The relative military effectiveness of missiles and aircraft encompasses a variety of other operational attributes. Concern over missiles proliferation frequently focus on their potential for surprise attack, possibly using weapons of mass destruction. Closer analysis suggests, however, that the notional advantages of missiles over aircraft are far from clear. Indeed, for the delivery of conventional munitions, aircraft can offer distinct advantages, although this margin may not always be realized in practice. The offensive potential of counter-airfield operations by attack aircraft may pose greater threats of crisis instability than missiles. And dual-role combat aircraft certainly offer greater operational flexibility than single-mission missiles. But in contrast to missiles, the military potential of combat aircraft is much more highly dependent on the number and quality of support personnel and pilots. Support from other aircraft, however, can also substantially increase the effectiveness of attack.


One advertised advantage of missiles over aircraft is the opportunity for surprise attack. Only the United States and the former Soviet Union maintain elaborate missile attack warning radar networks. But the significance of the advantage of surprise is also contingent on the military or political effect of the attack, and the advantage of missiles is perhaps not so great as might be imagined.

While ballistic missiles can travel from point A to point B much faster than attack aircraft, there are more elements to surprise than sheer velocity. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Israeli air attack on Egyptian airfields are lucid examples of how effective aircraft can be for surprise attack. Ballistic missiles cannot fly under or around early warning radars as attack aircraft can.

In addition, it would be wrong to assume that missile attacks can be conducted without warning, or that full warning can be guaranteed for attacks by aircraft. Given the amount of time needed to prepare Scuds for firing, the United States assumed that it would have from 12 to 24 hours of warning of attack during the Iraq crisis. In contrast, aircraft attacks on Israel from Jordan would reduce Israeli warning time to less than 4 minutes, which would preclude Israeli response.(1)

While advances in low observable technology may make it easier for aircraft of the future to achieve surprise, increasing commercial and military access to satellite information may make it more difficult for ballistic missiles to be launched unnoticed. Since ballistic missiles burn at extreme temperatures, they are susceptible to being detected by infra red, early warning satellites. In the past, countries that wanted access to space based information needed the vast resources required to launch their own satellite. In the 1990s, and increasingly in the future, all one needs to gain access to space is a subscription a commercial "Earth Observation" satellite that is for hire.


Apart from the previously addressed question of assured penetration, missiles do not appear to offer any particular advantage over aircraft in the delivery of nuclear weapons. The focus of the Missile Technology Control Regime on nuclear-capable missiles includes a threshold of 500 kilograms for the payload of Regime-accountable missiles. If this is taken as the minimum weight for a nuclear weapon, virtually all military combat aircraft could be regarded as "nuclear-capable." And Pakistan has reportedly outfitted some of its 40 F-16's with bomb-racks capable of carrying nuclear weapons under one wing, balanced with a fuel tank under the other wing.(2)

On the whole, aircraft would appear to be the delivery system of choice for lethal chemical agents, using either bombs or spray dispensers. In contrast, the high terminal velocity of missiles (many times the speed of sound) would significantly complicate the efficient dispersal of chemical agents.

As for nuclear weapons, it would appear that in most regional scenarios, aircraft would be preferred to ballistic missiles as nuclear delivery vehicles. A nuclear warhead is nothing to play with, and a botched delivery would certainly impact harshly on the aggressor; either directly or indirectly. Therefore, it is reasonable to conclude that in the high-stakes game of nuclear aggression, regional aggressors would chose soundly-constructed attack aircraft over unproven ballistic missiles.


Aircraft are probably the delivery system of choice for conventional munitions, since they can achieve accuracies significantly better than those of missiles. The world's most accurate ballistic missile is probably the Pershing II IRBM, now destroyed as part of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty. Using a sophisticated terminal adjustment technique, the Pershing II is rumored to have a CEP of approximately 50 meters. This represents a level of technology far beyond that found in countries other than the United States. All of the missiles of current proliferation concern are extremely inaccurate, with Circular Error Probabilities (CEP) ranging from 300 to 1000 meters.(3) The Chinese CSS-2, for example, which caused such a brouhaha when it was sold to Saudi Arabia, has an accuracy of about 1.5 miles. Destruction of reinforced concrete structures with conventional high explosives can require accuracies of less than 10 meters.(4) Thus, the military utility of something with a CEP well in excess of 10 times 10 meters, is questionable. The CSS-2 couldn't hit the broad side of 100 barns.

