Saturday, September 21, 2019

Vox Popoli: The end of air supremacy

The Yemeni attack on Saudi Arabia may mark a turning point in the 100-year history of air war:
Saudi Arabia spent billions to protect a kingdom built on oil but could not stop the suspected Iranian drone and missile attack, exposing gaps that even America’s most advanced weaponry failed to fill.

In addition to deciding whether that firepower should be turned on Iran in retaliation, the Saudis and their American allies must now figure out how to prevent a repeat of last weekend’s attack -- or worse, such as an assault on the Saudis’ export facilities in the Persian Gulf or any of the desalination plants that supply drinking water.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked Wednesday on his way to Saudi Arabia how it was possible that the kingdom could have dropped its guard, failing to stop any of the low-flying cruise missiles or armed drones that struck the Abqaiq oil processing center -- the largest of its kind in the world -- and the Khurais oil field. Even the best air defenses sometimes fail, he replied....

Between 2014 and 2018, the Saudis ranked as the world’s No. 1 arms importer. In that period, they accounted for 22 percent of the United States’ global arms sales, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute. In recent years they have acquired some of America’s top-shelf weapons, including F-15 fighter aircraft, Apache attack helicopters and the Patriot air defense systems.

None of that made a difference last weekend in the face of an attack that exposed Saudi weaknesses that might seem obvious in retrospect.

The undeniable fact of the matter is that the US is well behind Russia and China with regards to unmanned air war due to its historical supremacy in conventional manned air warfare. Because the US has focused on defending against threats of the sort that it poses to others, neither it nor its allies are prepared for "unconventional" attacks that avoid those defenses.

This is the usual pattern of military history, wherein a long-standing advantage is circumvented by technological and tactical innovations that eliminate the utility of the advantage. Think about the way in which the German U-boat circumvented the British Navy's control of the oceans or how Wellington's refusal to give battle at any time and place that was not of his choosing negated the massive numerical advantage of the French forces occupying Spain.