Afghan Missions Are Shaping NATO’s Priorities

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“The fact that we are at war in Afghanistan has yet to be fully understood by the public and political system” (in Germany) said said Lt. General Klaus-Peter Stieglitz, Chief of Staff German Air Force speaking at the 4th Global Air Power Conference held in Singapore on Feb 18. He said German air operations in Afghanistan are going almost unnoticed as the new Luftwaffe is not involved in offensive or ground operations in this remote battlefield. However, this fact does not diminish the important role of the German Air Force in support of NATO ISAF. “We must emphasize and communicate the role of airpower as part of the toolbox needed to reach political objectives” he added.

General Stieglitz emphasized the role of airpower in operations in Afghanistan, providing an asymmetric dimension, by supporting ground operations with kinetic, non kinetic and psychological support, in addition to logistical and medical support, helping reducing the signature and ‘footprint’ of foreign military forces in the country without compromising mission objectives. In addition to the many challenges it faces, the German Air Force has to overcome continuous scrutiny regarding its very existence and role in national security, as political and public opinion are casting doubts and and uncertainty over the importance and necessity of airpower.


The German Air Force Chief considers Afghanistan as a “blueprint of asymmetric operations of the future’ as it has all ingredients of modern warfare, from full scale operations to peacekeeping and disaster relief. “One of the key aspects of asymmetric warfare, the ‘empty battlefield’ is clearly portrayed in this conflict, said Steiglitz, referring to the Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) role that the German Air Force’s Tornado aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles are providing. Future enhancements of such capabilities are currently planned, with the introduction of new UAVs by 2010 and the fielding of future earth surveillance space assets in the future, both providing improved persistence and coverage.

“Networked, joint air capability is the right solution for such asymmetric conflicts, enabling scalable effects across the levels of engagement to achieve the political goals. In this context, airpower is vital to provide a small contingent force with measured and scalable support envelope, including mobility, ISR and firepower that are not readily noticeable to the casual observer. “In addition to employing kinetic effects, air power provides the basis for global mobility and sustainement of deployed forces, and the backbone for our medical evacuation, enabling our forces to hold at risk any aggressor or target. “The fact that we can do all that unrestricted by time, terrain or geographical boundaries is essential to our ability to asymmetrically overpowering our opponents (in the region)”.

General Stéphane Abrial, Chief of Staff of the French Air Force also referred to the conflict in Afghanistan as an important challenge and opportunity faced by the French Air Force, emphasizing the need for jointness and cooperation between the different services and coalition partners and, especially the role of modern air power as force multiplier in such force projections. According to General Abrial the Dassault Rafale, French Air Force leading edge fighter aircraft was proven as an instrumental asset for air projection and ground support, during its first deployment to Khandahar last year. The Rafale detachment sent to the Afghan forward base achieved 90% availability, assigned to show of force, ISR and attack missions using laser guided bombs. Few days ago the Rafales returned to Khandahar, this time equipped with France’s latest precision guided weapons – the ASAM made by Sagem.

For the future, General Abrial emphasized four aspects of modernization pursued by the French Air Force. The first priority is to replace aging C-135 tankers by new Multi-Role Tanker/Transport (MRTT). The first aircraft could be fielded by 2011, leading to a complete phasing out of the KC-135s by 2016. The long awaited replacement of the C-160 Transal fleet is planned with the future introduction of the Airbus Military A-400M medium transport aircraft. Some of the Transals will be 50 years old by the time they are retired. The French Air Force plans to field two additional Rafale squadrons by the end of this decade. In 2009 a new Rafale C squadron be operational and by 2010 the first nuclear capable squadron will be fielded. In the field of unmanned systems, General Abrial admits, France was a late starter. He expects more assets to become operational, leading, eventually to the introduction of mixed manned and unmanned ISR and combat assets in the foreseeable future. “We do not have an indication of the mixture of manned and unmanned assets”.

According to General Abrial, modernization, innovation and overmatch are critical for the success of modern air power. “We are not interested in fair fight”, he said, referring to the decisive role and precision, yet measured effects air power has in the modern asymmetric warfare. “Although the French Air Force is smaller today, and will continue to decrease toward the next decade, our capabilities were significantly increased” said General Abrial.

General Carrol H. “Howie” Chandler, commander, U.S. Force Pacific Air Force emphasized the global reach of the U.S. Air Force and its capability to support, sustain and cooperate with local forces addressing regional challenges. Instrumental for such capabilities is the “Global Vigilance” capability, provided by various assets including the growing fleet of Global hawk UAVs, which have already operated in Asia Pacific and continuously support ISAR operations in Afghanistan. The U.S. has been negotiating forward operations and basing of such assets in the region. ‘Global Reach’ is another capability pursued by the U.S. According to General Chandler, forward based C-17s ithat operated in the Pacific last year demonstrated the capabilities such assets can contribute in disaster relive and sustainment while bombers, such as B-1, B-2 and B-52 are frequently operated in the region demonstrating ‘global reach’ capabilities for deterrence. A major challenge for global force projection is command and control. The U.S. has established an air operations center in the Pacific and the Republic of Korea, while embarking on bilateral air operation centers in Japan and Australia, supporting air operations in those regions.

The following articles are included in this review: