The celebration of boots on the ground may seem a rather odd choice for a speech at a UK Air Power Association dinner, but the comparative impunity with which coalition air forces roam the third dimension over Afghanistan belies the effort required to secure such freedom.
While neither the Taliban nor Al Qaeda are obviously in a position to contest directly the traditional notions of air superiority and air supremacy, the conflict’s asymmetric nature does offer the insurgents other paths to achieving this, potentially.
Air Commodore Steve Abbott, the Royal Air Force Regiment’s commandant general, addressing the Air Power Association annual dinner last week, contended that in Afghanistan freedom of movement in the air is only made possible fully by the support of military force on the ground.
In the case of the British this is the RAF Regiment – an integral element of the air force – rather than an army infantry unit tasked with guarding a strip of concrete or a sand-washed helicopter landing site at a forward operating base.
For Abbott a nightmare scenario is of a large military transport aircraft – and the personnel carried – strewn across the land following an attack by insurgents. While a tactical success only for the insurgents in military terms, the impact on the domestic front could in effect be a strategic shock – fundamentally shifting the public’s view of British participation in the war.
Ensuring the security of airfields and the surrounding areas is important in providing air and land commanders with the freedom to plan operations and movements unfettered - in the main - by enemy activity.
While force has secured a permissive air environment in Afghanistan, it still does not provide complete freedom of action. Small arms, rocket propelled grenades, and the threat of man-portable surface to air missiles remain a threat at low-altitude, while on the ground rocket and mortar attacks on infrastructure, and the use of improvised explosive devices remains extant.
It would also seem unlikely that the insurgents have forgotten the impact of man-portable air defense systems during the Soviet occupation, and the high attrition rate, particularly with regard to helicopters.
Keeping this threat at bay requires a continuous high tempo of operations – and with a UK Strategic Defense Review slated to begin in the second half of 2010, it also does no harm to underscore the value of the regiment.
Picture credit SAC Andrew Morris/Crown Copyright