According to U.S. Air Force Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and Air Forces Africa, the service has found “opportunities to go train, largely with our partners across Europe,” on close air support. He confidently asserted that he was “very comfortable that we…[can] operate with their joint terminal air controllers, their entities on the ground, from the Baltics down into the Med and even into Romania,” pointing out the “continued interaction with them that has allowed us to keep our close air support capabilities at the right level and continue to improve our readiness.”
But such confidence is misplaced.
In the event of a conflict with Russia, U.S. and NATO air forces will confront a contested air littoral — that is, the airspace between ground forces and high-end fighters and bombers. Russia’s integration of small tactical drones, low-flying missiles, electronic warfare systems, and loitering munitions will vie for control of the air from below the altitudes of conventional air superiority.
With a contested boundary standing between the air and ground, NATO ground forces cannot count on fighting under a protective aerial umbrella or effective close air support.
Russian Chief of the General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov noted in 2018 that modern combat is “… unthinkable without drones – they are used by gunners, scouts, pilots – everyone.” Large numbers of Russian combat drones and radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery, as well as short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) and man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) like the SA-24 Igla-S and SA-25 Verba series will make the air littoral both more dangerous and more deadly. In eastern Ukraine, since 2014, Russia and its proxies have used multiple small drones, flying at different altitudes, to acquire targets and spot artillery strikes. Russian artillery fires were deadly accurate as a result. In the future, Russia plans to use swarms of loitering munitions — also known as “kamikaze drones”—to create a kind of “aerial minefield.”
With Russia disputing control of the air littoral, NATO will struggle to deliver effective close air support. High-end aircraft are simply too expensive and few in number to put at risk in a contested air littoral. With these aircraft pushed further back from the ground fight, they will be less effective in a close-air-support role. Although the F-35 can deliver ground fires from safer altitudes, the standoff distance required by advanced SAMs will lengthen the window for Russian ground units to shoot and scoot; by the time the munition arrives there may be no target.
A critical challenge for NATO is that this close-air-support mission shortfall cannot be offset by land-based fire systems, given NATO’s deficit in heavy artillery. Whereas Russia relies on artillery for 65 percent of its firepower, NATO depends on airpower for approximately 80 percent of its total fires. The end of the Cold War, and three decades of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism operations, which favored precision airstrikes often from high altitudes, have left U.S. and European armies with critical shortages in heavy artillery.
At the start of military conflict with Russia, NATO ground troops would be seriously outgunned and at risk of defeat in detail. Although NATO militaries awakened to this danger after the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, they remain unprepared to fend off swarms of drones and short-range missiles. Such systems, operating at a range of frequencies and close to the ground, will be resistant to jamming and offer an unfavorable economic exchange rate.
Adding to the challenge, these small and low-flying platforms are also harder to detect and engage than traditional air combatants. The Pentagon has invested billions of dollars in counter-drone systems in recent years, but it still fails to detect 60% of drones in tests, according to reports.
Effective air defense is inherently difficult.
Most dangerous of all, it might give the Russians the idea that they could win a quick victory at a relatively low cost, leading to deterrence failure.
What practical steps can NATO take to meet this new threat? The alliance must first close the capabilities gap. NATO militaries could upgrade or acquire more heavy artillery and ground-based air defense systems, but correcting this shortfall would take considerable time and investments. The better option is to effectively contest the air littoral from above and below. Allied forces should acquire and integrate large numbers of small, cheap aerial drones with other high-end air assets and ground-based fires into NATO’s scheme of maneuver to gain localized air superiority and added firepower delivery, as well as blunt Russian advantages. It might just be enough to help turn the Russian advance into a tough and costly slog, buying time for NATO reinforcements to arrive in theater.
But technological solutions alone will be insufficient. NATO must also close the conceptual gap. NATO’s Joint Air Power Strategy, published in 2018, fails to address emerging threats to lower-altitude airspace. Addressing these threats requires a reconceptualization of air control, which NATO currently defines as “the required degree of freedom in the air domain necessary for the exploitation of the air.” As control of the air littoral rapidly decouples from that above, NATO’s doctrinal concepts must adapt accordingly, with air control understood in three dimensions, as a function of time, distance, and altitude.
Above all, NATO must prepare to control the air littoral, even if it may not be the easiest—or most appealing — mission to U.S. and NATO air forces. The glory days of fighter planes and swirling dog fights may or may not have passed, but they are no longer the only or most important fights in the sky.
Maximilian K. Bremer is a United States Air Force colonel and the Director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense and/or the United States Air Force.
Kelly A. Grieco (@ka_grieco) is a resident Senior Fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and formerly taught at the Air Command and Staff College.