Role of Airpower in Humanitarian and Counter Terrorist Operations

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Air power is a relatively modern addition to the arsenals of the armies and defense forces of the World. The first powered, controlled and sustained human flight in a ‘heavier than air craft’ was made in 1903 by the Wright brothers1. Though barely a century old, this new addition has transformed the nature of warfare, much like the advent of gun powder, or the domestication of the horse by the nomadic steppe dwellers2, and may well constitute the only evolution in military affairs since the invention of gun powder and the rifle.

The first record of the use of a powered air craft for military purposes was during the World War I3. Since then, the nature of warfare and the role of the air craft have under gone several changes. But the most radical changes have been in the aircrafts themselves. They are no longer cumbersome creatures. They are maneuverable, easily deployable machines. They are lean, mean fighting machines. They are likes the predatory birds of the sky. But they are not always the instruments of death and mayhem. They are being used extensively in many humanitarian and philanthropic operations. They have become an indispensable part of the modern day battle space. They form the main thrust of the initial attack, they provide security to the next wave of land attack, and they support and maintain the LOC and troops ahead.

This essay focuses on two aspects of the use of air power in present day warfare. The first segment focuses on the use of Air Power in combating terrorism, while the latter segment is based on the role of the air power in humanitarian interventions. The divergent nature of these two aspects is a succinct overview of the multifaceted dimensions that the modern day air forces operate in, and influence, and by the very nature of this ‘rich man’s arm4’ modern day warfare has been transformed into a duel of technology.

1. Air Power in Counter Terrorism

The role of airpower in Counter Terrorism operations is a complex one, and is left almost entirely up to the commander to initiate and innovate ways in which he can utilize this valuable asset. They are being used as force multipliers, in various conflicts which are raging around the world. The GWOT following the 9/11 attacks by Al Qaeda and the ensuing Operation Enduring Freedom saw a new wave of versatile tactics which relied very heavily on air power to counter and defeat terrorists.

To analyze the role of airpower in counter terrorist operations, we have to go into an over view of the terrorist operations and the counter terrorist operations.

1.1 Terrorism Defined

Terrorist operations are acts of indiscriminate violence that often make use ‘terror’ to further a political or ideological goal of the party who uses it. It is characterized, like insurgency, on attacks on the system as well as the use of mass propaganda to spread the ‘wave of terror’. They have little regard for collateral and non combatant damage, and would use any possible means to disrupt the established norms within a country or system.

In fact, terrorism and insurgency make use of the same ‘guerilla tactics’5 in most cases, and a strict differentiation between the two could prove to be difficult. Insurgency groups, who often fight for their liberation and to stop the oppression have been in most cases dubbed as ‘Terrorists’ by the regime. One most important such classification of this is in the case of Kashmir liberation fighters, who are being dubbed as terrorists by India. The LTTE of Sri Lanka, who have been fighting for an autonomous region of Jaffna are also termed as terrorist factions. The Hezbollah also suffers the same negative characterization.

The users are referred to as ‘Terrorists’. The United Nations Security Council resolution 1373 categorizes ‘acts of terror’ as criminal acts which are subject to domestic jurisdiction6. Terrorism is the phenomenon of actors, acts and the ideological and political motive behind the perpetrators’ acts.

Another definition of terrorism might be “the calculated use of violence or threat of violence to inculcate fear; intended to coerce or to intimidate governments or societies in the pursuit of goals that are generally political, religious, or ideological.7”

1.2 Counter Terrorism Defined

Counter Terrorism is the multi faceted and multi dimensional techniques, tactics and strategies used by Security Forces (SF) to counter terrorism, and can be generally taken as the Offensive measures to target and defeat terrorism. Anti terrorism is synonymous with this, and carries a less confrontational connotation, but is used less often, and can be generally taken to mean the broad spectrum of defensive measures taken to safeguard against or deter possible terrorist attacks8.

Counter Terrorism, when used in the context of the military, refers to the actions of the Army, Navy and Air Force in directly and indirectly engaging the Terrorists in combat, and defeating them. This is a very complex and dangerous task, the rigorous training undertaken by Special Forces and Counter Terrorist Teams of the Armies of the world is testimony to the fact.

