The Toothless Air Force
September 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sweden’s Air Force has virtually no capacity to deliver strike missions.
It is obvious to any student of developments in Ukraine that air power has been instrumental in defeating enemy vehicle columns, artillery positions and troop concentrations. It is also abundantly clear that the Ukrainian air force has suffered gravely in the conflict by operating in an environment where enemy anti-air defence has become increasingly more effective.
How would the Swedish Air Force cope with a similar task – a task that is ostensibly part of its job description? The answer, unsurprisingly, is: not at all.
On Twitter, prominent defence commentator and Swedish Air Force Major Carl Bergqvist aka Wiseman commented that air strike, specifically Close Air Support (CAS), is ”the most expensive and least effective use of an air force”. The following is an elaboration on the background of that statement.
What does an air force actually do?
The [Swedish] Air Force is devoted to air combat. This is the somewhat simplified task of our Air Force in an actual conflict.
The accepted truth about our Air Force’s mission and capability is that our relatively small complement of JAS 39 Gripen shall be employed exclusively to gain and sustain air superiority.
Air superiority shall be won in the context of operational security, that is, with due concern for avoiding losses so that the armed forces, including the Air Force, may execute secondary missions – concurrently and over time.
Opsec is critically important: loss of assets directly affects our ability to maintain air superiority and transfers the initiative to the opponent. What kind of loss can our Air Force sustain before it becomes operationally irrelevant? Let us revisit that question later on.
Gaining and maintaining air superiority is a classic and primary mission for any air force. It is critical for maintenance of the force in being and to protect other high value assets, such as command centres, signals and radar systems, from destruction by the enemy.
The contest for air superiority takes place well away from our territorial border and must be won anew with the appearance of any enemy air mission. This is the mission in a nutshell and rather than describe it in detail I will now discuss the opportunity afforded by air superiority. Assuming that air superiority has been won – temporarily and spatially – for what purpose shall it be exploited?
Loads of JAS?
First of all we need to get a grip of our actual resources, before exploring what missions our Air Force can execute besides fighting for air superiority.
Most analysts probably share the view that we have far too few aircraft to consider secondary missions. With fewer than 90 JAS 39-C/D on establishment, to be reduced to a grand total of 70 in coming years, it is virtually unthinkable that even a single one of them are diverted to anything but pure air superiority missions.
You might think that 90 aircraft sounds like an awful lot, and that while 70 are somewhat fewer they may still be sufficient? Now consider that our wartime organisation comprise four multirole divisions (squadrons), each with an establishment of 12 fighters. A small overhead is held in reserve, used for pilot training or are subject to repairs or overhaul. I am not privy to details, but let us assume that each division have 6 spare platforms. This is likely a generous allotment, but let us use that as a basis for now.
Based on this computation the Air Force musters 72 JAS 39, which, incidentally, is the planned establishment for the 2020-decade. A number of today’s 88 specimens are leased to international customers, subject to refurbishment and/or not available for other reasons. Thus it appears relevant to use the figure of 70 platforms for any estimate of current and future capability.
Two of our fighting divisions, each with 12+6 JAS 39, are based in the arctic city of Luleå with the 21st Flotilla (F21). The remaining two are based in the south of Sweden, at Ronneby with the 17th Flotilla (F17). That is the not-so-grand total, in an organisation operating at 100%. In wartime we should count ourselves lucky if we can attain a serviceability and availability rate of 70%.
Unconfirmed information from credible sources suggests that Sweden can muster no more than two operational fighter divisions – not four, as I have detailed above. I surmise that these two non-operational divisions do not want for platforms but lack fully trained and experienced pilots capable of concerted action. If so, Sweden’s peacetime border air patrol and our wartime organisation, today and for the immediate future, rests on the shoulders and faculties of 24 combat pilots. They are most likely evenly distributed with 12 in the Arctic and 12 in the south of Sweden.
Sheer numbers is however no more than a quarter of the whole: we must also consider armament, pilot quality and base organisation, as well as the fifth wheel: the political decision that allows or disallows weapon deployment.
Note that I am not sufficiently informed to offer specific details about any of these topics. In the following, I offer no more than what is in the public realm and my own conclusions based on best guesstimates.
Our fighters are currently equipped with air-to-air missiles that compares evenly with those of Russia in terms of range and capability. There are technical differences that also impact tactics to some degree, however, the weaponry is roughly at parity. Tech specs aside we must also consider stocks and platform load-out: how many missiles do we have available; how soon can they be brought forward from storage; and for how long can we sustain a fight before stocks are depleted? For one thing, each Su-27 Flanker can carry twice the number of AMRAAM’s in comparison with JAS 39, a force multiplier on the order of one full magnitude.