Aircraft have the potential to deliver munitions with very higher accuracies. Tests of the High Resolution Mapping Radar on the F-15 have demonstrated a CEP for unguided munitions of less than 25 meters.(5) Computed Impact Point aiming systems currently achieve CEPs of between 8 and 12 meters, in contrast to 100 meter CEPs that were typical during the Viet Nam War. Precision Guided Munitions can achieve CEP's of 1 to 3 meters.(6) The Maverick air-to-ground missile has achieved a direct hit in 85% of the 3,000 launches in the programs history.(7) The most widely publicized success of such precision guided munitions was the destruction of the Than Hoa bridge in North Viet Nam by one sortie of four aircraft carrying the Paveway-1 laser guided bomb, after over almost 900 sorties by aircraft dropping iron bombs left the 540 foot-long bridge unscathed.(8)

These accuracies are not inevitable, since actual attrition is not the only measure of air defense effectiveness. Virtual attrition, the reduction of the effectiveness of an opponent's air forces, is of at least equal importance. During the Viet Nam War the F-111 reportedly achieved a CEP of about 1 kilometer in combat.(9) In Viet Nam, ground fire often reduced the accuracy of air delivered ordnance by 50% to 70%, and air defense suppression at times consumed up to 90% of the sorties mounted against heavily defended targets.(10) Of the aircraft participating in the raid on Libya in 1986, 5 EF-111s, 7 A-6Es and 6 F/A-18s were assigned for defense suppression in support of 24 F-111s and 14 A-6Es.(11) During the war with Iran, Iraqi pilots frequently dropped bombs from altitudes as great as 10 kilometers. While this reduced their vulnerability to Iranian air defenses, it also greatly diminished bombing accuracy.(12) In Afghanistan, concern about the effectiveness of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles led Soviet pilots flying close air support and interdiction missions to drop their ordnance from above 3 kilometers, compromising bombing accuracy.(13)

Aircraft-delivered stand-off munitions can significantly reduce vulnerabilities to air defenses. Un-powered gravity weapons such as the Paveway II Laser Guided Bomb can be released from over 10 kilometers from a target.(14) With the addition of a small rocket motor, as with the Paveway III Low-Level Laser Guided Bomb, this range can be increased beyond the 25 kilometers needed to stand off from ground defenses.(15)

Stand-off missiles are widely available, and have been proven effective in combat. During the 1982 Falklands campaign Super Etendards launched AM39 Exocet missiles that sank the HMS Sheffield, a modern Type 42 frigate, and the Atlantic Conveyor container ship (Argentine A-4 Skyhawks also sank HMS Coventry with three 450 Kg bombs). Iraq also used the Exocet to damage the USS Stark, and Iraq has manufactured the Soviet AS-9 Kyle anti-radiation missile, with a range of up to 90 kilometers.(16) Subsequent chapters of this study will be devoted to cruise, and stand-off missiles in specific, and the effect of aircraft and stand-off munitions in Operation Desert Storm.

Another advantage aircraft have to ballistic missiles, is that when delivering ordnance, aircraft can always fall back on visual targeting. Although not effective compared to modern computerized techniques, visual targeting offers flexibility. Terminal homing is often the most challenging component of targeting. If necessary, a pilot can visually pin-point a target once in the general vicinity. Targeting ballistic missiles, however, implies a "stand off" targeting capability, which few countries have. The attacking country must possess the whole infrastructure required to accurately map objectives -- usually in a hostile environment -- and integrate this information with the ballistic missile. The satellites or advanced reconnaissance aircraft that facilitate this process are rarely available to developing countries.

In the final analysis, the difference in accuracy between ballistic missiles on the one hand, and aircraft and aircraft delivered weapons will probably increase. By definition, a ballistic missile is only guided for approximately 10 seconds at the beginning of launch. Thus, there is a very small and critical window during which the weapon is guided. Any miscalculation, however small, will compound over the course of the missile's flight. Because aircraft, and cruise missiles, can be guided throughout the duration of their flights, there are greater opportunities to increase the weapon's accuracy. Sequenced up-dates can correct air-breathing platforms' paths before they stray too far off course. Satellite-based information provided by the Global Positioning System (GPS) or GLONASS is increasingly integrated with existing inertial navigation systems (INS) as a convenient and inexpensive guidance package. Space-based assets are also contributing to the growth of terrain matching guidance systems by providing increasingly more accurate and more quickly updated maps. A closer examination of the utility of space-based assets for guidance will appear in a subsequent chapter.

