Tomorrow's Air Warfare
A German Perspective on the Way Ahead

Lt Col Frank M. Graefe, German Air Force

Wilaya 4
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In years to come, operational scenarios will increasingly require multinational cooperation.1 This notion applies not only to defense alliances with structures already established in peacetime—such as NATO or the European Union of the future—but also, and more particularly, to so-called coalitions of the willing, tailored to the specific requirements of a given mission. Some time ago, for example, the essential program for achieving this interoperability included NATO’s Defense Capability Initiative. Meanwhile, the NATO Response Force, expected to reach its full operational capability in 2006, has become the driving force of transformation and the benchmark of its success. Plans call for equipping the European contingents of the NATO Response Force in a way that ensures they can fully cooperate with US forces across the entire range of operations. Due to the United States’ military-pioneering role and technological superiority, that country will predominantly determine the developments in warfare over the next several decades. Therefore, one would do well to take a closer look at the US policy documents and strategy papers that will govern such developments and to draw lessons from the US conduct of operations during Operation Iraqi Freedom. Doing so will help identify the changes that coalition partners of the United States have to follow in order to ensure compatibility in terms of the conduct of operations.

Lessons learned from Iraqi Freedom make it possible to derive conclusions about air warfare in future conflicts. However, any evaluation of the results from that operation must consider the war’s initial situation:

• Sorties flown in the northern and southern no-fly zones neutralized a major share of the enemy air defense systems before the beginning of hostilities. Furthermore, the Iraqi air force did not fly a single sortie. Thus, the coalition enjoyed air superiority over most of the country from the very beginning, obviating the need for an extended air campaign as a prerequisite for the ground offensive.

• Analysis of the initial deployment must not ignore the fact that since Operation Desert Storm in 1991, coalition forces—some of them with heavy equipment—had remained in the Gulf region, able to prepare for a major force deployment.

• Ultimately, one must consider the differing capabilities of the adversaries involved in the conflict in terms of technology and training. From the very beginning, the Iraqi armed forces, elements of which were more suitable for preventing domestic riots than for conducting warfare, proved incapable of acting jointly. Thus, what took place on the Iraqi side during the operation amounted to a very static land war.

Due to these circumstances, then, one cannot readily apply lessons from the Iraq war to future conflicts. Nevertheless, one can derive some principles from the US transformation concept and the practical course of the war. The central element of the transformation process entails an evolution towards forces that lend themselves to more efficient employment. Future wars will be waged by rapidly deployable, smaller, more mobile, and lighter forces, capable of immediately engaging in combat operations in the theater of operations. In this context, mere force ratio will become less important. Indeed, future operations will exhibit jointness, further development of networkcentric warfare (NCW), intensive employment of special operations forces (SOF), and an increase in information operations. Thus, a faster pace, improved accuracy and flexibility in the conduct of operations, accurate but massive air strikes, and effects-based operations will determine operational planning.2 Other determining factors will include the extended use of outer space; utilization of high technology, smart bombs, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV), which deliver near-real-time reconnaissance results for a networked battlefield; and rapid movement of mobile ground forces.

These trends, occasionally summarized in the media under the term Rumsfeld Doctrine, are reflected in concepts and strategy papers developed to a major extent by military thinkers before Donald Rumsfeld’s second tenure as US secretary of defense. One finds these thoughts particularly well expressed in the military -strategic-policy document known as Joint Vision 2020.3 This article considers the new level of jointness, the capability to conduct NCW, the significance of new sensors and weapons, and the importance of mobility and support.


The war in Iraq marked the fading of air forces’ predominant role and the increasing one played by land forces. In the Gulf War of 1991, the war in Kosovo, and Operation Enduring Freedom, the focus shifted to the capabilities of airpower, with armies relegated to the background. Today, high-tech war waged from the air provides an essential contribution to the reconnaissance and engagement of the enemy’s political and military command and communication structure. Surgical operations conducted over great distances and with substantial precision (which spares the civilian population and minimizes the loss of friendly forces) demonstrate the vital and crucial impact of airpower. Even today, however, airpower alone cannot decisively achieve the operational objective. Accordingly, the ground war during Iraqi Freedom showed that heavy armored units with considerable firepower still constitute a necessary element of combined-arms combat.

