Nato at 60: What Next for Air Power?

3 March 2009 (Last Updated March 3rd, 2009 18:30)

As Nato enters its 60th year, how might the role of the alliance's air forces change in years ahead? Air Commodore Garfield Porter of the Joint Air Power Competence Centre gives Paul French his views.

Nato at 60: What Next for Air Power?

If anybody should know the place of air power in the modern world it is the Joint Air Power Competence Centre (JAPCC). Set up in 2005 as a Nato think tank, it is the centre's job to provide independent thought, analysis and solutions to the transformation of joint air and space power within the alliance.

"We're a Nato-recognised champion for the advancement of air and space power," says Air Commodore (Air Cdre) Garfield Porter, assistant director transformation at JAPCC. "Our job is to come up with ideas that we promote within the formal alliance structure. We're a one-stop shop for looking at the future, as well as the here and now of this environment."

So we set out to find out what role JAPCC thinks air and space power will play in the modern world, how is it going to change and what this important area of defence could be like in another 60 years' time.

From defence to offence – how things have already changed

The role of air power has shifted slightly within Nato over the last few years. Historically a defensive alliance, the nature of war in Afghanistan has seen Nato pushed into more offensive operations at times according to Air Cadre Garfield Porter.

"Air and space power brings a huge advantage to modern warfare," Porter says. "Without it many more troops would be needed in Afghanistan. It gives us an asymmetric advantage over the Taliban and allows us to operate without having a big footprint on the ground, which is important so we are seen as a security assistance rather than an occupying, force. It also helps us gather information in a non-intrusive sense and allows us to move rapidly to areas of conflict in a way that nothing else can."

Like all military forces, Nato air forces have had to evolve quickly in the unconventional battle theatre of Afghanistan.

"I think we've learned that not all effects of air power have to be kinetic," says Air Cdre Porter. "You don't just have to blow things up. Air forces have been used to drop leaflets, recover personnel, gather intelligence and put on a show of force. Sometimes a low flyover is enough to act as a deterrent.

"The role of air power has shifted slightly within Nato over the last few years."

"Quick personnel recovery is important to our troops and it is also useful because, if we can recover people quickly, it can influence the way we are perceived. It denies our adversaries the chance of a media opportunity. Recent operations have also highlighted the need for strategic airlift, which provides access, responsiveness and agility, particularly in a land-locked country like Afghanistan. However, whilst critical, it is not a panacea. It is still no substitute for moving mass across land or sea."

Unmanned flight and the challenges of new

Following an investment of $10bn, the US Department of Defense hopes to have over 400 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) operating in the field by 2010. The drones have become increasingly popular over the last few years as technological advances have enabled them to become more reliable.

"They are important because of their ability to operate within the four 'd's: dangerous, deep, dirty and dull situations," says Air Cdre Porter. "They go where you wouldn't wish to put a manned vehicle. They offer greater persistence and endurance and they have the attraction of keeping people out of harm's way."

However, pilots worrying that their role may one day become obsolete need fear not. As Air Cdre Porter points out, there will always be someone needed to operate the UAVs. And there are other questions to answer before air forces spend millions amassing armies of unmanned vehicles.

"What is the impact in human terms of remote controlled warfare?" He asks. "Being part of battle is an integral part of picking up the atmospherics of conflict. Being perceived to be involved in human activity is an important part of influencing indigenous populations. A balance between manned and unmanned vehicles needs to be struck in order to get the optimum benefit."

"Air and space power brings a huge advantage to modern warfare."

Most of the challenges facing Nato air forces over the next 60 years will be technology or procedure based. "Nato forces do have to fight for airspace at the moment but mainly around airfields," says Air Cdre Porter. "In campaigns like Afghanistan where we are fighting an asymmetric adversary – one who does not fight like with like – we own the skies. The challenge is to maintain that capability.

"Should a peer challenger evolve, it would be on a much slower timescale because of the time it takes to build up an air force. Nato is well placed at the moment but cannot afford to be complacent as any challenge to our mastery of the skies would merely be a forerunner to difficulties elsewhere."

This is where the need for interoperability between different Nato air forces is obvious. If a plane from one force ends up flying a mission alongside representatives from another, they need to be able to communicate, which is why they have common radios and data links. But what about the need for interoperability between different sections of the military?

"Traditionally maritime forces are similar to air forces," says Air Cdre Porter. "They have interoperability between their ships and submarines, but land forces have always tended to operate within their own boundaries. They've had a high level of interoperability at HQ level but below that it didn't matter so much.

"Consequently, we face more challenges on the air-land interface than its maritime equivalent. Air forces are in a good position to meet this challenge because of the network enabling systems that are already in place and we are working hard to resolve differences with the surface environments as new equipments and protocols emerge."

Cyber and space

With the world becoming increasingly reliant on computers it follows that the threat of cyber warfare is growing too, especially for network-dominated air forces. To combat this threat, the US air force set up a 30,000-person strong command centre in 2008 to conduct offensive and defensive military operations in cyberspace. Is this indicative of how the role of air forces will evolve in future?

"Following an investment of $10bn, the US Department of Defense hopes to have over 400 UAVs in the field by 2010."

"The more network-centric we become, the more vulnerable we are to cyber attack," says Air Cdre Porter. "It's a challenge for the military, not just air forces, and because of its pervasive nature will probably be best met through a joint force approach.

"That said, airmen will have to ensure their networks are robust and play their part in keeping cyberspace open to all. As in many forms of warfare, the challenge will be to keep the lines of communication as wide and as open as possible, whilst taking all necessary measures to keep them secure – it's a genuine conundrum."

Nato forces are increasingly reliant upon their space assets to enable strategic capabilities on earth. Communications, precision navigation and surveillance are all areas that benefit from what goes on amongst the stars.

"We are operating at range in an increasingly network-centric world and we rely on space capabilities to make that possible," says Air Cdre Porter. "My personal view is that space is vital and therefore we need to think about how we protect our access to it. I'm not suggesting a Star Wars scenario, but we have to build a clear picture of our dependencies in space and understand what defensive action might be necessary to assure our access to space in the future."

Training and modernisation

The final challenge facing Nato air forces is the need to train staff in an environment constantly being pushed forward by the advent of new technology. "It's a dilemma," says Air Cdre Porter. "You have GPS now instead of air sextants. You're constantly trying to live with modernisation because what we do is so technology-based. You're trying to make people proficient in doing their business as is, but you're also having to look over the horizon and anticipate how changes might affect the very way things are done now.

"Most of the challenges facing Nato air forces over the next 60 years will be technology or procedure based."

"It's like with UAVs. Are there any human issues attached to using them? If so, we need to look at them now so we can use training to build awareness of the issues. We try to anticipate changes before things become a problem so we can take things forward in a planned way.

Nato's role has evolved over its 60 years, from the defensive posturing of the Cold War to the more expeditionary edge being seen in the current campaigns in Afghanistan.

Air forces have retained an integral function amidst this changing landscape but will they become more or less important over the next 60 years of the alliance?

"I think they'll remain as important," says Air Cdre Porter. "We've learned over the first 100 years of air power that without control of the skies military options are significantly limited. To quote Gen. Montgomery: 'If we lose the war in the air we lose the war and we lose it quickly'. Air power allows you to extend influence beyond the boundaries of surface forces and because of that, I'm confident the future of our environment is bright."