The Need for SEAD

An EA-18G Growler, assigned to Electronic Attack Squadron (VAQ) 133, taxies on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74), 30 March, 2019.

The United States and her allies in Asia-Pacific face an Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2AD) threat from two significant actors in the region; the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

In the air domain, these A2AD threats have manifested themselves in the procurement by both nations of Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) systems designed to increase the cost in blood and treasure to any nation or coalition planning to perform an intervention against either nation or their interests.

During air operations, Ground-Based Air Defence (GBAD) threats are engaged by Destruction/Suppression of Enemy Air Defence (D/SEAD) efforts. D/SEAD forms part of the wider Offensive Counter Air (OCA) battle. OCA is defined by the US Department of Defence (DoD) as “offensive action in support of the offensive counter-air mission against surface targets that contribute to the enemy’s air power capabilities.” The DoD definitions continue that SEAD is “that activity which neutralises, destroys or temporarily degrades surface-based enemy air defences by destructive and/or disruptive means.” A central tenet of SEAD holds that destruction is preferable to suppression as it removes a threat for a prolonged period. It is better to destroy a radar than render it temporarily unserviceable. Nevertheless, this may not always be possible. The exact physical location of the radar maybe unknown, making its attack difficult if not impossible. Since the end of the Cold War, popular concerns regarding collateral damage during air operations could mean that rules of engagement may prevent the destruction of that radar should it be located close to civilians, or civilian infrastructure. Finally, destroying such a target could overburden available aircraft and ordnance needed elsewhere to engage other targets. For these reasons it may be necessary to suppress some air defences, rather than destroying them outright. It is the kinetic and electronic capabilities to support SEAD in the Far East which are the subject of this article.

Regional Threats

The DPRK and PRC arguably pose the most significant A2AD threat in the region. Air defence is central to China’s A2AD posture. The US Secretary of Defence’s 2018 report to Congress on Military and Security Developments involving the PRC stated that “China has a robust and redundant (Integrated Air Defence System/IADS) architecture over land areas and within 300 nautical miles (556 kilometres) of its coast.” The report posits that China is capable of developing advanced missile technology, stating that “the majority of China’s missile programmes … are comparable to other international top-tier producers.”

China’s anti-access area denial defensive layers illustrated by the US Navy in 2016.

Figures produced by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, say that in recent years China has imported, or is in the process of importing, 46 medium and high-altitude SAM systems. It states that these have included SA-15s acquired from 2000. These have been supplemented with SA-10s Grumble systems, and more recently the S-400, six batteries of which were purchased in 2015. According to Meia Nouwens, research fellow for Chinese defence policy and military modernisation at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think tank, the PRC, maintains an array of short and medium range, and long range/high altitude SAMs in service. These include Chinese variants of Soviet/Russian systems such as the HQ-2 family based upon the Lavochkin OKB S-75 Dvina (SA-2 Guideline) high-altitude SAM as well as domestic products like the Shanghai Academy of Science and Technology HQ-6 short/medium range SAM. Nouwens continues that the PRC maintains several advanced Russian-origin high-altitude system such as the Almaz-Antey S-300PMU1 (SA-20A Gargoyle) and S-300PMU2 (SA-20B Gargoyle). An upgraded version of the S-300V (SA-12 Gladiator/Giant) has been developed by the PRC known as the HQ-18. According to the Missile Defence Advocacy Alliance, this could engage targets at a range of between 22nm (40.7km) and 54nm (100km). The alliance stated that “the S-300V family is one of the most capable aerial defence systems in the world, and an upgraded Chinese version should worry Western defence agencies.”

While North Korea may lack the sophisticated SAMs in China’s possession, it boasts a formidable array of ground-based air defences. The country may operate several hundred S-75 Dvina, Almaz-Antey S-125 Neva/Pechora (SA-3 Goa) and KB Design Bureau S-200 (SA-5 Gammon) systems. Open sources have stated that these may have received numerous upgrades during their service lives. Similarly, North Korea may possess an indigenous SAM known as the KN-06. This weapon may have similar capabilities to early versions of Russia’s S-300P. The KN-06 is thought to have been tested and deployed in 2017. It may have a range of up to 81 nautical miles (150 kilometres), and could have been developed from technology secretly supplied by Russia or China, according to the Centre for Strategic and International Studies’ Missile Threat website.

