Attack is the exploitation of the third Principle of War: Offensive Action.

It allows a commander to gain advantage, sustain momentum and seize the initiative. Air power’s inherent characteristics, particularly speed, reach and agility, make it primarily offensive in nature and best used decisively.

The RAF expended over 1,500 precision-guided munitions (PGMs) during Operation Ellamy, attacking targets within the UK’s contribution to NATO’s mission in support of Libya’s citizens. The anti-Gaddafi forces were outmatched in terms of armour and artillery, but this imbalance was overwhelmingly addressed by NATO air power; a relatively weak land force overcame a stronger regime through air attack.

Attack is the exploitation of the third Principle of War: Offensive Action. It allows a commander to gain advantage, sustain momentum and seize the initiative. Air power’s inherent characteristics, particularly speed, reach and agility, make it primarily offensive in nature and best used decisively. This was seen during the opening stages of the Libyan campaign, with the launch of Storm Shadow missiles from Tornado GR4 aircraft flying out of RAF Marham in rural Norfolk.

Political Influence

In order to seize the initiative, such offensive action is employed in the opening phases of a campaign, under the full spotlight of international attention. Air attack therefore attracts strong political interest; its importance on the international stage is recognised as a provider of national or strategic influence.

Historically, the strategic use of air power has been associated with long-range bomber offensives. Current terminology more accurately reflects the true strengths of air power, primarily its ability to generate a strategic effect that is felt at a political level, through actions taken at a tactical level.

The UK’s National Security Council (NSC), chaired by the Prime Minister, may consider the tactical activity of air power, cognisant of the strategic nature of its effect. Throughout Ellamy, the RAF’s contribution to the successful air campaign was considered through frequent NSC meetings in Whitehall.

Political delegation is passed to local commanders, allowing targeting decisions to be carried out at operational tempo, while ensuring that legal assurance processes are completed.


All military action, whether kinetic (employing weapons) or non-kinetic, seeks to influence the enemy. The ‘hard edge’ of influence is coercion, the act of compelling an opponent by force. It is a psychological tool designed to shatter an enemy’s cohesion and break his will to fight. It has been the foundation of military action since the earliest histories and is incorporated into the current definition of air power: ‘The ability to project power from the air and space to influence the behaviour of people or the course of events.’

Influence through attack is part of a much broader strategy designed to assault the critical vulnerabilities of an enemy. Military doctrine defines the ‘heart’ of an enemy as its ‘centre of gravity’, its core of influence and power.

This core is dependent on key capabilities and requirements, each of which will have critical vulnerabilities. If these are successfully identified and prioritised, then the threat of, or use of attack against these vulnerabilities will fatally weaken the centre of gravity, resulting in the desired strategic end state.

Further attacks on a wide array of targets will further limit an adversary’s ability to adapt and react, placing as much stress on the enemy’s system as possible. Attack, therefore, is a complex tool that can offer great flexibility and value to a commander. It underpins coercion through the continuous risk of attack, offering a graduated range of credible threats from diplomatic warnings through to the threat of, then use of, force. Advanced Attack Systems Modern all-weather, precision air attack will decisively shape any battle space, day or night.

Technological advancements have resulted in the RAF having an inventory of extremely precise weapons. PGMs are the primary method by which kinetic attacks are delivered, using technologies that include GPS, laser and radar guidance. Many of these weapons are updated midflight, in order to allow mobile targets to be engaged, with control fins guiding them to very precise desired points of impact. In some cases, increases in precision have allowed reduced levels of explosive content within the weapons. Resultant lower-yield weapons, such as the MBDA Dual-Mode Seeker (DMS) Brimstone, have provided the RAF with the capability to engage small, fleeting targets within complex, built-up areas, with minimal risk of collateral damage.

Low-yield, lightweight munitions allow a greater quantity and mix of weapons on each aircraft, further enhancing the flexibility and effectiveness of RAF attack assets. The Raytheon Paveway IV PGM has a smaller 500lb (227kg) explosive yield than traditional weapons of its type, as well as in-cockpit selectable fusing. This allows the aircrew to select a delay on the fusing to reduce its explosive effect from the surrounding area. Alternatively, an airburst function can be selected to minimise the effect below the area targeted, useful, for example, for engaging enemy personnel on the roof of a building, without destroying the building itself.

A fundamental ingredient of the precision equation is to be able to precisely define a target location. The RAF’s Litening III targeting pod can define the location of a target with pinpoint accuracy, automatically passing its coordinates to on-board munitions, or onwards to other systems. Furthermore, the pod allows intelligence and situational awareness roles to be played simultaneously, within the Combat ISTAR (C-ISTAR) concept. C-ISTAR embodies the critical contribution that air power makes in complex and ambiguous environments through the provision of assured intelligence and situational awareness, coupled with the potential for the immediate and coincident delivery of attack or influence effects by the same aircraft. The combination of these increases in capability have allowed individual aircraft to deliver a disproportionately significant effect – in targeting terms, a single Tornado GR4 now has the equivalent effect of a squadron’s worth of World War 2 Lancasters.