The onus of such operations is on joint planning and execution, with the various arms and services serving out very peculiar and particular roles in the whole ORBAT, and each service get its share of being the main effort. But, as evident from the operational history, it is the Army in general and the Special Forces and CT teams in particular that hog the lime light. Notwithstanding the fact, the role of the air force is very crucial, and cannot be ignored.

1.3 Modus Operandi

A major part of these operations are based on gathering Intelligence and the use of propaganda and other means to combat the ideological and doctrinal core of the terrorist organization9. Since terrorists are extremely cautious and cunning, it is difficult to identify and contain them.

Another aspect of such operations is the training in the guerilla tactics used by the insurgents and terrorists. I use the word ‘insurgents’ here, because there is little difference when it comes to legality and practice10. While a Terrorist faction might be characterized by indiscriminate violence, Insurgency often resort to that, especially when non-violent or less violent means have been frustrated. They both carry equally negative meanings in the legal context of their existence, and such a differentiation is not the onus if this paper.

Guerilla warfare is the main means and methods used by terrorists and insurgents. Their tactical doctrine is based on quick hit and run operations, which are highly mobile in nature. They rarely give pitched battle due to the restrictions on amount of fire power available as well as the absence of more cumbersome support weapons11. Exceptions are there, as in the case of the Sri Lankan LTTE who use and array of sophisticated support weapons and tactics to fight the Sri Lankan Military.

2. Role of Airpower in Counter Terrorism Operations

Airpower is crucial in the fight against terror. It may sound ironical in light of the fact that the worst terrorist attack on US soil was caused by terrorists using aircrafts as missiles. But the fact remains that the air is the easiest and most accessible means of approach to any land mass on earth, and often the most covert.

2.1 Air Power Capabilities

One cannot negate the fact that the Air Force provides very valuable, unique and very flexible capabilities that can heighten the overall perception of the situation as well as provide means for a quicker response. A quick perusal of these capabilities is very important to develop an appreciation for the role of air power in countering terrorism.

Aircrafts are capable of operating over vast distances, and can deliver a variety of effects from such, with minimal intrusion and often within a very short time frame. This ensures that the ‘military foot print’ is minimal, and is especially crucial in areas where public support has to be maintained. The presence of a larger force might cause resentment, thus, by using the Air Force, one can target even HVT (High Value Targets) without much incurring much wrath.

The air force also has the rapid deployment capabilities, whereby men, equipment and stores can be moved quickly. In addition, it can reduce the F2T2EA Kill chain (find-fix-track-target, engage, assess), which makes it all the more adapted to fight the terrorists, because effective use can be made of fleeting chances.12 Coupled with other capabilities like Precision Engagement and rapid disengagement as well as being technologically superior makes the modern day air forces a deadly weapon in the fight against terror.

2.2 Dimensions of Air Space & Air Power

The dimensions of air power discussed in this paper with regards to the Counter Terrorist Operation are the traditional role of the air force, either in mobility or strike operations, the role of the air borne special forces in counter terrorist operations, the role of space based satellite and other Geo Spatial assets which contribute to the overall operational awareness. Lastly, the unique role of the very recent Air Force Special Forces would be discussed.

3. Intelligence Operations

As mentioned in the outset, the Counter terrorist operations rely very heavily on intelligence, and the timely collection of accurate information and the rapid dissemination of the data in NRT (Near Real Time) form forms the backbone of all such operations. Information has to be timely, accurate and it has to be passed on quickly to the commanders on ground, to enable them to make use of the fleeting chances this mode of combat offers.

The F2T2EA Kill Chain, which is the sequential process of Find-Fix-Track-Target-Engage-Assess, can be relatively long drawn and comfortably executed in conventional operations, when the assets used by the enemy are large targeting is relatively easy. But, this kill chain is very protracted when it comes to counter terrorist operations, where the target is very elusive. The use of air force assets in such operations greatly reduce the chances of the enemy escaping, and can also engage the enemy upon detection and identification.

3.1 Traditional Air Borne Intelligence Gathering

As mentioned above, counter terrorism, due to the very nature of the opposition, relies very heavily on accurate and time intelligence. While the most commonly used and reliable source would be operatives behind or within insurgent ranks, additional means have to be sought to counter increased security on the part of the insurgents themselves, as well as the increased decentralization, which makes human operatives more likely to be detected. In addition, Counter Terrorist Ops rely heavily on NRT Data (Near Real Time), which compels the use of an aerial observatory or platform13.

