Released 18 April 2022.
In this podcast, COL Maximillian K. Bremer and Dr. Kelly A. Grieco apply concepts from their 2021 article “Air Littoral: Another Look” to current events in Russia and Ukraine.
Click here to read the original article.
Stephanie Crider (Host)
Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.
The views and opinions expressed in this podcast are those of the authors and are not necessarily those of the Department of the Army, the US Army War College, or any other agency of the US government.
Decisive Point welcomes Colonel Maximilian K. Bremer and Dr. Kelly A. Grieco, authors of “The Air Littoral: Another Look,” featured in the winter 2021–22 issue of Parameters. Bremer is the director of the Special Programs Division at Air Mobility Command. He’s a 1997 distinguished graduate of the US Air Force Academy. He has an (master of public policy or) MPP from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and an (master of applied arts and sciences or) MAAS from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies. Grieco is a resident senior fellow with the New American Engagement Initiative in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, which focuses on challenging the prevailing assumptions governing US foreign policy and seeks to develop effective solutions that preserve US security and prosperity. She received her PhD in political science from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
The guests in speaking order on this episode are:
(Guest 1: Maximilian K. Bremer)
(Guest 2: Kelly A. Grieco)
Welcome back, Max and Kelly. The last time you were here, we talked about your 2021 article “The Air Littoral: Another Look.” For our listeners who maybe haven’t heard that episode or read the article, please just give us a brief recap on that piece.
OK, Stephanie, thanks. And thanks for having us back for this follow-up. We’re both very excited to have this chat and really appreciate you and Parameters reaching out to us.
Our original Parameters article talked about the area between the ground and the blue skies, and we refer to that as the air littoral—this region of transition that could be accessed from, and give access to, both the ground and the blue skies. It discussed what we saw as a progressively contested zone of transition, with this contestation coming from the increasingly democratized technology which allows improved access, persistence, and lethality in and through the air littoral.
We then went on to ask what that meant for the future Joint Force.
I think the important thing here is that this article was really about the changing character of conflict and identifying that this convergence of threats, new threats to air superiority in the air littoral, meant that we need to update doctrinal concepts.
So, in the past, air superiority was either won or lost in what we’re calling “the blue skies.” And the blue skies are really where high-end fighters and bombers typically operate. And if you won air control—you won that battle for the blue skies—it typically conferred control at all altitudes. But what we’re seeing increasingly is that even if you win in the blue skies, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to actually have control of lower-altitude airspace.
And as a result, we really need to update doctrinal concepts around air control and not just think of it in terms of being localized in time and lateral space, but also think about vertical control as well. And that’s really important, I think, for both the Air Force and the Army to be thinking about—to conceptualize this air-control challenge as a vertical dimension—and will actually be more challenging, I think, for the Army and Air Force, than some of the traditional air superiority challenges because it’s going to be in a space that both Air Force and Army are going to be increasingly operating in and therefore interacting and need to have a common concept of operations.
Let’s look at this through the context of current world events in April 2022. Russia and Ukraine: What are the takeaways here for the US military as it relates to your article?
Well, failure is an excellent instructor. And I personally prefer to learn from the failure of others rather than from my own failures and experience.
So I think what we should be learning from is what failures we’ve seen—and, specifically, the Russian experience and the failures that they’ve seen as a result of the changes in the character of warfare, not necessarily the failures that we’re attributing to organizational or technological problems.
In other words, we have to learn the right lessons from this. And I think there’s a few key ideas related to the air littoral that are worth fleshing out.
First, the dominant narrative is that Russia’s early ground failures grew out of Russia’s failure to control the blue skies and take out Ukraine’s IADS, their integrated air defense system. And it’s true they didn’t follow the Western model and achieve traditional air superiority. But we don’t think that their problems would have been solved by doing so.
Even if they had essentially unfettered access to the blue skies, they’d still have to address Ukrainian doctrinal innovations in the air littoral. Russian forces would still be coming under attack from . . . specifically, drones, but other things within the air littoral.