JAS 39 will be the first platform to carry the new MDBA Meteor AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Range Air-to-Air Missile). This is a game-changer whose full import has yet to be understood by the relatively disinterested constituency, other than through the writings (in Swedish) of the afore-mentioned Major Bergqvist. According to Bergqvist, our (AMRAAM) armoury consists of no more than approximately 100 aging and dubiously effective AIM-102B missiles, i.e. one missile per fighter in the establishment. Meteor will radically enhance our capability – when fully delivered, which I reckon will occur by 2016. Until then our Air Force goes to war with a rusty knife in a machine-gun fight.
I cannot comment on the quality of our pilots with any confidence but assume that they measure well against international standards. What we do know is that they do not get anywhere near the flight hours to uphold exemplary proficiency in all three roles that they are expected to perform. Substantial budget cuts has dealt debilitating blows against unit training, which directly affects our operational capability. Pilots, more than any other group of armed forces specialists, require constant exercise to maintain and extend their proficiency – in cooperation with ground-based fighter controllers and operational staff.
In our old, now defunct, base organisation the Air Force operated out of distributed secondary wartime bases, backed up by pre-arranged road airstrips with taxiways, POL dumps and revetments hidden in wooded terrain. Today our wartime divisions operate out of their peacetime airbases in Luleå and Ronneby, localities that are naturally well known and reconnoitred by a potential aggressor and whose coordinates are most likely pre-set in enemy missile systems. In case of a surprise first strike both these base areas are uppermost on the enemy priority list.
Besides having concentrated our resources to facilitate a rapid destruction at the hands of a potential enemy, we have also mothballed and/or dismantled our nuclear-proof communication centres, postponed the acquisition of suitable short- and medium range surface-to-air missile systems, and decommissioned the ground forces required for defence against enemy reconnaissance, sabotage, pre-emptive strikes and outright assault. In short, our base organisation is sorely lacking in all respects. Here too, I recommend further study of Wiseman’s Wisdoms (yes, in Swedish).
The political decision
The fifth wheel under the wagon is our dear politicians, on whose strategic acumen and tactical insight we must rely in the case of approaching crisis. Let us assume that we have raised our defensive condition (a thorny issue in and of itself that require months of bickering and deliberation) and armed our fighters with live AAMs. Presently a supposedly hostile marine expedition, preceded by a canopy of air assets, approach the strategic island of Gotland: now, in the space of a few minutes, our Commander in Chief, through the Prime Minister and the Government, must issue orders to employ deadly force in the defence of our border and territory.
How do we assess the probability that the order will be given in due time to exploit the minimal window of opportunity wherein our fire can produce critical effect? Will the PM, or the C-in-C on his own responsibility, say as our erstwhile PM Thorbjörn Fälldin did in the face of the oncoming Russian navy during the ”U-193 crisis” in the summer of 1980: ”Hold the border!”?
How much time is needed to roll out and arm our fighters with anti-ship missiles to defeat the only high-value target their employment warrant, namely, large invasion craft? Does our numerically inferior Air Force have the wherewithal to penetrate the protective cordon of some 60-70 enemy fighters and reach firing range before they hit the shore? The answer to all these questions is a careful: we don’t know.
It is quite beyond the pale to assume that we, the peace-loving country of Sweden, would launch a pre-emptive missile strike against purportedly hostile assault craft while they are still in port or enroute on international waters, with or without a prior declaration of war that will in any way never be issued. That notion is simply too ludicrous to even contemplate.
12 would-be heroes
Now then, in a developing state of war over, say, Gotland, the pilots at F17 will bear the brunt of the first assault. One, maybe both, of the Arctic divisions will probably be held in reserve.
Assuming that both fighter divisions at Ronneby are operational our territorial integrity is in the hands of twenty-four incomprehensibly brave pilots. In any fight half of them will be held in reserve to back up losses and to sortie as/if the first mission returns to base. This is our line-up in the battle for air superiority. In the worst-case scenario they are no more than twelve all told.
These heroic twelve, assuming that they escape potential hostile ambushes enroute to their aircraft, and assuming that they are fit, rested and mentally prepared for combat, shall immediately sortie to enforce the nation’s extended aerial border. They may, or may not, be reinforced by a couple of flights or even a whole division from the Arctic region. These reinforcements, however, will have a hard time landing and reloading at Ronneby due to congestion, shortage of materiel and overworked ground staff. What is more, they will further add to our strategic vulnerability by concentration of all flying assets in a single location.
These capable men and women, twelve plus four, or twelve plus eight, shall manoeuver to defeat single contacts and/or groups of hostile aircraft numbering anything from 30 to 60 platforms – or, at the very least, suggest that they turn back without executing their mission. These numbers, 30-60 aircraft, is what Russia has only recently practiced with in its Western Military District. Our effort must be dimensioned against such numbers.
A best-case scenario
Let us assume that our Gripens in three or four flights of four, armed with the world’s best AA missiles, manage to dissuade the oncoming hostile package. The Gripens return to (their only) base where they are relieved by the reserve, who barrel off with lit afterburners to continue the fight.