Given the challenges faced by the HUMINT (Human Intelligence) other means such as manned aerial vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles as well as space based platforms have to be used. “The use of aerial surveillance vehicles is very much useful if the insurgents are operating in remote areas, in which case specially equipped crafts can monitor the area and conduct aerial reconnaissance. Working with signals intelligence (SIGINT), aerial reconnaissance and surveillance uses imagery and infrared systems to find hidden base camps and insurgent defensive positions. Persistent aerial surveillance can often identify people, vehicles, and buildings-even when they are hidden under heavy growth. Manned and unmanned aircraft (like the RQ1A Predator and the Hunter)14 can patrol roads to locate insurgent ambushes and improvised explosive devices. Another addition to this is the stand-off assets like the RC-135 Rivet Joint, which is especially useful when there exists a threat of an attack, or intervention into another nation’s airspace might become politically sensitive15. Increasingly, there is reliance on assets like the Predator to target and engage the enemy, because the assets themselves are being used as launching pads. This greatly reduces the above mentioned kill chain, and means more operational security and higher success ratios.

Air-mounted SIGINT collection platforms can detect insurgent communications and locate their points of origin”16. Prolonged and sustained observation of areas can deny the enemy ground and prevent him from amassing force, either to plan operations or for training17.

3.2 Role of Helicopters in Intelligence Gathering

Another major player is the helicopter, which is important due to the role is plays in providing over watch and observatory services, as well as alternative means of communication. It should be borne in mind that the information is useful if only timely and decisive action is taken. In addition, highly valuable assets like the MILSTAR (Military Strategic and Tactical Relay System) and non military satellite systems are crucial in shaping the informational sphere of any operation, be they aimed at denying information to the terrorists, or obtaining information and disseminating it for own use.18 Space based systems also provide a plethora of Geo Spatial intelligence in the form of geodetic, geomagnetic, imagery, gravimetric, aeronautical, topographic, hydrographic, littoral, cultural, and toponymic data, which can greatly enhance the Battle Space Awareness and possibly prevent fratricide19.

3.3 Information Operations

Information Operations is another area where the air force is very adapted to perform optimally. Information Operations include Influence Operations, Electronic Warfare, Network Warfare Operations as well as Operations in the Cyber sphere. The purposes of such operations are to deny the enemy free communication as well as access to networks, and to curtail his movement. The broad range of such operations includes Psychological Ops, Military Deception and Counter Propaganda. The overall aim is to create undermine the terrorist backing and negate the effects of his propaganda, and also to maintain own operational security.

The effectiveness of air campaigns to counter the propaganda was evident in the Malaya Campaign (1948-1960), when leaflets were dropped from air planes, and planes fitted with loud speakers played out pro government speeches, all aimed at depicting the legitimacy of the government, and to create distrust towards the insurgents20.

The end result of all this would be to create negative propaganda against the insurgents or the terrorist, as well as gain vital information of his activities and hide outs. In addition, due the high dependence on communication within decentralized terrorist organizations, his operations or the execution of it could be curtailed.

4. Air Mobility Operations

4.1 Need for Air Mobility Operations

Airlift provides a significant asymmetric advantage to Counter Terrorist forces, enabling commanders to rapidly deploy, reposition, sustain, and redeploy land forces21. This means that the terrorist could no longer rely in his proven methods of old to target the SF. The ability of airlift makes access to remote and restrictive terrain easier and safer, and it also eliminates the dependence on having a long and cumbersome Line of Communication (LOC). The terrorists and insurgents attack the LOC of the SF in order to demoralize and disrupt the activities of the SF in particular areas. To avoid this, SF had to conduct traditional Route Clearing Operations and Picketing which were time consuming and which were very manpower intensive. The ability to drop personnel as well as equipment and being able to support them logistically over a long distance without having to resort to parallel operations is one advantage of airpower.