The technologies allowing access to and persistence in the air littoral and the increasing spread of these technologies have changed the character of war by uncoupling littoral supremacy from the technologies that allow access to and persistence in the air littoral. And the increasing spread of those technologies has changed the character of war by uncoupling territorial superiority from the status of the airspace above, whether or not there’s air superiority above the air littoral.
To echo what Max is saying, I think this war is really showing a smart actor, the Ukrainians, who are really innovative and smart about how they’re using the air littoral. And one of the things that I would just emphasize is a lot of the Western media coverage of the air war over Ukraine is very much focused on the blue skies and Russia’s failure to achieve air superiority in the blue skies.
But if we imagine Russia had gained blue-skies air superiority, as Max was just saying a moment ago, there would still be a tremendous amount of competition in this air littoral which would be posing a threat to Russian Ground Forces. And so that’s really important because they still would not be able to deliver effective close-air support to protect their forces on the ground.
There’s really, I think, two ways that we’re seeing the Ukrainians, in particular, maximize their competitive advantage in the air littoral. And the first is that they’re using their long-range, surface-to-air missile systems to essentially pose a constant threat in the blue skies. And so, it’s forcing Russian aircraft to fly lower into the air littoral to avoid that threat. But as soon as they fly into the air littoral, then they’re presented with a multitude of threats from the air littoral—particularly, these (man-portable air defense systems or) MANPADS, these shoulder-fired missiles. And they’re actually luring the Russians into that air littoral so they can take out aircraft.
I think the second way that we’re also seeing it is it’s not just that they’re denying airspace, right? You know, Russians are flying a very small number, but about 200, sorties per day in open source. And most of those sorties are being flown, as a result, outside of Ukrainian territory, which is quite interesting. It’s not just that they’re denying airspace to the Russians; the Ukrainians are actively exploiting that littoral as well.
They’ve been using these Turkish-made (Bayraktar) TB2 drones to really wreak havoc on Russian forces, using them to attack the Russian convoys and Russian ground troops. And we’ve seen, as we predicted a bit in the article, that detecting that drone threat is really hard; the Russians are really struggling with it. They can’t seem to detect these drones. And, as a result—this is something that I find particularly interesting—because they’re having so much trouble finding these, it’s another reason Russian aircraft are sometimes flying low. Those TB2 drones are almost luring them in.
I completely agree. It’s fascinating that they’re sort of forcing Russian high-end fighters—the very expensive, exquisite capability that’s not easy to replace—down into a range where they can be addressed with relatively cheap weapons.
And they’re doing it, as you point out, in two ways. First, they’re forcing them down to avoid the threat, the S-300s that are still kicking around out there. But they’re also luring them down there to find the TB2s and other things that they can’t see either from the ground or from the blue skies. So they have to go down there in order to support the ground forces.
And I would just also note that these air littoral threats, they’re having so much trouble finding these mobile S-300s. Imagine the challenge of trying to find these MANPADS, these stingers that the United States and other countries are sending. These air littoral threats are even harder to sort of detect and be able to destroy in terms of trying to gain air superiority at those lower altitudes.
It’s so interesting to me to hear the excitement in your voices at being able to apply all your theories and research to a real-world, although definitely tragic, event. Any final thoughts before we go?
I think it’s important that we understand that just because the air littoral and the blue skies are becoming somewhat decoupled does not mean that they’re not interdependent. Air littoral control and blue-skies control must be addressed in different ways, and one doesn’t necessarily lead to the other. But they’re both of critical importance. We’re not arguing that we should drop the idea of air superiority in the blue skies—but rather, think about how that will interact with the air littoral.
I think Max said that really well. And the only thing I would add is, just echoing you, Stephanie: This is a really tragic war.
I think one caution, though, I would offer is that it’s easy right now, just given how badly the Russians have performed, to think that everything is about Russian failure and that there aren’t necessarily any lessons here.
And I think it’s going to be challenging moving ahead because their performance has been so bad, but we want to really look at it and discern what are things that may be attributable to Russian organization problems, and what actually might be about a more fundamental change in the character of war. This is what Max and I are really trying to argue about the air littoral.
Great point. Thank you both. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you.
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