Interview: Colonel Fabian Ochsner on integrated air and missile defence
Posted: 01/16/2013 12:00:00 AM EST
Colonel Fabian Ochsner recently discussed and addressed some challenging questions on the past, the present and the future of the air and missile defence domain with Defence IQ. Here's a transcript of what he had to say...
How much has the air and missile defence field progressed in recent years and what are the recent operational experiences?
The recent history of air defence has seen it go from being one of the most important weapons on the battlefield in the Cold War area, which has clearly been a major driver of developments and has seen a lot of money flow into it, after the change in 1990, things started to decrease.
Now, we are here in a market that reacts very slowly – I always say that the market reacts [to a development] after about 10 years, so what you see now, after a decade, will start to have some reflections. What that means for ground based air defence is that it has really started only now to become less important, the reason being is that there was so much air defence available to all nations that to purchase new air defence systems based on a threat that was not really there anymore became more complicated.
What happened at the same time was that a lot of the programmes that we saw in the 1990s were actually started in the 1980s, or even before, so they were just remnants of an older time and an older way of business. Meanwhile, actual conflicts in the Balkans, and later on in Afghanistan and Iraq, started to yield new requirements. The new field was C-RAM, was attacks on Forward Operating Bases from things like rockets and mortars, so the third dimension presented a new threat that the air defence systems in place were not able to cope with.
It turned really towards the short-range and the protection of smaller vital assets from anything that flies out of the air. The other side of it as well in recent years from the threat of ballistic missiles where not a lot of re-loans were available so this led to a situation of the “middle layer” (intermediate), so to speak, where all the air defence systems fielded in the 80s and 90s were well covered – a lot of them were in place – but really no activity or threat existed and what was happening in the world was not [related to] this aspect. The aspect was on that very short-range and very long-range.
In other words, the field of air and missile defence is moving away from those lessons learned to instead to start focussing on those ranges as the domains in which there are significant capability gaps, while of course in the middle layer traditionally has had a lot of money invested into it. We’re still as of today in a good situation – a lot of companies have developed missile systems to cope in this field – but on those other two ends, there are experiences and requirements that should move us into the new era.
So what does the future hold for requirements internationally, as you see it, and are current programmes adaptable enough to manage developing threats?
Yes, whether the programmes are adaptable or not… as I said, in the military we are always talking about very long timelines, from a good idea for a technology to being able to field it and qualify it on the battlefield, that always takes a long time. That’s one of the problems we have actually today in the forces or with procurement. By the time we define a requirement up to when we have a solution, it takes many, many years, and so the solution, by its nature within today’s revolution of technology, always comes in obsolete. That’s a situation we basically have to accept. Therefore the adaptability of programmes to respond to a developing threat is almost impossible.
It burns down to the guys who do the analysis, the intelligence, to see what capabilities may be used in ten years is a very complex job on one side, but it always shows that from the day you have the problem, you cannot just turn around and have the solution. That has been very drastically shown in the C-RAM field – that capability was covered in a very quick, rushed programme by the United States, bringing existing technology in and adapting it for this need. But it happened because one would not really accept that that would be a problem because it was known a couple of years before – maybe even ten years – but one didn’t react or they used the wrong type of technology or they anticipated the wrong time in which that technology would be needed. It’s really hard to say. It’s driven by whether the analysis will yield the right direction.
For future technologies, we are definitely talking here in the air defence field about high energy lasers. Now many say they are a future technology and always will be because it’s exactly at this point, with lasers, that the Americans had their problem with C-RAM. When they realised in the 90s that they had a compelling need for defence against artillery, the targeting technology was laser. We all know that as of today lasers are not available in the quality that they have to be in order to be air defence lasers and that may still take a while. Sometimes new technologies will become available, but it usually takes some time. I expect that aside to developing new technologies like the laser, further development of current technology already available, like surface-to-air missiles or even air defence guns, will have to progress in order to provide the best flexibility for the shooter grid on the GBAD side so that you have different technologies to choose from, because for all intents and purposes they all have their own advantages and disadvantages and it’s better to have three or four available.
Then how can nations improve their process when it comes to “horizon-scanning”? Speaking to other commanders about this, there is invariably agreement that whatever we predict is usually wrong, so is there some other way to approach things other than just trying to outfit a holistic solution to all possible threats?
If I had the answer to that, I’d probably be a rich man! Looking into the future, nobody can ever do. It remains important to accept that we are in a field that has these long timelines. Sometimes we are in organisations in which we are spoilt – such as in consumer electronics – the day we have the problem, we already have a solution the next day, and we can think that this can be transferred to military capability. That’s not the case.
In conjunction with the changes of the world, particularly here in Europe, once you do not have a clear opponent configuration to which you can develop your own configuration, you just have to start anticipate. When it comes to air defence, it’s looking at what’s available, adapting it to possible future missions and requirements. It’s no longer looking at what may be available to a possible opponent, then gauging the probability of that happening and doing something against [all probabilities]. If you do that, consequently you will end up with a tremendous requirement and budgets are no longer available for that. So it doesn’t work like this anymore; you have to downsize and ask what type of capability basis am I able to afford to cover most of those possibilities and then have that driven by what technology is physically available.
That can truly be said here in Europe. It’s not nations against nations. It’s more in the asymmetric, in terrorism and non-government groupings that can present much larger threats, and it’s driving air defence into another direction.
For example, what we see in the C-RAM world is clearly something that could happen anywhere in the world. If you look at what is flying today, using lower airspace, and asking whether a system can be used as a possible weapon, you can see that there is a lot of civilian object infrastructure that could be a danger and coming from non-government groups rather than from specific countries.
So in terms of predictions, it’s really perhaps just a case of staying on top of the trends in a consistent fashion, sharing information with multinational forces and thinking in a progressive fashion. In terms of C-RAM, what have been the major developments in the effectiveness of the capability since last we spoke about a year ago, in terms of the response rate and so on – and are these likely to become a greater focus for the defence industry given, as you said, this shift towards asymmetric conflict?
I’m personally convinced of that. I have been convinced from the beginning – even last year when we talked together – that the C-RAM capability in the future will be a general system requirement for GBAD.
In these last twelve months, we still have systems like Centurion fielded in Afghanistan doing the job in the battlefield and gaining experience. Technology-wise, there is this contract between Rheinmetall and the German BWB for the MANTIS system and it has been made public that it will be introduced in the German Air Force, which has taken over all GBAD capability as well as C-RAM in this case, and will be fielded this spring (2012). Although it has not been completely confirmed, as it looks like the German Army is drawing out of Afghanistan – and are dismantling their FOBs and they have no need for a C-RAM capability there anymore – our systems won’t be going out there anymore. While that’s a good thing because a conflict is drawing to an end, what remains is a very important capability with the German Air Force and as I’m convinced similar missions will come up then they will use this capability and they will come in very handy. Besides that, it is not only C-RAM, it’s an air defence capability, the only system in the German Air Force looking out for GBAD assets and protecting other vital and critical assets.
On the other side, there’s a number of initiatives for other technologies that may be used for C-RAM as well, that is using artillery against artillery – using a long 55mm round – so there are other activities and delays are ongoing. Other companies are investing into laser technology in order to one day have not only air defence but also a C-RAM system based on this technology. So there’s a couple of things going on proving that it’s not only an air defence gun, but maybe also an air defence missile, such as the Iron Dome that came from the Israelis, apparently doing a good job taking out incoming rockets from Hezbollah. There is a lot of proof that the C-RAM field, in its diversity, is a field that nations are willing to invest funds in order to develop products that can ultimately fielded capabilities and be ready to use at a later stage in conflict.
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