Hush-Kit asked me for some thoughts on how a smaller nation should best organise its air defences when confronted with aggression from a numerically superior force. The issue was clearly raised in the context of the ongoing attempted invasion of Ukraine by Russia, but, for several reasons, I will not address the specifics of that conflict. Firstly, the situation is too fluid. Secondly, any discussion of ongoing operations without detailed knowledge of the dispositions and capabilities of respective forces would be foolish. And thirdly, any such discussion, with such knowledge, would risk breaching operational security and relevant security laws.
In my case, I don’t have the detailed knowledge required, and I don’t wish to inadvertently contribute to the ongoing information warfare around the Russia-Ukraine situation.
However, the question can still be considered in the abstract, but using real-world examples to illustrate the possible courses of action, and this piece will consider broader aspects than just air defence. I have identified five distinct possibilities, which I will identify as:
- The Stand-alone model
- The Strong Alliance model
- The Weak Alliance model
- The Non-military Deterrence model; and
- The Hunker Down, Endure and Resist model
This article will provide an insight into the realities of these models, or more accurately, those realities as I perceive them. Along the way, I expect to upset pretty much everyone, and just in case I haven’t, I might also end this piece by considering Great Power approaches to Defence.
The Stand-alone Model
The model here is essentially derived, and extended from, the air defence of Great Britain, in the period from June 1940 – the retreat from Dunkirk, to December 1941, the entry of the USA into World War II.
In this period, the RAF faced a numerically superior Luftwaffe, with broadly similar technical capabilities. A mix of aircraft was available to the RAF, with a greater number of Hurricanes than Spitfires, and these faced a mix of bomber aircraft, and Messerschmitt 109 and 110 fighters and bomber escorts. Again, in general terms, the Spitfires were a match to the Bf 109s, and the Hurricanes could deal with the bombers and the Messerschmitt 110s.
The critical needs, for the out-numbered British, was to prevent invasion by retaining air superiority, while husbanding their resources of aircraft and pilots. The following precepts of the stand-alone air defence model reflect this:
- Launch your aircraft only when you need to;
- Alert your aircraft so that they can be positioned to meet the threat, preferably at a tactically advantageous altitude;
- Seek to match aircraft against threats they can deal with – in our exemplar, Spitfires against fighters and Hurricanes against bombers;
- Where possible recover and repair damaged aircraft, and rescue and return pilots to the fight.
The combined use of radar, ground observers, and telephone and radio reports enabled all this. Critically, information on enemy raids and RAF responses was brought together as time-stamped tracks in Fighter Control Centres, enabling a real-time appreciation to be gained of the ongoing air picture. This in turn allowed commanders to position fighters to respond directly to specific raids, as well as providing coordination with other assets such as ground-based anti-aircraft defences. This avoided wasted effort in random patrolling, and conserved airframes, engines and pilots, reserving these precious resources for air combat.
Today, we might refer to this approach as an integrated air Defence system, and we would add other components if possible. In particular, ground-based radars would be supplemented by Airborne Early Warning and Control systems; communications would be shared in real-time between AEW assets, fighters and ground systems using secure datalinks; and our fighter aircraft would carry a mix of long-range radar-guided missiles and shorter-range imaging infra-red weapons. In addition, and if possible, we would disperse our aircraft to hidden hardened positions, and, if possible, provide support for refuelling, re-arming and servicing in those hardened locations.
As an example of such an approach today, Sweden operates this type of integrated air defence system, using the relatively small and agile Gripen fighter, out-ranging potential adversaries with the Meteor Missile, and using the IRIS-T for any within visual range engagements. Independently developed technical solutions are available for AEW systems and ground-based radars, datalinks, and electronic combat systems, and this is important because reliance on third-party support systems in time of ongoing combat is never a good look. This approach is carried across into other branches of the Defence Forces, reducing external dependencies wherever possible.
The UK used to aspire to this capability, and, in an architectural sense, still achieves this for air defence. However, it does not have the same degree of self-sufficiency in the air domain as Sweden, or, perhaps France, and has not for many years. Almost all equipment is either co-produced across a number of Nations or sourced from overseas, including critical capabilities such as AEW&C, fighter and strike aircraft, and many other sensors and systems.
The Strong Alliance Model
Strong alliances are often cited as of great importance by the weaker parties in such alliances. Truly strong alliances, which are regarded as important by the stronger party, and where resources are committed and, perhaps, bloodshed for others, are, in my view, rather rare. But examples do exist. I suggest the relationship between the United States and Israel is such an alliance, even though it shares some asymmetric features which appear to be somewhat common to the other strong alliances I can identify, those between the US and several Pacific Nations, but excluding Taiwan.
What does the US get out of the relationship with Israel? An ability to shape affairs in the Middle East through a surrogate Nation representing democracy and a ‘rules-based’ order. Well, also having influence and presence in a region which has been a critical source of oil resources. The US also enjoys certain secondary advantages in domestic politics; Israel gets equipment, technology and a partner that appears willingly unquestioning about the treatment of Palestinians. So, it is not simply a military relationship, it is also deeply political.
But there is no doubt, that if you can swing it, being able to share in US technology, to be re-equipped in time of tension, to receive (some) US Intelligence products and so on is a great way of bolstering your defences if you are feeling edgy about your neighbours, and if you can position yourself as much more acceptable to the US than they are.
The US alliances in the Pacific are interesting. Essentially, they all follow the same model, and provide mutual Defence guarantees between the US and Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and Korea intended to ensure that should any of those Nations be attacked, the US will provide defence assistance, and should the US be attacked, the other parties would do their best to assist.
The price for this is the right for the US to maintain US defence facilities in those nations. There are clear benefits to the US in so doing, as this enables them to maintain a Defence presence and logistic chain across and around the Pacific, and there are significant benefits to the participating Nations, not just in the mutual Defence provisions, but also (at the time of their agreement) a greater sense of security from possible future Japanese expansionism.
Fast forward to today, and the concerns are about Chinese expansionism, the South China Sea and Taiwan. I have identified this as a strong alliance, but the recent Trumpist adventure in the US, combined with a historical reluctance from Democrat governments to get embroiled in foreign conflicts, is perhaps now causing some countries to question the willingness of the US to come to the party should aggression occur.
In a strong alliance model, the defence approach is essential to maintain enough capability, through your own assets, and your ally, assuming they have an ongoing Defence presence, to first deter, and then hold off any aggression until the US (or other strong ally) appears over the horizon with defence support. Would this work? Well, it has for Israel, but these relationships have not been tested in the Pacific.
The Weak Alliance Model
Continuing my theme of upsetting everyone, we will start with Taiwan. Taiwan used to be recognised as China by the US, but world realities have now changed, and the US recognised the People’s Republic of China, and has its diplomatic representation in Beijing. Along with this, it has abandoned the notion of ‘Two Chinas’, and maintains a deliberate diplomatic state of ambiguity regarding Taiwan. In reading this, readers should note the Chinese position that Taiwan remains a PRC province, albeit a recalcitrant one.
This certainly precludes the type of mutual defence agreement in place with other Pacific nations, but does not preclude the US from being the principal source of Defence materiel for Taiwan. Despite edginess regarding China’s stated intention to integrate Taiwan fully within the PRC, and despite assurances of support, provision of military equipment, and so on, there is no way this could be considered anything other than a weak alliance.
How do you defend Taiwan against the PRC, should they wish to fully integrate Taiwan into China? In my view, you have three assets, two of which are rather weak. The first resembles that of Britain in the stand-alone phase of the Second World War. As an island, defence against invasion must be a priority. Surface and sub-surface naval forces and coastal defences, supplemented by well-integrated Air Defence systems to deter, and prevent, or delay for as long as possible, airborne assault. And then hope for assistance from your friends – the US, and their friends, as the US would certainly look to Australia (who would actually have little to offer). You would also be looking, probably in vain, for assistance from the UN. Which would not be forthcoming, as China and Russia would veto any Resolutions calling for action to support Taiwan.
My second weak alliance is NATO. Current events are showing the impotence of NATO in taking meaningful action outside the boundaries of its member Nations. Partly, this is because the mutual defence provisions of NATO do not extend to the defence of non-NATO Nations. But partly, there is also a recognition that should NATO get involved, for example in seeking to enforce a no-fly zone, or even to try to stabilize an evacuation route for civilians, such acts would be interpreted as hostile by Russia.
This would then lead to a situation not unlike the First World War, where alliances between smaller Nations and the Great Powers transformed a regional conflict into a World-wide War. Suppose NATO, or possibly a single NATO member country, assists Ukraine – Russia is likely to declare this a hostile act and perhaps conduct a strike against one NATO country – then the whole of NATO, including the US, may be drawn in by mutual Defence provisions in Article 5 of the NATO Charter – and the apocalypse awaits.
