'Anyone who has to fight, even with the most modern weapons, against an enemy in complete command of the air, fights like a savage against modern European troops, under the same handicaps and with the same chances of success.' Field Marshal Erwin Rommel,Commander, Afrika Corps, 2nd Battle of El Alamein, 1942
The famous Great War German pilot, Baron Manfred von Richthofen, was the scourge of allied forces along the western front. Known as the Red Baron due to the auspicious colour of his Fokker triplane, he was officially credited with 80 air combat victories; more than any other pilot of the war. His dominance in the air continued until his demise above the Australian lines in Amiens, when, following a dogfight with Canadian and British pilots, and fire from Australian ground forces, the infamous von Richthofen crashed behind the Australian trenches. With the Royal Air Force (RAF) crediting a Canadian pilot with shooting down the German ace at the time, it is now widely argued that the fatal shot came from below; likely by an Australian machine gunner.
During the Great War, local Air Defence (AD) was considered to be in the remit of conventional ground troops. However, over a century of development in warfare, military aviation and technology later, do we still expect our combat soldiers to engage fixed and rotary wing threats with tactics similar to those employed in 1917? The aim of this article is to review the Australian Army’s current and future AD capability, to discuss the capability gap in AD, and finally explore options available to the Army to improve AD at the tactical level.
Army’s current all corps AD doctrine is a layered system with four levels of defence[i]:
- Fighter interceptors - a capability provided by Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) fighter aircraft;
- Low-Level Air Defence Weapons - missile or gun defence up to 15,000 ft;
- Very Low-Level Air Defence Weapons - missile or gun defence up to 10,000 ft; and
- Small arms from ground units.
The Army’s AD assets against rotary and fixed wing threats are consolidated in 16 Air Land Regiment (16 ALR) and provide both the Low and Very Low Air Defence weapons utilising the RBS-70 system. The RBS-70 Very Short Range Air Defence (VSHORAD) system is a man-portable or vehicle-mounted AD missile system. The missile is a laser-guided weapon that requires the gunner to maintain a ‘laser’ lock on the target until the missile intercepts. The benefit of this system is that it cannot be disrupted by any counter-missile technology. However, this has tactical constraints: an RBS-70 detachment will become a prime target for enemy fire after firing a missile which can create a large signature. 16 ALR can deploy a total of 10 RBS-70 systems from two troops on the current order of battle. One troop can provide (doctrinally) one vital point defence (1x1 km), 5 km of route defence, [or] a mobile defence up to battlegroup (BG)[ii]. Therefore, AD coverage for a combat brigade can only be focused on vital areas, leaving a significant proportion of the brigade without AD protection.
Although the RBS-70 can operate independently, its capability is greatly enhanced when integrated with other systems. The Portable Search and Target Acquisition Radar – Extended Range (PSTAR-ER), for example, is able to provide local radar coverage and cueing for the RBS-70 detachments. This reduces crew fatigue, increases response time and alertness, and therefore maximises the AD effect. The PSTAR-ER is a two-dimensional radar with a planning range of 37 km for fixed wing aircraft. This system is restricted by terrain due to line of sight. Rotary and fixed wing threats can defeat these systems by moving at very low altitudes between terrain features or by using terrain shielding. Cueing sensors are essential to enable rapid engagements and the conduct of 24-hour operations. Without them the ability to effectively engage at night is severely degraded[iii].
In addition to missile AD, 16 ALR and the Air and Missile Defence Wing at the School of Artillery are the subject matter experts in All Arms Air Defence training, otherwise known as Ground Based Air Defence. This includes skills such as estimating aim-off, point of aim for hovering, diving and oblique targets, and commanders’ control of fire and ammunition expenditure. This training can be conducted on All Arms AD courses, which are assessed as being a significantly underutilised capability: the training has not been conducted by units other than 16 ALR in recent history.
Recent operations involving the Australian Defence Force (ADF) have occurred in the context of complete air supremacy, with the operational focus being on counter-rockets, artillery and mortar (C-RAM). As such, it could be argued that the Army’s AD capability has been relegated to the sidelines. Notwithstanding this, the 2016 Defence White Paper (DWP) identified the need to improve the ADF’s strike and air combat capability and enhance the defence of our deployed forces against attack. The DWP outlined a timeline to acquire new short and medium range ground-based AD weapons, with these systems entering service by the early 2020s to replace the existing RBS-70 suite. This direction from the DWP led to the development of the LAND 19-7B project, to create a ‘layered air-defence against a broad range of capable air threats … matched with command & control (C2) and fire control systems’[iv].
LAND 19-7B is currently in the risk mitigation phase of the capability life cycle (until Nov 18) with a final decision for acquisition likely to be confirmed by Feb 19[v]. The project already has a preferred system nominated, being the Raytheon-Kongsberg National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile System (NASAMS). The intent is that the NASAMS will be able to launch current in-service AIM-9X Sidewinder and the AIM-120 variants Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) used by the Royal Australian Air Force to consolidate defence resources[vi]. The NASAMS will be linked with the Mode 5 (the improved version of our current Mode 4) IFF (Interrogator, Friend or Foe) This is a new interrogator that will help identify friendly (NATO) assets through an encrypted signal that will quicken the response rate of AD detachments by having instant recognition. With a final decision on the new AD system not expected until 2019, the Army is yet to make an assessment on the number of systems that will be deployed within the Army’s order of battle.
The Capability Gap
There is little doubt that the introduction LAND 19-7B will improve the Army’s ability to prosecute current and emerging threats. However, the system is likely to remain under the control of the highest level of command within the area of operations due to the scarcity of the capability. Consequently, it is possible that conventional manoeuvre elements in the battlespace may not receive the benefit of an AD umbrella as strategic priorities will direct the assignment of AD. This creates a potential dilemma for forward elements when engaging enemy aviation assets; for example what is an appropriate response to an engagement from a Harbin Z-19 or a Mi-35 Hind, and how effective will small arms fire be against these threats?
The Australian Army currently practices layered defence systems with mutual support from multiple systems. In the infantry, we see this with our mortars complementing our artillery, our Recon, Surveillance and Sniper Platoon (RSS PL) working with other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) units, and our pioneers layered with combat engineers. Therefore, it might seem logical to have the ability to provide tactical AD, controlled by a battlegroup, but integrated into a larger AD plan. One of the advantages of a layered AD system is that each AD weapon is tailored to destroy specific threats, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), low flying rotary aircraft, low flying fixed wing aircraft, high flying aircraft, cruise and ballistic missiles. However, a single AD system cannot effectively engage all of these threats. Arguably, the new LAND 19-7B AD system will struggle to engage low flying aircraft that are using terrain shielding to remain undetected by the longer range radars and missiles.
To minimise these capability gaps and supplement the introduction of LAND 19-7B, the Army should look for a tactical AD option. To generate debate, this paper will exmine three potential courses of action to achieve this.
COA 1 – RBS 70 to Direct Fire Support Weapon Platoon (DFSW PL)
Re-roll the RBS 70 to DFSW PL within the infantry battalions. This would create a combined Anti-Air/Anti-Armd PL capability that is organic to the battalions. The equipment, training continuum and logistical support already exists within Army. The RBS-70 could be taught as a skill-set to infantry soldiers - operating principles are similar to current Javelin training, including aircraft recognition as opposed to armoured fighting vehicle (AFV) recognition. This training authority could remain at the School of Artillery with infantry instructors, as per the relationship with mortars and the School. It follows that the training bill would be considerable. The RBS-70 requires continuous training to maintain competency and currency as the skill of the operator is paramount in the ability to guide a missile onto a target. As such, this COA would require one or two days a week of dedicated training on simulators similar to time needed on javelin simulators. With the adoption of AD in DFSW PL, the sustained firing role can be potentially fulfilled through support by fire training within rifle companies; however, this role may be withdrawn altogether with an argument that it is becoming obsolete becausethe new LAND 400 vehicles and weaponry will be better positioned to provide this battlespace effect. It is acknowledged that the sustainability of the RBS-70 to continue in service is questionable, and has not been explored in the context of this discussion paper.
