10/25/2011 Richard de Silva - defenceiq.com
This past summer, Defence IQ spoke with Lieutenant General Friedrich Wilhelm Ploeger, the Deputy Commander of NATO’s Allied Air Command Ramstein, who joined us on the line direct from Ramstein Airbase in Germany. For some background, Lt Gen Ploeger has a long and coloured history within airpower dating back to his enlistment in the German Air Force in 1967 up to his current position in this senior leadership role. Throughout his career, which has seen him take up numerous command and staff assignments, he’s been awarded the Silver and Gold Cross of Honour of the Bundeswehr, the Order of Merit on the Ribbon of the Federal Republic of Germany, and the Black Eagle Order Third Class of the Republic of Estonia…
Defence IQ A very good afternoon General, it’s a pleasure to have you with us today.
DIQ I trust you’re well?
FWP Pretty well, accustomed to the European Time Zone again after a lengthy stay in the US for very important cause at Maxwell Air Force Base and then ten days of I think at least some leave!
DIQ Excellent, well we’re glad to have you back on this side of the Atlantic. For now, thank you very much for making some time for us. I think for those who perhaps need clarification, could you just start by telling us how important a role does the Alliance play in both European defence and in global defence?
FWP Yes. The answer is quite obvious. When we look at the new strategic concept we see that the Alliance is and remains the cornerstone of defence for its member nations and the importance of Article V has been highlighted again. The Alliance started as an alliance of necessity during the Cold War period when we faced a common Russian threat but it changed after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Iron Curtain to an alliance of choice. But we again see a change in the Alliance as an alliance of necessity because of the changed financial environment we are moving into and I will come to that field again when I look at Alliance air power and sea power.
When you look at the history of the Alliance, NATO has always been a sea and air power Alliance and these are of course very expensive and critical capabilities that require a lot of financial investment and when we look at the current situation, due to the high costs of state of the art technology, the Alliance, especially in the area of air and sea power, will continue to be an alliance of necessity because otherwise we will not be able to achieve the required capabilities to cope with the current and future challenges in front of us.
DIQ Well looking at these current and future challenge, being that much of the air power focus has been towards irregular warfare of late, what developments have been made in recent years in the way air support actually provides reliable ISR, specifically for counterinsurgency operations.
FWP I think ISR is that field where we see the most dramatic developments, especially technologically both in process and in experience. The most obvious signs of this are through the introduction of new assets with vastly improved capability, whether that’s through better product, that is vastly improved sensors, better loiter time, extended loiter time through those unmanned systems like Global Hawk and Predator or survivability by the introduction of stealth capabilities. While overall processes continue to develop, particularly through experience gained in recent and ongoing operations, when we look at Afghanistan and Libya, our ability to exploit this capability has developed in parallel with the technological changes giving us a truly networked capability to exploit in real time. Traditional ISR is the primary role of unmanned area systems, but full motion video capability makes it more than competent in filling, especially for a time sensitive targeting or coined missions, and furthermore changed detection software allows an effective use in any coined scenarios, especially when we look at the threat posed to our forces in Afghanistan by IEDs.
DIQ Okay, what about the use of electronic warfare with modern airborne operations? I think it’s known that the ISAF mission has recognised a lack of EW assets to meet the necessary requirements – that’s on public record – but do you think the reaction to this should simply be a drive to increase EW assets or are there alternative options open in insuring that we have that required capability?
FWP I think we should be aware of the fact that we will always have a demand for additional assets. So the demand for electronic warfare assets will always outstrip our ability to provide them and looking at the financial situation we are in, there is at the moment no light at the end of the tunnel that we would be able to procure more specialised electronic warfare systems. So we need to look for alternative options and there is one option that looks into the area of increased availability of electronic warfare assets. Because they are getting a bit older we need to look at ways how to make them more available for our operation, we need to look at the way we use those assets, whether we do it really effectively enough or whether there are ways we improve them. And we need to look at a more balanced and effective mix of the systems, that is airborne systems as well as ground systems that are helping our forces in Afghanistan to cope, especially with the IED [threat] and with the threat by the Afghan Taliban forces. So a mix of those measures should help us to overcome that problem. In the end, there is also the way to acquire additional capabilities in the Alliance through cost sharing and common procurement but that is still an area that needs to be debated in Brussels in the political fields.
DIQ Just curious…does the deficit in the use of EW stem at all from a concern over inadvertently disrupting civilian systems? I mean is it just that there’s a need to be as cautious as possible? Is that holding us back at all in terms of either acquiring the technology or knowing when best to use it?