In practice, any participation by the US would be dependent on Congressional approval and is thus not automatic. In addition, while an attack on one NATO member is considered an attack on them all, each member has the right to decide on its own course of action in response. While these provisions are appropriate, they do weaken the alliance somewhat, as the scale and scope of a NATO response is indeterminate and dependent on each Nation’s view of the situation.
A third weakened alliance is the position in which the UK now finds itself. Decades of collaborative defence programmes with EU countries, and a strong contribution to NATO, have encouraged a mutually cooperative approach, where UK defence capabilities are strongly dependent on systems and support coming from the US and across Europe, and the once strong UK defence industry is but a partner in major projects, rather than the lead.
However, Brexit has undoubtedly complicated both relationships and supply chains. I don’t propose to press this point further, because any crisis involving NATO would undoubtedly draw on the strong defence bonds between NATO countries.
Britain does have advantages and advanced capabilities in intelligence, and through those capabilities, is likely to have better access to US intelligence assets than most. It also has highly professional armed forces, although these have been under tight budgetary constraints for many years. I do wonder what freedom of action remains for the UK operating outside of a NATO or US-led coalition.
Defence in these circumstances? Start with Diplomacy. Maintain old friendships. Cultivate new ones. Deter, delay, obstruct and confuse. If conflict erupts, do the best you can with what you have, and seek support from your allies.
The Non-military Deterrence model
This is a very successful strategy, employed by two Nations, Switzerland, and the Cayman Islands.
It may be otherwise expressed as “Don’t touch us – we’ve got your money”.
The Hunker Down, Endure and Resist Model
This is an unpalatable option of last resort. But if you are unable to successfully counter foreign invasion, it is a proven strategy whereby even the most powerful Nations can eventually be persuaded to go away, through a mix of passive and active resistance.
Successful examples include Afghanistan, which has repeatedly forced the British to withdraw. And the Russians. And the Americans, complete with a large ‘coalition of the willing’.
This approach has also been successfully employed in Vietnam and in Iraq.
The US, Russia and China
The recent rapprochement between Russia and China has created a new dynamic.
The US approach of setting up alliances across strategic areas of interest, so that should conflict erupt, it will at least not touch on the US homeland, has been remarkably successful, but paradoxically is leading to a sense of disconnection and isolation. After all, if all military adventures are foreign adventures, why are we risking our boys’ lives?
Russia now appears to be entering on the full Resurgent Russia scenario, with the added bonus of having secured its South-Eastern boundary with China. Should the Ukraine adventure succeed, there is the possibility that Russia would then look to many of the states that were formerly part of the USSR. However, most of these are now NATO members. Recent events are likely to have greatly stiffened NATO resolve. They may be impotent in Ukraine, but any attack on a NATO state is likely to bring a rapid response. One can only hope that there would be no conflict, and no use of nuclear capabilities.
China is biding its time. When the dust settles on Ukraine, and perhaps particularly if tension keeps the focus on Europe for a bit, a move on Taiwan, and on the disputed areas of the South China Sea can be expected. The technical capability of Chinese forces is rising extremely rapidly, and China will be watching the US closely over the next decade.
China is also pursuing its Belt and Road initiative, a mechanism for strengthening commercial, diplomatic and industrial ties with many Nations, not just in the Pacific.
What about Australia?
As I am writing this in Australia, I should not miss the opportunity to cast doubt on the current Australian position. In the approach to an election, the least competent Australian administration in decades is playing the National Security card in an attempt to impress its electoral base. The focus will be to further constrain migration from unacceptable countries (those with non-white skins, because they might be terrorists), and to continue the process of offending our largest trading partner, China.
The AUKUS partnership around the provision of nuclear submarines to Australia is at least 20 years too late to have the desired effect, which is presumably to make China pay attention to Australia as a possible threat. Had AUKUS been implemented 20 years ago, such submarines might just about be in Service. But implemented now, the probable result will be a Chinese attempt to further damage the Australian economy over the next 20 years, by seeking alternate sources for its iron ore and coal.
From a Chinese perspective, with a bit of luck, ongoing climate change, and the loss of resources from a one-horse economy, will then ensure the Australian Defence force remains an insignificant player on the world stage.
The Australian Government, however, imagines AUKUS as an enduring means of strengthening ties with the US and the UK, perhaps not noticing that when Australia has lost markets in China, they have generally been replaced as suppliers by the US.