4.2 Types of Air Mobility Operations

The air transportation fits into two broad categories. It can either be Air Land or Air Drop. The type employed in a certain theatre would depend on the threat level, as well as the availability of the asset. A fixed wing aircraft with air land capabilities would require a fairly well maintained runway. The advantage of air land over air drop is that air land provides Backhaul capability, which is crucial for MEDEVAC (Medical Evacuation), and there is less probability of damage and a greater payload. With regards to the movement of logistics in such campaigns, US engaged two c-17 Globe Master Transport jets to carry 37,500 rations to refugees during the aerial campaign against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

4.3 Modes of Insertion and Extraction

Another mode is the Insertion and Extraction mode, in which aircrafts are used, especially by the Special Forces, as well as regular SF, who conduct operations within the Small Team Concept. These troops are often dropped in either HALO (High Altitude Low Opening) or HAHO (High Altitude High Opening), or are ferried and dropped via Helicopter in Grazing maneuvers. After being dropped off, the teams then carry on with their mission. They may be supplied via air in case of a sustained operation, with DZ (Drop Zone) or LZ (Landing Zone) specified earlier on, or they may be air lifted out of the area after the execution of the specific mission, in which case they would have to rally at a pre-designated RV (Rendezvous).

One famous example of the versatile nature of air power in fighting against terrorists is in the case of the ‘Entebbe Hijacking’, at the closure of which a team of the elite Israeli Sayeret Matkal (Special Forces) arrived in Uganda via a C-130 Hercules which managed to fly and land in Entebbe airport without the assistance or the knowledge of the Control Tower.

5. Air Strike and Air Borne Suppression

5.1 Traditional Air Strikes

The role of the aircraft in the strike mode is perhaps one of the most awe inspiring aspects of modern warfare, and SF has been capitalizing on this in their fight against terrorism and insurgents. The aircrafts provides an array of precision missiles, bombs as well as Close Air Support (CAS) for the commander. But the use of such means should be considered very carefully as they have a high degree of ‘Collateral Damage’. Also, air power in most cases is used against terrorists’ HVTs (High Value Targets) because of the obvious cost of acquiring and maintaining as well as operation functional air forces, and the above mentioned collateral damage factor.

Increasingly, this method is becoming more and more common because the terrorists themselves have acquired sophisticated weaponry, which negates the conventional arsenal of the land-based SF to a high degree. Tanks, Armored Personnel Carriers (APCs) and Mechanized vehicles are being targeted by terrorists wielding Rocket Propelled Grenade Launchers (RPG-7) as well as Rocket Launchers (84 mm Carl Gustav RL). They are equally resorting to a plethora of conventional explosives such as Anti Personal and Anti Tank Land Mines as well as Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) which makes land pursuit dangerous.

The ability of the modern aircrafts to precisely pinpoint and bring about effective and voluminous fire power on suspected terrorist hide outs is perhaps the most effective means of defeating the terrorists in a conventional sense, and counter terrorism ops rely heavily on this capability.

During the ‘War on Terror’ following the 9/11 attacks, it was the aerial assault that was initiated against Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 by the US and UK troops. A total of 15 Strike Aircrafts and 25 Bombers such as the Stratofortress were used. Similarly, in the 2003 invasion and the current occupation of Iraq, the US along with the ‘Willing Coalition’ is augmenting their land based warfare capabilities with the use of aerial platforms such as helicopters and bombers. While much of this can be categorized under ‘Conventional’ roles, in some areas, the US forces are combating militia groups and other insurgent and terrorist groups including factions of Al Qaeda.

It should also be borne in mind that it is not only the bomber or the fighter air craft that plays this role. Agile and deadly, helicopters are also playing this role. And they are perhaps more versatile too. Equipped with state of the art avionics, navigation devices as well as infrared and night vision capabilities, they are operable in adverse weather also.

5.2 Helicopters in Strike Mode

Helicopters like the AH-64 Apache have been in use in major armies of the world. They provide an impressive volume of fire power, with a 30mm M230 Chain gun as well as AGM-114 Hellfire and Hydra 70. Additionally, they are also capable of accommodating a missile combination of Stingers and Side Winders. They were used by Israel to attack several Hezbollah outposts during 1990 and also during the Al Aqsa Intifada when Apache helicopters were used to target and kill senior Hamas figures.

Another versatile fighter is the Blackhawk, the Hollywood icon of the Battle of Mogadishu. This was part of the Operation Gothic Serpent executed by the US forces on the 3rd and 4th of October, 1993 in Mogadishu, Somalia. The aim of this mission was to capture an important aide to the local warlord Mohamed Farrah Aideed, and a combination of Army Delta, Navy SEALs, and Ranger Teams as well a special detachment of the 106th Special Operations Aviations Regiment formed the ORBAT of this operation. The overall concept was to snatch the terrorist after having ‘fast roped’ from the helicopters. This operation was also supported by land based troops.

The use of helicopters and airborne infiltration methods is becoming increasingly relevant in the modern age. In most armies of the world, all infantry officers have to attend a basic Commando course which contains a portion of Airborne Infiltration and Assault. Anti Terrorist and Anti Hijacking training given to the Special Forces and Commando units of the armies such as the British SAS (Special Air Services), Malaysian Special Services Group (MSSG) or famously known as Gerak Khas, and the Indian Black Cat Commandoes also include extensive training on airborne operations including fast roping and Para drops.

A point to be noted is that it is not the SF or the governments that possess aircrafts. The recent attack on military targets by the LTTE using aircrafts carries very grave concerns for the SF. The terrorists and insurgents are in possession, and they are making use of these assets, which escalates the confrontations to a new level. Air power could only be negated through air supremacy and superiority, which puts added pressure on the Air Forces to be more alert and active.

6. Air Force Special Forces

An analysis of the Air Forces Special Operations Command (AFSOC), under the aegis of United States Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) would give a clear picture about the established structure of a unique force within the US air force which is geared towards Special Operations. While the range of such ‘special operations’ is very broad, including prevention of proliferation of WMD, counter terrorism is given a very high priority.

Indeed, the failure of the military in responding to siege of the US embassy in Iran, and the aborted Op Desert One, which was the planned AFSOF operation ushered in a new wave of Air Force Special Force Operations22 in the US. This trend was adopted by almost all countries with viable air forces, and today, a joint or independent air borne Special Forces team is a characteristic.

They have capabilities to operate in propaganda campaigns, intelligence gathering and electronic warfare. They carry out infiltration, ex-filtration, resupply operations, and precision engagement as well as combat support. The mission statement of the AFSOC sums it all up nicely: “America’s specialized air power…a step ahead in a changing world, delivering Special Operations power anytime, anywhere.”

7. Airpower in Urban Battle Spaces

7.1 MOUT Overview

Terrorists, due to the very nature of their operations, are likely to carry out their activities within the confines of a crowded and bustling metropolitan city or town. While the use of air power in such cases is highly subjective, it could nevertheless be neglected. The military characterization of such a landscape is BUA (Built up Area) and military operations within such environments are termed as MOUT (Military Operations in Urban Terrain). MOUT may be launched to weed out insurgents hiding within the ruins of cities and towns like that of Iraq or Afghanistan or in Kashmir. It is under those circumstances that Airpower plays its crucial role.

7.2 MOUT Characteristics

MOUT is characterized by the large number of relatively small teams operating within a particular theatre. While the teams maintain depth, mutual support and communication within themselves, an aerial platform performing the role of ‘over watch’ could be beneficial. It could aid in communication, reinforcements and replenishments. Another factor is that such operations demand a lot of ammunition, which the soldier operating on foot may not be able to carry. Additionally land transport such as that the use of armored vehicles may be used, but they are prone to attacks. In this case, aircrafts, and especially helicopters have to transport the needed ammo.

7.3 Fire Power in MOUT

Fire power, which is crucial to the perfect execution of operations like House Clearing or Room Intervention, is equally being thrust upon the helicopters. These aerial platforms provide an observatory as well as clearer fields of fire, which makes discriminate engagement easier. But, in such situations, the aircrafts are more susceptible to being targeted by the terrorists, as in the case of Battle of Mogadishu, when two Blackhawk helicopters were shot down by the Somali rebels loyal to Mohamed Farrah Aideed.

8. Para Military, Police & Civil Defense Air Based Response Teams

In this context, we should also consider the role of the police and SWAT squads as well as other organization that maintain internal security within the national boundaries. Aircrafts are becoming an indispensable part of their work in preventing terrorist activities, and also in capturing terrorists after they have been identified. Pursuit in land based vehicles is still primary, but there is an increasing dependence on aerial platforms to provide a base for overall surveillance as well as C2 (Command and Control). The use of such aerial vehicles has had a tremendous impact on the work of Police squads. The ultimate end product of this amalgamation between conventional military tactics and policing work is the SWAT units (Special Weapons and Tactics) who work on the cutting edge of civil protection. They are highly trained, equipped with the most sophisticated weaponry, and above all, they are highly mobile. They operate within the jurisdiction of their local governments, and they target organized crime syndicates like drug cartels, smuggling fronts and other such crimes, which are important to the terrorist organizations.

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