The existing and growing accuracy of aircraft and stand-off munitions relative to ballistic missiles has important implications for the type of targets selected and timing of attacks. It would appear that because of their superior military significance, aircraft are more likely to be used for pre-emptive strikes. Primarily, but not exclusively because of their inaccuracy, Ballistic missiles of the type currently proliferated, appear best suited for terrorism, or barrage attacks against large, soft targets.


Combat aircraft provides a military flexibility lacking in missile systems. With the singular exception of the Nike-Hercules, which has both an surface-to-air and surface-to-surface capability, all missile systems are limited to either offensive or defense operations. In contrast, most combat aircraft are dual-role, capable of carrying both air-to-ground and air-to-air munitions for both offensive and defensive operations. Even traditionally "pure" fighter aircraft, including the P-51, the F-86 and the F-15, were designed with structural provisions to accommodate air-to-surface armaments.(17) Any current US Air Force "fighter" aircraft can carry nearly twice the payload of the World War II era B-24 Liberator.(18)

Only some specialized attack aircraft, ranging from the A-6 to the A-10, as well as some trainers, lack the radar needed for aerial combat. Thus the primary use of multi-role combat aircraft can be shifted between offensive applications such as counter-airfield operations and defensive applications such as air-defense, as the tempo and course of a conflict demands.


Unlike missiles, aircraft require skilled pilots and maintenance personnel, and shortages of either can compromise military effectiveness. Although Iraq has over five hundred combat aircraft, it is reputed to have only 100 skilled pilots,(19) of which only half are considered first rate.(20) With proper maintenance, up to 70% of aircraft in inventory may be operational at any given time (Germany calculates that 105 Tornado's are needed to keep 72 on flight status).(21) General Dynamics reports that the F-16 mission capability rates have varied between 80% and 90%. But a lack of properly trained personnel and spare parts left only 10% of Iran's F-14s mission capable as of July 1982.(22) And Philippine Air Force F-5A fighter-bombers reportedly face major structural limits on maneuverability, after a quarter of century of service.(23)


Aerial Tankers

Aerial tankers represent an important augment to air operations in general since they can significantly expand the range and payload envelope of attack aircraft. Experiments with aerial refueling began in the early 1920's, and by the end of the Second World War the air forces of the United States and United Kingdom had achieved mastery of the technique. Soviet efforts began in the late 1940's, and resulted in deployment of a fleet of tanker aircraft.(24) Even such simple expedients as adding external fuel tanks can produce a significant improvement in range.(25)

Aerial tankers are fundamental to power projection. The RAF, for example, has moved to large tankers such as the VC10 in light of the lessons learned from the Falklands conflict. Britain's Victor 2 tankers, converted nuclear bombers with only a 55,800kg fuel off-load capacity, were barely up to the task of supporting the 3,800 mile operation and had to operate at three times the peacetime flying rate.(26)

Dedicated tankers were initially rationalized for strategic, nuclear air missions, but once in the fleet, their utility for supporting other roles became evident. By refueling in the air rather than carrying extra fuel externally, combat aircraft can take off with a maximum weapon load. When calculated on the scale of a squadron, this effect is an important force multiplier. Furthermore, combat aircraft with more fuel have flexibility in choosing the best target routes and allows higher speeds (with higher fuel consumption) for escape. Aerial refueling also extends the range of attack aircraft sufficiently to make missions feasible. The 1986 bombing of Tripoli would have been impossible without KC-135 and KC-10 tankers. Forced by political considerations to fly around rather than over Europe, the US F-111s could never have reached their targets without the capacity of large dedicated tankers. The radius of the combat loaded Israeli F-16s is well short of the 5,000 km trip from Israel to Tunisia. The 1985 attack on PLO headquarters would have been impossible without aerial refueling.

