Low-flying threats challenge NATO’s deterrence in the East – article for DefenseNews

Article by Maximilian K. Bremer and Kelly A. Grieco - 07.02.22


With new cell phone jammers, Orlan-10 drones can interfere with communications over 135 miles away from where they're launched. (Vadim Savitsky, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation )


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.”


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Low-flying threats challenge NATO’s deterrence in the East – article for DefenseNews 07
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With new cell phone jammers, these Orlan-10 drones can interfere with communications over a 135 miles away from where they're launched. (Vadim Savitsky, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation )

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