In general, although future wars will still require ground forces, airpower and air superiority will continue to have decisive importance for operational success—despite all asymmetric forms of war. For instance, given the endurance and precision of their modern assets, air forces can relieve land forces by preventing the concentration or forming up of the enemy’s army. Moreover, air forces together with naval forces contribute to operational success by deploying personnel and providing logistic support.

The Iraq war clearly showed that success requires each service’s simultaneous, optimized employment of a whole range of diverse, quickly employable weapon systems based on impressive information superiority and information density on the entire battlefield; SOF employment; and information operations. In particular the interaction among SOF personnel; intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets; and air forces, as well as the employment of 802 US Navy Tomahawk land-attack missiles demonstrated an essential aspect of joint warfare. The war also illustrated the advantage and effectiveness of joint operations, which had developed from mere cooperation in terms of deconfliction in 1991 to an exemplary integration. In the future, boundaries between the individual types of air-warfare operations will become blurred or even disappear completely since we can employ weapon platforms more flexibly. Moreover, the increased flow of information will make a clear differentiation between various categories of air operations obsolete with respect to the planning and deconfliction process. The effectiveness of joint warfare also implicitly concludes that smaller but better-trained force components are sufficient for the successful conduct of operations. For instance, ground forces employed in Iraqi Freedom comprised only three US divisions and one British division.

However, this extent of jointness works only if the individual services are closely networked. The Iraq war and other conflicts of the recent past did not include a coherent battlefield with an uninterrupted front line, and one cannot assume such a configuration for future wars. Without networking, armed forces fail to operate efficiently in such an environment. Thus, we can conclude that NCW is an absolute prerequisite for jointness.

Networkcentric Warfare

Characteristics of NCW include speed, information superiority, and flexible decision superiority—the basis for execution superiority. Information superiority depends upon a multitude of different space- and air-based sensors. In this context, future development will include minimizing compatibility problems among different sensors used by the individual services and organizations to gather reconnaissance data. The ultimate objective involves producing a uniform, accessible situation picture in which information from the various domains flows together. The US Air Force has designed its ISR manager, currently under development, to present data provided by Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS), U-2, Rivet Joint, and UAV aircraft, as well as the US Navy’s EP-3 electronic--reconnaissance aircraft, simultaneously in one situation picture. One finds a similar approach in the concept of the MC2A-X multisensor experimental aircraft, designed to integrate on one platform the abilities of AWACS to control air warfare, of JSTARS to monitor land warfare, and of Rivet Joint aircraft to collect signals intelligence. Furthermore, one should consider adding tanker functions to this aircraft’s repertoire.

In order to ensure decision superiority, procedures have been developed and organizations established so that representatives of the reconnaissance, intelligence-service, and military-leadership communities can make coordinated, quick decisions. One finds a negative example—delayed decision making—in the time--consuming targeting process that occurred in the Kosovo war. But the time-sensitive--targeting cell established in the combined air operations center (CAOC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, during the Iraq war enabled forces in the theater of operations to react immediately, thanks to the capability of making rapid decisions.

Only the networking of modern sensors—which can perform battlefield reconnaissance and surveillance in near real time—with weapons provides the basis for information and decision superiority. Such networking directly affects the pace of operations. For instance, it reduced the time required from target acquisition to the release of weapons (i.e., the sensor-to-shooter gap) from days or hours in the Gulf War of 1991 to hours or minutes in Iraqi Freedom. Future technical developments, such as the aforementioned MC2A&127;X and the ISR manager, as well as new procedures will further reduce this gap. In Afghanistan, for instance, a Predator UAV communicated reconnaissance data directly to an AC-130 for the first time. This not only obviated the need for time-consuming data transfer as well as analysis and evaluation in a CAOC, but also allowed the AC-130 to use its weapons directly during first overflight without conducting a preliminary reconnaissance flyby. Additionally, this procedure displayed another essential element of NCW. Specifically, forwarding information to lower levels of command results in more autonomous and decentralized warfare, giving units at those levels more responsibility. This kind of warfare—in which the commander gives lower-level units more freedom and responsibility to fulfill their mission as long as they act in accordance with overall tactics—has been part of German warfare doctrine since the mid-nineteenth century; it is known as Auftragstaktik. That is why we think German forces are well prepared to employ NCW in this regard.