Transport aircraft, similarly, can maximize their loads by carrying less fuel and utilizing aerial tankers. Traditional NATO reinforcement schemes have focussed on massive airlifts to bolster the trip-wire forces and pre-positioned equipment. Without aerial refueling, the airlift would drag out for over a dangerous amount of time. Large scale operations such as Desert Shield and Desert Storm depend on aerial tankers to leverage the utmost airlift.

Air-to-air fighters on combat air patrol (CAP) or escort missions benefit from aerial refueling by remaining on patrol and engaging in combat for hours on end, rather than returning to base for fuel. During Operation Desert Storm, for instance, F-15Es on Scud patrol were able to loiter for hours over suspected launch sites due to the approximately three refuelings each mission enjoyed.(27) Without the refueling, the allied patrols would have been unable to keep constant pressure on the Iraqis.

Once thought too complicated for nascent air forces, aerial refueling is within the reach of almost any nation. Iraq used buddy refueling to extend the range of its air strikes against Iran in the War of the Cities, for example. Even countries such as Peru -- not usually considered a military or technological behemoth -- today operate aerial refueling aircraft.

Airborne Early Warning

AEW aircraft can make a decisive contribution to air operations, detecting hostile aircraft as soon as they take off, and managing air defense and counter-air operations. While one side vainly gropes in the dark, the side with AEW capability knows exactly where the enemy is -- and isn't -- can most efficiently direct friendly forces against the enemy's weak points, and maximize surprise. Norman Friedman has argued that AEW aircraft are "are by no means merely defensive." Because of the narrow scope individual pilots have of the entire battle some form of central control is important. With comparable forces, the side with superior battle management will win.(28)

Because of the high maintenance nature of aircraft, furthermore, using AEW aircraft for offensive purposes is less demanding then using them for defense. In general, to keep one aircraft flying, one need two aircraft. Offensive action can be timed for periods of AEW aircraft availability. Defensive AEW must exercise a higher state of readiness. US carrier air groups, for example, usually have a complement of four Hawkeyes.(29)

During the war with Pakistan in 1971, the Indian Moss provided critical support in helping Indian air forces evade defenses and strike Pakistani airfields,(30) as well as aiding Indian air defenses in repelling Pakistani attacks.(31) According to some accounts, Pakistani air strikes were largely ineffective, and close air support of ground operations "non-existent" due to the edge the Moss gave the Indian forces.(32) The decisive impact of AEW aircraft made an impact on both India and Pakistan. Learning from this drubbing, Pakistan -- much to the Indian's chagrin -- purchased its own AEW aircraft. Realizing the potential destructive capability attack aircraft gain through AEW management, Indian military officials forcefully protested the sale. In addition to the conventional edge AWACS and E-2C aircraft would give Pakistan's air force, Indian officials also claimed AEW would facilitate a Pakistani nuclear strike on India. Even in peacetime the AEW was view as threatening since Pakistanis would theoretically be able to monitor Indian air defenses and compile a profile that would aid in their circumvention. Thus, AWACS were viewed as inherently de-stabilizing.(33)

Israeli air superiority from the outset of the Bekaa Valley campaign was in large measure due to a very sophisticated centralized C3I network based on the battle management support of its E-2C Hawkeyes.(34) The E-2Cs were used in conjunction with electronic warfare aircraft and electronic emissions collection RPVs to eliminate Syrian systems. The E-2Cs would detect Syrian planes as they left their runways, giving the Israeli Air Force a decisive "heads up." The E-2C's Identification Friend or Foe system differentiated friendly from hostile aircraft and guided the Israeli aircraft to the highest priority targets. According to one combat pilot, this integration of real-time battle management and advanced attack aircraft gave the IAF an "awesome capability."(35)

The United States declined a British request to provide E-3 Sentry support during the Falklands conflict, and Argentine attacks on the British fleet were facilitated by this lack of AEW support.(36) Given their military utility, sales of such aircraft have proven politically controversial, as with Israeli objections to the sale of E-3s to Saudi Arabia.(37)


1. Brown, David, "Israel Rates U.S. Air Power Superior to Iraq's Forces," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 20 August 1990, page 23.

2. Dorsey, James, "Pakistan Outfits F-16's with Nuclear Bomb Racks?" The Washington Times, 31 May 1990, page 7.

3. Donovan, Fred, "Mideast Missile Flexing," Arms Control Today, May 1990, page 30-31.

4. RAND Corporation, NATO Long-Range Theater Nuclear Force Modernization: Rational and Utility, DNA-5087F, 1 October 1980, page 201.

