“Coalition operations are the new normal,” asserted General (Ret.) Gary North, former U.S. Central Command Combined Forces Air Component Commander (CFACC), during yesterday’s 7th edition of the Dubai International Air Chiefs (DIAC) conference organized by SEGMA at the Jumeirah Beach Hotel. But those operations are bringing their own set of challenges, particularly in the counter-insurgency (COIN) operations that currently prevail.
As outlined by Brigadier General Staff Pilot Rashed Al Shamsi, seasoned F-16 and Mirage pilot and commander of the UAE’s Khalifa Bin Zayed Air Academy, the biggest issue facing coalition forces is the lack of commonality of systems, especially between NATO and non-NATO operators. In the counter-insurgency mission, in particular, the ability to gather information from many sources and to disseminate actionable intelligence to all coalition members in as short a time as possible is a key asymmetric advantage available to a coalition air force.
Air Marshal Leo Davies, chief of the Royal Australian Air Force, agreed: “Intelligence is the key to the success of COIN operations. COIN needs a high degree of precision to minimize collateral damage.” This remark highlighted another particular challenge of COIN operations–that minimal effects on non-combatants is crucial to assist political action. It plays a large part in a successful outcome, due to the need to reduce grievances among the local population.
Lieutenant General Charles Brown Jr., the current U.S. CFACC, called this element the “contest of influence,” and suggested that this was one of the prime factors distinguishing COIN from other forms of warfare. “People make choices on who can protect them,” he asserted. “Air forces need to be more intelligent, more precise and less destructive.”
The ability to train with potential partners is another important element of increasing the effectiveness of coalition operations, and the UAE has participated in a number of international exercises, as well as hosting its own ATLC exercise that is currently being held at Al Dhafra air base. However, due to the distances involved, it is rare for partner forces to be able to train together. Speaking at DIAC, the RAF’s Air Vice Marshal Gary Waterfall envisioned a time when forces could link synthetically on a global scale for joint training.
Counter-insurgency operations as part of a coalition have been central to much of what the UAE AFAD has been doing in recent times. Following participation in operations in Kosovo, Afghanistan and over Libya, the UAE AFAD has been engaged in coalition operations against Daesh forces in Syria and Iraq, and against Houthi and other insurgents in the Saudi-led Operation Restore Hope in Yemen.
AFAD commander Major General Ibrahim Naser Al Alawi revealed that the UAE force had flown more than 40,000 hours in the Yemeni campaign, which was renamed from Operation Firmness (Decisive) Storm in April, operating from six bases in Saudi Arabia and Yemen itself. As well as undertaking combat operations with fighter, transport, ISR and air defense assets, the UAE AFAD has also been providing instruction to Yemeni resistance personnel, notably at Al Anad air base following its recapture from Houthi forces.
While the UAE continues to strive for peaceful settlements, Major General Al Alawi noted that: “The UAE itself is not under threat, but there are conflicts a short distance away. Airpower plays a key role in keeping these conflicts away from our borders.