In order to avoid losing contact with the digitized network system of NCW, one must establish the following prerequisites: inter-operability, modern means of identification, the ensuring of swift decision making, improvement of joint planning, and further technological development of sensors and weapons. In the future, NCW will link reconnaissance results from outer space and the air with intelligence, the command and communication level, and the battlefield. It does not replace direct combat, however. The information edge and distribution of information to appropriate levels can minimize but not eliminate the Clausewitzian “fog of war.”


The fact that 10 types of UAVs equipped with different sensors saw action in the Iraq war illustrates their increased significance in various operations. Their importance will continue to grow in view of the replaceability and manifold employment options of unmanned systems. The endurance of UAVs allows them to loiter over or pursue a target until a weapon system arrives to engage it (see the above-mentioned example of the Predator and the AC-130). Alternatively, plans call for equipping UAVs themselves with weapons—witness the arming of the Predator with Hellfire missiles, which has set a trend in this regard. UAVs are also performing ISR. In the Iraq war, almost no manned tactical aircraft conducted penetrating air-reconnaissance missions. Apart from satellite reconnaissance, UAVs such as the Predator or Global Hawk performed standoff, high-altitude, or penetrating reconnaissance.

Due to the UAV’s all-weather and night-fighting capability, weather conditions and darkness-related restrictions will become less significant factors in warfare. These unmanned systems make it possible to fight accurately at night, without either restrictions or detection by the enemy. They can also employ weapons accurately in fog, clouds, smoke, or haze. Thus, the battlefield of the future will no longer offer the enemy any sanctuaries since UAVs can monitor and engage forces around-the-clock. An all-weather, night-fighting capability will become an indispensable prerequisite for any participation in air operations.

Domination of outer space will become a greater factor in air superiority. Although space-based military and civilian systems deliver communication, reconnaissance, and weather data, only satellites permit the employment of new weapons controlled by the global positioning system (GPS), such as the Joint Direct Attack Munition. With their synchronized time base, satellites play an essential role in NCW. During Iraqi Freedom, a total of 27 satellites determined the position of friendly and foreign forces and identified target coordinates.

The Iraqis’ attempt to jam the GPS marked the beginning of “navigation warfare,” in which asymmetrical countermeasures will seek to deny access to state-of-the-art navigation means. After the Iraq war, Secretary Rumsfeld announced accelerated implementation of “navigation warfare doctrine,” designed to deny the enemy the utilization of the GPS while ensuring its military usage by friendly forces. This would involve local jamming of the civilian GPS signal or using new technologies.


Operations showed that preplanned actions in the classical modes are becoming less significant due to short-notice changes to the mission and the allocation of targets to aircraft during a sortie. These procedures require flexibility in terms of command, control, employment, and armament. Modern platforms develop into multirole aircraft designed for several modes of employment and capable of carrying as many types of munitions as possible.

The choice of munition changes the appearance of air warfare. Developments in arms technology lead to improvement in precision capability and the utilization of several different control systems in a weapon (e.g., laser-guided, satellite-controlled, and inertially guided systems). As a result, operations become more cost-effective, optimization of weapons employment to the target improves, and the risk of collateral damage declines. For instance, the relatively low number of civilian casualties in the Iraq war and images showing the largely intact cityscape of Baghdad reflect the success of efforts to spare civilian targets, as does preservation of the civilian infrastructure and economic basis in order to establish a postwar order.

To some extent, coalition aircraft used inert bombs during the war to emphasize the effect of bombing rather than the effect of weapons. However, despite the high technology, dumb bombs represented 30 percent of all munitions dropped because of their usefulness against certain targets—for example, the engagement of mechanized units. All in all, one observes a trend away from preplanned to dynamic targeting and from classical attrition bombing to effects-based bombing.

The employment of strategic bombers in cooperation with SOF personnel suggests that their endurance and load capacity will make them significant weapon systems for the future, whenever we establish air superiority as a prerequisite for their employment. Thanks to their range, obtaining basing permissions for them is not necessary. In the future, only a command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance platform that is secure, fast, effective in near real time, and redundant will assure the establishment of air superiority. The integration of other armed forces in technological and procedural terms will become more difficult because of the accelerated development of US airpower.