Several of these SAMs have already been encountered by the US and her allies. The SA-2, SA-3 and SA-5 have been used against the US during the Vietnam War, against Israel during the War of Attrition and Yom Kippur War, and during US-led interventions in Iraq, the Balkans and more recently Syria. However, the HQ-7, HQ-9 and HQ-10 have yet to be encountered in a conflict. That said, Russian systems, and those Chinese systems based upon this technology, have been encountered in previous wars, and the S-300 and S-400 have both been deployed to Syria. This may have given the US and allied nations the chance to gather intelligence regarding these weapons and their modus operandi. Such intelligence can be fed back into future SEAD tactics and doctrine. For example, for the last two years US Air Force RC-135U Combat Sent ELINT aircraft have flown in the vicinity of Lebanon and Syria. This has almost certainly been to gather data on the Russian electronic order of battle. It is not unreasonable to assume that US allies in the Far East may have been briefed by US officials on the characteristics of Russian air defences in Syria vis-à-vis the proliferation of such threats in the Asia-Pacific.

China’s fourth generation HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles.

Regional Responses

Moreover, local actors are in possession of SEAD capabilities which can be used against these GBAD threats. The challenge will be in ensuring that state-of-the-art systems such as later S-300 versions, and the S-400, can be successfully neutralised with these capabilities. US allies in the Far East possess a potent array of SEAD assets and there are over 370 aircraft capable of deploying Anti-Radiation Missiles (ARMs) in the region. The US Navy, air force and Marine Corps deploy around 120 aircraft at bases in Japan which can all deploy Raytheon’s AGM-88 series ARM. This remains the standard SEAD weapon in the region. The fleet includes the USAF’sUS Air Force F-16CJ with two units: the 13th and 14th fighter squadrons, based at Misawa air base in Japan. These are reinforced by four navy squadrons of Boeing F/A-18E fighters which can deploy the AGM-88B and the more advanced AGM-88E. Two Marine Corps units; VMFA-242 and VMFA-121 are equipped with the Boeing F/A-18C/D and Lockheed Martin F-35B respectively; which can also deploy the AGM-88. Importantly, the US Navy has a squadron of Boeing EA-18G Growler electronic warfare aircraft located at Iwakuni airbase in Japan. This is an important shot in the arm for regional SEAD capabilities, and such aircraft would invariably play an important part during any showdown with the DPRK or PRC.

These US capabilities are bolstered by the SEAD-capable aircraft of regional US allies. The Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) has a dedicated EW unit equipped with the EA-18G deploying the AGM-88B/E. These jets would no doubt work closely with their US Navy counterparts during any crisis. Beyond the EA-18Gs the aircraft of choice for SEAD elsewhere in the region is the F-16 series. Acquired by the Republic of Korea (ROK) and Taiwan; a total of circa 240 airframes can deliver the AGM-88B. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute over 400 AGM-88s of varying marques have been acquired by countries in the region. The ROK has also acquired up to 100 Israel Aerospace Industries’ Harpy loitering ARMs which would have a key role to play in suppressing DPRK air defences during hostilities.

This combined force of aircraft and weapons is reinforced by a fleet of SIGINT (Signals Intelligence) planes. Japan possesses the largest regional fleet of SIGINT platforms, operating four Lockheed Martin EP-3Cs and the same number of Nihon Aircraft Manufacturing Corporation YS-11EAs. These are reinforced by the ROK’s two Dassault Falcon-2000 SIGINT aircraft and the single SIGINT-configured Lockheed Martin C-130H used by Taiwan. Nevertheless, regional ELINT assets are being overhauled. Japan is currently flight-testing its new Kawasaki EC-2 ELINT platform which may replace the EP-3C. This reported to be one of the most advanced such aircraft in the world. Similarly, the Royal Australian Air Force is acquiring five Gulftstream MC-55 SIGINT jets which are expected to be delivered over the next five years.


Are such capabilities adequate? A cursory examination of recent operations involving SEAD provides an indication of the force weight needed to support an air campaign against an actor with an integrated air defence system. During Operation Desert Storm mounted in 1991 to evict Iraqi forces from Kuwait the US-led coalition deployed over 4,400 military aircraft, 110 of which were dedicated to SEAD. The lion’s share of these aircraft were provided by the US. This SEAD force comprised around three percent of the total number of aircraft deployed to support 43 days of air operations. Operation Deliberate Force mounted over Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1995 saw NATO deploy 600 military aircraft. These were supported by a SEAD force of 54 planes. Thus SEAD assets comprised nine percent of the total number of aircraft deployed for an air campaign of 41 days duration. Similarly, during Operation Allied Force waged to stop the ethnic cleansing of the Kosovar Albanian population in the Balkans province of Kosovo, out of 1,191 aircraft deployed over 150 were dedicated to SEAD for the 78 day campaign. Interestingly, although it was thought that the US-led coalition had destroyed much of Iraq’s air defences during Operation Desert Storm, and the subsequent enforcement of the northern and southern No Fly Zones over the country, the US still assembled a large SEAD force in preparation for 2003’s Operation Iraqi Freedom. From a fleet of 2,697 aircraft, 101 of these were dedicated to SEAD. Eight years later during Operation Unified Protector over Libya, 23 SEAD assets were deployed as part of a multinational force of over 260 aircraft for a campaign lasting 220 days.

