especially for a book discussing an organisation with its centre of mass in Europe. But as Bronk explains, China is America’s pacing threat and this is becoming the critical factor that is driving the United States Air Force (USAF) to invest in high capability platforms that will have to operate over ranges that are considered extreme for the European theatre. If a stand-off battle and anti-area access denial is an issue in Europe, the tyranny of distance that American forces have to deal with is something that NATO members in Europe do not have to contemplate.

The threat of China and the demands of the Pacific Theatre mean that the United States is prioritising programmes such as the B-21 Raider, long range unmanned combat aerial vehicles and Conventional Prompt Global Strike that will all will be force-tested against Pacific scenarios. Capabilities designed to operate at the ranges encountered in the Pacific could be regarded as gold-plated and expensive solutions that are not necessarily optimised for European operations. In addition to the capability issue, Bronk also points out that nations used to buying off the shelf from US programmes in order to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ will be faced with some very expensive choices.

The Rest of NATO

Having explained the context and examined the USAF direction of travel means the remaining 28 nations aren’t covered until chapters 3 and 4, where Bronk opts to group them into ‘medium’ and ‘small’ air forces, giving a chapter to each. In line with the book’s core theme of analysing issues over orders of battle, not every nation gets detailed coverage, but this approach enables Bronk to draw out NATO’s capabilities and more importantly capability gaps.

Germany and France/France and Germany

For Bronk, Germany is actually a heavyweight in economic terms, and that favours industrial participation and workshare. The real issue is that there is little meaningful guidance on what some of these aircraft are actually for. Germany’s fall from grace has been both remarkable and concerning. Its ageing Tornado fleet looks seriously dated against a mission set of interdiction/strike, electronic warfare and suppression of enemy air defences (SEAD) missions against a peer adversary. When it comes to developing a Sixth generation platform, France quite rightly sees Germany as an economically vital but militarily problematic partner. Two of France’s air power requirements – power projection and carrier operations – do not align with those of the German military. Where the two militaries do align with the aerial delivery of nuclear weapons, the alignment is affected by the political climate in Germany. Germany, and to an extent Spain, have impeded the progress of the Eurofighter Typhoon Programme with their refusal to fund and agree to the UK and Italian timetable. Bronk’s view is that there is no reason to suppose that Franco-German cooperation on Future Combat Air System (FCAS)/Système de Combat Aérien Futur (SCAF) will be not be exposed to these tensions. The German Typhoon force appears the only option to ‘future proof’ its rejection of the F35 programme and subsequent decision to enter the FCAS programme, which is meant to deliver in 2040.

Turkey or not Turkey? That is the Question

One medium-sized NATO member that is not included on Bronk’s list is Turkey. On paper the Turkish Air Force is the second most capable air force in NATO. As Bronk points out, their force structure is not configured in a ‘traditional’ sense in that not all their forces are allocated to NATO operations and a significant amount of combat power is postured against Greece, a fellow NATO member. The 2016 coup also had a significant impact on the effectiveness of the Turkish Air Force, especially for those personnel who had experienced integrated air operations with overseas partners. The decision to omit Turkey was certainly a good one in that it does allow the main themes of the book to pull through without the distraction of multiple caveats and qualifications.

The Royal Air Force – Per Ardua ad Ardua?

For Bronk the big question for the RAF, another of NATO’s medium powers, is to determine what their primary role is. Is it to carry out high intensity Article 5 operations? To operate alongside the United States Air Force against a highly capable opponent in the Far East? Or is it to continue supporting expeditionary operations that require reach, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) and limited attack capability?

The platforms that make up the RAF’s significant air mobility force and its sizeable but fractured ISTAR Force are not designed to operate in a high threat/contested air environment. This makes their utility questionable if the Service’s role is Day/Night One operations against a complex anti area access denial. If the RAF is to do this, then it will require investment in a SEAD capability, more ‘comms glue’ to enhance 5th generation capabilities and meaningful stocks of stand-off munitions to have the ability to enter and sustain the fight.

Losing a large slice of sovereign capability does not seem to fit into the British psyche but NATO already has a number of ‘pooled’ assets in the form of airlift, air to air refuelling and remotely piloted ISR. It is interesting to note that that NATO has just approved a $1Bn upgrade to its E3 fleet whereas the RAF’s E3 Force is being reduced size from six to three aircraft and will be retired 9 months before a replacement is brought into service.[1] By placing some of its larger aircraft and ISR assets into these pools, the RAF could focus funding on high end warfighting capabilities.

A two and three speed NATO?

