Suppose we defend ourselves from an attacking aircraft, by Juan Del Pozo Berenguer

Rear Admiral Allan Smith once said that “When you can´t go where you want to, when you want to, you no longer have control of the sea”, on account of the impossibility of landing his amphibious force in Wonson beach during the Korean War, as the approaches were contaminated with enemy mines. But, this is very probably the same feeling Admiral “Bull” Halsey had from time to time with the Imperial Japanese Kido Butai moving around freely in the Pacific enjoying the possibility of launching air attacks of no less than 250 aircraft at any given moment.

In the anti air warfare cycle there is a well known fact which contrasts when another not so well known. This is a warfare in which events take place very quickly, with barely enough time to react and, to the surprise of many, the probability of penetrating an anti air barrier is somewhat high no matter the circumstances. Or not? (AEW??). I find this fact quite interesting because it underlines the need to have an anti air warfare officer who is both knowledgeable on tactical procedures, but is also capable of improvising and adapting those procedures to each concrete situation in a creative and efficient fashion.



Anti Air Defence Cycle.

And after the reader has digested the idea that penetrating a barrier is somewhat easy, I´d like to point out a couple of facts before I take this argument any further. There are essentially two sources of information from which to test and develop tactical procedures. The first is live situations, where experience also contributes to a degree. The other is provided in the context of exercises and sim runs, which is a much less effective source but necessary for a Navy with no combat experience. The good thing about this method is that it allows the crews to test new procedures and techniques and do it in an environment where instructors and crews have time to plan, get together and assess.

I would like to bring forward several cases that have taken place since World War II in which aircraft have carried out raids against naval units and I believe the conclusions I have reached are of some interest.


During the fight for the Falklands, there were two specific periods in which the air activity was especially busy. As the reader is sure to be aware of, some months before the war, the AEW capability of the Royal Navy was grounded. No doubt the 1022/P air search radar fitted on the extraordinary Type-42 destroyers had something to do with this now that traditionally, it has been a common mistake to believe that “my air search radar makes the AEW concept obsolete”. Some people still believe this, you know?.

  • May 1, 1982: 56 Argentinian aircraft (16 A4B, 12 A4C, 6 Canberra, 12 Dagger and 10 Mirage III) attacked the British TF and 35 of these aircraft managed to penetrate the TF´s air defences, effectively launching their weapons. A simple calculation will reveal that these 35 aircraft represent 62,5% of the total COMAO.

–          May 21 to 25, 1982: a total of 167 aircraft attacked the British TF during these days, 106 of them managing to launch their payloads effectively, which brings the percentage to 63,47%.

As a consequence of these attacks, the RN suffered the loss of seven ships.


On the morning of April 19th, 1972 a small US Navy TG was attacked off the coast of Vietnam by three MIG-17U, an obsolete aircraft even by 1972 standards. The TG was composed by one cruiser, two destroyers and one frigate, and the MIG´s were loaded only with guns and free fall bombs. Two of the aircraft never managed to release their bombs and were never engaged, but the third managed to overfly the TG three times and released all its bombs, scoring hits on one of the destroyers. While this adventurous MIG was outbound after the attack and all its payload delivered, the cruiser successfully launched a Terrier missile, which met its target many miles away. Out of five overflights, three were unchallenged and, even though one MIG was shot down, it happened once it had released its payload and was outbound towards its home base. Again, a simple calculation will reveal that these intrepid MIG´s managed a success of 60%, suspiciously similar to the former case.


And now I´d like to draw some conclusions or reflections, rather. But before I do so, I´m certain that everybody will accept that no Navy sends untrained crews and obsolete ships into combat. At least decent navies. Both the USN and the RN sent to their respective operations theaters their very best ships and crews whose level of training was beyond doubt. And they proved it. But, as we´ll see, the enemy is no idiot and also follow the same principle of committing its best resources.


Conclusion number 1.

The constant figure of around 60% makes this humble TD feel very uneasy. Please take into account that both the RN and the USN were facing threats which, despite their probable good level of training, they were manning old gear with the exception of the Exocet missile used by the Argentinians which even by today´s standards is one big bone to chew on. And despite all this, they managed to score hits one after the other.

So, what went wrong?. Well, unfortunately we can´t compare these cases against one in which an AEW was on the good guy´s side, but I truly believe that having AEW would have contributed to reduce these statistics in our favor considerably. You see, in both cases (Argentinians and Vietnamese), the attacking aircraft approached the force flying with such a low profile that, physically it was impossible for a shipborne radar to detect them with enough time to react to the full potential of the ship. And once an aircraft manages to have a lock-on or the ship in sight, we are no longer in control as we have lost the advantage of initiative.


Conclusion number 2.

Training is essential. These well trained crews only managed to defend themselves with a 40% success rate. Imagine what a target a sloppy handled ship would be like for an incoming aircraft with nothing good on its mind.

And having a trained crew means they are capable of coping with unexpected situations. As a matter of fact, a crew is not good because it can face known enemy capabilities. It is a good crew because it can face enemy capabilities which are unknown . To put it in a simple manner, it´s not a question of what the enemy has, but what the enemy could potentially do with it.


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