Looking Beyond the Libyan Airpower Moment: Shaping Coalition Coherence


08/26/2011 by Ed Timperlake

For at least a generation of Midshipman at the Naval Academy the famous “ATP-1 Alpha” was a blessing and a curse. It was the Allied Tactical Publication that captured the flag signals and Morse code that allowed NATO to execute formations with essentially a single uniform “language.”  It was a curse because it was classified and woe be to the Midshipman who left their safe unlocked.

Having universally accepted and understood information among allies is critical. Flag hoists, and Morse code has evolved to now agreed on words sent electronically often encrypted, meaning “do something.” Accurate and unequivocally clear in meaning communication is essential for commanders to fight the force at all ranks.

Shaping Coalition Communication Commonality as Core Competence for War Winning Credit: Bigstock

However, regardless of significant effort for uniform clarity in communications it is still a fact of combat that language, national customs and traditions can really influence the  outcome of battles. In fact the plot of the movie “Inglorious Bastards” turns on the fact that an English special operations Officer who spoke perfect German was tripped up by the way he signaled the number 3 with his fingers. Art or reality? –it makes the point.

The lessons learned from the great and at times deadly aviation cold war rivalry between the US (and our Allies) and the USSR and their surrogates show us-

The lesson on the US-USSR rivalry is that air combat leaders must be able to adjust during the course of an air battle or war by changing strategy and tactics, to achieve exploitation of the enemy’s mistakes or weakness. Aircrews must be adaptable enough to follow changing commands from leadership and also, on their own initiative, to change tactics to achieve local surprise and exploitation. Like the quote in Animal House: “knowledge is good.” In the cockpit it can be a life saver and aid in mission accomplished.


Now let’s look at the current NATO air order of battle (AOB) for the Libyan Campaign.

However, we must first see if all could agree what to call the operation-(from wiki)

NATO-“Operation Unified Protector”

Belgium-“Operation Odyssey Dawn” and/or “Operation Freedom Falcon”

Canada-“Operation Mobile”

France-“Operation Harmattan”

UK-“Operation Ellamy”

Spain- “Operation Odisea al Amanecer”

US–Italy, Denmark, Norway- “Operation Odyssey Dawn”-

But does calling it “Odyssey Dawn” mean the US is prepared to continue on a Responsibility to Protect (R2P) journey because the original Odyssey was ten years?

Now the Air-order-of Battle by aircraft Type/Model/Series of fixed wing Fighter/Attack aircraft

  • Various block’s of F-16  (USAF, Royal Danish AF, Belgian, Royal Netherlands AF, Italy, Royal Norwegian AF, Turkey), US-F-15, A-10, AV-8, EA-18, B-2,
  • Canada-CF-18
  • French Air Force-Mirage (2000-5, 2000D), Rafael, Mirage F-1, Super Etendard
  • Italy-Tornado ECRs, Eurofighter, AV-8B
  • Spain-F/A-18
  • Sweden-JAS-39 Gripen
  • UAE-F-16 and Mirage 2000
  • United Kingdom-Tornado, Typhoon

Considerable effort also went into Aerial, Refueling, AWACS, and Maritime Patrol. Finally, helicopters were  extremely active and effective.


So a good Libyan War lesson learned is simple—current modern war, especially war in the air requires considerable planning, and high level coordination, and extensive high end airborne assets for command and control to be effective.

Now imagine all combat pilots, from all allied countries having the same intelligence and situational awareness about the Battle Space in their individual cockpit. It gets even better — all pilots will have uniformly  understood symbols and cockpit display icons that are not language specific. Much like the emerging universal road and other signage that are understood regardless of language.

The F-35 (T/M/S) “Z-Axis” putting “C4ISR-D”  (D is for Decision) in the individual  cockpit has the potential to revolutionize the ability of an alliance fighting force.  All Fighter Pilots flying the F-35 across US services and allied Air Forces will concurrently operate from the same base line of evolving battle intelligence. The possibilities for new combat tactics for a decentralized yet unified air campaign are only limited by the operator’s imagination.


The achievable vision is that a USMC F-35B afloat will have the same SA as an airborne or strip alert USAF or allied F-35 pitching into the fight. The agility of such an Airpower force is unlimited compared to stove-pipe technology-even fighting an air battle with emerging 5th Gen stealth being developed by Russians and Chinese.

At least in the future if the Nations have trouble with something as basic as to what to call the war-the combat pilots will fight as one.  That is if the US keeps the F-35 promise, especially the strategic value of basing for the F-35B.