The contrast between the medium and small powers is both stark and worrying. The purchase of the F35 by Poland, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium is certainly a good thing, both in terms of capability and interoperability. But it is the larger enablers where the problems start; realising the full potential of a 5th generation capability goes beyond the F35 itself which needs to fit into a system of systems. The medium-sized air forces can provide some capabilities in terms of air mobility, ISR and air to air refuelling (AAR); the smaller nations struggle to field a capability of their own. In Bronk’s view, ISR and AAR platforms are the vital enablers that go a long way to offset NATO’s lack of combat mass. The Airborne Early Warning and Control Force, the Alliance Ground Surveillance drone fleet and the Multi Role Tanker Transport capability do go some way to provide smaller nations with access to some of these capabilities, albeit under NATO rather than national control.

Can NATO get to Sixth Generation?

Sixth Generation in the European context will be more about bringing ‘affordable’ 5th generation capability into the reach of smaller nations. Whether it be Tempest or FCAS, these systems are unlikely to be regarded as ‘true Sixth generation’ platforms by the United States Air Force. In terms of costs and export potential, and with a nod to Augustine’s XVI Law, we may reach the point where the pursuit of exquisite Sixth generation capability in terms of signature reduction and distributed lethality is beyond the financial reach of many nations who could instead look for a programme that delivers 80% of the capability at a cost. Bronk’s example would be the F5 over the F16. This ‘bang for your buck’ approach may open up export opportunities for European 5+ Generation programmes.

The Multi Domain glue

It is Bronk’s assertion that notwithstanding the emphasis on high-end equipment and platform numbers, the real test for NATO will be how it chooses to embrace the Multi Domain aspects of fighting. Unsurprisingly, it is the US that is leading the way. Its Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) is their latest attempt to master the challenge of coordinating effect across all the fighting domains. It is supposed to tie together the US Air Force’s Advanced Battle Management System (ABMS), the US Navy’s integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFCCA) and the US Army’s Multi Domain Battle, shifting to Multi Domain Operations. The number of potential sensors and shooters being looked at by each Service is fundamentally different. This can stretch from hundreds of thousands for the Army to hundreds in the Air Force. Challenges remain, and although the efforts within the US Armed Forces appear to be running on parallel lines, the direction of travel is clear. For Bronk, it is a matter of when and not if the US adopts Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) as its way of introducing a highly automated method of sensing, engaging and killing across all domains.

JADC2 shares the challenges of technology and cost with the high-end air platforms but there is a more fundamental hurdle for NATO; the rapid tempo and high degree of automation required by JADC2. These mean that traditional forms of C2 are, according to Bronk, at best ‘illusory and come at a price that will be automation tolerance and sovereignty sacrifice’. If NATO chooses not to plug and play with the Americans, it had better have its own replacement ready to go – once the umbilical cord is broken, it will be difficult to mend.

Is NATO writing cheques its Air Forces can’t cash?

Bronk’s rather stark conclusion is that whilst it is not the first time that the United States has left the rest of NATO behind in terms of capability, the real difference this time is that America is looking to China as its primary conventional threat. Even in the halcyon days of the Cold War, the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact provided a single focus for the then 16 NATO members. That single focus no longer exists.

NATO’s ‘medium-sized’ air forces are already running hard just to keep pace with high-end American capability. To stay in the race costs money; drop off the pace and you face elimination. For Bronk, the choice is clear: pay the entry fee and adopt the American Multi Domain way of fighting or be prepared to develop your own. Neither option will come cheap. As for the RAF, ever since the Op HERRICK urgent operational requirements were brought into core, the Service has, on paper, been a potent force capable of a wide range of military tasks. By trying to do everything, Bronk is of the opinion that the RAF may be in danger of being able to deliver nothing.

Bronk makes a very effective argument that the United States Air Force’s direction of travel will only widen an existing gap between itself and the rest of NATO. This gap, whether it is measured by numbers of platforms, capabilities or agility of command and control, presents NATO with a significant challenge that will test its resolve in the air domain. In many ways, the capability divide between the United States Air Force and the rest of NATO represents a threat as significant as that posed by Russia itself.

About the book’s author – Justin Bronk is a Research Fellow specialising in combat airpower and technology in the Military Sciences team at RUSI. He is also Editor of the RUSI Defence Systems online journal. Justin has written on air power issues for the RUSI Journal, RUSI Defence Systems, RUSI Newsbrief, the Journal of Strategic Studies and the RAF Airpower Journal, as well as contributing regularly to the international media. He is also a part-time doctoral candidate at the Defence Studies Department of Kings College London and holds an MSc in the History of International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science, and a BA (Hons) in History from York University.

[1]                https://www.nao.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/The-Equipment-Plan-2019-to-2029.pdf page 37.

Phil Clare

Phil Clare is a former RAF Logistics Officer. He has over 30 years experience of single and joint service environments, as well as operational experience that spans Op GRANBY to HERRICK.


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