FWP No, definitely not. It needs to be well coordinated with all parties involved in such an operation, but of course we also need to maintain operation security, so there are various fields that need to be observed and the necessity not to overly disrupt civilian communication systems does not really impact on our mission. I think we can cope with the situation.
DIQ Yes, good to know. Just going back to your mentioning earlier of Libya, the operation there is of course primarily an Allied air mission, can I ask what have been the key lessons learned to date on dealing with an adversarial air and ground force from the perspective of the Alliance and are there any gaps that you can point to, either technological or tactical, that have been identified in the needs of the Allied forces?
FWP When we look at the Libyan operation, the air mission of course is in focus also and especially in the media. We should, I think however, not forget that the operation Unified Protector as it is called in NATO is an operation that also encompasses embargo operations performed by our fellow comrades at sea. When I look at the threat posed by Libyan air forces I can state that they do not pose a real challenge because air superiority and air dominance was quickly achieved already during Operation Odyssey Dawn that proceeded Operation Unified Protector when we started to implement the no-fly zone, thus the Libyan Air Force is no longer a factor of ours. The Libyan ground forces have demonstrated the capability to quickly adapt in tactics. For instance they are copying opposition tactics thus making NATO’s air-to-ground operations to protect civilians from attack by Gaddafi forces very demanding and very complex. Operation Unified Protector [brought to light] the importance of the enablers, that is especially to add to our refuelling, ISR, unmanned area systems and last but not least, low CDE weapons, weapons with a very low collateral damage factor. The contribution of the US Air Force in those fields for mission success is essential and is vital because the European NATO nations alone do not possess enough capabilities.
Another lesson learned from Libya operations was that air operations of that type require a robust Air-Sea II organisation that could only be built up in the Libyan case by heavy augmentation from throughout the NATO command structure, thus highlighting the need to adjust personnel feelings for Air-Sea II in our new NATO command structure that was agreed upon by our defence ministers – thank God – in their footprint decision in early June. So an earlier, let’s say ‘lack of personnel’ was properly corrected when our defence ministers decided on the footprint of the NATO command structure in early June, this was already I think the most important lesson identified and then learned and corrected by the Alliance.
DIQ Are there any particular examples that you could possibly give us in terms of the Libyan forces adopting ground tactics from others in order to make the lives of your officers in the air a lot more difficult?
FWP Yes, it is quite obvious when they learned that whenever they used their normal tanks, their normal weapon systems, which the Libyan Gaddafi forces used for attack against Libyan civilians, they were constantly under attack. They quickly changed by applying opposition forces tactics, that is, that they also used pick-up trucks and mounted their howitzers and mortars on those, and rather than running around in uniform, they started running around in civilian clothes, et cetera, et cetera, thus making life for us really difficult.
DIQ Okay, we’ll look at that in a moment, but I just wanted to pick up on this topic of air superiority first and I think it’s perhaps a given to say that UAVs are still being seen by most as the future of this domain. But can you tell us what the inherent challenges are in actually rolling out an increased unmanned capability and how is this likely to shape the future of the Alliance?
FWP Let me start with some principles. The basic elements of air power still remain the same and they are the key to air power superiority. These are the characteristics: speed, range, flexibility, and with the UAVs now we add a new dimension to those basic three characteristics, and that is persistence – beyond the physical limits of an air crew – so that should be kept in mind. That’s the typical areas for unmanned systems are the so-called Dirty, Dull and Dangerous missions, provided that that is at the moment an area that needs to be kept in mind, provided that they are operating in an uncontested environment. Thus, especially when you look at persistence capability of unmanned systems, the concentration on ISR in developing UAV capabilities revolutionised this field, and it will continue to influence the development of tactics, techniques and procedures in the Alliance.
The increased use of unmanned systems of course has impacted on our Air-Sea II processes and especially the training of personnel to start with the simple operation of the UAVs, that is the pilot or the ground crew and the maintenance crew, to employ the UAVs in their operations to exploit the capabilities of the UAVs to their limits and finally to do command and control of UAVs in air operations. The key tasks however will still be the domain of manned systems that is gaining and maintaining air superiority, especially in contested environments.
DIQ And of course UAVs hosting electronic warfare systems are at present primarily being used to disrupt communications as you said, is this likely to mature soon to a more focused attempt to disrupt weapons or IEDs or those types of ordinance? In other words, how long before you see UAVs contributing more than the relatively modest role that they seem to be playing at this time?
FWP I think the main driver will be the demand and the requirement coming from ongoing operations and when ongoing operations continue to require development in these fields there will be more specialisation. When you look at the development in the Israeli Air Force, they also developed their capabilities following the requirement coming from their operations to deal with insurgents, to deal with certain threats and thus they developed their unmanned systems capability to a very tremendous capable air force.