Modern land forces are increasingly required to rely on air forces in order to reduce their size and mass – this allows a reduction in tanks and artillery and provides the ability for land forces to be more deployable and therefore more agile on the modern battlefield. During Operation Telic in 2003, more than 75% of the 20,000 individual actions fought with Iraqi forces were brought to a conclusion by air power.

Mission Types

Attack from the air may be broken down into four categories:

  • deep attack,
  • counter-land,
  • counter-sea,
  • information operations.

Deep attack relies on the reach that allows air power to attack key vulnerabilities beyond the immediate battlefield. Although ‘deep’ implies the geographical ‘heartland’ of the enemy, it is actually more indicative of attacking the high-priority targets that are of crucial importance to the overall campaign. These targets are associated with the enemy’s critical vulnerabilities and are likely to have strategic importance.

Counter-land operations are concerned with the fight for control of the land battlefield. Close in to the land battle, close air support engages enemy forces in close-proximity to friendly ground troops. The firepower and mobility of aircraft can make an immediate and direct contribution to the surface battle. In Afghanistan, airborne RAF Tornados are regularly re-tasked, or scrambled from ground alert, in order to support NATO troops in contact with the enemy. Counter-land operations that extend beyond the battlefield are known as air interdiction (AI).

They are traditionally pre-planned in order to maximise the chances of success, considering the four ‘Ts’ process:

  • Task. A consideration and understanding of the commander’s desired effect and the prioritisation and risk-levels allocated to the mission
  • Target. A detailed analysis of the target, including its construction, the weather and the required weapon effect
  • Threat. An in-depth analysis of the threats and vulnerabilities offered by the enemy’s air and surface defences
  • Tactics. An outline scheme of manoeuvre that takes into account the challenges offered by Task, Target and Threat

Threat and risk levels for deep-missions are a key factor for commanders. The use of stand-off weapons reduces the threat to the aircraft by allowing weapon release outside the range of enemy defences, while delivering precise effects onto the target.

The MBDA Storm Shadow stand-off missile is carried by Tornado GR4 and will in future be integrated onto Typhoon. Storm Shadow flies autonomously after release, before penetrating hardened concrete facilities such as command and control facilities. It can attack against GPS coordinates, or gain terminal guidance through an integral imaging infrared system. Storm Shadow launches in Iraq and Libya facilitated both the control of the air and attack roles, by eliminating key enemy command and control systems housed in hardened facilities over long ranges.

Air interdiction missions can be tasked ‘dynamically’, exploiting the flexibility of attack platforms and re-tasking them, airborne, to carry out deep missions. Alternatively, Strike Coordination and Reconnaissance (SCAR) missions can be tasked in order to allow aircraft to seek-out and attack enemy targets beyond the battlefield area. SCAR allows aircrews to be directed into areas where potential targets exist, and to subsequently coordinate multiple attacking flights and reconnaissance units through the target area in order to maximise the effectiveness of each sortie. Counter-sea operations extend the application of air power onto the high seas, or littoral and adjacent waters. Anti-surface warfare (ASUW) operations are conducted to destroy or neutralise enemy naval surface forces and are planned in a similar manner to counter-land operations.

Attack Platforms

The RAF’s crewed attack platforms are the Tornado GR4 and Typhoon FGR4.

The Tornado GR has been in service for more than 30 years and is currently the RAF’s primary offensive platform. It has been enhanced with capabilities that have enabled it to become one of the most valued airframes on operations such as Herrick and Ellamy.

Deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan, the Tornado GR4 carries a mix of DMS Brimstone and Paveway IV PGMs, a Litening III targeting pod and a 27mm gun, thus offering a graduated kinetic attack option.

The psychological effect of the Tornado is also greatly valued. The mere presence of Tornado may deter insurgent attacks, while a low-level show of force on arrival to a battle underway may coerce the enemy into withdrawing.

During Ellamy, the flexibility of DMS Brimstone and Paveway IV allowed aircrew to engage Pro-Gaddafi Forces who were directly attacking Libyan citizens, with exacting results.

Typhoon rapidly evolved into an extremely effective attack platform during the Libya operation, where it worked alongside Tornado GR4.

Employing Litening III and Enhanced Paveway II PGMs, it soon proved capable of identifying and attacking targets in rapid succession.

During that same campaign, the Army Air Corps’ WAH-64D Apache attack helicopter also demonstrated its ability to employ the full spectrum of non-kinetic and kinetic effects, with psychological coercion a key strength in the battlefield.

Equipped with a Chain Gun, Hellfire missiles and CRV-7 rockets, Apache is a flexible, persistent platform that is by nature closely located to its targets, although its reach and flexibility are therefore reduced. RPAS, including Reaper, offer much of the capability of manned platforms, at little risk to the operator. With similar sensors and munitions to Tornado and Typhoon, they provide ubiquity through greater loiter times.

Alternative Attack

Of course, the alternative digital battle space must also be considered. Counter network operations (CNO) are concerned with the planning and employment of military capabilities to achieve the desired effects required within the information domain. It is vital that traditional air power attack is used in parallel with alternative digital effects in order to overwhelm an enemy. Attack is a fundamental role of air power and operates across all levels of warfare. The integration of attack as a key influential tool is vital to the success of military operations and the RAF’s modern attack platforms have demonstrated this in recent operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

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