Mobility and Support

In this context, one must take into consideration the factors of combat service support. Logistics must be able to stay abreast of this quick-paced conduct of operations. For instance, during Iraqi Freedom, the capacity of the logistics system determined the pace of the land forces. Turkey’s refusal to let US forces operate from its territory underscores our dependence on basing rights, an issue that will become particularly significant in the future.

We must also have the ability to deploy forces quickly and over great distances. One option entails acting early and deploying forces to smaller, temporary locations in or near potential crisis areas, as occurred in the Iraq war. Another option involves strategically relocating forces, as the United States did when it moved the 173rd Airborne Brigade from Italy to the theater of operations in northern Iraq and airlifted the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit directly from the Mediterranean Sea into the combat area.

Since we can transport only a small percentage of personnel and materiel by air, we must begin to concentrate on permanently relocating weapon systems to sea-based contingents all over the world. During the aforementioned air-land operation in northern Iraq, a C-17 transport aircraft relocated an M-1 Abrams tank for the first time, but relocating a single tank with a C-17 requires too much effort. From the sea, however, one can project military power worldwide, collect enemy information at an early stage, and become less dependent upon support bases and foreign-sovereignty issues. Using large, fast transport platforms (e.g., airlifters) to conduct strategic sealift and airlift will determine the course of future warfare.


The insights gained from Iraqi Freedom will have a lasting influence on the doctrine of future (air) wars. Jointness, networkcentric warfare, and, in particular, improvements in sensors and weapons characterize this new form of war, which will change the “classical picture” of armed forces and have implications for the structure and equipment of the armed services. But the asymmetry typical of this war does not permit a generally valid conclusion. Regardless, we have crossed the threshold of a new form of warfare. A nation that does not follow this development will find itself unable to meet the standards required of a coalition partner in future wars.

By implementing the NATO Response Force, the alliance has demonstrated its understanding of this message. NATO seriously approaches transformation by reorganizing alliance structures, armed forces, and capabilities. Doing so will serve to gradually close the often quoted transatlantic gap in the fields of technology and the conduct of operations, thus strengthening NATO as the key transatlantic link.


1. During the course of Operation Iraqi Freedom, all 29 students of the 47th German Air Force Command and Staff College course at the Führungsakademie in Hamburg (the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College) evaluated the lessons learned from the air war over Iraq. They produced a 200-page study published in Germany and disseminated throughout the German Air Force. This article derives from that study’s last chapter, written by the author.

2. One glossary defines effects-based operations (EBO) as “a process for obtaining a desired strategic outcome or ‘effect’ on the enemy, through the synergistic, multiplicative, and cumulative application of the full range of military and nonmilitary capabilities at the tactical, operational, and strategic levels.” Joint Forces Command Glossary, Decisive action takes place directly against an enemy’s critical vulnerabilities and centers of gravity in order to achieve effects formerly attainable only after long periods of tactical and operational attrition. For instance, during Iraqi Freedom, coalition forces took pains to spare the energy-supply system, transportation infrastructure, and media institutions so as to enhance the postwar order. EBO offers an opportunity to reduce costs and avoid collateral damage. Doing so helps justify war in the public eye—a requirement that will become even more significant in the future.

3. Joint Vision 2020 (Washington, DC: Joint Chiefs of Staff, 2000).

Lt Col Frank M. Graefe (MS, University of Armed Forces, Munich, Germany) is commander, 2nd Squadron, Fighter Wing (FW) 71 “Richthofen,” Wittmund Air Base (AB), Germany. He has served in a variety of flying and staff positions, including operational flying in FW 73 “Steinhoff,” Laage AB, Germany, and FW 74, Neuburg AB, Germany. Colonel Graefe started basic flying training at Sheppard AFB, Texas, and attended operational training course F-4 at Holloman AFB, New Mexico. He is now a senior pilot with over 1,000 flight hours in the F-4F Phantom. Colonel Graefe is a graduate of the Fuehrungsakademie—the German Armed Forces Command and Staff College, Hamburg.


Article published in Air & Space Power Journal

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