By Dr Jacob Stoil and Lieutenant Colonel Kyle C. Burley

On 17 March 2017, Israel launched the Arrow missile interceptor for the first time, and a new dimension was added to the relationship between the air and ground forces. This was the first operational employment of the Arrow system but that it is not the wholly new aspect of this incident. What was special was the type of target the Arrow engaged. The Arrow was designed to intercept incoming ballistic missiles at high altitudes. In this case, the missiles it intercepted were SA-5 Surface-to-Air missiles (SAMs) targeted at Israeli strike aircraft. This event, whether a one-off or part of a new doctrine, shows a way forward for the integration of ground and air forces in which the ground forces can help provide a reciprocal umbrella to their colleagues in the air.

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Arrow 2 launch on 29 July 2004, at the Naval Air Station Point Mugu Missile Test Center. (Source: Wikimedia)

Attempting to disable and destroy SAMs is not new.  It is a critical mission for which air forces around the world train and which they regularly undertake. The coordination of ground and air systems in the most general sense is by no means a new phenomenon. As early as the Second World War, the German military integrated their ground-based flak defences with their fighter aircraft to create integrated zones of operations through designating flak boxes. At times, such as during the 1973 War, ground forces have been used to punch a hole through SAM umbrellas to allow the air force to conduct strike operations.

In all of these cases, the fundamental relationship between air and ground forces has remained consistent. The air forces have the ability to intervene in the ground domain and provide an umbrella for the ground forces, supporting them and protecting them from threats. So what changed on 17 March? Ground forces demonstrated their ability to enter the aerial domain and provide an umbrella covering the air force and protecting them from harm.

The Israeli use of ground-based missiles to provide screening fires for manned strike aircraft has opened a window for the exploration of new concepts.  The soon to be released US Army ‘FM 3-0 Operations’ manual anticipates the future possibilities of land forces as enablers for air and maritime forces. This is a break from the previous doctrine, which only envisioned that air and sea forces would act as enablers for land combat.  Extrapolating from the Israeli case provides a vision of the possibility of US Army forces using ground-based air-defense missile systems such as Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) for a SAM interdiction capability.  Forward deployed batteries could provide this covering fire along ingress and egress routes of strike aircraft where the Threat Integrated Air Defense Systems (IADS) is still capable or of an unknown status.  Sea-based forces such as Guided Missile Cruisers might also provide this type of coverage.

It is possible to push this vision further in considering the possibilities of ground or sea-launched Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Envision a weapon that has to loiter and hypersonic propulsion which could target ground based IADS launchers, radar, and SAMs in-flight.  Such systems would no longer be dependent upon ground basing within direct fire range and the flight time of a Patriot or THAAD type battery. They could loiter, or even swarm to cover friendly air-breathing and manned mission aircraft in a contested area.

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MIM-104 Patriot surface-to-air missile system. (Source: Wikimedia)

Each year, the US Army School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS) conducts a planning exercise using a Joint Forcible Entry scenario.  In such a scenario, students must plan for the entry of US forces into a hostile environment against armed opposition. Students learn about the need to destroy hostile IADS capability before risking a single airlifter either to conduct an airborne assault or establish an Aerial Port of Debarkation (APOD).  Operations to remove the IAD threat can be time-consuming. Since the action on 17 March, it is now possible to imagine a US force conducting a Joint Forcible Entry within hours of deployment alert because the US no longer has to conduct a prolonged “IADS takedown” phase within the air campaign. A covering force of counter-IADS UASs could protect the strike and air assault forces through an array of tactics such as escort, prepositioning swarm, or forward sense and attack.  Using such a capability could radically redefine the approach to forcible entry and enhance the ability of airborne inserted ground forces as a US flexible deterrent option.

Whatever the future holds, the 17 March incident demonstrated the ability of missile defence technology to provide cover for aircraft engaged in strike operations. No more does dealing with SAMs need to be solely the role of the air force: ground forces can provide cover.  In doing so, this sets up a new dynamic of reciprocity in which air forces provide cover to ground forces, which in turn protect air forces. As missile defence technology such as that employed by Israel proliferates, this has the potential to revolutionise the way SAM threats are negated and alter the relationship between air and ground forces and give new meaning to ‘joint operations’.

The opinions and conclusions expressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College or any other government agency. (References to this study should include the foregoing statement.)

Header Image: A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense interceptor being fired during an exercise in 2013 (Source: Wikimedia)

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One thought on “Arrows from the Ground – Or how an incident on 17 March 2017 may change the relationship between ground and air forces

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