DIQ So I suppose it has to be, from what you’re saying, an organic process. We won’t know until we know. I am also curious, in going by the recently publicised accounts of successful air operations, such as with Prowlers apparently being used in the elimination of key Al Qaeda targets, the ongoing air operations in Libya as we’ve been discussing, or the effectiveness of airborne COIN in Afghanistan specifically, does this all suggests the need for a rethink by those defence ministries who are scaling back their air forces as to whether that really is appropriate – and is it possible for us to see these types of achievements that we’re witness to today with less varied air capability in terms of, for example, a single platform like the Joint Strike Fighter or indeed a predominantly unmanned fleet?
FWP This is indeed a very interesting question and the answer is not easy. I think most of our defence ministers are fully aware of the needs, but they need to find the middle way between what is required by the mission they give to their defence forces and what is financially available and then there is the second argument that scaling back in numbers does not necessarily mean that it is also a scale back in capability. The capabilities when you look at the new weapons systems are today far more superior than those capabilities that we used during the Kosovo air campaign for instance just over a decade ago in terms for instance of targets destroyed per mission. When you look at those times, eleven years ago in March ‘99, we were able as a rule to attack one target with one aircraft. Now with more modern aircraft and more modern air to ground weapons we can attack several targets with one sortie, with one mission, so this multiplies the capability of forces.
With regard to new platforms such as the Joint Strike Fighter, they bring enormous capability to our inventory, not least of which is through their ability to network and that is complimented by the versatility of their enhanced technology. An unmanned fleet is not, and I repeat what I said before, is not a stand alone item but complimentary to the very capable platforms we currently have and will acquire in the future with for instance the joint strike fighter and our challenge will be to use these new assets as effectively as we can and again this may require the Alliance look at its members, member states, specialising for instance in particular roles and capabilities and probably working to new areas of role and responsibility sharing.
DIQ It’s good to have an authoritative voice on that subject. Just to retread very quickly on an issue you raised earlier with ground forces reportedly exploiting civilian populations and the difficulty that air forces have in perhaps identifying combat adversaries …given the intensity with which civilian casualties are again reported in the press and the huge impact that this can sometimes have on missions overall, particularly when adversaries may seek to exploit these incidents to build up public pressure, is a more focused effort needed do you think to enhance combat identification and situation awareness in general, and how are strikes coordinated from the ground to actually minimise these risks?
FWP You can believe me – and this is a true, honest answer – that especially civilian casualties is an area of greatest concern for us, for the air forces, especially when we look at our Afghanistan mission. Because this field has a huge impact on public opinion and how NATO forces are in total seen in Afghanistan and thus we try and do our best to reduce any collateral damage during incidents and enhance our ability to distinguish between friend and foe. Although this is a highly challenging task we can for instance point to the Libya operation where we achieved the best success rate ever …and the occasional weapon that was going astray because there was a technological problem was quickly identified by us and we came forward with the announcement that this was a weapon going astray due to a technical failure, so that Gaddafi was not able to really exploit this mishap.
FWP On the other hand we try to perfect really – we can not say ‘to enhance’ – we try to perfect our processes to 100% non-failure process so that any weapon that is delivered to a target is under full control, both by the air crew as well as by the ground crew and to achieve this goal we invest a lot in intensive training for especially our forward air controllers and technical air control parties on the ground in Afghanistan to make sure that no unintended collateral damage is really achieved so that there is the risk of civilian casualties reduced to zero if possible and the achievement over the last one and a half years was really immense, immense and we are now, when you look at the bare figures, only responsible for a very, very small fraction of the number of civilian casualties we see in Afghanistan.
However, there is still this challenge and we have to cope with any situation where a ‘civ/cas’, civilian casualty, even occurred and we will investigate every event to learn from these events and to exclude any mistakes in the future.
DIQ Is there one thing that you would put that success down to?
FWP I think the most important element is our enhanced training of the ground crews, the forward air controllers and of course the enhanced distribution and availability of equipment, modern equipment available to the forward air controller crews like rover equipment so that both the air crew and the controllers on the ground have the same picture.
DIQ Outstanding. Well it does make sense for it to be a priority and we’re delighted to hear that it’s having such great progress in such a short time. Lieutenant General Ploeger we do have to end there for now, but may I say it’s been a privilege sir to hear your thoughts on these issues. Thank you very much indeed for your time and I wish you all the best of luck to you and all of those serving at the Alliance. Thank you.
FWP Yes, thank you very much for the opportunity to speak to you and to answer your questions.