COA 2 – Adoption of a new VSHORAD and Command and Control (C2) system
Noting the RBS 70 system has been in service with the Army since 1989[vii], an updated system could be acquired for use in the battalions. Systems could include the FIM-92 Stinger used by the US Army or the Mistral used by the French. Unlike the RBS-70, which requires the operator to guide the missile onto the target, the Mistral and Stinger are infrared (IR) homing guided missiles (often simply referred to as ‘fire and forget’ systems). These systems would require significantly less training and operator skill compared to the requirements for COA 1. As with COA 1, the capability would be operated by DFSW PL, with tactical employment subject to situation analysis by the battle group. It could be attached to combat teams or tasked with separate missions, such as providing point defence for HQs or logistical nodes. This would mean a battle group conducting manoeuvre dislocated from brigade AD assets would still be able to provide organic AD against enemy rotary wing aircraft.
Depending on the complexity of the system, the responsibility of training soldiers in its operation could be held either at the Air and Missile Defence Wing or within the DFSW basic course. It is important to note that training of the Officer/Non commissioned officer component should have input from the Air and Missile Defence Wing due to the complexity of the Theatre Air Command and Control System. Coordination of this asset would be held at the battalion joint fires and effects coordination centre (JFECC), similar to other organic offensive support assets like mortars, with the DFSW PL Commander being positioned in the JFECC to support this coordination. The battalion JFECC is already responsible for establishing fire support control measures and coordinating airspace movements. The level of coordination and control of this system would dictate whether it would be employed in a defensive role only or be also used in a more complex offensive role.
COA 3 – New MANPAD System for the Combat Teams
This involves the purchase of a new man-portable air defence (MANPAD) system that can be employed by any qualified member of a combat unit and not just from a highly trained member of a specialist platoon. This would be employed at the combat team level in a defensive role only, reducing the number of control measures and training required in the employment of the weapon. This can still be coordinated by an attached joint fires team through their appreciation of the joint fires / strike function and situational awareness of friendly aviation assets. Due to the simplicity of the MANPAD system and its employment, it could also be used in other combat units including armoured, artillery and engineering, as well as our logistics elements in depth. These units would not need to invest a large amount of time to qualify members (and thus reduce the time spent training in their primary roles) as is the case with other direct fire weapon systems. This option could also include multiple MANPAD systems to target different threats. One system could be a directed energy point and shoot counter-unmanned aircraft systems (C-UAS) weapon system and one fire and forget (IR) guided AD weapon. This would be the minimum requirements needed to provide self-defence for a combat unit.
COA 1 is perhaps unfeasible from a collective training perspective, with infantry soldiers unable to dedicate the required time in training on the RBS-70 while still achieving their primary role. The sustainment of the RBS-70 system may also be unacceptable from a major systems perspective, with the RBS-70 coming to the end of its capability life cycle. With COA 3 it could be assumed that any fighting element currently equipped with a 84mm MDFWS would be able to employ these MANPAD systems, including logistical elements. However, this may not be feasible due to the cost related to equipping all, or at least most, of Army’s CTs and other combat elements with multiple MANPAD systems and support equipment. The COA may also be unacceptable in a command and management input, with Defence air assets unlikely to support a wide dissemination of MANPAD systems without suitable command and control measures. These measures may involve procedures and regulations that inhibit the use of MANPADs, therefore defeating the sole reason of having the capacility at such a low level, to defeat local enemy air threats rapidly while dislocated from brigade AD assets. COA 2 decreases the risks identified with COA 1 and 3 with a new MANPAD system, employed by highly trained infantry, and with control and coordination provided by the BG JFECC.
The DWP has addressed the increasing threat from a variety of air and aviation platforms. The Army now needs to evaluate how exposed its ground forces are, even with the improvements to the AD capability through the LAND 19-7B project. Arguably, the Army will not be able to protect large parts of its manoeuvre forces from UAVs and helicopters that are able to operate at low altitudes even with LAND 19-7B. Therefore, the Army should explore options to minimise this gap in protection with the deployment of a tactical AD capability. The three options provided are not without fault, and all would require further analysis. However, each option affords increased protection for our manoeuvre elements. These options would only provide defence against rotary wing and UAV threats; there should be no expectation that a soldier from an infantry battalion would be targeting and shooting down fighters or bombers. However, a new tactical system emplouyed as part of a layered defence would enable 16 ALR to concentrate on strategic level threats and further develop their surveillance and warning capability, leaving the infantry with the ability to destroy future Red Barons as did our predecessors.