Air-Land combat, the key to future conflicts

WebSeries “Air-Land Battle by 2030” #1

Faced with new generations of weapons and new forms of war, the West’s air supremacy is set to become increasingly limited. Air-land combat will therefore become decisive, involving radical changes to land forces.

The paradigm shift that has been taking place for the past fifteen years, and the attacks of 11 September 2001, can be characterised by three new developments.

Western military supremacy is increasingly threatened by other key players

Firstly, contemporary urban terrorism now systematically seeks to give all its operations an extremist dimension, both in terms of the number of human lives lost and the symbolic significance of its actions. The destruction of the World Trade Center, the symbol of America’s economic power, is the best example of this. Terrorist organisations and armed revolutionary groups (Al Qaeda, Islamic State, and more) are no longer content to take action solely in the theatre of operations where they are engaged with our armed forces. They now project strength and power far away from their direct area of influence, striking the sanctuary of our own nations. And this displaced violence is not only for the purposes of reprisals against the state. It is accompanied by an information war aimed not only at confusing Western public opinion, but also to create a climate of tension in the targeted societies, in order to destabilise them where possible, and advance the assailant’s ideology among their people. As such, Islamic State — and violent Salafism more broadly- are successors of the revolutionary movements that came with the decolonisation process, with radical Islam replacing Marxism.

A disputed Western military supremacy

Furthermore, the opponent is no longer just a ‘gang’, like the Red Army Faction or Action Directe, or a nationalist organisation like the PLO or ETA. They often resemble developing states (Islamic State), with a territory, an administration, substantial financial resources and well-equipped armed forces, forcing the opponent to engage in combat that is less and less focused on counter-insurgency, and more and more on high-intensity conflict, with terrorism being only one of its methods of action.

Finally, Western military supremacy is increasingly threatened by other key players. We are seeing a re-emergence of former major powers such as Russia and China, as well as others. They have the will and the means to acquire the military tools to deter the West from any attack on their vital interests. It was in this context that Russia was able to take action in Georgia in 2008, as well as defending its interests in Ukraine since 2014, banking on the West’s reluctance to risk any confrontation with it. In addition, these states are no longer content to operate within the limits of their traditional sphere of influence. Russia is asserting its power in Syria. China has been placing its pawns in the Sea of Japan and the South China Sea. With Defence Technological and Industrial Bases (DTIB) that are either modern (Russia) or under development (China), these states are not only capable of competing with Western companies when it comes to export, but also to supply the powers that can afford it with extremely powerful defence equipment, able to deter any Western intervention, in particular by establishing areas where access to Western air forces and navies is denied[1], with multiple operational consequences which we will come back to.

A single, intercontinental theatre of operations

As a consequence of these three key changes, the wars that we now face — or risk facing — are symmetrically characterised by three new elements.

We are seeing a return to Operational Defence of the Territory

Firstly, the expanding theatres, whose scope is now intercontinental, unprecedented since the Second World War. The Sahel-Saharan region, Syria, Iraq, as well as France and its European allies also affected by terrorism, now constitute a single theatre of operations in which we face the same enemy that we are fighting on two fronts. The war is no longer limited to external operations. We are seeing a return to Operational Defence of the Territory (DOT in French), with an increasingly narrowing continuum between security and defence — 10,000 soldiers are currently deployed in France alone.

We are then faced with a combination of ‘hybrid warfare’ -with classic counter-insurgency techniques, and ‘high-intensity warfare’, in light of the growing military capabilities (armoured vehicles, MANPADS, etc.) of the armed groups that we face. Counter-terrorism cannot therefore be limited to intelligence gathering by government services, nor to its use by security forces, or the judicial phase. We are now fighting an embryo state that is forcing us to combine all forms of combat, classic anti-terrorism, counter-insurgency, and violent combat (Adrar des Ifoghas, etc.)

With regard to ‘information warfare’, which accompanies the battles mentioned above, it has never before reached such a scale or held such importance. The opponent is striving for a ‘cyber-levée en masse’, by communicating and exerting its influence through social media and the press, which is difficult for a democratic state to neutralise. The war of images, concepts and ideas is now crucial, and its implications on the battlefield (the need to limit collateral damage, to win over hearts and minds, to convince public opinion as well as people in the theatres where we operate) are decisive.

France must remain a framework nation of NATO and the European Union

Faced with these new challenges, Western military forces must respond.

France, in particular, needs to adapt its capabilities. If it is to retain the ability to be first to enter a non-permissive theatre, it must now rethink the size of its armed forces and their modes of action. Given the A2/AD zones that the military could face in the future, it now needs to think about how to neutralise enemy resources, as well as accepting the possibility of encountering a situation where the sky no longer necessarily belongs to our air force, or those of our allies. In this context, artillery, for example, will play a decisive role, thanks to its capabilities in ground-based air defence, allowing our units to manoeuvre under protection, and through its ability to strike deep into enemy territory to reach targets whose destruction was previously entrusted to our fighter aircraft. Ground forces will also need to focus on producing mass effects, through increased staffing, and the development of collaborative combat and optimal joint action. This will require the implementation of all the resources necessary for high-performance C4ISR.

Such adaptation calls for critical technological capabilities to be harnessed through our DTIB, to allow France to independently develop and acquire, if necessary, the most modern defence resources. This does indeed involve a financial effort, but this is simply the price we must pay to remain a framework nation of NATO and the European Union, that is to say, a nation able to manage and lead multinational forces as part of a coalition, through complete control of command and control systems and joint procedures.

Philippe Migault

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