Strike operations in the face of an integrated air defense system IADS)are neither simple nor easy. Even for our Air Force and Navy/Marine Corps strike assets, with their liberal support from systems such as AWACS, dedicated Electronic Attack platforms, and (relatively) robust Electronic Intelligence assets to map out an enemy IADS, successful penetration of defended airspace is hazardous.
Stealth, the buzzword in strike aviation for the last 2 decades, is an aid, but not a complete answer. Further, only a small percentage of our strike assets have any stealth characteristics at all. Stealth doesn’t make an attacking airplane invisible to a defender’s radar. Rather, it reduces the effective range at which it can detect the attacker. By flying “between the seams” of defending radar platforms, a stealthy attacker can avoid most enemy defenses. Generally, we’ve seen US forces use this capability to degrade the enemy IADS as a first order of business to allow non-stealth platforms to contribute their weight to the battle.
Rolling back an enemy IADS has long been the first priority of an aerial campaign, almost from the beginning of strategic air warfare. “Kinetic” methods of rollback, that is, directly attacking air defenses, either through conventional bombs, Wild Weasel tactics and planes, or Anti-Radiation missiles such as the HARM are all parts of this technique. “Soft kill” methods such as radar confusing chaff, jamming and other methods to disrupt an enemy communications also reduce IADS effectiveness.
Another way of degrading IADS is to simply overwhelm an enemy with too many targets to effectively counter. This simple saturation method has a couple drawbacks, though. First, it takes a lot of airplanes to do that. Second, it can be pretty rough on those attacking aircrews. So, in concert with kinetic and soft kill methods, liberal use of decoys can complicate the enemy’s air defense problem. For instance, if each attacking aircraft can deploy two decoys, the enemy suddenly has three times the volumes of targets to service. The negative effect this has on air defenders isn’t merely linear, either. The sudden tripling of possible targets and the confusion that causes can generate “friction” where the responses of the defense to any single target are less effective than would normally be the case.
Air launched decoys aren’t a new tactic in air warfare. At the height of the Cold War arms race in the late 1950s, as the B-52 fleet began to realize the challenges the Soviet air defense system’s network of radars, interceptors, and guided missiles posed, the Air Force began a program to deploy a decoy to support any World War III missions into the Russian Rodina. The GAM-72 Quail (later ADM-20) was a small, jet powered drone small enough to be carried in the bomb bay of the B-52. With a range of up to 400 or so miles, it could be launched outside the detection range of most air defenses, and still penetrate alongside the real bombers for most of their penetration. While up to 8 Quails could be carried, a more typical load would be two Quails, taking up a quarter of the bomb bay, leaving three quarters of the space available for offensive weapons.
Given that it had to fit inside the bomb bay, the Quail was necessarily quite small. How do you make a small target look like a gigantic B-52, historically one of the largest radar signatures ever to take to the air? Careful shaping of the wings and fuselage of the drone, as well as placing radar reflectors inside covered by radar transparent fiberglass, gave the Quail almost the same reflectivity as a real B-52. It would be another generation before aircraft designers paid as much attention to using shaping to reduce radar returns as they had on enhancing them.
While the Quail was quite small by B-52 standards, it was still far to large to be carried by tactical fighter bombers. In the early 1980s, as Soviet designed air defenses improved and were exported widely to potentially hostile nations, our services began to look at the possibility of decoys for tactical use. In cooperation with the Israelis, who had their own challenges with IADS to be defeated, the ADM-141 Tactical Air Launched Decoy was designed. A simple glider with folding wings, the TALD was small enough that a tactical jet could carry several. Swarms of TALDs were loosed upon the Iraqi air defense network at the opening of the bombing campaign of Desert Storm. TALD was popular because it was lightweight, very simple to operate, and very inexpensive.
But because TALD was a simple glider, it was limited in range. Further, being unpowered, it moved much slower than attacking aircraft typically would. Given a bit of time, a savvy air defender could sort the decoys from the real targets. Refined versions of the ADM-141 included the ability to deploy chaff, and later, by adding a very small jet engine (little more than what a turbine R/C plane uses) giving the TALD both better range, and a speed more comparable to the jets it is simulating.
Around the turn of the century, the Air Force, via DARPA, started to look at developing a more capable decoy to replace the TALD. The program, Miniature Air Launched Decoy, stalled out after a couple years, but the Air Force resurrected it and eventually fielded the MALD as the ADM-160B. There’s the vanilla, turbine powered MALD with a range of about 500 miles, and the performance to imitate tactical jets. Currently, there is a program to upgrade the design with and on-board jamming capability, launch from C-130s (saving pylon space on strike fighters for weapons), and even possibly using the platform as a UAV or arming it as an attack weapon. Given a functional airframe, the possibilities for developing new uses and versions at low cost are limited primarily by the imagination of the acquisition corps.
The widespread use of decoys in the early phases of an air campaign, especially supporting stealthy strike aircraft dedicated to dis-integrating an integrated air defense system, will reduce losses and increase effectiveness of our aerial forces significantly.