5. McDonnell-Douglas, "F-15 Eagle Air Force Tactical Fighter," brochure, 1982, page 10.

6. Schemmer, Benjamin, "Smarter Planes as Well as Smarter Bombs Boost USAF's Tac Air Arsenal," Armed Forces Journal International, June 1986, page 69-73.

7. McMillan, Thomas, "Maverick -- A Different View," Signal, May 1987, page 8.

8. Dornheim, Michael, "Improved Air Defenses Driving Upgrades in Tactical Weapons," Aviation Week & Space Technology, 18 March 1985, page 85. and Rhodes, Jeffrey, "Improving the Odds In Ground Attack," Air Force Magazine, November 1986, p.48.

9. Easterbrook, Gregg, "Divad," Atlantic Monthly, October 1982, page 29-39.

10. Clements, John, "Air Defense Mythology," RUSI, September 1982, page 27-32.

11. "Libya Strike Information Released by Pentagon," Aerospace Daily, 22 April 1986, page 126-128.

12. Nelan, Bruce, "Planes Against Brawn," Time, 20 August 1990, page 30.

13. Nash, Colleen, "Stinger Proves Its Point," Air Force Magazine, August 1990, page 46.

14. Texas Instruments, "The Laser Guided Bombs," brochure, 1982.

15. John, David, "Stand-Off is the Right Concept," Jane's Defense Weekly, 12 September 1987, page 531-534.

16. Lennox, Duncan, "Soviet Air-to-Surface Anti-Radiation Missile: AS-9 Kyle," Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review, October 1989, page 442.

17. Rhodes, Jeffrey, "Improving the Odds In Ground Attack," Air Force Magazine, November 1986, p.48.

18. Rhodes, Jeffrey, "Improving the Odds In Ground Attack," Air Force Magazine, November 1986, p.48.

19. Briganti, Giovanni, "Iraqi Air Power: Less Than Meets the Eye," Defense News, 13 August 1990, page 33.

20. Nelan, Bruce, "Planes Against Brawn," Time, 20 august 1990, page 30.

21. Shulte, Heinz, "Navy Considers Tornado Cuts," Jane's Defense Weekly, 14 July 1990, page 46.

22. Dunn, Michael, "The War Against Eagles," Defense & Foreign Affairs, August 1982, page 20-41.

23. McBeth, John, "A Fighting Chance," Far East Economic Review, 19 July 1990, pp 20-21.

24. Gardner, Brian, "Skytanker - The Story of Air-to-Air Refueling," Air Extra, August-September 1985, number 49, pages 16-36.

25. Cushman, Jack, "Mission Impossible," Defense Week, 4 June 1984, page 14-16.

26. Wanstall, Brian, "Tankers boost combat credibility," Interavia, June 1989, p.561.

27. Coniglio, Sergio, "Modern Air Refueling Systems," Military Technology, June 1991, p.93.

28. Friedman, Norman, "AEW: The Flying Eye and Its Future," Hudson Institute, 9 October 1978, New York, p.6

29. Friedman, Norman, "AEW: The Flying Eye and Its Future," Hudson Institute, 9 October 1978, New York, p.10.

30. Cherikow, Nikolai, "Moss - AWACS with a Red Star," International Defense Review, # 5, 1975, page 37-38.

31. Rekenthaler, Douglas, "Capabilities and Limitations of AEW Aircraft," Military Technology, # 5, 1985, page 16-22.

32. Smith, James, "Developments in the Indian Air Force," Jane's Intelligence Review, November 1991, p.523.

33. Silverberg, David, "Specter of Pakistan Purchase Concerns US Congress, India," Defense News, 14 November 1988, p.40.

34. Mohr, Charles, "Radar Aircraft Built in U.S. Play Role in Israel's Success," The New York Times, 12 June 1982, page 7.

35. Mohr, Charles, "Radar Aircraft Built in US Play Role in Israel's Success," The New York Times, 12 June 1982, p.7

36. Hirst, Mike, Airborne Early Warning, (Osprey, London, 1983), page 162.

37. Goshko, John, "The Flak Over AWACS," Washington Post, 26 April 1981, page 1.