It is eminently possible that our fighters return all but intact from their first mission. However, considering that half of our available force has been used up in the initial bout, that they are vastly outnumbered, and that the balance must immediately take off to maintain a semblance of air superiority – then there is no capacity whatsoever left for secondary missions.
The grim truth is that our Air Force will most likely be overwhelmed, fatigued and marginalized in a matter of a day, at best a few days – if not to say hours – in the case of a major conflict.
Even if the conflict were to be small in scope, inasmuch the aggressor only deploys a fraction of his force against us; the entire Air Force will be required to ensure air superiority in any one particular area.
The non-existent strike mission
Let us now return to my starting point: what is air superiority good for? In short: as a basis for further air superiority contests.
Our limited numbers, and its concomitant base organisation and limited command-and-control capability, effectively restricts us from performing any other mission than air superiority.
Our Navy and Army know that they, regardless of the situation at large, will never enjoy direct support from the Air Force. Fair enough, they receive indirect support if the skies remain friendly, but that is it. They will never, such as other notable nations, have close air support at their beck and call. The Navy and Army fights alone.
JAS stands for Jakt Attack Spaning, or Fighter Strike Recon. If my longwinded essay is correct our Air Force can only deliver Fighter and Recon missions. Strike missions are quite beyond its capability, other than the very limited capacity for deploying standoff missiles against invasion craft and static installations. Close Air Support is simply not on.
This is somewhat troubling as the classical priority of air force missions, as postulated by British Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Tedder, commander of the Allied Air Force in North Africa in 1943, runs thus:
- Fighter sweeps to clear the enemy out of the sky.
- Escort for light and medium bombers.
- Interception of enemy aircraft.
- Fighter-bombers to provide CAS for ground forces.
Very well. The reader should now be aware that Sweden does not have separate strike or bomber aircraft: these (potential) missions shall also be conducted by our few multi-role JAS 39, who, as we have seen, are barely enough to ensure very local and very limited air superiority. If, repeat if, we should deploy a few Gripen for a strike mission, then two critical parameters are amiss: weapons and practice.
For strike purposes, Sweden possesses an unknown quantity of laser-guided and GPS/laser-guided GBU-12 and GBU-49 Paveway bombs with such small warhead as to demand a direct hit in order to ensure destruction of a specific target such as a SAM command vehicle. In our one and only central warehouse in Arboga there are, supposedly, a number of aging Maverick missiles of dubious value, which, unfortunately, cannot be employed. The Mavericks are incompatible with the current and upcoming Gripen version, and, besides that, our pilots have hardly practiced their employment nor can they be expected to survive the attack were it to be launched. The only remaining weapon fit for ground attack is Gripen’s fixed 27 mm autocannon – a weapon that, aside its small clip, can only be used with reckless abandon and virtually guaranteed annihilation in an environment dominated by enemy fixed, mobile and man-portable anti-aircraft missiles.
This is where the thesis ”the most expensive and least effective use of an air force” comes home to roost. For, without standoff missiles that can be launched outside enemy weapon parameters and thus ensure or at the least improve mission survivability, Swedish pilots would have to sacrifice their precious lives and platforms in exchange for the possible destruction of an easily replaceable low-cost system such as a command vehicle or MANPADs. No one is prepared or expected to accept that trade.
I dare not guess when our pilots last practiced weapons delivery in a realistic environment. Taking into account the low valuation of the mission and the low probability that the mission is ever called for, it is quite safe to assume that the topic is hardly even in the pilot curriculum, other than as a theoretical afterthought. The only instance of air strike that I have noticed recently was caught on camera as a JAS 39 practiced strafing during a joint exercise with our Baltic colleagues this past spring. It is likely that our pilots practice strafing against ground targets to some extent, however, I deem it quite unlikely that they practice flight or squadron strike, or CAS, in such measure as to become operationally proficient. And why should they – the probability that they will ever have to fire at ground targets, or be given the opportunity to do so, is virtually nil.
The immediate consequence of our miniscule organisation is not limited to the fact that we have a display window defence. It also implies that every reinforcement, according to unilateral promises and any future joint agreement, to our easterly brother States, immediately weakens our capacity to enforce our national integrity. How many fighters can we possibly divert to the defence of Finland or Estonia? Four, tops, before seriously weakening our capability.
Very well. Recall that I wondered what losses in platforms and/or pilots our Air Force can sustain before becoming operationally irrelevant? I submit that with a grand total of twenty-four, we can hardly afford losing a single one. It would be a national disaster to lose four, and a calamity to lose eight.
This sad state of affairs should be borne in mind in any discussion featuring our armed forces’ capacity in peace as well as in war. Next time you see a flight of four Gripen swoosh out over the Baltic you may, with some basis in fact, be looking at about half, or at best a third, of our national fighter strength. Do you still wish to dismantle our national defence?