Based on these figures, SEAD assets have comprised on average five percent of the total force needed to support a specific air campaign. These efforts have also seen on average almost 500 ARMs being fired, although this ranges from the low hundreds during the Libya intervention to in excess of 1,200 during Desert Storm. Of course, the quantity of SEAD aircraft and weapons required to support an air campaign will rise and fall according to threat. However, on paper at least, both regional air forces and the regional US presence possess the SEAD assets needed to assist a large scale air operation.

Future Capabilities

Despite the region’s current SEAD capabilities, there is room for improvement. Many regional actors continue to use the AGM-88B. More recent marques offer improvements in lethality and precision. As the US Navy and RAAF are procuring the AGM-88E, allied air forces would be advised to follow suit. This missile includes a Global Positioning System/Inertial Navigation System (GPS/INS). This allows the GPS coordinates of a hostile radar to be programme into the weapon. This helps to prevent it breaking lock should the targeted radar stop its transmissions realising it is under attack. Both the US Navy and RAAF would likely bring this missile to the fight in any future crisis. Expanding the local air forces which use advanced versions of the HARM beyond these two services would bring a qualitative improvement to SEAD lethality, not to mention interoperability, logistics and economies of scale benefits.

Regional actors may also want to consider the EA-18G. This jet offers a conventional fighter/ground attack aircraft matched with a dedicated EW/SEAD capability. The EA-18G would be an ideal platform for the AGM-88E/F. Its acquisition by regional actors would likewise improve interoperability. Such a purchase by Japan or Singapore would provide two of the most advanced air forces in the region with a potent SEAD capability. Should the EA-18G acquisition not materialise, Japan and South Korea, both of which are acquiring F-35 variants, should consider procuring the latest HARM models to equip them.

While the region is witnessing an overhaul of ELINT gathering assets as mentioned above, this is another area which requires investment. Taiwan’s ELINT C-130H is now almost 40 years old. A replacement will be needed in the next five years. One option for Taiwan, and other nations, is to acquire a roll-on/roll-off ELINT system. This could allow an aircraft to be used for other missions when not required for intelligence gathering.

Finally, regional actors must continue their investment in SEAD cooperation and training. Where possible local air forces should work hard to forge SEAD doctrines that can work in a unilateral and multilateral fashion. Working closely with the US in the SEAD domain is also imperative. Any future regional conflict will see Uncle Sam providing considerable SEAD assistance. Harmonising SEAD doctrines, tactics and procedures with one another, as well as with the US, will pay dividends. Equally important is investing in threat data collection and management. Air forces can benefit from excellent EW training courses provided commercially, alongside advanced software which not only enhances how air forces collect ELINT, but how they manage and share this information.


Actors in the Far East face a clear and present threat from the proliferation of advanced air defences with the acquisition of such weapons by the DPRK and PRC driving such concerns. The US and her regional allies already possess dedicated SEAD assets to counter these threats. Recent investments in such capabilities by Australia and Japan illustrate that regional actors take these threats seriously. An examination of previous operations against adversaries possessing integrated air defence systems show that, on average five percent of the total force is required to support a prolonged air campaign. While this is not a hard and fast rule, what is not in dispute is that regionally, the US and allied nations possess the SEAD assets to wage a large and prolonged air campaign.

Nonetheless, improvements can be made. Regional actors should consider updating their anti-radar missiles and ELINT fleets, and possibly procuring SEAD assets such as the EA-18G. Efforts must continue to deepen SEAD interoperability, alongside investment in EW training, and ELINT analysis and exploitation systems. During the Second World War, the first dedicated air defence suppression force, the Royal Air Force’s 100 Group had the motto ‘confound and destroy’. By investing in SEAD capabilities now, regional air forces can build on solid foundations to ensure that if hostilities commence, they can do just that.

by Dr. Thomas Withington